Purpose and peace: My perfect year of cycling

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Five years can seem like a lifetime. I say this because that’s how long ago I had the idea to report, write, and publish a feature story and yearlong blog called “The year I did everything right.”

Five years ago, I was the top editor at the world’s largest cycling magazine, and frankly that seems like a different existence than the one I’m leading now.

The premise of that project could be distilled into one sentence: As a middling but passionate cycling enthusiast, I would seek out and follow the advice of top specialists in a variety of fields to see what kind of rider I could become. I would get a detailed bike fit from Andy Pruitt one week and nutrition advice from Allen Lim the next. I’d get expert input on sleep, time management, structured training, recovery, core strength, sports psychology, flexibility, tactics — basically the kitchen sink.

I never pulled the trigger on the story. I was pretty busy with other projects, and I was embattled enough in my job to have concerns that executives would look at the endeavor as a self-indulgent waste of my time. I also think I had subconscious concerns — that I wouldn’t have the commitment to follow everyone’s advice, or worse that I would follow everyone’s advice and remain a middling enthusiast.

Five years ago, my cycling lifestyle was one that many spandex-clad riders can relate to. I did a ton of semi-competitive group rides with friends and coworkers and other enthusiasts. I rode a lot and trained hard enough to race and do big all-day rides. I really enjoyed this phase of my riding life and got pretty fit for a desk jockey. But I got deep enough into the sport to see I was eternal pack fodder. At my best, I was what I’d call a very fast slow rider.

I think there was some piece of me that understood that after a year of structured, expert-driven advice, the best-case scenario would be to become a slow fast rider.

Let me be clear: Five years ago, becoming a slow fast rider seemed like a big deal. I was in a cycling tribe completely composed of pack animals. Whether I was doing hard lunch rides or the local weekly world championship or racing against other middling masters, I was always aware of where I stood. Being a little higher in the food chain seemed to have genuine rewards. Given how much time and passion I was pouring into cycling, it didn’t seem strange to want a little more to show for it.

I’m sure this perspective was amplified by being the top editor at a big cycling magazine. Whether I was at an industry event or out with roadies in my community, I felt pressure to represent, to inhabit a role. I had this feeling that my authority as a leader in the cycling community could be burnished or diminished by how I managed myself on the bike.

This sounds pretty absurd to say now, to think that my insight might have any relationship to my fitness, but I still believe that it was true. When I showed up for local races or lunch rides at the biggest bike companies or large fondos in Europe, people were gauging me, prodding me, either validating my authenticity if I had a good day or doubting me if I didn’t.

I’d like to think now that deep down I understood the absurdity of trying to be this perfect pupil for a year. That seeking out and following so much advice for 12 months might have helped me cat up but it would not have lead me to a more fulfilling cycling life.

That’s why I’m so excited to proclaim 2017 as the “Year I did everything perfectly.”

Spoiler alert: I have not become a slow fast guy. In fact, I’m slower and a little pudgier than I was five years ago. But I’ve inhabited this riding life that feels authentic and complete and meaningful. You know, perfect.

I live in Los Angeles and I rarely use a car. I ride a little over 30 miles a day going back and forth to work. I’ve been doing this for a few years now, but 2017 was the year that I truly let go of any pretense about it. It’s what I do and who I am and I give zero fucks. I wear old $200 bibs and skateboarding sneakers on most days. I noodle to work at 14 mph if I feel like it or draft off group rides or e-bikes if the opportunity arises. When it rains I get wet, and there’s no drama if I have to wear a damp base layer on the way home. It’s an actual lifestyle.

I go almost everywhere on my bike. I still drive a carpool of 12-year olds to middle school on some mornings before work, and since I don’t (yet) have an electric cargo bike, I still run errands to Home Depot with our SUV. But I basically rely on my bike as my primary transportation and I wind up spending 15 to 20 hours a week riding around. I think I would hate Los Angeles if I had to drive everywhere.

