I’m not buying a new bike; or, today I’m not buying a new bike. No, I’m definitely not buying a new bike today. Regardless of the 75k Gravel Grinder coming right up and all those shiny red and orange or mat black cyclocross demons staring down my gunmetal green 29er, and despite this rush of summer that seemed to break out like all the valkyries at once to a Led Zepplin soundtrack pounding down from on high and turning all of us back into our best and most primal selves, hungry for adventure while the sun lasts like it’s our last. It’s a season of seemingly endless days and perfection busting from every vista and the energy that may have started the universe and most definitely fuels massive run-on sentences like ribbons of dirt roads and I am still not buying a new bike today.
No. Today I’m going to take a breath.
Today I’m taking a breath and this because it is Emerson’s birthday and I know what he would’ve done. Our man of civil rights and deep sensitivity towards natures human and forested who implored us to stay on our own righteous courses, who urged us to “not go where the path may lead, [but] go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” would have told me to just take a breath. Cyclists and runners, hikers and climbers and jumpers know this as well as any other artist — that to push into the unknown willingly you can’t just be brave (that’s when folks get killed, or worse), you must also have the health of the pack coming behind you at heart, and that requires some respect of self and otherwise.
And so today I ended up some 50k south of where I live and smack in the middle of where I grew up by mid-morning and dying for coffee. I did exactly as you’d expect, as any good and self-respecting dust covered cyclist would do — I stopped at a gas station, leaned the whip against the staircase and saddled up to the counter inside to buy what I was sure was going to be a disgusting cup of luke warm, several-hours-old-sludge. (As a brief aside — good thing I did, as the lady behind the counter told me that my route was closed because ‘gawd, them boys been out there all hours on their ATVs tearing the place up!’ Moral: talk to the locals, they know what’s what.)
Outside, in the boiling sun, I sit down on the stoop and have a look. Not much going on: there’s a couple of good ol’ boys sitting in their truck smoking (possibly complaining about their Friday night ATV fun being spoiled and cooking up new plans), an elderly lady walking down the sidewalk (or maybe she’s the yahoo… one never knows), and a semi-abandoned train station. The fields nearby are full of dandelions and the river’s running fast. I walk over to the garbage can, fully intending to guzzle as much of this hot, horrid coffee as I can and then chuck it so I can get back on the ride.
But the gods of Whoa There Man and Not So Fast have other plans. I take a sip and somewhere between the bitter, scalding stuff hitting my tongue and the angle of the light touching off ‘just so’, my take on this day changes. The town’s simple beauty comes into focus and I’m literally taken aback by the absurd wonder of it all — a warm day in the country, a free ride down virtually empty roads, fields of cows, the smooth machinations of time and physicality, and yes, this horrid cup of coffee. See, sometimes you have to ride far and hard to find something delicious and amazing and while I rode out there to see some landscape, what I came wheel to road up against was none other than the utter, shocking awesomeness of the plainly everyday. The scared, Mircea Eliade once said, is the mundane and standing out here in the sun with this cup of deliciously horrible coffee, I’m pretty sure that’s why I ride a bike; because I’ve never been one to look for epiphany handouts, I’d much rather charge them down myself. Even if that means taking a bunch of wrong turns, even if it means riding the wrong ride, even if it means not knowing most of the time. As a matter of fact, because of those things.
Out in the country when I was a kid all we had were crappy ten speeds our folks bought at Canadian Tire and riding through the woods was damn hard. We did it anyway, mind you, but it was usually short lived and downright heinous. Mostly we talked about punk and metal and girls while we swatted at flies and pushed our bikes through the mud. Later maybe we’d build jumps in the driveway. Mostly we just rode the flat blacktop and talked, solving world problems and getting some growing up done. In all that though — the cruddy rides, the friendship, the endless days and killer boredom of living in the boonies — we learned something very simple and outrageously important: we learned to do-it-ourselves. Real time DIY.
After a lengthy haul down a road I’ve never been on, I come to a ‘T’. The sign in front of me says that this is the Whittaker Road. I glance back and forth and recognize exactly nothing. ‘Never heard of the place’ I say to myself, whipping the phone out of the front pouch of my bag, ‘But Google has!’ I click it on, hit the internet app and… nothing. No cell reception. Excellent.
I love moments like this. See, while I know that we all long for adventure, for whatever our reasons — to escape, to be found, to face some facts or some demons — we never know when it’s really going to hit us. That surprise, I’m pretty sure, is why we all keep coming back, keep moving forward, keep believing that despite all adversity, like Rocky said, it’s about “how much you can take and keep moving forward”. Or better yet, as Muhammad Ali spit, it’s about the very real deal that “impossible is a dare”. Because in this world, life is too easy, too ready-made, and some of us simply have to DIY-it.
I looked up the road one way and then the other. There was no real discernible difference: trees, road, sky. I turned left.
Doing something for yourself brings you into the present moment the same way a big wipe out does; that is, it jams you into the dirt of what’s right in front of you but weren’t paying attention to. Like good art, doing something for yourself demands your attention, asks questions, challenges the boundaries of what you think you know for certain. Riding down country roads with no real sense for where you are or where you might be heading not only heightens the experience, it makes for great stories afterwards and as I and my Canondale MTB bombed over the rolling hills of Unknown Sticks Town I knew perfectly well that one way or another I’d make it home, that I’d have a full belly at some point, instead of shoveling down energy bars, and that I’d tell my friends where that damned Whittaker Road goes. Doing something for yourself, we all understand, is also doing it for others so that we might “leave a trail”.
The morning of the Gravel Grinder was rainy and as we all crammed in under the sponsor’s tent drinking horrible black coffee I told my story to a few friends. We laughed together and clinked our paper cups ‘to adventure!’ Out in the parkinglot, my big tube bike lay beside the sleek cyclocross demons in all her glory. Not once did I think that maybe I couldn’t afford to be in this tribe; bikes all get wet the same, no matter what they cost, and all the bikes grind the gravel regardless of whether to components match or not. What is it they say about the fight in the dog? Yeah, it’s really not about the bike, once the wheels start turning, it’s about the rider, doing it for themself, searching out the limits of strength and endurance. I’m glad I didn’t buy a new bike today; today I’m just glad to be breathing.