A litany of love: An ode to all that’s beautiful in cycling
My whole day turned around on a short ride to the coffee shop.
I had just spent an hour reading news stories about cyclists. This is something I do nearly every day, and the truth is that on most days there is way more bad news than good news being published and then catalogued by Google.
On this particular morning, I read about an infuriating plea deal in Half Moon Bay, California. A driver named Angel Gabriel Gongora-Mis had hit and killed a cyclist — his name was Edward Wade — and left Wade to die on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway. Local police were able to track down Gongora-Mis at his home a mile away simply by following a trail of debris from the crash scene.
Anyway, that all happened almost a year and half ago, and the recent news was Gongora-Mis had been offered and agreed to a plea deal that would give him no more than one year in a county jail; the arrangement specified that he would serve no time in a state prison. In court Gongora-Mis claimed he had no idea he had hit a cyclist in broad daylight — he thought he hit a guardrail, he said — and yet instead of stopping to inspect his heavily damaged car, he sped home. The judge appeared to accept this dubious explanation.
I can get pretty worked up about these sorts of things. Cyclists face a degree of danger and injustice and disregard that people who merely are trying to get around town or recreate should not have to face. I used to work 24/7 as a cheerleader for the joys of cycling, but now I feel like my voice is more useful in the battle for safer streets.
Fighting the good fight can be tiring and stressful. Luckily for me, I get to ride my bicycle nearly every day, and nothing helps me recalibrate my attitude more than a spin along the ocean. It literally works every time.
On this particular morning, I decided to ride into town for some fresh air and French roast, and along the way I came upon a woman riding a sweet box bike (made by Bunch) with a set of toddler twins up front. We were going down a gentle hill in my neighborhood and the kids were leaning on the front of the cargo box, shouting with excitement. The mom, who was wearing flip-flops, had a big smile and her feet hovering off the pedals as that big bike coasted downhill. As I rolled past them, one of the kids waved at me. I waved back.
I got my coffee in town and then descended a couple of blocks down to the beach path. I leaned my bike against a park bench as I sipped my coffee. It was the kind of perfect morning that LA dishes out with staggering repetition, and all sorts of cyclists rolled past me: surfers on beach cruisers with their boards tucked away in their right arms, triathletes tucked in their aero bars, tourists on brightly colored rental bikes. I saw an elderly couple meander by in identical kit.
I could feel myself getting restored. I paused, watching this parade of awesomeness pedal by me, and started thinking about all the things I love about cycling.
Loving cycling is nothing new for me, but lately I’ve had my head tightly wrapped around issues. I suppose I’ve been deeply impacted by the 2016 US presidential election — I made a personal commitment to resist in a manner that felt authentic to me, and I’ve stuck with it — but as I sat there by the beach, I was reminded that there is as much to embrace as there is to resist.
My mental list got so long that I decided to go home and write it all down. What follows is based on those notes— a litany of love for cycling.
I love the break that barely survives. If you watch road racing a lot, you know that breakaways form every single time and then fail nearly every single time. In most Grand Tour stages, the ambitions of sprinters or the rivalries of GC leaders or the bald realities of wind resistance will eventually suffocate the dreams of the break. In important one-day races, the odds are even longer, as talent and calculated patience almost always trump long-range audacity.
That’s why my heart soars when watching races like Stage 18 of the recent Vuelta a España. Jelle Wallays and two companions attacked at kilometer zero of a relatively flat 186km stage. With 20km to go, the trio’s lead was down to 1:40. A sprint finale seemed preordained, but Wallays and Sven Erik Bystrom had left something in the tank.
They took advantage of a tailwind and still had a 20-second lead with 2km to go. It was up in the air until the very end. Peter Sagan launched with 400 meters to go but came up just short. Wallays got to throw his hands in the air and let out a primal scream. It was as if he had defied the laws of nature.
I love the idea that anyone who is riding a bike is doing it right. I used to strongly identify as a roadie, but over the years I’ve come to feel affection for everyone who rides a bike. I love the older guys on recumbents who fly little American flags off the back of their rigs. I love people who ride hybrids and unicycles and 29ers and bakfiets; folks who pedal tall bikes and tri bikes and fat bikes and e-bikes. I love riders who wear helmet mirrors and sleeveless jerseys and ankle socks and gym shorts and Team Sky jerseys. In the end, there is much more that binds us all together than separates us into tribes.
I love the inspiring stories of kickass disabled athletes. During the US military campaign against the Taliban, Shawn Morelli, who was working as an Army engineer officer in Afghanistan, was badly injured in 2007 by an improvised explosive device. She suffered neck and brain trauma, blindness in one eye, and nerve damage — more than most of us will ever suffer.
