Mind, Body, and Machine
Shattered. Any cyclist could tell you that the adjective isn’t all about glass. There may be other sports that share cycling’s terminology of physical and mental exhaustion, that understand suffering that would “ennoble the muscles” as Henri Desgrange put it when he founded the Tour de France. There is something profound about the bicycle: if your running shoes tried to draw as much sheer effort as a bicycle can, you would simply fall over. Suspended by a bicycle saddle, the immolation of your legs can always be arranged to leave you breathing, moving, yet completely shattered by day’s end.
I was steeped in a culture of road cycling since I started college, cutting my teeth on collegiate racing and the four seasons of Vermont dirt roads and New Hampshire mountains. Occasional sacrilege had put me on a mountain bike during my years at Dartmouth but my heart was always with road and cyclocross racing bikes. I was never a phenomenal competitor, mind you. I rode well and hard and knew The Rules and the art of a group ride. I loved the sport and racing with all my heart despite my lackluster results.
No matter how strong you are, cycling humbles you. There is always someone faster or a ride that is harder. I’ve eaten my fair share of humble pie, my last serving being an epic 150 miles through New Hampshire. Hubris suggested that this Alaska to Argentina thing wouldn’t be that big of a deal. We’ve got most of the day to go our average 110k, meet new people, take photos, eat 5,000 calories, and set up our tent. The third day of our journey was a very hard hundred miles in the mountains to Cantwell, AK that we began at noon. We got it done in a little over ten hours. Barely.
I knew this journey wasn’t going to be easy. Deep down, I didn’t think it would be quite this hard. Pushing heavy bikes through the wind and up hills is an exercise in constant mental toughness. We are getting stronger every day. Yesterday we had our first true tailwind of the trip with southwest winds helping us along to Vanderhoof, BC. It was spectacular. The three of us flew past farm country and pasturelands at speeds that rivaled a spirited road ride on skinny tires and race bikes. A humming paceline is music for the soul. It almost made up for the day before, a grueling ride of 150k to Fraser Lake that proved the inverse rule correct: once you leave the spectacular scenery of the mountains, endless rolling hills and winds conspire against you. We had done longer and harder days already, but there was something profound about that ride in particular. I felt beaten, even if I finished the ride like any other.
The intensity of that feeling subsided once we were taken in by an older couple who stuffed us with spaghetti that night and huckleberry pancakes the next morning. Yet the feeling of that cruel brush against my limits still lingers and reminds me somewhat of human nature. We would rather eschew the cold rain, the long climbs, the achy legs, the doubt and the mental stress of life on the road because it brings us uncomfortably close to the limits of our own mortality and nature. Yet only by facing those austere limits can we appreciate the vast expanses of the little worlds between Alaska and Argentina. There are corollaries in faith and love and family and life. If we take the time to listen, there is much to learn on the road south.