Cycling for Fun? What a Concept.

I’m always conflicted when people exclaim that bike commuting makes them “feel like a kid” again.

If there’s a feeling of joy that people get when they bike to work, and if that feeling motivates people to keep doing it, I ought to be all for it. Right?

But I don’t ever feel this feeling. When I ride my bike to work, or almost anywhere else, I feel like a guy who is… just going somewhere, not in a car and under my own power. Or more likely: I’m lost in my own thoughts about something far removed from my mode of conveyance or its energy source.

What Bicycling Feels Like
Posted not by me to the Bike Shop Hub Facebook page.

When one is riding a bike on shared infrastructure, mingling with other users of said infrastructure, I think that’s a really good time to feel and act like an adult. You know: Use  reason and good judgement; exercise impulse control — all of that higher-function frontal-lobe stuff that kids can’t be expected to do.

Bike commuting is really the exact wrong time to feel like a kid — if that means you are going to act like one. I want to rip my hair out every time I see   a grownup behaving as if grownupishness is suspended — forbidden — when on a bicycle. And I see it a lot!

Boy do I feel like a killjoy right now.

On Sunday, after more than six years of living in Flagstaff, Arizona, I went on my first group mountain bike ride. It was the Cosmic Soulsice Ride — an informal event put on by Cosmic Cycles, a local bike shop. I was invited by my friend Matt Hall, who had illustrated the flier for the event.

Cosmic Soulstice Ride Flier
Matt’s flier | Click to see it full-sized

(Matt has contributed illustrations for Commute by Bike here and here. And you can pay him to illustrate for you here.)

Matt described it as low-key event; a leisurely ride around the San Francisco peaks. He rides a crappy, Chinese- or Taiwanese-made Raleigh mountain bike that makes my old Diamondback mountain bike look respectable (as long as there are no other bikes nearby). If Matt was up for this ride, how could I not be?

But when we arrived at the trailhead, it was Club Lycra.

Club Lycra
Click to enlarge

I spotted my friend Adam Cornette (one of Flagstaff’s top mountain bike racers, so I’m told) wearing his game face. My personal sense of kinship with these cyclists was feeling strained. Delegates from The Slow Bicycle Movement  — my people — were not representing.

Then it started, as a race, not a ride — as in somebody actually said “Ready. Set. Go!

The first mile or so had some pretty interesting single track; rocky, muddy, and with a bunch of creek crossings.  Matt and I made no attempt to keep up with the pack. But I found myself reaching for rusty old skills — trying to stay upright and on my pedals at all cost.

Then I had an epiphany: This is why I have an irrational hatred for pushing a bike up any hill — even a paved hill; even when pushing a bike would be easier and would hardly slow me down! It comes from the days when mountain biking was my main form of outdoor recreation. Many years ago, in my twenties

Matt Hall on the Arizona Trail
Matt Hall, not pushing his bike.

If you’ve never been mountain biking, what you may not know is that when you stop on a narrow trail, going uphill, perhaps with your two wheels straddling the root of a tree; it can be a real struggle to get going again.

On my commute these days, I ride this heavy single-speed Murray Monterey that belonged to my grandfather. And there’s one notoriously steep hill that goes on for only about 200 yards. Any rational person would allow themselves to push this particular bike up that short stretch. (Or use a different bike — one with gears.)

Hill from Hell
Death before dismounting

But not me. And now I know why: Post Mountain Bike Stress Disorder (PMBSD).

That psychological breakthrough alone made Sunday’s ride worthwhile.

But the more I rode, the more skills I felt coming back. I remembered how to float my center of balance over my feet, and rest less weight on my hands. I started throwing my front wheel across ruts and over rocks with little effort. I could climb some ragged hills that some of the other riders couldn’t climb that day — I saw them fail.

I remember this! I remember when I discovered this skill; that technique. I remember learning to pick my line many yards ahead. I remember learning to fix my eyes on where I do want the bike to go instead of staring at the hazard I’m hoping to avoid. I remember learning that, in some situations, I have   more control if I release the breaks entirely and just drop into a rock-pocked gully.

Matt and I had a great time. We decided to abandon the 50-mile circumnavigation of this extinct volcano, and go right into the center of the cone — the Inner Basin.

San Francisco Peaks Google Maps
Image: Google Maps

When I reached the Inner Basin, I was ready to stop. But I decided to keep going until the trail forced me to put my foot down. And about one second after I made that decision, the trail complied.

Foot Down Spot
At this exact spot.

We had climbed nearly 3000 feet in altitude over 15-and-something miles. Our round-trip would be 30 miles, not the 50 miles Club Lycra would do that day. But we were satisfied, and we took in a really beautiful day surrounded by Arizona’s tallest peaks.

