I arrived at my in-laws’ with bloodshot eyes.
That morning’s solo ride hadn’t gone well. Enough sweat had dumped down my face to blind, and I had to ditch my sunglasses just to see the road in front of me. The extra air helped, but the wind burned, and the dust bit. Add some heat and hills, and my spirit was pretty much chicken fried.
So that afternoon, I hobbled onto my in-laws’ backyard patio for a Labor Day weekend visit, plopped in the shade and hid behind a borrowed pair of Beth’s sunglasses. I faked good cheer with all the skill of an elderly hermit crab.
My phone chirped, and I blew my own cover by hopping over to reading glasses. Even beyond six feet of social distance, my sister-in-law couldn’t help but see my eyeballs’ burning shade of Pepto.
“What happened to you?!”
“Just a bike ride,” I grumbled.
Her husband tossed the predictable follow-up question: “How far’d you go?” And every gravel cyclist knows by rote the back-and-forth we have with the people in our lives who don’t ride bikes.
The wide eyes when you admit how far. (You try to downplay it, but the “only” in “Only 78 miles” only makes it worse.)
They mean perfectly well with their “I-don’t-drive-a-car-that-far” reaction. They’re complimenting you. They’re impressed. But underneath it, you can hear another natural conclusion clicking into place as neatly as a cleat into a pedal: “You’re out of your damn mind.”
For my brother-in-law, those two neat conclusions (“That’s impressive,” and “You’re bat-shit nuts”) were satisfactory. But my sister-in-law needed a little more information.
“I’ve been wondering this,” she said. “What do you call yourself? Like, what are you, exactly?” (Can I just say that those are excellent questions?)
I don’t think I gave her excellent answers.
“I guess I’d just say I’m a gravel cyclist.”
“OK,” she said, relieved to at least have a name for the mental box in which I belonged. “Would you say you’re an amateur? What’s the word? An elite amateur? Are there professional gravel cyclists?”
“There are a few pros,” I said. “And I’m definitely not that. I’m definitely an amateur, yes.”
“OK,” she said again, but with less relief.
She’d have called herself an amateur, too, she said. And if that term, “amateur,” stretched from her (someone who sits on a bicycle seat about as often as a dentist’s chair) clear to me (someone who rides 80 miles in the morning then hurls her 12-year-old daughter around in her grandparents’ pool in the afternoon), did the word really mean anything?
Put another way: If you’re good at this, then what’s the status that goes with it? And if you’re not good at this, then, dear God, why ride until your eyes burn pink?
(Cue my existential dread…)
Her confusion couldn’t be more justified. Like most of us, I’m nowhere near talented enough to explain the lengths we go to. I’ll race the rescheduled Solstice 100 this Saturday, an event that’s grown so beautifully in a few short years that I have exactly no hope of winning. So why train as though I do?
I don’t know. I really don’t. Maybe I shouldn’t.
But I always come back to the same few things. I keep doing this because I’ve come to love the community it draws me inside. I’ve come to love my training partners, my teammates, my extended gravel family of riders and mechanics and race directors. I love our routines. I love our events. Not to get too material, but I love our bikes, too.
I love our strength. And I love the good we do with our strength. (I promise not to get weepy, but look at the good the Pirate Cycling League brought about by salvaging Gravel Worlds into a virtual charity event this year.)
You and I may never be strong enough to win this or that bike race. But I believe the strength we build on our bikes is just about the most transferable thing we have. What good part of our lives isn’t made better still by stronger health, deeper perseverance and the perspective, gratitude and empathy that come from our familiarity with suffering?
Training has improved how I look in the mirror. Not the vanity mirror at the gym, but that steamy bathroom mirror we all must look into on the morning of our 44th birthday, our 16,060th consecutive day of waking up with ourselves. Are you on the right course with your spouse? With your kids? Your job?
Do you have what it takes to shift gears when you need to?
Wipe the glass again and really look at yourself. Look until your eyes turn red. If you’re not actively building it, where do you think the physical, mental and spiritual strength you need is going to come from?