In Trying Times, Rediscover the Joy of Riding Alone
Flatten the curve, skip the group ride, and head for the hills solo—it'll do wonders for your body and mind
I’ve been working from home for years—something you might have wished you could do, too, before you started sheltering in place and found yourself pining for your cubicle—and like most people who do so, I’ve gotten quite accustomed to doing lots of things alone. One of those things is riding my bike.
I don’t mind riding by myself at all. In fact, I cherish the solitude. And while I always enjoy good cycling company when I have it, there’s nothing that tills the soil of your brain like some quiet saddle time. Now it seems the rest of the cycling world is catching up to me, whether they like it or not. (Not hard, given how slow I am.)
Nevertheless, riding alone doesn’t come naturally to everybody, especially those among the roadie set, for whom training without a paceline is like practicing free throws without a hoop. Then there are all the cycling clubs and teams across the country who count on their weekend group rides to keep them grounded—a state of mind that has become even more elusive given the situation in which we all find ourselves. So now that packs and pacelines have (temporarily) gone the way of rim brakes and 23-millimeter tires, here’s a quick guide to riding alone for the socially dependent cyclist.
Loosen Your Grip on Time
One of the first things you learn as a new cyclist is to loosen your grip on the handlebars; if you white-knuckle it and stiffen up, you’re more likely to crash. Similarly, the solo-ride novice tends to fixate on matters of time, and doing so only sets you up to crash mentally as you attempt to cling to a structure that isn’t there. Certainly, there’s great comfort in rides with fixed start and end times, but that’s of little use when you’re your own riding partner, in the same way that pants have become superfluous now that you’re working from home. A solo ride should unfold organically and should be as long or as short as your legs and mind dictate. Instead of gulping your coffee with one eye on the clock so you can hit the bathroom in time for the rollout, savor your morning brew and enjoy your pre-ride bowel movement in a state of peace and contemplation.
Dig Deep… into Your Own Psyche
Speaking of contemplation, silence is perhaps the most difficult adjustment for the group rider. The social component of cycling is a large part of its appeal, and there’s great pleasure in drifting through the pack, catching up with friends, sharing gossip, and comparing components. But you can learn a lot more from a ride than who got which shoes or what tire pressure everyone’s running. Pedaling quiets the monkey mind, and once freed from idle chatter, you’ll soon find yourself pleasantly adrift in the infinity of your own head space—which you need now more than ever. Life can seem overwhelming when you’re in the thick of it, but as you pedal away from work and home (which are the same place now), you’ll find you’re much more able to process it all, in the same way a player piano can turn all those random-seeming perforations into song.
While a couple hours of solitary riding can help untie the knots in your brain, you can’t meditate your way out of a broken chain or a flat tire. The group rider may take advantage of herd immunity by setting out with little more than a spare tube and a single CO2 cartridge, confident that, should they need something else, someone will have them covered. However, the solo rider needs to be ready for anything. No, you don’t need to bring a welding torch, but you should have the full complement of emergency tools—and that includes an actual pump. (Roadies in particular tend to prioritize aesthetics over preparedness, and many would sooner carry a dead fish than a pump.) Also, take inventory of your bike, and know your equipment. Twenty miles into your ride is not the time to discover you’ve got Torx fittings on your bike but none on your multitool. And if the last time you tried to remove your tires you nearly broke your thumbs, gave up, and brought them to the shop, maybe go with a different wheelset.
Relax, you’re not being sentenced to solitary confinement here. If anything, you’re finally free! Free from the tyranny of which bike to ride, free to stop and relieve yourself when and where you want, free to either push the pace or slack off like you’re in between Zoom meetings. Now’s the time to explore those roads you never travel or those trails you never explore or to drop the training program for a while and experience the joy of tooling around in sneakers and cutoffs.
Sure, if you’re the sort of rider for whom cycling alone doesn’t come naturally, it may feel strange at first, like eating alone in a restaurant. (Remember eating in restaurants?) But don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it. You may even come to love it, as I do. Nobody cares if your socks don’t match or you’re cross-chaining on the climb. Plus, riding alone is a skill, and it’s just as important as knowing how to handle yourself in a pack.
Oh sure, there’s always Zwift, but sooner or later, you’ll have to free up some internet bandwidth so your kids can do their distance learning. And cabin fever is real, so getting a little space from everybody is always a good thing.