Inner Basin
The Inner Basin | Click to enlarge

The 15-mile return trip was all downhill. We zoomed past tall groves of aspen, and charred ponderosa pine. I caught air — just a little — once or twice. I did tiny little kickouts onto pinecones like target practice. The road rattled my wrists and shoulders violently at times, but I went as fast as I dared.

There was a point, tearing down a straightaway, when I stood on my pedals a certain way, leaned forward a certain way, with my back bent a certain way. A very old memory flashed — from before my first mountain bike; before my twenties; before high school even. It was joyful. It was how it felt — exactly how it felt — to be on a single speed bike, pedaling frantically toward a ramp made of plywood propped up on cinder blocks, with three of my dumbest friends lying on the ground on the opposite side waiting to be jumped over.

I felt like a kid again.

Ted Johnson lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Follow his hardly-ever-about-bikes blogging at  Half-Hearted Fanatic, and tweeting at  @TedJohnsonIII.

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6 thoughts on “Cycling for Fun? What a Concept.”

  1. BluesCat says:

    Well, see, Ted, when I have “fun” on my bike, it is more adult fun than anything else:

    Pedaling up to the hardware store just to window shop (Real ADULT men love “shopping” at hardware stores).

    Gliding over to the So-Cal shop to see if they have any custom cars — from the ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s — in their parking lot or out in back.

    Cruising up to the little used computer shop to see if they have any cheap, old components I can add to The BluesCat Collection of 20th Century Computilators Rescued from the Trash Bin.

    Riding up to the local tavern for some lunch and a small pitcher of beer.

    And … my favorite:

    Heading out on the paved multi-use path that runs along the Arizona Canal, so I can two-wheel stalk all the pretty gals (members of some all-female runner’s club).

    DEFINITELY adult entertainment!

  2. I do not associate joy with feeling like a kid. I spent my entire childhood pining for adulthood and now that I am an adult I definitely appreciate -being an adult. It’s great. Yes, I am often smiling and happier on my bike. A happy, smiling adult who looks both ways when crossing the road, checks her mirror and looks over her shoulder when changing lanes, and mostly shuns group rides unless they involve wine or coffee. I guess that makes me a killjoy too.

    I now advocate for funding for bike infrastructure and in my mind, when I’m talking to decision makers, associating biking with feeling like a kid is absolutely the WRONG message. I prefer to focus on messages that reinforce the reality that adults ride bikes to work, to the grocery store, to the doctor’s office, to the Suns, and lots of places where I spend money otherwise spent on gas. I can’t see City Councilmembers funding kid-stuff for adults.

  3. Chris Lane says:

    Joy in necessary activities is a great way to arrange ones life. The thing about biking that seems most kid-like is the autonomy. If I am in a rush I can go faster, if I am contemplative I can just pedal. I am expressing myself directly without words or ideas having to be interposed. It is just so much more straightforward than parenting or being a good employee or being a good citizen. Pedal, move. Daydream, fall. See, avoid. Balance balance balance, of a thrilling dynamic breezy sort.

  4. norm says:

    I agree with Karen: the “It’s just recreation and I don’t want to pay for someone else’s recreation” is *still* a huge part of anti-bike rhetoric at the local level. I think we’ll get more traction for street improvements that enhance safety for bikes if we can get across the message that us commuting is just as much SRS BZNSS as whatever it is people do in motor vehicles (like drive to bars).

    That said, I don’t really feel like a kid during or after my daily 10 miles but I do feel a whole lot of physical and spiritual renewal. So I completely understand this sentiment, and it’s a great way to get people on bikes for recreation. But recreation can be pigeonholed into irrelevance, and we need results.

    I’ve just had a brilliant idea. Car parking to be banned at any establishment that sells alcohol. Drunk driving will PLUMMET! Lives saved! I’m a genius. 😉

  5. JohnnyK says:

    IMHO when someone says that riding their bikes made the feel like they were a kid again I don’t think they meant that they would be acting like a kid. I think they mean they get those same feelings that they had when they were kids. That feeling of freedom meaning able to go over to their best friends house without your Mom taking you. Able to ride your bike down to the bus stop or to the pond after school by yourself to go fishing. Memories flash through your head when you were younger and you start remembering things and it makes you feel alive and excited to be alive instead of complaining about the idiot in the car that cut you off or the stupid light that is taking longer than you think it should. The feeling of the air through your hair and the smell of nature around you just says hey lets remember how that was as a 9 or 10 year old kid again. So honestly people stop being such a stick in the mud and live a little. Next time your on your bike and you see a park or a coffee shop stop and take in the scene for a little bit. Try to make your ride as magical as it was when you were a child.

  6. Matt Brady says:

    A little late to the party, but touché
    JohnnyK! That’s what they meant, and that’s how I feel.

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