Sunday, March 16, 2014

Riding the Backcountry: The Journey To Becoming a Complete Cyclist

How exploring by bike has made me into a complete cyclist

I recently moved to an area where getting to the countryside by bicycle takes longer than where I lived before. The back roads of the country aren't usually named; they are usually just given an FM (farm to market) designation followed by a number. As I ride away from the smooth, well kept concrete roads of the suburbs, a raw, untamed and uncivilized world seems to open up to me. It's a place where you can sometimes hear the sound of someone's hunting rifle go off,  encounter stray goats, chickens and even packs of dogs on the road, and sometimes there can be an uneasy co-existence on the roads with rural dwellers in their large pickup trucks and cyclists. 

Smooth roads turn into bumpy, potholed roads. These give way to loose gravel roads, and before I know it, I'm riding my road bike on hard packed dirt paths, winding up and down fields or densely tree-lined areas. Before, when I used to think that I was riding in the country, the roads had names, were paved over with black tar, and most dogs stayed behind a fence or on a leash. Not here. Out here there is real adventure riding, where anyone who rides out here has to be ready to encounter a wide variety of scenarios. So far, on good days I have averaged about 15 miles an hour on my bike, according to my online tracking app on my phone. That's not bad when I consider I have had rides with almost 800 feet of total elevation gain and 19 mile and hour headwinds to contend with. It's a different kind of riding then what I am used to. One has to learn to adapt to the lay of the land and sometimes ignore the data that the cycling computer or the tracking app is saying. Its more important to stay mentally alert, being constantly on the look out for potholes or dogs, conserving energy to ride against strong headwinds and making sure that both bike and rider make it back in one piece. 

Around four years ago, I left kicking and screaming from a centrally located suburban area to a part of the a city on the borders of the Dallas county line. It seemed like the very edge of civilization of for me back then. The countryside was my only option for local bike riding unless I wanted to load up my bike in my car and go ride somewhere else. At first I did do that, a lot. Then I realized that the twenty to forty minutes I spent in my car getting to and from a riding destination was time I could have spent doing a ride around where I lived. I also realized that I just didn't have the same amount of time that I used to have to go to these far away places to go ride for an hour and then take another forty minutes getting home. I started to get on Google Maps and plot my own routes around the countryside where I could take low traffic and scenic roads for a good twenty to thirty miles. If I wanted a shorter ride I could just shorten the loop so that I would be riding sixteen miles or less on days when my time was really constrained. After three years of riding in the countryside, I have found that I enjoy it more than riding in the suburbs, and I don't freak out if my bike rolls off smooth pavement or hits a small pot hole. 

Rather than staying in the suburbs, doing small cafe racer loops and constantly having to stop and go at traffic lights, my bicycle and I tend to naturally gravitate toward the countryside, no matter where I start riding from. I used to love riding in the suburbs and avoid rural areas like the plague, now I am finding it hard to stay away from the countryside. I don't enjoy riding in the suburbs like I used to and let's face it, farmers in beat up pickup trucks make better company on the roads than distracted soccer moms in their large Land Rovers do. I also find that riding out in the countryside is like a form of fast mountain biking, and my general fitness tends to improve as a result of having to employ both speed and bike handling skills into my workout. 

The carbon fiber wonder-bike, spandex-clad in team kit wannabe racer concept is ingrained and hard boiled into almost every cyclist I see riding out on the roads where I now live. Occasionally I will run into an older gentleman riding helmet-less on a Wal-Mart special with a bag of groceries tied to the front of his handlebars. He's the only guy that I have seen that is that comfortable on a bike and I know he rides a lot, because I have seen him more than once. Everyone else seems to be speeding away, trying to get their ride over with as fast as they can so that they can brag about it to their friends immediately afterwords. These guys have the same three loops that they'll do religiously, without any deviation whatsoever. I have been guilty to doing the same thing myself, but at least I don't do it all the time. I have learned to let go of that pre-ride anxiety I used to get thinking about how I needed to record my miles, carry a spare tube, and wear my ceremonial garb of spandex and special shoes. I don't get angry if another cyclist passes me and I fail to catch up while they run through a red light. Now I have different bikes and different approaches depending on the levity or severity of how serious I want my ride to be. My rides are no longer all serious, half century ride expeditions anymore. Sometimes I'll do a fifteen miler or even eight miles just to warm up the legs and say that I worked out that day. I have even done four mile rides to the grocery store and back. It doesn't take a lot to be consistent. Consistency is more important than bragging points on a Strava app and it's what makes a person a fitter and more livelier rider in all sorts of conditions. 

Complete cyclists are ones who are always exploring, always adapting and know how to dress for the occasion. They are ones who do it all; long rides, short rides, on and off road rides and value all rides equally. They are people who know the risks and prepare for the risks, rather than allowing those risks to scare them from doing what they love. They are the kinds of riders who do not get worked up over-thinking a bike ride, instead they can just get on a bike and go. A truly complete rider does not have routes, they have destinations, even if unknown to them. To a complete rider, the journey is more important than the end result on a tracking module. Strava can't tell a story of the billy goat you saw in the middle of the road, or that cool looking dilapidated  red barn, or that ghost town that you passed through that made you think of a wild west movie. If there is something interesting on the road that makes you want to get off of your bike to check it out, you should check it out. A complete rider does that, without fear of having to pause their workout on their phone for them to do so, or that their average speed will drop as a result of stopping for a moment. A complete rider also knows their limits. You will not see them riding in cold, rainy, pneumonia inducing weather, just because the group ride didn't cancel that Saturday. However, on nice days during the week a complete rider will take to the streets when most wanna be riders have to work to make that payment on their carbon fiber wonder-bike, as well as their Land Rover, which they use more than their bike. 

By employing this methodology into one's riding, fitness will improve, cycling skills will improve and overall quality of life will improve as a result. One will learn the essential things that they need to ride a bike and the things that are baggage in their lives and that they can do without. Remember, the more things you have to pay for, the more a slave you become to those things. Some people are even a slave to their bicycles, if their bikes are ridiculously expensive. So by simplifying our lives as well as our approach to cycling, we can make cycling a more wholesome activity. Never stop exploring, or taking the road less traveled.  Stay tuned for more perspective from A Bicycle's Point of View. 

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