Recently I wondered what it is, that defines me as a cyclist.
Maybe this question came up because of a little cycling crisis I had been going through and still hadn't found my way out completely. I thought about all the adventures I undertook, all the hours out there in the brain-scrambling heat, in the cold, all the sunrises and sunsets I witnessed and all those very special moments which felt so much more real than real life sometimes does.
And I also thought about all the things I didn't achieve, all the moments that hurt so much more than sore legs, because they last so much longer, the moments when you realize you failed to improve the way you hoped to, concluding that you missed your goals. But what was the essence? Was it a mixture of it all?
Probably. But it's never wrong to benefit from someone else's wisdom, and as a philosophy student it was only reasonable to turn to Aristotle who concluded (in somewhat different words but this would lead too far off):
The whole is more than the sum of it's parts.
Right. Okay, nice one you might say. But what does this actually mean? Is there a mysterious force hiding behind all the moments and experiences, something that would make Obi - Wan Kenobi give you enigmatic advice in his very special grammar? What is this „whole“ thing about? Or in other words: What is your Jedi power?
To stay with philosophy (don't worry we'll also come back to the Star Wars theme), there's the term of emergence which describes the origin of new properties when a system is build up from single elements. As a result there isn't only a bunch of loosely thrown togehter parts forming a system, but new features, resulting from a connection between those elements. Of course you knew all that already somehow and it's something that's been written (using slightly different words) in cursive letters on countless Pinterest motivation walls featuring pictures of sunsets and oceans for as long as a Millennial can think back. But enough of this hardcore nerd scientific stuff, let's move on to the geeky nerd stuff referring to your Jedi Power. As far as I'm concerned it won't happen too soon that the force will abandon gravity, letting you climb Alpe d'Huez like the young Eddy Merckx. (And there will be no lightsabers, I'm afraid). Physics suck , I know. But there is something else the force can mean to us in a metaphorcally way.
As Luke puts it frankly:
"The Force is not a power you have. It's not about lifting rocks. It's the energy between all things, a tension, a balance, that binds the universe together."
"Okay. But what is it?" Yes, Rey. I hear you.
I have honestly no idea what it means in Star Wars terms, but when you think of yourself as a galaxy, a beautiful, complex system of hopes, dreams, memories and expectations, of fears and experiences, then the force is what keeps all of this together, what connects the simple joy of riding a bike on a sunny afternoon with your experience of how you once got a flat and had to walk home 5miles in the rain because the weather changed. So today you're taking a spare tube with you and an air pump, even though your pneus are bulging and the sun is shining like on one of those motivational Pinterest memes. Having this mentioned, you might conclude that the salient point of all this is your experience, which creates new aspects between loose memories. Yes and no.This would mean that Aristotle was wrong and that there is actually just a sum = experience, when you add all your memories = parts to a pile. There must be something else.
Let's forget about the wise and dead and move on to a more personal approach.
The day after I had decided I wouldn't ride the Two Volcano Sprint this year, I went for a ride. I felt really tired, angry, sad and empty. I had been looking forward to this event and now all my ambitions had been shattered, for reasons that weren't even my fault.
Simply because just a few hours before my departure, the region where the start of the race was located had been labeled as a high risk area Corona-wise. I don't want to bore you with details now, but it were mere organisational matters.
So instead of being on my way to Italy I went out for a dark and cold ride on the roads I started training on ages ago. A route next to a highway, far from being idyllic like riding on the coastal line of south Italy would have been. It was the short distance I had been riding countless times, back to days when 34km felt like a long push. I hadn't been on this route for several months because I'd been afraid of going back to routine, going back to the ordinary, going back to where it all started. During summer I rode the most beautiful roads in Switzerland, Austria, France and Germany; now going back to basics seemed like going backwards.
