The pain in my lower back was excruciating. With each pedal stroke up Ebbetts Pass, muscles tightened more and more until I was forced to get off the bike. I wasn’t just forced to get off the bike, actually. Unable to stand upright after dismounting, all I could think to do was sit down on the granite slab off the shoulder of the road. I was half way up the fourth of five passes during the Tour of the California Alps (better known as “The Death Ride”), and wasn’t sure if or when I’d be able to continue.
As hard as it was, the granite had an inviting curve to it. Maybe if I laid down on it the curve in the granite would stretch the muscles in my back. As far as I recall, that day in 2009 was the first time I ever laid down mid-ride.
When you think about it, cyclists might sit down in the middle of a ride for a break and to eat, we might lay our bikes (but not ourselves) down when there’s nothing to lean them against, and we might even lay down to sleep “mid-ride” when the ride is a multi-day tour. But how often do you stop and lay down in the middle of your typical 3-hour weekend ride?
My desperate attempt to find relief from back pain by laying down during the 2009 Death Ride was a distant memory when I was recently compelled to lay down in the middle of a ride in Death Valley. It wasn’t just any ride, I had ridden 25 miles across miserably rocky jeep roads to get to Racetrack Playa, an other worldly natural feature tucked into a remote corner of the National Park. The playa itself was so flat, and the verticality of the geological features surrounding me so out of scale, that somehow laying down just felt right.
My January 2020 Racetrack Playa lay down was (just barely) in pre-pandemic times. The pandemic, it turns out, has been like a giant global “lay down”–a forced pause. For the first six weeks of the pandemic I followed a pretty strict self-isolation protocol. Not a single ride. Well, three rides on the trainer in the garage was all it took to remind me that I can’t stand riding on a trainer.
Trying to respect the “Great Pause,” I’ve now taken to finding, when possible, opportunities for mid-ride pauses. When these pauses happen in the right place–near a bench or a dock, for example–they usually call for a lay down.
Without the mid-ride lay down, it’s too easy to rush through a ride focusing more on miles, average speed, or the upload to Strava at the end of the ride than on what the ride itself offers. And what does a pandemic ride, or any ride, have the potential to offer? Maybe a sense of scale.
What have I learned from my mid-ride lay downs? Time moves neither fast nor slow. Interrupting a ride reminds us of this. In the stillness of the mid-ride lay down, it is possible to gain a sense of the portal we now inhabit. A portal created by the rupture of the global pandemic, as Arundhati Roy might say.
I like to think that my mid-ride lay down reminds me to walk (or ride) through the portal lightly and opens up the space to imagine another world–the world I want to be riding towards, and the world I’m willing to fight for, as I get back on my bike.