As many people who are close to me know, I cycle. Three to four times a week I am out on the road where I seek the finest roads to ride and the highest hills to conquer. Distances vary from short evening rides of 20 kilometers to some blockbuster rides up to 200 kilometers in one day. Especially the last category makes people often wonder: why the *%*$&*# would you do that? Well, since right now I have a sprained ankle and therefore not doing my Sunday morning ride, let me try to answer this question once and for all and as clearly as possible.
Let me start with the fact that there is a huge difference between riding a bicycle and a road bike. Having grown up in Holland I started riding on the first type, something I often did not like, especially because of Holland’s magnificent weather. However, when I got a summer job at an IKEA warehouse, I started to use my more sporty bike to commute to the warehouse at 5:00 in the morning (no busses were riding at that time). Even though this was just 20 kilometers back and forth, I suddenly started to appreciate cycling. Breathing the morning air of the Dutch countryside and watching the fog slowly disappear from the meadows gave me a certain feeling of freedom that I was unfamiliar with. Every time when I arrived at the warehouse, while I often only slept four hours, I felt more awake than ever before. A few months later I would be riding to Paris, incredibly bad prepared and with cheating by taking a part by train, but it was a great experience and I was now convinced that this was simply the most beautiful sport in the world.
So, I liked the freedom; why not just get a car? Well, first of all I don’t have a license. But secondly, peddling your way to a far destination, or riding a long ride on Saturday, made possible by your own legs, is a completely unique experience. Seeing the asphalt below you moving with every pedal stroke, getting further away from home with every corner you take, gaining elevation because of every climb you take down; it just gives an incredible strong feeling of being on your own and being able to extend your horizon with every ride.
In the world of cycling, there is one T-shirt print that says: ‘I Don’t Need Therapy – I Just Need To Go Cycling’. Of course, it is a bit of an exaggeration, but it does show one other important reason for me to get on the bike over and over again: cycling is like meditation. The constant movement of your feet and the continuous positive mental influence of forests, countryside and urban environments offer something that I am only able to receive on my bike. It generates a specific state of mind where on the one hand you have all the rest and time in the world to put your thoughts straight, while it simultaneously gives the ability to empty your head and just think about where to go next, how much climbing left to do or when your legs will tell you: go home. I am quite the sober person, but when I am on a long ride I can be as floaty as a hippie in the 60’s.
Thus, cycling can be meditative and relaxing. But, there is another side. ‘Suffering‘ is what some cyclist call it, i.e. pushing yourself to the limits of what your body can take. You can try it on the flat roads of the Netherlands by riding on the dikes as fast as possible, while the wind tries to push you back where you came from, or, something I prefer, by going to a less flat area and ride up to a hill or mountain without stopping, while keeping a pace that will make your body scream: PLEASE STOP. Suffering is getting your heart rate higher than it ever was, and you did an extraordinary good job when you (almost) have to vomit at the end of the dike or the top of the mountain. Of course this will leave you thinking: I thought you were telling me what is góód about cycling, not bád? That is true! Doing what I just described will hurt like hell and the next day you will hate stairs, but let me tell you: it is simply amazing. Being able to have your mind say ‘no’ while your body is begging you to stop will give you a tremendous feeling of being in power over both your mind and body. Battling through the pain and pushing yourself to make it to where you want to get will boost your self-confidence, even while being on your own. And, it also goes back to the ‘I Don’t Need Therapy’-T-shirt: your mind will be reset as soon as your heart rate is back to a more ‘normal’ 160 beats per minute.
Now we got freedom, meditation and suffering. But there is more. I shall call it the ‘exploring’ aspect of cycling. This consists of two things. Firstly, it embraces the way how you can explore the surroundings close to your home. You will be surprised that even after living for years at the same place there are still places left to discover; places you probably would not cross by taking a car or other sorts of transportation. I ended up at bars, beaches, viewpoints or monuments that I was not even aware of that they existed, while it was within a 100km radius from the places where I lived.
Secondly, the exploring by bike can be done everywhere in the world. Not to be bragging, but so far I rode in Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Turkey, Denmark, France, Suriname, Czech Republic, Italy, Andorra and Swiss. Okay, I might also be bragging (pretty awesome right?), but I mention this to show you that a bike can take you everywhere and that everywhere you can take a bike. Instead of laying at the beach, or renting a car, or going shopping, you now have the opportunity to rent a road bike and just move your legs to discover every corner of every new place you visit. You will breath the mysterious smells, you will meet the local people, you will find the cutest bars and restaurants, you will witness the most wonderful views, or, to summarize: you will become part of the scenery you are riding through. Every corner brings new discoveries and every discovery brings new memories. Cycling holidays will leave you with a relaxed and fulfilled feeling, a feeling that I myself had never gained from a ‘normal’ holiday.
Are you convinced yet? If not, please continue reading, as there is one more thing. And no, I will not talk about the environmental and health advantages, as I consider them to be obvious. I want to mention the last thing that makes me go through rain and snow to do my weekly ride. It is what I like to call the ‘overarching’ experience of cycling, i.e. everything that happens before, during and after rides. It is buying the food necessary to power your body, preparing your bike to be in a perfect state and putting your cycling kit ready the night before your ride. It is meeting cycling friends along the ride, stopping at that coffee place at the beach for the perfect cappuccino and enjoying that perfect view just 30 kilometers from your house. And it is the relieved feeling of returning home after hours on the bike, being tired, even broken, but with new experiences and new energy for the next day.
It is now eight years later since I rode my bike to IKEA, and I still ride, every week. It even was a big part of the reason why I moved to Barcelona, as I can tell you that the scenery is simply amazing here. Cycling is a lifestyle, or at least it has changed my life. So, whenever your hear another skinny fellow telling about the 130km ride he or she will do tomorrow, don’t ask why; but ask at what time.