One night in college, I was up late with bleary eyes cramming for an exam when my roommate took mercy on my condition and slipped me a bit of invaluable assistance. No, it wasn’t an Adderal. It was the Russian proverb he’d grown up with:
“The morning is wiser than the evening.”
This resonated with me immediately. Not only did it sound more sagacious and Yoda-like than the trite American “Sleep on it,” but it was also much more appealing than the old “Early to bed, early to rise” saw, as it didn’t cite going to bed early as a precondition. So I closed the books and turned in for the night, and while no doubt I did just as poorly on the exam as I would have otherwise, I at least awoke feeling much better about both it and life in general.
While “morning person” might conjure up the image of someone you want to punch in the nose, there’s no denying the importance of being conscious when the day begins. If you can acquire the ability to function at that time so much the better. Better still is to actually go out into the world in the morning and accomplish something, and of course for the cyclist, there is no greater accomplishment than the successful completion of a ride. While my Russian roommate taught me the importance of not toiling away late at night with a barely functioning brain like a schmuck, it was the road racing I started after college that taught me morning is the very best time for cycling: physically, spiritually, and practically.
By necessity, bike races in New York City start early. Really early. This is because they happen in the parks, and it’s crucial that the speeding Lycra-clad swarms be finished before the runners, dog walkers, and other normal early risers arrive to begin their recreational shift. The advantage of this is that you’ve got like 50 fast miles in your legs before most people have started brewing their coffee. The disadvantage is that in order to do it you’ve got to peel your face off the pillow while it’s still what most reasonable people would consider yesterday.
Waking up ultra-early to ride isn’t easy at first. The idea of getting on your bike isn’t immediately appealing in the small hours, nor for that matter are most foods. Then there’s the elimination phase of the digestion process, which if you’ve been on a typical schedule up until now doesn’t kick in until you’re pinned up and on the start line. Basically it’s like catching an early morning flight, right down to the panic you experience when you need to use the bathroom just as you’re preparing for takeoff.
Once you acclimate however, your body and mind both adjust and you realize it’s kind of an exciting time to be awake. In Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, Max von Sydow describes the pre-dawn hours thusly:
The hour of the wolf is the hour between night and dawn. It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is the deepest, when nightmares feel most real. It is the hour when the demons are most powerful. The hour of the wolf is also the hour when most children are born.
Sure. Also everyone else in the house is asleep and you get to watch whatever you want on TV while you wait for your coffee to kick in. Then when you hit the streets it’s just you and the last of the late-night revelers stumbling home, and you get to feel superior to them because even though you’ll all probably wind up puking in a few hours at least your nausea will be exercise-induced and therefore “healthy.”
Then there are the practical reasons for riding early. The roads are empty and you’re free from impatient drivers. The sun is not anywhere near its maximum melanoma-inducing strength. On weekdays you get that ride in before work; on weekends you get the workout compulsion out of your system which means you can spend the rest of the day doing normal things with friends, family and loved ones who may have priorities other than cycling. Or, if you’ve managed to effectively ride all those people out of your life due to your obsession with bikes, you can always take a nap and then go out for another bike ride.
At the same time of course, there are downsides to riding early. For example, what few drivers you do encounter are likely intoxicated. You also run the danger of becoming unbearably smug, since after awhile you start to view cycling vigorously in the afternoon the way Italians do ordering a cappuccino after dinner. (Putting in hard efforts on the bike after solar noon is in bad taste; afternoons are best spent riding casually in regular clothes, ideally in pursuit of food and adult beverages.) Then there’s the very real risk of running up a serious sleep deficit, which can result in crankiness and falling alseep in inappropriate places such as offices and weddings, thereby undermining the normal life you’re trying to cultivate by riding early.
Those caveats aside, waking up early and heading out on the bike is almost always better than trying to cram in that lunch ride or knock out a few miles before sunset. Working the bike into a chaotic day can be stressful, whereas a morning ride can impose a sense of order and calm upon the rest of your day. (Of course, so too can riding to and from work, but that’s another subject.) You’ll sleep better too. And at its best an early morning ride can have a sort of mystical quality to it, like the earth is a giant set of rollers and your pedal strokes are raising the sun.
Plus, it’s a great way to get caught up on your TV watching, and isn’t that what’s really important?
Illustration by Taj Mihelich