Riding bikes is supposed to be fun. The miracle of balance and mechanical multiplication of human power makes pedaling feel like freedom. And yet, so often, we trust the big brands that convince us we need to be faster and follow the example of people who race bicycles for a living. It’s compelling, the idea that new gear might make us speedier or otherwise closer to “pro.”
The problem is that this mindset leads us down rabbit holes of Training Peaks and Zwift hypnosis, into logo-adorned attire we aren’t being paid to wear. And indeed it even leads some of my favorite riding buddies into being so impatient that I can feel their eyeballs burning a hole into me as I stop sooner than planned to admire a barn owl or photograph an armadillo.
Last weekend, Cyclocross Worlds came to my sleepy little town in Arkansas. It was a treat to attend the women’s race and see Athletic gear in the wild, hang with friends from around the country, and be a part of a bustling bicycle event. And yet, the festivities all spilled towards the more buzzy and venture capital-funded hub that is Bentonville, some thirty miles to the north. After a full day of watching unrelatable race rigs tearing around the course and helicopters shuttling the elite attendees, we had the type of fatigue that accompanies the huge dichotomies of experience in the cycling world. There is so much aspirational marketing and presumed importance that it can be difficult to discern what makes you happy from what you’ve been convinced you’re supposed to care about. Dear friend and resident Fast Boi, Michael Ray, knows this struggle well. He trains at a level I cannot imagine, and experiences burnout after 20 hour bike weeks that I sometimes feel after half that time, or less. He is superhuman.
So, we vowed not to repeat this experience on Sunday. Instead, we started with a hike with my dog, Hank, and then plotted a very harebrained route way out in the Ozarks, stringing together several different points and roads that I’ve hit on different rides into one absurdly steep and chunky loop. By the time we geared up and headed out, we were starting the ride with a guarantee that we’d be finishing in the dark. Some part of me dreaded this; most of me loved it.
See, it’s been too long since I went out on the type of adventure that uses the bike as a tool for movement and exploration rather than a concept we owe hours and fitness to. Re-launching the Athletic, contending with a broken hand and grim winter weather, it’s become the type of thing that gets perfunctory power hour pedals as the sun sets. And while nothing makes me feel more alive than ripping through the woods with my dog, eventually the same two loops repeated with zero minutes to spare starts to feel a bit sterile, its own version of the dutiful exercise that I try to avoid.
Setting out for a long ride with the guarantee that it’s going to contain the unknown and sear itself into my memory is an intoxicating breath of the fresh air that makes me love riding bikes in the first place. This feeling is a reminder that we don’t have to travel to far-flung locales or take weeks off from life to experience the plummeting combination of stoke and healthy apprehension that a little adventure offers. Sometimes all it takes is driving an extra twenty minutes to start your ride, noodling on different parts of the map, heading out into places that are a touch less familiar and more rugged.
The ride began with that funny realization that it’s always a bit cooler out in the woods than it was in town, followed by a descent that made me question my choice to wear a tech tee. Thankfully, the climbs quickly grew steep and loose and let us work up a bit of warmth for the long afternoon ahead. An owl danced gracefully through the thick trees, that massive wingspan so silent and camouflaged that it takes an especially curious eye to notice it at all. One of many reasons I try to display as little data as possible while I’m on the bike. There is so much to see.
We climbed and climbed some more. Though none of the Ozark Mountains tower above the horizon in that photogenic, imposing way of the West, they rise and fall with a relentless insistence that they are some of the oldest mountains on the continent, that they have been eroded down to their hard rock cores, that you will either be pointed up or down the entire time you move through them. There’s not too much traffic out here, so the golf-ball-sized gravel takes a long time to break down into something more manageable.
We watched the sunset from the tallest point on the route, which also happened to be just shy of halfway. The atmospheric haze made for a deliciously striated color show, for a comical acceptance of how long we would be riding in the dark. I enjoy this enveloping feeling of the natural world, the acceptance of things as they are instead of how we want them to be. Michael shifted uneasily in the rapidly dropping temperatures; even in these tiny mountains, the air gets cold quickly after sunset.
The nice thing about such an empty and uninhabitable slice of the world is that there is minimal light pollution to contend with. The gloam of blue hour seems to linger for an hour, just barely slicing through the thick canopies of trees and the bluff lines on the horizon. While the woods make it seem much darker than it is, there is a magical contrast from the last light. We pushed on as long as possible before turning on our headlights. Then my strap broke and Michael realized his battery was nearly dead, which added to that voluntary sense of screwup as life affirmation. We pedaled for dozens of miles with our wobbly headlights on the lowest setting and only turned our tail lights on twice, when the incredibly distant rumble of car tires suggested that maybe someone was coming. We got passed once in the final twenty five miles.
Moving states, breaking my hand, running a business (even, or perhaps especially one in the cycling industry), and the winter doldrums have done a real number on my motivation and enjoyment of getting out and riding bikes. While CX Worlds was an intriguing display of global talent in this quirky college town, it was also a numbing reminder of the delta between recreation and profession, a small one-man lifestyle brand and the monolithic corporations that can afford to participate in the global economy and to shell out for marketing opportunities at events like this. Standing outside the tape, I felt a distant gnaw of a time when I enjoyed lining up in the local ‘cross races, and I felt a much stronger call to get out in the woods and commune with the critters that would never show their faces in a place where music blares and people scream and the grass is manicured.
Out in the thick woods, I paused to inhale the smoke of a distant fire. I thought about the Caddo and Osage people who navigated these valleys proficiently, taking only what they needed. I cannot make sense of where or how to be, and that cognitive dissonance becomes most cacophonous walking along a major boulevard on the outskirts of town, trying to get home before sunset after the event shuttle lines stretch onward for over an hour. I have a hard time trying to monetize these words or images, to convince anyone that they should buy something just because it has cool designs or was made ethically in the USA.
There are many ways to ride a bike and to express oneself. I like to think for an evening, I introduced one of the fastest and most organized people I know to a slightly different way to move through time and space. The business may fail, and I will still consider our “training camp” a success.