Mercilessly disassembling cycling culture

Bike Snob

The Virtue of Short Rides

Why you can cut your mileage in half and still come out ahead

Why you can cut your mileage in half and still come out ahead

What’s the worst thing about cycling?

Is it the high cost of fancy carbon fiber equipment? “Sharing” the road with idiot drivers? Forgetting to wash the embrocation off your hands before you go to the bathroom?

Nope. The worst thing about cycling is that it takes too damn long.

See, you can indulge yourself in some of life’s most sublime pleasures rather quickly. Not only is watching the sunrise transcendent, but it also takes only, like, 20 minutes. Diving into a pristine body of water can make you feel reborn almost instantly. And a Knipschildt Chocolatier’s Madeline stimulates your taste buds and milks your brain’s pleasure center in one fell swoop, a rarefied culinary experience as delightful as it is fleeting. (Actually, at $250 a pop, I’ve never had a Knipschildt Chocolatier’s Madeline truffle, so I’m describing eating a Kit Kat, which I assume is essentially the same thing.)

Then there are your equally sublime yet considerably more time-consuming pursuits, such as cycling. You can do all three of the above more or less inside of an hour, but in that same amount of time, it can seem like you’re only just getting warmed up on the bike. In this sense, going for a big ride is pretty much the same as dropping LSD: at its best it’s a relevatory experience, but it’s an all-day affair, and for 24 hours afterwards you’re completely and utterly useless to everybody in your life.

Of course none of this is a problem when you’re young and nobody’s depending on you, and if this applies to you then by all means make the most of it. Go ahead, annihilate yourself! You may not realize it now, but being able to disappear for days on end without anybody noticing but the cat is the very definition of luxury.

At the same time, if you’re not careful, that one cat could become 20 before you know it, which is why, sooner or later, you’ll need to get an actual life.

This is where things gets complicated, because cyclists need to ride the same way sporting dogs need to hunt, and when we’re denied this behavior for too long we become restless and irritable. Yet there’s no getting around the fact that having a life requires freeing up lots of extra time in your schedule for at least some of the following:

  • Cutivating relationships with other humans (and when I say “humans” I mean people who have interests other than riding bikes and who can carry on intelligent, in-depth conversations on subjects beyond tire pressure and the relative merits of various frame materials);
  • Pursuing a career (a “career” is a job you still think about when you go home);
  • Rearing human children (it can take years before your children can keep up with you on the bike, and by then they may decide they hates bikes just to spite you).

The thing is, the desire to ride never leaves you, which is why some cyclists with lives sublimate it into strange behavior such as setting up a home trainer. This may seem like a decent compromise, and thanks to virtual reality platforms such as Zwift you may even be able to delude yourself into thinking you’re actually cycling. Ultimately, however, riding inside is neurotic and self-destructive, and you become the equivalent of the pointer who chews up the furniture and pees on the rug because that weekly visit to the dog run just ain’t cutting it.

No, to truly find a balance between cycling and life there’s only one solution, which is to embrace the beauty of the Short Ride.

At first, wrapping your head around the notion of short rides can be difficult, since the entire cycling industry is designed to sell us on the notion of the so-called “epic.” Everything’s “enduro” this and “adventure” that, the Grand Tours are three weeks long, and every year a bunch of lunatics tie their heads to sticks and ride across the country in the freakshow that is RAAM.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said. The naive cyclist could be forgiven for also thinking that the short route is simply not worth riding.

However, this attitude is at best wrong-headed and at worst liable to completely undermine your relationship with cycling. Sure, the prospect of a life full of epics is seductive, but for most of us it’s simply unsustainable, and if you make the mistake of approaching cycling as an all-or-nothing proposition, then there’s always the danger that “nothing” will win.

Here are some warning signs that you’re losing the ability to enjoy cycling in small doses:

  • You never ride with fewer than two water bottles and three jersey pockets full of energy gel*;
  • You never ride without first getting fully “kitted out” in Lycra;
  • You’ve ever uttered the words, “I’ve only got an hour and a half, I’ll just go to the gym instead of riding.”

(*Arguably, ingesting energy gel under any circumstances is itself a warning sign.)

Plus, unless your rarefied lifestyle enables you to sustain a consistently and extraordinarily high level of fitness, the truth is that long rides are wildly overrated. Sure, when you’ve got everything dialed in, an eight-hour epic with 10,000 feet of climbing can be like an exquisite chef’s tasting menu. But when you don’t, it's more like a hot dog-eating contest: it’s great at first, but pretty soon you’re just forcing the miles down, and by the end you feel like you’re gonna puke.

On the other hand, a steady diet of short rides is a lot more healthy, and potentially a lot more enjoyable. Not only will you have the energy to enjoy every single pedal stroke of the ride, but you actually come home looking forward to the next one. And you don’t have to spend Monday with a crushing ride hangover.

Oh sure, you could always write off Monday as a “recovery day,” but what’s more irrational than having to recover from something you love?

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