WHOEVER CAME UP WITH THAT WHOLE “it’s like riding a bike” thing was full of shit. At the very least, they had never tried to pedal up a mountain after taking a year off from pedaling up mountains. Cause that’s hard. It’s a frustrating revelation, because I used to be a pretty good bike rider. I could ride up hills. I could ride down hills. I could even bunny hop. It was sick. And now? After taking a year off of riding bikes, I’m a shell of my former self. A hack. I probably can’t even bunny hop anymore.
Listen, I didn’t mean to take so much time off of the bike. It just sort of happened, the same way getting old or buying too many donuts and then eating all of the donuts just happens. Maybe I lost interest in cycling, or maybe I was just tired after riding my bikes so much for the last 20 years. Maybe I just wanted to run and go to the gym more. Whatever the reason, the gap between rides got longer and longer until I realized I was a solid year removed from my last legitimate bike ride. It was enough of a realization to send me into a bit of an existential crisis. If I haven’t ridden a bike in a year, can I still identify as a cyclist? Am I just another privileged jerk with multiple high-end bikes collecting dust in his garage? Has Strava forgotten about me?
It’s not like I quit bikes entirely. I would still ride the dirt jumps at my favorite bike park. I would still partake in the occasional bike-fueled pub crawl. But my life didn’t revolve around my regular rides. No hour-long lunch sprints. No multi-day adventures. No epic climbs to the top of Mount Mitchell and back. And if I’m being honest, I didn’t really miss it. I had other things to do. I wanted to run more, spend more time doing trendy things like “mobility work.” I focused a lot of energy on recovery. We used to call it napping, but now it’s called recovery. I just didn’t feel the urge to go for a ride.
But then one random Wednesday I had a couple of free hours and a sudden inkling to pedal up a mountain. My plan was to keep it simple: knock out a 13-mile loop that I used do two or three times a week. It’s a beautiful short ride that starts from my house and climbs a mountain on the edge of downtown, the road turning from quiet neighborhood streets to even quieter gravel. I packed snacks and extra water. I checked the weather. I looked at the sky. It looked cloudy. I had second thoughts. Maybe I should just hit the gym? Maybe it would be smarter to start my journey back to being a cyclist on the spin bike…in an air-conditioned room…close to a smoothie bar.
I was nervous. How crazy is that? Me, nervous about a quick spin around town.
I had every right to be nervous, because after a year off I didn’t really know what I was doing. It took me 20 minutes to find my bike shoes. And the riding was hell. I spent most of the time pedaling in an easy gear that I used to reserve for only the steepest of climbs. My bike was creaky. My knees hurt. Did my knees used to hurt when I rode my bike? Was it always this hot when I used to ride my bike? I had to turn moderately steep climbs into mini switchbacks just to keep from getting off my bike and walking. To walk one of these pitches would be utter failure. I considered the possibility that maybe the city’s road crew had steepened the pitches of these once-familiar climbs. Perhaps they had added some mileage, too. I couldn’t be in this bad of shape. It’s impossible.
I cursed my days at the bike park. Jumping bikes is fun, but it doesn’t prepare you for the serious business of climbing mountains—the incessant pedaling, where every stroke delivers you closer to the point of utter exhaustion, nay, death. I cursed riding bikes in general. It’s a stupid pastime best left for children. I have a driver’s license for crying out loud! Why am I pedaling this toy up a mountain? I hoped for a bear encounter, one of those dream scenarios where the bear mauls my bike but I come away unscathed. Something so traumatizing that no one would question my decision to give up riding bikes for good. I could finally take up golf.
And then, towards the top of the gravel climb, I saw a little girl, maybe three years old, squatting on the side of the road and pooping. I’m a gentleman, so I averted my eyes as I pedaled by and, not 100 yards later, I saw a bear lumbering across the gravel. It might seem like an odd juxtaposition, but it’s a solid sample of the wildlife you can see when riding your bike on the edge of downtown Asheville, where suburbs give way to gravel roads that climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s as if every pedal stroke takes you into increasingly wild territory where kids poop on the streets and bears wander freely. It made me consider what I liked about this stupid pastime all along. It’s the effort, sure, it’s the feeling of getting stronger with every ride, yeah. But mostly, it’s the fact that every ride is a miniature adventure. Even the lunchtime spins around town have potential for whimsy and intrigue. Right then, before I was even done with the worst part of the climbing, I decided I should ride my bike more often.
Cover photo: Photo courtesy of the author.