Monday, January 14, 2008

Sensations, simple pleasures and passions

I have often tried to analyze what it is about cycling, in particular riding a road bike that makes it a life long passion.

Many people, including myself, have had periods when we stopped riding, but we are always drawn back at some point or other.

Non-cyclists can’t understand it, and it is only another cyclist having the same passion who can.

Passions derive from sensations, feelings. I don’t think anyone can explain why certain simple things in life give us so much pleasure.

A beautiful sunset, the taste of a favorite food, or a particular sound. These things have to be experienced to understand, and even then, another person may not have the same sensation.

Out riding alone last November on a quiet country road, the weather was dry and sunny, but cool. The sound of acorns popping under my tires caught my attention. The whole road carpeted with acorns, freshly fallen from overhanging Live Oak trees; it was impossible not to ride over them.

Driving a car, that sensation would not be there, even if I had the windows down and could hear the sound. Walking or running, or simply stomping on the acorns would not have had the same affect.

It had something to do with the speed, and a feeling that only another cyclist would fully understand; the feeling that came from knowing that I was the source of propulsion. The feeling of effort, muscle power transformed into forward motion.

The sound somehow drove me to push harder, and gave me renewed energy. The faster I rode the more rapid the popping sound, and the more intense the feeling.

This feeling was close to the sensation of flying, without actually leaving the ground. In fact, the minimum contact with the ground or road was a large part of the feeling.

As a seven or eight year old, I remember running two miles to school and back home twice each day. Running was effortless, there was no pain, and it seemed like my feet were not touching the ground. Rather I was flying, with each step a fraction of an inch above the ground.

Later as an adult when I ran, I felt every jarring step. However, riding a road bike at speed I sometimes get that same sensation of weightlessness and just barely skimming the surface of the road.

I am guessing the rapidly popping acorns enhanced that feeling by adding a sound to the sensation.

Out riding the same road yesterday, the acorns now swept to the side by passing traffic. It was still possible to ride over them by riding close to the edge of the road, but now soaked by recent rains; they no longer produced that same pleasant popping sound.

It looks like I will have to wait until next fall to experience this sensation again. It is sensations like this that turn simple pleasures into passions.


Anonymous said...

One of the biggest reasons why bicycling gives me so much pleasure is that on a bicycle I have to lean into a corner. This presents an element of danger in the form of possible loss of traction and thus gives me a stronger feeling of being in control of the vehicle and thius means a greater feeling of freedom.

And also a big part is showing off the fact that I am able and willing to push my physical limits on a bicycle.

Will said...

Nice Post.

In fact this enjoyment you describe in part explains why riding indoor on a trainer is so awful even for hardcore cyclists.

There is no outdoor thrill.

For me, I just love the quiet challenge of cycling in the mountains on deserted roads.

Daniel said...

exactly. precisely. riding gives me exercise and transportation, but it's never just ABOUT either.

Mark Manson said...

Sometimes, when you roll over an acorn just right, it will launch from your tire with a ping sound. I like to listen until it hits something. Its cool when it hits a car.
Good post.

Anonymous said...

Cycling works and succeeds just like a themometer. Enjoyable inputs coming too slow...then up the cadence. Feeling too hot/uncomfortable...then slow down/relax. The randomness of other inputs (natural or man made) become additional bonuses.

Once mankind discovered that a bike could provide so many tools to adjust inputs/outputs, whether to one's mind or muscles, it was a hit.

Of course it also gets one from here to there which is what cyclists use to explain functionality to our transportation engineers. But most cyclists know that once you become hooked, you're an expert of cyberkinetic properties...and much happier.

Anonymous said...

Oops...replace themometer with thermostat.

Anonymous said...

I cannot understand why anyone would ride wearing an Ipod. Aside from being dangerous, distraction, can’t hear traffic, etc. They miss the magical moments that you describe here.

Tim said...

Thad already captured my thoughts. I know it's a snobbish attitude, but I have a hard time considering anyone a real cyclist if they ride with an iPod. If you take away the sounds of tires on asphalt, gravel, snow, acorns, and wooden bridges over flowing creeks, you've lost a huge part of the experience. I can't fathom why anyone would want a distraction from the beauty of the experience.

Anonymous said...

Well said all around. Your great philosophical essay, the beautiful photo accompanying it, and the intelligent comments that followed.

I agree with the comments:
A. riding an indoor trainer is boring and tedious
B. riding with an iPod outdoors diminishes the experience. I know that from personal experience, as I tried riding with an iPod several times and felt removed from the environment, almost like I was in a car.

