Last weekend I went on a big solo backcountry ride in Ketchum, Idaho. I had 30 miles almost entirely to myself, with the exception of three guys on motos and one guy on a MTB who was peeing right next to the trail and probably was just as surprised to see me as I was to see him. (Law of the wilderness #101 – even if you haven’t seen another human for hours, if you start peeing in plain sight, someone will show up). Anyway, other than those brief interruptions, I had three and a half hours all alone with my thoughts and some pretty incredible views and swoopy descents, and it was wonderful.
I do training rides or recovery rides by myself pretty frequently, but doing longer solo rides in the wilderness has become rare in recent years, largely because I’ve finally gotten fast enough to keep up with Macky, so why ride by myself? And also because we do less giant rides now, and more high intensity. But I do enjoy being by myself for hours, especially when I’m miles from anything and get that buzz of intense attention to detail and alertness that only comes when you know it would take someone weeks to find your body if you did something stupid and fell off a cliff. Being by yourself in wilderness forces you to be awake, alive and completely aware. No one else is going to fight off the mountain lion, and that old adage about “not out-running the bear, just out-running your slowest friend” no longer applies. You notice things you would miss otherwise, like the elk tracks in the path and screech of a red-tailed hawk circling over your head. You listen to your own breath and the sound of your tires on dirt and the squeak of your dusty chain that you forgot to lube once again. You are fully immersed.
In recent years, however, my rides have been more about trying to go faster on the descents — trying to eek out seconds, trying to stay off the brakes a little bit longer, full immersion of another sort — or trying to wreck myself on the climb — ragged breathing, focus so narrow that I can barely see outside the tunnel that is the trail, blood pounding in my ears. In life in general and on bike rides, I’m not much for cruising, or “stopping to smell the roses” or “finding silence and solace in the wilderness.” If something is fun slow, I rationalize, won’t it be even more fun if you’re going fast? If something is fulfilling when it’s easy, won’t it be twice as fulfilling if it’s twice as hard? Even after this weekend’s ride, I was a little disappointed that it only took me three and a half hours. I mean, it was supposed to be more epic.
Of course, we need both sides of this coin. We need to STRIVE, and we also need to just be. Can bikes do all that?
Over the past two years, bikes have mainly been filling my achievement bucket. Riding is not my escape or my meditation or the thing I do to relax. When I first started racing, these long backcountry rides were my escape. It was the time I took to think, and the only time I took for myself. The result? I was riding way too much and ended up burning out and having to take a huge step away from riding for fun. I know this might sound wrong, but it worked. I spend a lot less time in the backcountry now, but I also put my energy into proper recovery and intensity training, and the end result is being fitter, stronger, happier and feeling less like I’m burning the candle at both ends AND the middle.
The collateral damage was rides like this weekend’s in Idaho, which, I suppose, is the price you pay for performance.
Why do YOU ride? I posed this question to my Instagram followers, and the answers were as diverse as they were inspiring.
Here a few of my favorites, lightly redacted:
To not grow old, to be with friends, to feel alive, for the sense of accomplishment, to “get away from offices, board rooms, corporate affairs and deadlines,” to stay sane, to decompress, to “keep the kid in this old guy,” to lose weight, to be alone, to compete, to feel the adrenaline, to fight anxiety and depression, for the views, to solve the world’s problems (even if perhaps you forget those solutions by the time you finish), to get sendy, to hurt a bit, to escape, to get to rad places with rad people, to defeat anger, for that sense of euphoric pain, to swoop like a bird, to eat as much cake as you want (obviously the most important one).
All these answers made me realize that, OF COURSE, there is no right answer, and that maybe the “why” doesn’t need to be all figured out all at once. Maybe it can evolve, over the course of a day, a season, a lifetime. Right now my why looks a lot more like training and sessioning drops, than this weekend’s 30 mile backcountry ride, AND THAT’S OKAY. The why, like the bike, can grow with me. The most important bit is not even the why at all, but the doing. The act of getting out there — whatever there looks like — and turning pedals.
[Leave a comment and tell me why YOU ride. I want to do something with all these wonderful responses — I haven’t decided what yet, but I’d love to hear your why, whatever it looks like right now.]