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by James Huang
June 24, 2017
Photography by James Huang
I’ve long pondered what exactly it is I love so much about riding bikes, and since signing on with CyclingTips sixteen months ago, I’ve only thought about it even more. Our tagline, after all, is “The Beauty of Cycling” — but what exactly does that mean?
For such an uncomplicated activity, cycling is incredibly compelling. Riding bikes isn’t just a hobby or a run-of-the-mill pastime; it’s something we need to do — for our sanity, for our happiness, for peace of mind, for whatever it gives us that other things can’t provide. Given how passionate so many other cyclists are about riding, it’s clear that I’m not alone in my opinions on the topic.
It just has to be done. If you ride bikes, you get it; if not, it’s almost impossible to explain.
For sure, part of cycling’s appeal (at least for me) is the bikes themselves: once a gearhead, always a gearhead, and anyone who witnessed me immersing myself for hours on end with a giant pile of Lego bricks in my youth would hardly be surprised at how I’ve turned out. Bikes are glorious machines to be celebrated, and the fact that it takes so much these days to make meaningful improvements is testament to how far technology has advanced. I don’t want my bike to disappear beneath me as I pedal, either; my interaction with it is also part of the appeal, that unspoken symbiosis only adding to the experience.
I don’t always ride with a specific purpose in mind, but on this particular day, the goal was pie.
Yet if it were just the bikes themselves that I love most about cycling, I wouldn’t need to actually ride them to get the same result. I could just build a fantastic bike, hang it on my wall, and reap the same benefit. Needless to say, that’s not the case.
Cycling has also long been a much-needed means of escape from everyday life. My first road bike was a humble Schwinn Traveler that I can still see in my mind like it was yesterday. It was a cheaply made lugged steel contraption with a six-speed freewheel, down-tube shifters, and 27-inch wheels that, in hindsight, a local shop was more than happy to unload given how the transition to 700c wheels was already well in place. Finding high-quality tires was a chore (thank you, Michelin Hi Lite Supercomp HD!), I had to file the slots on my new short-reach Shimano 105 brake calipers to fit the medium-reach frame, and it was only in hindsight that I realized why I could never keep the spokes shiny: they were galvanized, not stainless.
I could tell you all about the fun descent we did that evening, but what I really remember is how the meadows looked in the late-day sun.
Yet that old dinosaur still brought as much joy to me then as modern superbikes do today; all I cared about was where it could take me. I didn’t have to ask for the keys and I didn’t need a license; all I had to do with put on my gear, fill up the bottles, and I was off to parts unknown. Growing up on the north shore of Long Island, the world was literally my oyster, and the peaceful shore of Oyster Bay was but a few precious miles away.
I can’t say whether my old routes through Muttontown, Brookville, Bayville, and Cold Spring Harbor are as idyllic in reality as I remember them being, but those are some of my fondest memories in the saddle nonetheless.
I didn’t ride my bike to be alone with my thoughts back then; I rode so I didn’t have to think about anything at all, and that’s still the case now.
If we’re always too busy to stop and smell the flowers once in a while, what’s the point?
Not surprisingly, riding bikes has also been the way I’ve met many of my closest friends. I still regularly keep in touch with teammates from college, some of my most valuable lessons have been learned from co-workers in bike shops, and I met my wife at a local cyclocross race shortly after moving to Colorado.
And while cycling was the common thread that brought all of us together, riding together isn’t a necessary component to maintaining those relationships. What it has certainly done, though, is introduce me to countless people I otherwise might never have met.
My wife and I recently witnessed firsthand one of the greatest joys of parenthood that two cyclists can enjoy: the exact moment our three-year-old daughter felt the magic of riding a bike for herself. I will remember the smile on her face until my dying day, and even our neighbor across the street — who just happened to be out in her driveway — couldn’t help but stand wide-eyed and elated at the occasion.
Since then, munchkin has expanded her range considerably, regularly making the one-mile trip to a local park solely on pedal power so she could play on favorite swings, hide inside the faux-log slide, and race down the zip line.
The most recent trip we took there was different, though. Whereas she would normally hop off of her bike upon arrival and ask me to take her helmet off so she could go play, she didn’t stop at all this time. Instead, she started doing laps around all the equipment, me following a few bike lengths behind her ear-to-ear grin. After an extended snack break at the picnic table, she hopped back on her bike and asked to head back home — and once we got there, all she wanted to do was ride in circles on the cul-de-sac in front of our house.
4mph and not a care in the world.
It was then that I realized what it is that I love most about riding bikes — and perhaps, what it is that we all love most about riding bikes. It isn’t the exercise, it isn’t the camaraderie, it isn’t the “me” time. It’s the basic experience of pedaling in circles and rolling across the landscape — no more, no less, and no matter the specific bike or ride. Riding bikes is the closest any of us can come to human-powered flight, and the fact that we just happen to still be connected to the ground doesn’t diminish from the sensation.
If that isn’t beautiful, then I don’t know what is.