Because I spend so much time on my bike and depend on it in deeper ways than ever before, I’ve finally discovered the pleasure in maintaining it. This is an unexpected surprise for someone who has spent decades letting other people do that work, too lazy or distracted or intimidated to learn basic skills and to care for an object that gives me so much pleasure. But this year, I figured out how to carve out an hour on Saturday to carefully wash and degrease and lube my bike, inspect and adjust components. I’ve come to find it surprisingly relaxing, and have discovered a different sense of accomplishment than I ever got by pedaling.

As I’ve spent more time wrenching, I’ve spent less time caring about technology. To be honest, I have been migrating away from bike tech for years now, and this year I finally cut the cord.

There’s no Garmin or power meter on my bike; no heart rate monitor in my house; no tracking software on my devices; nothing that beeps or flashes. I never listen to music or podcasts when I’m pedaling; there’s nothing wrong with that, but my time on the bike is a chance to be present in a chaotic landscape, to let my mind wander, to absorb the sights and sounds of the city. The last step of my digital cleanse was to pull Strava off my phone. For years, I used the app as a tool to document my riding life, but I’ve come to see it as a remnant of a former self who looked at rides as shareable data. I ride many thousands of miles with no goals but the act itself — the numbers don’t matter anymore, and there’s freedom in that.

Pursuing some kinds of freedom are a pain in the ass. To that end, I’ve fully committed to cycling advocacy this year. I’m neck-deep in the fight to give cyclists and pedestrians safer access to the streets of Los Angeles and cities like it. For me, the election and inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. President was a painful wake-up call to resist forces that are not looking out for the vulnerable.

This has impacted many facets of my life — I’ve been to protests against the Muslim ban and worked to tell stories supporting #metoo in my professional life and tried to use my personal platform to expose fake news and speak out about social justice — but my focus has been to battle the forces that shrug at thousands of people killed every year riding bikes and trying to cross the street.

In my past life — the one five years ago — I tried to champion all that is good in cycling. This also is an important cause, to celebrate the beauty of cycling and get beginners deeper into the culture and stimulate the passions of hard-core enthusiasts. Yeah cycling! But when I left that life, I struggled for a few years to figure out what my role in the world of cycling might be.

Now I’ve finally figured it out. Living in Los Angeles, riding the streets of city in which more than 500 cyclists have been killed in the past decade by people driving cars, I don’t feel like cheerleading is the right role for me. There is a war going on over who has preeminence on our roads and over urban planning, and I feel deep satisfaction being in the fray. There are more setbacks than triumphs, but it gives me a sense of meaning to be engaged in the battle. I care enough about cycling to fight for it.

If I were to try and distill my cycling life down to its core, I’d say my life revolves around the bike. It’s how I get around and how I relate to my community and how I find meaning and joy. I still want to be fit but it’s not the priority it once was.

I have been riding for decades now, and I still find it fascinating how my cycling life can adapt as I get older and evolve. The bicycle has helped me find adventure and thrills and escape and fitness and confidence and community, and now it is helping me find purpose and peace and this languorous bliss. It’s like a marriage in which you and your partner find yourselves changing in unexpected ways, and instead of friction there’s just discovery and deepening love.

I have so many rides now that are beautiful in ways that are hard to describe. On my daily commutes, I have seen seal rescues and SWAT raids (as well as one hairy flasher and two artful nude photo shoots). I have inhaled the smells of wet pavement and taco trucks and wildfires. I have jousted with buses and wheel-sucked with pros and ridden 10,000 miles close enough to the water’s edge to hear pounding waves. I have seen and joined a part of cycling culture that was foreign to me only years ago.

With no offense intended to my friends and family, there are moments when I feel most whole with my hands on the hoods and my feet spinning circles, weaving down a busy city street and completely engaged with my immediate surroundings and my body and my place in the world.

In short, it’s been a perfect year. And if I can do the same next year and lose 10 pounds in the process, that’ll be even more perfect.

About the author

Peter Flax, former editor in chief at Bicycling magazine and features editor at The Hollywood Reporter, currently works as editor in chief at The Red Bulletin. He is the proud owner of a Strava KOM on the Jersey Shore, and he only wears leg warmers when he feels like it.

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