So there I was. Not aiming for extraordinary mileage, not aiming for anything anyone would give you a thumbs up these days. Just a 40km round with no noteworthy number of elevation, no punishing headwind, no scenic details, no fun people to accompany me, no shiny pictures and no cake and coffee. But to my own surprise I suddenly calmed. I had been training the last weeks but not in a way that gave me any confidence, always leaving me with frustration and the impression of not doing enough, not pushing myself hard enough and not enjoying much of it. Finally I ended up with doubt about my decisions and doubt about myself, questioning everything I had done so far and what I was about to take on. Yet suddenly, on this more than trivial ride I felt like doing the right thing. For the first time for weeks I was all at peace with myself and my decisions. No it wasn't because it was easy. It wasn't a fox and the grapes situation where you shift your aims in order to escape a cognitive dissonance. No, this was something else.
I had to go back to the start to find something immensely important:
The reason why I started in the first place.
Suddenly it dawned on me that it had never mattered where I rode my bike or what hills or what numbers. These were trifles, and they might have mattered to others, to people on social media or wherever. But not to me. It didn't matter if I was in Italy, France or in the peripheries of Berlin riding a boring stretch of a repetitive training round. I had to go back to my beginnings in order to let go of my expectations, only resulting from my past achievements and experiences. This picture I had in my mind, the definition of myself, of who I was, limited me. And instead of going further, instead of progress, I lost power, will, motivation and joy. After everything I had done so far it seemed just like the logical step to increase training, elevation and distance. This was how I defined progress and it had worked in the past pretty well. Of course I had restdays or even longer periods of rest incorporated into my training routine. But this wasn't about resting, this was about letting go.
Now in solitude of this very basic ride not being able to ride the event I had worked for suddenly felt like a good thing because I seriously doubt it would've solved my issues. In the end I would've only raised my aims not knowing what the ground looks like.
When talking about cycling I had focused on the external reward system a lot lately.
(I will write about the dangers and complications on this topic in a different article soon.)
Talking numbers, everything that'd impress your local sports club or your mom.
Now I'm not saying numbers are bad thing. But there's more to cycling than something that sounds like algebra in the 4th grade.
While digging deeper into those numbers I very much forgot about the whole experience and the reasons why I started and continued so many rides.
Cycling isn't just a Hobby for me, it's not just exercise or sport or numbers.
It's also not a lifestyle because I hate this word which was obviously abused and raped from an industry to sell their products. No. Cycling is a way for me to enter, understand, feel and enable life, to become a person, to understand my own thoughts better, to work on myself, my past and enlighten the present, to meet beautiful souls all over the world, to connect with people instantly who share the same passion. It's my way to embrace solitude, to find my deepest fears and look at them quite objectively, to push my own boundaries and to solve problems of which's existence I didn't even know when I started the ride. Cycling is a way to grow a little above what I thought I was able to do, with every meter these wheels turn I feel more like myself, more connected and more self sufficient at the same time.
On my bike I feel at home, no matter where I am.
All of this returned to me on this unremarkable stretch, watching a very average sunset while pedaling at a very average cadence. But didn't I go back to the past then, wasn't this a step back? Wasn't this a decrease of movement? No. I just let go of the numbers, the expectations and did what every cyclist eventually does. Breathing, pedaling, defocusing and focusing at the same time and enjoying the moment in a way that'd bring this very special glaze into the eyes of a mindfulness teacher. And most importantly: Moving forward.
Thinking of ancient greek Icarus and interpreting his story of aiming high this shows that the crucial point wasn't the heat of the sun, melting his waxed wings or the aim to fly. It was the moment he forgot about the ground that broke his neck. Going back to where you started doesn't always mean to literally cycle to a certain point.
It's a state of mind, not a place on the road.
Becoming a starter again, actually realizing that being a rookie is the foundation of every single step forward, is what keeps it all together. It's the ultimate kit that connects every single action, every minute out there on the road and deep down in your pain cave.
It's not about the wins, the summits, the numbers. It's not about the past.
It's about doing it all over again and again and again.
The ability to let go of it all in order to start.
Being a rookie, not in terms of experience but in terms of being willing to get back on the bike after a crash, a disappointment or even after a successful time, is the Jedi-power we all have. Because after all it's not a talent or a coincidence – it's a choice.
What defines you is not only what you already experienced. It's not your past, your memories and the achievements you might have or might not have made.
