Because of the nature of my work, I have a lot more flexibility than most of my friends. I can ride in the middle of the day, and certainly during the winter, that’s a more attractive option than getting up at dawn to brave the elements. As a result, I’ve been riding (and running and skiing) a lot by myself lately.

Solitaire is a funny game. I suppose you can be good at it, maximizing the potential of the deck every time, but still, you’re not going to win a lot. A shuffled deck contains only so many winning permutations. Solitaire is a game for the bored that survives on the power of intermittent reinforcement, which basically means you win just often enough to stay interested.

Pinball machines also operate on this principle. You flip your flippers and score your points, and at the end of each game you get a random shot (actually 1-in-10) at a free game, if/when the last two digits of your score match the random digits generated by the machine’s “matching” circuit . Quarters by the million have been siphoned out of the pockets of adults and children alike by the 10% of free games given away. I spent one summer playing the classic Playboy pinball deck at a local hotel game room (felt risky), and I’m honestly not even sure if I got my 10%.

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Casinos and social media have tuned the ratio and distribution of intermittent reinforcement to fully own your brain. I ride bikes to take mine back, and yet intermittent reinforcement still plays its part.

Now, I like to ride by myself. Don’t get me wrong. It has all the things to recommend it, including 1) going at your own pace, 2) choosing your own route, 3) not having to talk, 4) being easier to plan, and 5) gaining fitness your working friends don’t have time for. But much like solitaire and pinball, I don’t always win.

What does that even mean, though?

Well, first of all, sometimes I actually want a friend along. I’m not in my normal, introverted mode, and a little chit-chat would do me right. This is particularly true if I’m tired and the ride is “training.” It’s also really nice to offload route planning to someone else, just show up and ride. I will usually work harder with a friend or friends than I do on my own, too, and I think that’s a clue as to why solo riding doesn’t always deliver for me.

The best rides feature some level of flow, that unconscious state of performance where you are perfectly focused and everything feels easy. To achieve that state, you’ve got to be challenged. The terrain has to be right, but also the exertion level. I can sometimes get there on my own, but the added impetus of a group going at full pelt really helps.

Another component of a great ride is connection with nature, but I’m not able to turn that on and off. It can be highly weather and situation dependent. Sometimes nature doesn’t want to connect.

Finally, fitness. Oh, when I’m struggling to build some kind of base, I prefer to be by myself. It’s bad enough I have to see myself dragging me through the muck, all sweat in the eyes, huffy-puffy breathing, a total mess. I don’t want more witnesses than necessary. Those rides aren’t normally winners either.

In the end, though, there’s enough there. How many times have I struck out on my own with low expectations only to ride myself into a transcendent experience? How many times has the sun shot through the trees in just the right way or a wholly new trail presented itself for exploration? Enough to keep my playing.

As it turns out, about 80% of solitaire decks are winnable. You won’t win that many. I won’t either. But you’ll win enough to keep dealing out those cards, going through the motions until the aces appear and everything starts to sort itself out, and you can see the exit. Then you shuffle ’em and try again.

Join the conversation
  1. albanybenn says

    Active solitude is one of the greatest aspects of solo cycling. Life is full of voices clamoring for our attention and responses. Sometimes the whir of tires on tarmac is all the conversation you need.

  2. TominAlbany says

    I went for my first training ride yesterday. (All the others this winter were purely to be outside.)
    Two hours solo. Felt meh. But, it was wonderful.

    late in the ride, I saw/heard some geese flying overhead and looked up to see HUNDREDS of geese flying overhead. I stopped the bike just so I could listen to all of the geese. Took at least 30 seconds, maybe a minute for them to fly off into the distance.

    I wouldn’t have stopped for it on most group rides.

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