I’m lucky to be both a rider and a writer. I have to be careful about enunciation, but the two pursuits feed each other. I didn’t take up cycling to win bike races, I took up cycling to take up cycling. Riding the bike was good enough, the proverbial end in itself. I’m a cyclist because riding feeds something in me. It’s hard to tell a non-cyclist how riding is a need, and we often use that word in our most casual and flip reference—”I need a ride.”
But how often do we tell someone, “I need to be a cyclist”? And that’s really the thing. We need to ride like we need to shower: Maybe not today, but definitely tomorrow. And if we don’t we will start to stink. Not riding is a stink of the soul.
My mind returns to the writer who answered the question, “How do you know if you’re a writer?” by looking at us and with the earnestness of someone telling his kids he loved them, he asked us, “Do you need to write?”
That day reframed my idea about need, made room in my soul for all sorts of needs. It made need a thing I alone could define.
What I didn’t know at the outset for either riding or writing is that if you take them up to win—crossing the line first or seeing your name printed on paper—you’ve already lost. You’ll never do either with the daily dedication to achieve what’s necessary to actually win.
You have to love the doing. And I do. Pedaling the bike down the road is all the reward I need. And facing the blank page feels good, like hearing the click of the second pedal.
I often frame riding as a spiritual practice to help non-cyclists understand, explaining it as the Zen mind in action, but really, being a cyclist is simpler than that. Each ride feeds my soul, banishing the crazy, a doing that makes me happy.
In what proved to be as raw a moment as I’ve shared with another human being, I told a partner what I hadn’t understood until that moment. I told her I write to learn.
And it’s true. My brain is full of raw material, like so many ingredients in a refrigerator. The blank page is my sauté pan—I pour in a little olive oil, turn on a bit of heat and start tossing stuff in. What comes out of the pan—my head—is at least edible, often delicious; the resulting dish is something I didn’t know, something I hadn’t connected until I attached that noun to that verb.
What I realized a few weeks later was that I gain the same payoff from cycling. When I ride, I learn. And whether we know it or not, I suspect that’s true for all of us who have been riding for more than a few years. The bike has allowed me to learn about the place I live, about geography, about languages and cultures, about machines, even about physics. Most of all, what the bike has taught me is about myself. My depths, my complexities, my weaknesses and strengths, I know them all better thanks to the bike.
So when I wonder why I’m still a cyclist after more than 30 years of turning pedals I consider how much of the world I don’t know. How much can any of us know? But that’s not the point. As long as we learn, we grow, and as long as we grow, the world expands, full of possibility.
Unlike NPR, we’re not going to plead with you for a week, while we hold your content hostage and threaten to send you a tote bag. But we do need your support to keep going. Please subscribe. There. We said it.
Image: Jorge “Koky” Flores, JustPedal