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What I learned from riding alone

Riding your road, gravel, or mountain bike alone can be an enlightening experience. With world events, many of us have no choice but to go on solo rides. I've had more time alone and got to know myself a little better.

Written by: Bruce Lin

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Road Riding aloneIn my solitude
I have a bike to guide me
on the road within…

Cycling is my therapy and escape. I’m certainly not alone. For many, it’s the one thing that keeps us sane. I feel very fortunate. I’m healthy, and still able to ride outdoors.

Indoor trainers have experienced a recent boom. More and more cyclists have turned to the virtual world during lockdowns and quarantines. I’ve become a bit of an indoor convert myself. Many nights are consumed by Trainerroad and Zwift sessions. I can relieve my stress after a day of working from home, wrangling the world’s most annoying (but lovable) baby, and stressing about the pandemic.

Still, there’s something about riding outdoors that’s ingrained deep in our bodies. It tugs at me, like instinct dragging a salmon up the river. I start to crave the motion of the bike. The natural balance. The feel of cornering. The wind, sun, and every other sensation that riding on a trainer can’t reproduce.

There is a reason we love cycling.

I still try to ride my gravel bike and mountain bike outside (safely!) once or twice a week. In the past, I’ve been too social to be a solo rider. Before our lives changed, there was no shortage of riding partners, since I work with a bunch of bike nuts. But now, solo riding is the only option to avoid COVID-19 transmission and exposure. I avoid people and give any rider I pass a very wide berth. 

After two months of solo rides,  I’m beginning to find a new dimension to cycling. In my time alone, I've gotten to know myself a little better. Here’s what I’ve learned.

You don't need to compare yourself to others

Competitive road cyclingI’m competitive. I can remember the moment my cycling addiction started. I washed out as a runner and bought my first road bike to ride with my roommate. I thought I was super fit, but on our first ride, he dropped me going up a short one-minute climb. Watching him disappear over the top crushed my fragile little ego.

The next 10 years involved manic bursts of obsessive training and dieting. I stalked Strava leaderboards and compared my times to all my friends. A single second on a segment could send me either to heaven or hell. Success came to rule my happiness. Comparison is the thief of joy and maybe now I can finally step back and detach.

With the current state of the world, I haven’t seen any of my riding or training partners in nearly two months. The races I’m targeting have been canceled or postponed. There's nothing to compete for. For a while, I felt lost. I missed other riders. I missed racing. But, they’re not important right now. This will be the state of things for a while.

I’ve stayed chill. Without other riders constantly pushing me to ride on the ragged edge, my usual fire has died down into lukewarm coals. This is good. This is safer. And it’s been nice.

I’ve been so wrapped up in the performance aspect of cycling for so long, I almost forgot that it’s okay to just cruise and ride for fun. I leave the house with no intention of smashing PRs or causing myself pain. I just pedal.

I’ve been doing little things to make it interesting, stuff I never would have considered when riding with a fast group. I ride without my head unit, experiment with flat pedals, riding in a t-shirt and bibs, leaving the gels at home and packing MoonPies and Pop-Tarts. I’m maintaining my fitness, and not stressing about “leveling up” as a rider. I haven’t checked a Strava leaderboard in weeks.

I’ve been happy during these easy rides. Really happy. It’s just me, my bike, and the joy of riding. I’ve realized that I need to do this much more. It’s healthy for my spirit. When restrictions lift, racing returns, and my training resumes in earnest, I’ll still treasure these rides. I want to remember this easygoing mindset in the future, even in group rides.

Equipment probably doesn’t matter so much

SRAM XX1 eagle 12 speed mtb drivetrainSomeday I'll have bling like this. Just not today.

I used to be in a constant state of scheming for my next bike purchase or upgrade. Everything I bought, I bought in hopes that it will improve my performance. Not only do I want the best bike to compete with my friends (as I just mentioned), but I wanted my bike to look blinged out enough to beat their bikes in a beauty contest. 

