When Quitting is Winning

Bicycling is the opposite of quitting. Biking requires tenacity. Biking rewards tenacity. But there are times when too much tenacity can lead us astray.

The midnight sun gloams over Lake Nares in the Yukon.

Bicycling necessitates putting one foot in front of the other ceaselessly.  Bicycling teaches that suffering is rewarded. Every descent is earned with a climb.

I’ve never quit a ride. Every century and gran fondo and delivery shift that I’ve started, I’ve finished.  But after one hundred kilometers of cold, wet, blustery misery on the Yukon’s Klondike Highway, I was ready to quit.

My face was numb as I grimaced in the buffeting wake of yet another passing RV. I could no longer feel my cheeks or my forehead, and I was stone-cold sober. It was the middle of June, but the temperature was just a few degrees above freezing and dropping. My feet were senseless blocks of ice. Yet my legs were strong, and I felt I had the physical reserves to ride another hundred kilometers. The question in my mind, though, was at what cost?

I’m an endurance athlete, not a sprinter. When other riders are calling it a day, I’m just getting started. I’m never the fastest, but I’m always a finisher.

I knew my route; I had ridden it before. I knew my bike; I had built it myself. I knew my gear, my body, and my limits. I knew I had the physical reserves to ride for another three or four hours. But at what cost? If I kept riding, I was risking frostbite and hypothermia. I was already wearing all of the waterproof Gore-Tex that I owned. And to what end was I suffering? Did I really want to earn the last-place trophy at the cost of pneumonia?

As my junior high gym teacher liked to say to those of us too feeble to muster even a single pull-up, “Winners never quit. And quitters never win.” But this wasn’t the President’s Physical Fitness Test. I wasn’t competing for a paper trophy. I was now in the realm of life-or-death.

On that bitter summer afternoon in the Yukon, with snow swirling overhead, I won by calling it quits. My prize was coming home with all of my fingers and toes and ears and nose.

When my teammates passed me in the van and gave me a thumbs up, I gave them a thumbs down. “I’m done,” I told them. “Pull over at the next turnout. It’s too cold to keep going.” Half a kilometer later, shivering and shaking, I loaded my bike onto the rack with fumbling, leaden fingers, and climbed into the damp, warm van. As my nose dripped interminably and my chest convulsed as the cold blood from my limbs returned to my core, I recalled the words of the Yukon’s poet laureate, Robert Service,

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,

And the rivers all run God knows where,

There are lives that are erring and aimless,

And deaths that just hang by a hair.

There are hardships that nobody reckons,

There are valleys unpeopled and still,

There’s a land, oh it beckons and beckons,

And I want to go back.

And I will.

Author Wesley Cheney leads bicycle tours down Alaska’s White Pass for Sockeye Cycle Co. He broadcasts his ukulele performances on Periscope.

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