When I reflect on the last two years on my life, I find myself, because answers rarely are that—answers—asking a number of questions. The one that recurs most?
What does it mean to give?
I can hand you a bicycle tube. Now you have a bicycle tube. So what? What have I really given you? Is there any meaning to it beyond the fact that you now have a way to repair a flat? It’s hard to say. I can tell you that it is my way of saying I never want you stuck at the roadside, but more than that, that I want always to be there to help you, that I want you to be able to count on me as someone you can turn to whether the flat is literal or metaphoric. But how do we know that’s true without years of me turning up at just the right moment? It could be a way to promise a future, but it could just be bullshit that I spouted to impress you. The trouble is, you have no way of knowing.
This concern with giving has been on my mind ever since I sought treatment last year for depression. That’s still a weird admission for me. It’s weird because I never went to see a psychiatrist for depression. I was in crisis. I was struggling. My relationships were strained. I used a herd of nouns and none of them were depression. I used a whole arsenal of verbs and none of them were depressed. I couldn’t see it. Remember that next time you wonder why a depressed friend didn’t reach out to you for help. There’s also the uncomfortable truth that depression and mental illness are stigmatized on this side of the Atlantic. So who wants to admit they aren’t right in the head to thousands and thousands of people?
But as I struggled with who I was on a day-to-day basis, wondering what people’s experience of me was, there came an epiphany. This wasn’t the grand enlightenment that leads the Buddhist to nirvana, but a much tinier, more personal realization. My emotional state is much like Christmas. I can only give what I have. If I have anger and frustration in my heart, that’s all I can produce. But if I have love and gratitude in my heart, then I can ladle that out like chili con carne.
The unpleasant corollary is that unless I’m generous with myself, I can’t be generous with others. It’s hard to turn off that critical eye once opened. This is what it’s like to ride with someone who just figured out how to suffer. Once they find that particular muscle between the ears, all they want is the weight room and riding with that person is to ride in someone else’s ambition. It’s not fun. And that’s why both literally and figuratively I try to ask my boys what ride they want. With each interaction I attempt to find a clearer route to kindness and generosity, even if I’m walloping myself for what I said the night before.
I often speak of cycling as a lens, as a way to apprehend the world. I do that because that’s what it does for me. It has illustrated truths that were hard for me to comprehend by any other method. That we have limited energy, that we need time to recover from an intense experience, that we must consider those around us for the safety of the whole group—all those truths and plenty of others came to me, unbidden, as unexpected gifts from cycling.
And so it is that I return to cycling when I think about what it means to give. As I pointed out earlier, I can construct any sort of story I wish to tell about a physical gift. But if I want to really give a gift to another rider, the purest way I can give a piece of myself in a tangible way, to give of myself in a way that no words can undercut, it is by offering them shelter in my draft.
I’ve always loved to offer my draft to other riders. I was happier as a domestique than as the designated hitter. My favorite joke about taking a pull is that my father was a tow truck. And there are many kinds of pulls. There’s the pull that’s meant to decimate a group and help your teammate. There’s the pull that’s meant to help someone escape the group, and the pull that’s just hard enough to keep the group under control. But my favorite is offering my draft to a friend or a small group of friends and giving a minutes-long turn at the front and at a quick enough tempo that they wouldn’t want to make that effort themselves, but not so quick as to force them suffer. That’s the sweet spot.
To lend someone shelter in your wake is as pure a gift in cycling as there is. It’s a way to help that cannot be confused with anything else. Sure, in races there are cat-and-mouse games, pulls that are really feints, but even with a hostile rider, a ten-minute pull can’t be faked. There is no lie in that effort.
Something in that makes me happy. And always has, but only recently did I realize that I see it as a kind of gift. That helped me back into why I could be such a prick on centuries. I’d be riding along and realize that I had a train of 20 people sitting on me like so many remora. I couldn’t articulate to myself that I saw offering my draft as a show of regard, so I couldn’t understand why it was that a bunch of people sitting on my wheel without so much as a hi would piss me off. They were stealing something, but only in a metaphoric way. They’d eliminated my ability to offer something and in that taken a kind of agency from me. It helps to understand that now. It’s a mistake I haven’t made in a long time and it helps me kneecap myself a little less. What an ass that guy could be.
I still think it’s good form to ask if you can draft off someone, though.
In seeing a pull as a kind of gift, it was easier to understand why doing so made me happy. It was as true a handoff of my energy and good will as I could manage. But to break out the can opener for happiness is to ask much of the world. My immature notion of happiness limited its appreciation to the joy other people could bring me. I didn’t understand that a bell can move more than a funnel.
Perhaps the bigger evolution is to be able to see that distribution of effort in the mundane—getting that extra load of laundry in the washer. The most important efforts I make aren’t the ones on the road.
Among the claims I’d like to make is that I see how giving brings more happiness than receiving can, but what I know travels through my body with the surety that I’ll get the equation wrong, that I’ll continue to look for what brings me pleasure, rather than what I can do to broadcast it and hiding within that is the reality that I’ll continue to enjoy someone else’s pulls even when I know what will make me stronger is to get to the front myself.