For the past few years, I’ve been living in the weird bike industry bubble. New products are released monthly and I'd snatch them up. I didn't blink before spending thousands of dollars to save 10 grams.

What happened?

When did I become so materialistic? So dependant on a shiny piece of metal or carbon to feel like I could perform? No single component is magic. But I'd fooled myself into believing it so many times. Riding alone and ignoring the fancy bikes my friends have may be the cure. 

My most recent upgrade plans have been placed on the back burner. For now, my gravel bike will remain “merely” mechanical 11-speed. My mountain bike won’t have the new generation of FOX suspension. I have a fresh hardtail frame that will stay in the box for a while. All postponed, for now. I have perfectly good bikes I can ride. Though I love tinkering, I've realized I can wait.

My bikes are all still super fun. Nothing is the latest and greatest. The tires are more worn than I prefer. I’m getting by with the small box of tools I have in the garage for basic maintenance. My bikes are ... normal.

On my easy solo rides, I haven’t once thought about how outdated or heavy anything is. It hasn't mattered. As long as I can get out and ride I'm happy. 

I’ve been trying to make new schemes. I’m not chasing anyone. I’m not comparing my bike to anyone else’s. I’m not looking down to see how many gears I have left. I’m not blaming my bike for anything. I’m trying to make cycling less about the bike, and more about the ride.

We all need more space to think

Road riding aloneCycling is a demanding sport. When smashing the pedals with my friends, my mind often deactivates. It enters a state of zen-like nothingness in the pursuit of more speed. This is as close to meditation as I get and it’s amazingly therapeutic. But it is equally therapeutic to let my mind scroll through a huge itinerary of thoughts and anxieties during relaxed solo rides.

Life has become more chaotic than normal. Quiet alone time is hard to come by. I’m working from home with my wife. Our 18-month-old son is home from daycare with us, so we take turns watching him while the other logs on to work. Half our video conferences feature a screaming child in the background and us apologizing to everyone on the call.

Productivity is at an all-time low. Sanity is slowly slipping from our grasp.

The bike has become my only refuge for processing thoughts, planning, and introspection. It's a huge reason my solo rides have decreased in intensity. I’m going slow, but my mind is racing.

I’ve been thinking about my son a lot on these rides. He hasn’t been in perfect health. The pandemic has only increased those anxieties. But there’s something about pedaling through these issues that makes everything easier to bear.

I’ve been able to plan out our future meals with the food left in our pantry. I’ve been able to catalog our supplies. And it's helped me come to terms with my changing riding goals due to circumstances outside my control. Everything weighing on my mind seems to shrink when I work through it on the bike. I come home refreshed and ready to take it all on.

Stop from time to time and look at the scenery 

Gravel bike colorado snowFerris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” For a lazy high-schooler, he was pretty astute.

A few weeks ago I saw something that took me by surprise. It was early in the morning and mist was rising from the ground in a dense fog. Sunbeams were filtering through the clouds and cutting it all into thick white slices. I was climbing up a quiet dirt road, its edges lined with snow from a late-spring storm.

I stopped on a corner, way before the summit. I never do this. I’m always so focused on reaching the top, beating someone or hanging on to someone's wheel, that I never just randomly stop.

By myself, with no schedule to keep or no riding partner to contend with, it was different. I saw the valley below and decided to just park the bike and soak it all in. The mist hung low in the trees and mingled with the pine needles. I took a deep, cold breath and felt like I could smell the whole mountain.

I had ridden that road so many times but ignored so much of it. Riding isn’t just about pedaling, but it's also about the world you’re pedaling through. That's easy for me to forget. It took everything shutting down for me to finally take the time to stop and notice. I sat on a rock, alone, relaxed, and blissful. 

I’ll stop at that corner again. I’ll look for more.


Stay safe, everyone. Cycling's a bit different right now. If you can't ride where you are, I hope you can soon.