What defines you is what you want to be.
What you believe you can be.
And every single step you take to become this.
It might sound a bit cheesy and melodramatic but it's true.
What if there where no limits?
What if you could be whatever you want to be?
A unicorn (well I guess that would be quite a challenge)?
Or would you rather be an ultra endurance cyclist with Jedi skills? (Gotcha!)
It's true, some people have more experience, some have already cycled 20 000km and the year isn't even over yet. But if you break it down into micro steps all they did was getting up in the morning riding their bike. If you zoom into the picture close enough, they had to start new every single day, every single minute, every single pedalestroke.
Does it get easier? Yes and no.
You will gain experience. And a lot of things will get easier. You will be able to look back to situations where you learned and improved, despite all odds. This will give you confidence and you can use these as tools to overcome new obstacles. But there will always be different challenges on every adventure you set out for. You will never have learned enough, because life is unpredictable.
Ergo, that force which glues all of this together is not the experience you already made.
It' s the never ending curiosity about what's around the next corner.
The striving for another series of painful intervals.
The longing for that feeling to be out there with nothing to do than sleep bike eat repeat. The endless learning process, the surprise, the fears and the will to do it all over again, even though you never know what happens next. And even if you ride the same hill up 83 times each lap will feel different. Each lap will have a slightly different light and in round 54 you might notice a yellow bridge between the trees at the side of the road you haven't noticed before.
I may have gathered some experience and so do you. There are people who have made a ton of clever decisions and therefore are very successful Jedi cyclists.
On the other side of the road there are the ones who just started and have to realize yet, that getting a chain tattoo can be easily avoided by simply waxing your chain instead of using oil. (Please keep the comment section clear of your history with different chain lubes though, thanks.)
There are stupid mistakes embraced by very experienced riders because they just had a bad day or not enough sleep. Nevertheless, I don't want to neglect the fact of improving; after a while you increase your expertise for certain tasks and situations - it would be quite frustrating if not. But you can only do this by jumping into cold water from time to time. If you would just sit at home and rest on your palmares you wouldn't improve.
Go back to scratch. Loose it all. Not in reality but in your mind. The minute you limit yourself to what you already did in life is the minute you stagnate. You need to go beyond what you already know to learn something. Training means exaggerating your physical and mental boundaries. Otherwise you'll just sit there and bore the shit out of everyone including yourself.
Apart from building up pressure there is another problem - or let's rather call it a risk- with defining yourself only on what you already archived: You might get saturated. If this is enough for you that's fine. But you won't make any progress from a saturated point of view. You don't get up from the sofa for another cookie if you're full. (Admittedly a bad picture because in this case the ultimate goal would be to get fat by eating cookies. Don't get inspired by bad examples like this!)
You need to strive. You need to long. For what exactly doesn't matter much.
Furthermore, if you think of the galaxy once again maybe not as something that stands alone for itself, rather as of something that is part of a whole universe of different galaxies, this picture also leads to the conclusion that every single cyclist out there is part of a whole, exceeding a singular orbit by far. Even if you might prefer solitude and skip the group rides, you are part of a community. That's why, even if they are strangers, cyclists greet each other. That's why every time you pass someone who is obviously in trouble you should try to help them out if you can.What defines you and me and probably everyone else in our core as cyclists, is every single day we seek the unknown and go out there to pedal it all out. We make similar experiences but they are all unique at the same time. We can share them to create a better understanding of each other and to make riding bikes even more fun. Every day can bring new challenges and expecting the unexpected is the best approach to make it home safe again. It's all about the variety of moments which couldn't happen if you wouldn't dare to click into your pedals again and again.
Staying open for new and old roads, different faces, new ice-cream flavours and beautiful memories is what lays the foundation for the beauty of cycling.
And after all it doesn't matter if you go for a group ride in your new shiny kit on your carbon machine or set out your rusty ol' steelframe for a slow cruise to the lake.
No matter who you are, where you're from, what's your VO2max and whatever your tire size:
We are all rookies.
So, what defines you as cyclist?