What I love, in addition to the sights, sounds, and smells (usually) of the surroundings, is hearing the whirring and clicking of the bike underneath me: the hiss of a well-oiled chain, the ratcheting sound of the freewheel, the click when I shift gears. Such happy sounds!

Ron George said...

Indoor training is boring. No doubt.

Some VR (virtual reality) companies are profiteering from boredom of cyclists on trainers. I question how good these are.

1. There is no real immersion unless the bike is a motion base or something with hydraulics, and the cyclist doesn't wear a HMD

2. Even doing the above can start motion sickness in certain people.

While nothing fits the pleasure of riding outdoors, I think we're simply doomed to stay indoors on trainers and wear our brains out.

Unless you start to have fun staying stationary.

An IPOD or watching a movie while riding really helps. I plug the training bible fitness videos into my CD-ROM drive at times. I sometimes even talk to friends on the cell phone. Lol..

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post Dave! I always love the sound of my tires when I ride with a tailwind...when you can hear every little thing going on with your steed. Cranking up the speed gets you a more intense sound. You forget the pain of the push into the wind, and the smile on your face increases porportionally to the speed you attain. Can't get that in a car (OR motorcycle).

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed looking at this blog. What thrills do I get from riding? Many of those mentioned in the roll above and in the blog post. (And I agree with Will that most are antithetical to riding indoor on a trainer.)

Sometimes I love to ride just after it's rained. I look down and see an image of a cyclist just like me. The rhythmic movement of the legs sends me into a warm meditative calmness ... bom bom bom bom bom ... and on and on. This thought makes me smile just to write it.

Anonymous said...

Yesterday was a snow day in the Northeast, so I decided to cut some fresh powder before it got too deep.

The streets were rutted and kind of scary and the bike path was ploughed, but I hit paydirt in an industrial park near the river. There was an untouched dirt parking lot with just the right amount of snow.

Riding was nearly silent and the light was so flat that when I stopped looking at the horizon, I started wondering which way was up. Except for the tactile aspects, it was like riding in some sort of sensory deprivation tank.

If one pays attention, one can find a moment in almost any ride. That's why I would much rather spend an hour fishtailing around the neighborhood on a bike than pedaling to nowhere on some gizmo indoors.

Anonymous said...

My father was an avid cyclist since I was born. I could remember him back in the late 60's waiting months for his Cinelli to arrive. Complete with hat,tires and a tube of glue. My siblings and I raced and rode for enjoyment for many years. In that time I started to surf and thought, "this is way more fun than suffering on the bike." I travelled the world many times over in pursuit of the perfect wave.

After an encounter with a 15' great white shark last year, you can bet that I'm that bike again. Reliving all of the joys that it has to offer. I have over 20 surfboard, and so far 3 bikes...and counting! Yes, we will always return to the bike.

Bobke Strut said...

As a teenager, I remember being just about done with a 4 hour training ride when I came across some friends of mine driving in a car. They waved at me, pulled over, and then I chatted with them for a bit. I still remember one of them being absolutely incredulous about the amount of time I was out on my bike, saying "What exactly do you think about for 4 hours? I'd lose my mind if I tried that."

If you're not infected with the cycling bug then it can be hard to elucidate the pleasure. I tried to explain the whirring of my wheels/tires, the sound of a well-maintained drivetrain, ingesting the sights over miles and miles of country roads, the smell of forests and cow pastures, the exhileration of topping 50mph on some of the descents, monitoring my breathing while climbing, etc. My mind is always engaged, if only to make sure I don't crash or get nailed by a car. They just didn't get it, but they did have a degree of awe.

While in high school and my summers home from college I lived in a very small town in a rural area. Many of my peers didn't know what to make of me, but pretty much everybody knew who I was and knew I lived on my bike. It was interesting to have some of my peers, who through the social dynamics of cliques never gave me the time of day during school, pull over their cars and chat for a bit when they came across me out in the hinterlands when on my bike. Just ask all kinds of questions about racing and training. It may be a coincidence or it may be because pretty much everyone knew who I was, but this part of the country is the only place where I can say I was never harassed by a motorist while out on a bike.

I'd never wear an iPod outside, although I do wear one when I ride on the rollers at home after work when there's not enough daylight to venture outdoors. An interesting bit of iPod-related pro cycling trivia: a few years ago young Gerolsteiner pro Heinrich Haussler raced the entire Tour of Flanders plugged into his iPod. I couldn't imagine how he survived without crashing, and I couldn't imagine denying the outside sensation/stimulus of racing one of the all-time monuments of cycling.

Frederick Ingram said...

One time when I was biking down some oak-lined avenues a big acorn hit me in the forehead. :(