by Ray Birks
Recently I was asked what it is about cycling that is so appealing and why I spend a disproportionate amount of time either riding a bike or thinking about riding a bike. The easy answers always bubble to the surface first and there aren’t many surprises among them. “It’s great exercise and keeps you healthy. It’s easy on the joints. It’s fun. It’s relatively inexpensive. It’s good for the environment and gets me out of the house. It’s great entertainment and wards off obesity and depression.”
Robin Williams, a longtime fan of the Tour de France and professional cycling, said, “Cycling is the closest you can get to flying,” and he’s right. Cruising down a hill or bombing down a trail temporarily sets us free from the tangled webs we weave that hold us down. It lets us spread our wings and escape our troubles.
But to me cycling holds a higher place beyond the obvious.
The other day, as I started to piece together this story, I was reminded of a YouTube video titled “My Mom’s Motorcycle“. In this short, the filmmaker wrestles with his own identity and place in the world when compared to two towering paternal figures who have recently passed. He describes his search for authenticity in his own life and how his decision to buy a motorcycle made him feel closer to his ideals and connect with reality.
He says, “People need real things. My grandfathers grew up in a time that seemed far more authentic and I wanted a piece of it. So I bought a motorcycle, and it was awesome.“
It has resonated with me ever since because my own personality is drawn to that search, that desire to be genuine. I rarely find myself reading fiction or attracted to movies that aren’t documentaries because they don’t scratch my entertainment itch. It’s hard for me to suspend my disbelief. But I love to read travel stories and memoirs about accomplishments from adventure seekers, climbers, mountaineers and cyclists, authentic experiences from normal individuals who push themselves to the less ordinary.
A few years back, a contractor working on our house, after seeing the collection of bikes, parts and tools in our garage asked if I was an avid cyclist. I was a little bit upset that was the best adjective he could muster to describe my status. What about “obsessed” or “fanatical”? I would have even accepted “passionate or enthusiast” but I suppose avid fit his context and is probably accurate. But deep down I knew I was more than just avid. Avid made it seem like it was a passing fancy, like a social media post that soon wears thin or a fleeting fashion statement.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “We are constantly invited to be who we are,” and I think he means we always have the opportunity to strive to become who we want no matter our current circumstances.
What is it about cycling that inspires such passion and fanaticism? What drives me to immediately think of my next ride as I open the garage and put my bike away on my current ride? For me cycling is a path to authenticity. It helps me live out my ideals to spend more time in nature, drive my car less, be a steward of the environment, stay in shape and have fun and in a way it partially defines who I am. So by seeking out authentic experiences I’m inviting myself to be who I want to be. Would Thoreau be happy to know there’s a 15-mile bike path to Walden Pond? I’d like to think so when he pondered, “There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.”
On a deeper level people yearn for authenticity. I think that’s the reason some people have an aversion to ebikes, not because they don’t want everyone to have access to the same trails they ride on nor any trail damage as a result of their use, but because there’s a part of us that believes cycling is closer to its true ideal when you earn your turns. It’s why our soul feels fulfilled skinning up a slope and skiing down rather than riding on a chairlift. Its why people craft their own beer, buy phonographs and listen to records, grow their own food, fix their own bikes. They’re answering the invitation to be who they are.
Over the past decade I’ve weaned myself from sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram because they don’t paint an accurate picture of who people are. I stopped posting personal pictures or updates of myself and my kids and only participate in a few groups for work and leisure that focus on non-personal issues and not incomplete realities. It was exciting at first to be connected and share myself with the world but the emptiness of the screen and the likes and the retweets, as well as the negativity weighed on me. It was not authentic.
A memorable bike ride often has climbs and descents, smiles and crashes, downhill happiness and uphill suffering, starts and stops, ugly stretches and beauty, the experience made authentic by the blending of opposites.
Bikepacking brings me closer to that ideal. When I’m bikepacking I’ve got everything I need strapped to my bike; food, shelter, water and directions and I’m reliant on myself, my fitness, my map reading skills and the blessing from mother nature. That feels pretty authentic to me.
John Burroughs said, “To find the universal elements enough; to find the air & the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter . . . to be thrilled by the stars at night—these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”
A bikepacker I admired and followed on YouTube, Iohan Gueorguiev, recently passed away. I was deeply moved by his passing not only because I was sad that he was gone but also because his videos were captivating and helped me dream of bigger adventures in my life. I appreciated his simplistic lifestyle, moving from one location to the next while documenting his struggles and downplaying his accomplishments. He always relished in the road less traveled, the faint trail, the hard climb and the snowy pass because he wanted to see the world and experience it firsthand. He delighted in the struggle and the myriad of people who helped him along the way with a warm bed, a hot meal or temporary companionship, even if it was a dog or a wayward cow. The words he carried with him from day one of his adventures read as follows:
I want to see the world.
Follow a map to its edges and keep going.
Forgo the plans.
Trust my instincts.
Let curiosity be my guide.
I want to change hemispheres.
Sleep with unfamiliar stars
and let the journey unfold before me.
So what is it about biking that brings me closer to authenticity? It’s the simple sound of tires on a trail, the sweat in your eyes and the suffering in your legs near the top of a long climb, the wind pushing and pulling you along, the smiles of those sharing the same experience as you. In the end of the short video the motorcycle owner realizes his grandfathers weren’t respected for what they owned but for what they gave to others. I believe when we share those authentic experiences with others, we connect with them in tangible ways.
One final quote from George Bernard Shaw reminds me of what I value. The experiences I’ve had biking and being outdoors keep me grounded in who I strive to be. Clean and bright in spirit and envisioning the world through an authentic lens.
“Best keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you see the world.”