As cycling tips go, this is a strange one: “If you want to find the joy of the ride, try a multi-day cycling trip.” The explanation is complex, so let’s get started…
We’ve all been there. You head out for a ride and you just can’t find a rhythm. Whether the rhythm of your breathing, your pedal stroke, or the terrain, there can be no harmony when even just one of these elements is out of sync.
The beauty of a long ride or a multi-day trip or tour is that your ride plays out across a much greater scale. Finding or even creating a rhythm is almost a given at the scale of an 8-hour ride or a 5-day tour.
You can literally (and figuratively) avoid having the proverbial wheels come off by tuning into the rhythms of a ride. But sometimes a rhythm’s intervals can be very long (e.g., the body’s metabolism). Not to mention the fact that there can be so many different rhythms happening across body, bike and environment.
What is it about a long ride, especially a multi-day cycling trip, that allows you to find the rhythms? Well, the intervals between troughs and peaks, not to mention their heights and depths, may come into better view in the 8th hour of a 12-hour ride, or on the 3rd day of a 6-day cycling tour.
On a long ride or multi-day tour nothing lasts forever. You have the ability to listen to your body, your bicycle, and the environment in ways that allow you to find the rhythm, and in so doing, find the joy of the ride.
Was today a tough day? What can you do to feel better on tomorrow’s ride? Did you get behind on hydration? What can you do to get back on top of it for tomorrow? Is this climb a grind? How can you shift your mindset so the next climb flies by? When will this heatwave break? It’ll get cooler at night, right? Nothing lasts forever (if you persist).
“You have the ability to listen to your body, your bicycle, and the environment…and in so doing, find the joy of the ride”
Tone + Rhythm + Harmony
I’m no musician so bear with me as I play fast and loose with some concepts from music theory. 1,2,3…Rock School of Music tells me that “Harmony is when multiple notes or voices play simultaneously to produce a new sound. The combined sounds in harmonies complement one another and sound pleasing.”
“Rhythm,” according to 1,2,3…Rock School of Music “is a recurring movement of notes and rests (silences) in time. It’s the human perception of time.”
So tone, rhythm and harmony combine to make music. What must combine for a ride to go from a “grind” to something joyful like a beautiful musical composition? What are the three elements that produce the joy of the ride?
For a ride to have a “tone,” there must be a parallel to “the author’s attitude about a subject or topic.” Let’s call this “mindset.” Am I nervous? Is that knee pain I’ve been feeling going to act up? Will that creaking noise coming from my bottom bracket turn into something serious? Is the weather threatening? My orientation to these kinds of questions, or whether these kinds of questions even come up before a ride, will shape my mindset.
A ride’s rhythm–”a recurring movement of notes and rests (silences) in time”–results from the series of inputs that my mind and body receive as I exert myself to move through space and time. As the definition says, rhythm is about “the human perception of time.” And as any cyclist knows, the miles (and time) tend to fly by when we’ve found the rhythm of a ride.
But rhythm and tone alone are insufficient to experience the joy of the ride. A ride’s harmony results when the combination of sights, sounds and experiences complement one another in a pleasing way. For me, this is epitomized by the exhilarating silence of a smoothly operating bicycle pedaled at the same speed as a tailwind. In that moment my mind and body harmonize with the bicycle and the environment I am moving through.
Body, Bicycle and Environment
There are always rhythms going on with our bodies, the bicycle and in the environment around us. Harmony results from finding the rhythm in each of these, and our mindset can make us more open or closed to connecting with those rhythms. Hunger, thirst, chafing, fatigue, heat and cold. Each of these bodily sensations is an indication that something is out of sync. Tending to any one of these at a time can be challenging.
Now add in the bicycle: a dry chain, a rubbing brake, a tire slowly losing air. Each can disrupt the rhythm of the ride. Finally, there’s the environment: the hill that seems to go on forever, the wind, the long straight road with unchanging scenery, not to mention sunrises and sunsets (which are seldom features of single-day rides).
Combine dehydration, a rubbing brake and a headwind and you’ve got a discordant harmony. It’s as if you’re trying to find the beauty of a sonata that’s being performed on one of John Cage’s “prepared pianos” (avant garden composer John Cage was known for placing screws, nuts, and even coins between a piano’s strings to alter its sound).
It Can Take Time to Find the Rhythms
An example from my recent attempt at Paris-Brest-Paris–a 1200km ride with an 80-hour time limit–illustrates how the scale of a ride spanning multiple days has its advantages in terms of finding rhythms, creating harmonies, and experiencing the joy of the ride.
Due to train schedules and other factors, I arrived at the start on the grounds of Château de Rambouillet at noon, four hours ahead of my 4pm departure time. This meant I spent a good part of the day standing and sitting around trying to conserve energy. This also meant conserving the water I had on my bike since I was unsure about if I would be able to refill my bottles before the start.
It was hot and within the first two hours of riding I had consumed all my water. No worries, I thought. French villagers line the route offering up bottle refills, crepes, and even cots to sleep on! Maybe being in the first start group had certain advantages, but it also meant that people were inside enjoying their Sunday dinner and not yet out on the course filling bottles.
By the time I got my bottles filled it was too late. My mouth was dry and I had a bit of a headache. By now the sun was setting. Anticipating the temperature swing, plus the fact that for safety reasons I tend to ride slower at night, I was confident I could regain the rhythm of water consumption and evaporation (i.e., sweat) I would need to finish the ride.
Sure enough, I consumed more than normal through the night and by morning had regained the rhythm. But the harmonies came and went. Fatigue can put you in a low place. Sleep can help get you out of it. Darkness can bear down on you, but a sunrise can make you feel light again. Going to the bathroom, tending to sore spots, eating and drinking all lend themselves to rhythms if you can find them. And over a long enough ride, you have more time to learn where to find them.
Now try to manage all of these variables while maintaining a certain mindset. From excitement at the start to disbelief at the 400km mark (“Wow, I’m 1/3 of the way through! Ugh, I have to do what I just did two more times!), and from relief at the turnaround in Brest (“Now every pedal stroke takes me closer to the finish back in Rambouillet”) to demoralization at the 900km mark (“I just want to be done!”). It’s as if your mind has the gears of a bicycle but the gear ratios keep changing so you can’t find a rhythm.
Then there are those moments–which often feel spontaneous and inexplicable–when concordant rhythms create a harmony and you’re in a mindset where joy spills out of every pore. But it’s not just joy. Gratitude and humility begin welling up. And it can’t be contained because you’re in a special place where the “you” that’s usually contained (or constrained) by the physical boundaries of your own body is now moving boundlessly through space and time. That’s when you know you’ve found it…the joy of the ride.
There are, of course, many smaller joys we all experience regardless of the length of a ride. My point is that on longer rides–whether an ultra endurance event or a multi-day cycling trip–the scale of the experience changes. At the scale of days we are able to gain a valuable perspective on the many rhythms that shape the experience of a ride. It’s a perspective that gives us the strength to endure the low points of a ride knowing that nothing lasts forever. That we can find the rhythms. And that on the other side of any low point is a crest. A crest that we can ride until the harmony fades and we begin the cycle again.