When Morelli came home she got into cycling and took her first stab at competition at the 2010 Warrior Games. To say that bike racing worked out for the wounded veteran is an understatement.
At the Rio Paralympic Games, she won two gold medals, one on the road and one on the track. Also in 2016, she broke the C4 pursuit world record. This year, she again won gold in the pursuit at the World Championships, her 11th medal at Paralympic Worlds. Think about that the next time you feel like complaining about your limitations as an athlete.
I love the artisans, the builders and painters and designers who inject personality and individuality into cycling. Frankly I’m still processing the death of Dario Pegoretti; still mourning the passing of one of the most interesting artists in any genre that I ever met. I’m also sad that the bike he measured me for, which was going to be painted with some reference to John Coltrane’s “Like Someone in Love,” will never be built, but I’ll get over that. There is no other elite sport I can think of that would embrace a character and creator like Dario. His life work demonstrates that a bicycle is at once a machine of speed and purpose but also a work of art.
I love the explosion of bike share around the world. I cannot contemplate the success of CitiBike in New York City without an ear-to-ear grin. Think about it: In a little over five years, after vocal objections, CitiBike users have ridden more than 110 million miles, transforming a city and normalizing the idea of adult Americans in regular clothes riding around town. Those blue bikes are beautiful.
I am loving the ascendance of women in cycling. There is still a long way to go, of course — equity is still floating off in the distance— but there is a lot of progress to cheer. There are more televised races to watch, more depth at the upper reaches of the sport, more development at the lower reaches of the sport, more fans who appreciate and support the racing. I love watching a company like Trek throw its full weight to promote women’s racing.
As an American fan, the rise of great storylines is dizzying. There is Kate Courtney rolling in alone to a win at the recent World Championships and Coryn Rivera winning De Ronde last year. There is Chloe Dygert-Owen obliterating the world record in individual pursuit at Worlds, and then beating that time later the same day. And there is Denise Mueller-Korenek, who recently pedaled 183.9 miles per hour behind a race car (piloted by a woman, too), to become the fastest motor-paced cyclist, male or female, ever.
I love the advocates. These are the men and women who do the hard and largely thankless work of fighting for cyclists. The important battles for equity, safer infrastructure, and improved justice aren’t won on Twitter; they are won and lost at city-council meetings and in the hallways of state legislatures. The advocates are the ones working to make sure my kids have a safe way to ride to school and your kids have a better world to ride in when they grow up. Their work quite literally saves lives.
I love going to community-level cyclocross races. I love watching cyclists from numerous tribes and of wildly different abilities challenge themselves and in an environment that is not quite earnest. At some point in every race, I become less interested in what the leaders are doing and instead watch the dozens of personal sagas that are unfolding on grass and dirt and sand. I love how for most people, racing has very little to do with winning and very much to do with learning something about what you’re made of.
I love watching kids ride bikes. There’s a boy in my neighborhood who I’ve never spoken with, he’s maybe 12 or 13, who has a Diamondback race bike with 24-inch wheels. Sometimes I see him doing hill repeats for no apparent reason other than he likes it. I love watching little kids on bikes splash through puddles and conduct coasting races and do huge coaster-brake skids. I know that part of what makes bikes magical for kids remains part of what makes bikes magical to adults.
I love that you can buy a bike that has a family name on the down tube. I love that you can go to Cambiago and see Ernesto Colnago, who forged papers when he was 13 to get his first job as a welder’s assistant and now, 73 years later, is still obsessed about bikes. Likewise, there was something breathtaking about going to the Pinarello store in Treviso and seeing Giovanni, already in his 90s, bantering with and hugging customers. (Rest in peace, Giovanni.) You can buy a Sachs, a Cinelli, a De Rosa, a Fat Chance, a Calfee, or a Gary Fisher — and spend your days riding on a bike that carries on a personal or family narrative. I love that these stories matter.
I love how BMX has connected cycling with a genuine rebel culture. I love its Southern California roots, the history of the Sting Ray, and the genius of Bob Haro. I love how the sport and scene has blossomed, with street riders and vert riders, freestylers and straight-up racers. I smile every time I see a pump track or a bunch of urban punks launching tricks in a parking lot.
I love all the elegant but uncomplicated city bikes that now cruise our urban streets. I love the vintage steel bikes (especially the yellow Schwinn Varsities) and the Frankenstein fixies and the beer-toting porteurs. Our streets are full of beautiful bikes.
I love cheering for the bike racers who never figure in the standings. I watch the riders in the leadout train, the riders who ride up from the cars with 11 bottles crammed in their jersey, the noble losers who get over the Poggio with no card to play. I love that only the devoted understand how deeply bike racing is a team sport. I never tire of watching teammates and soigneurs swarm the winner of an important race and the mutual love and respect you see in such moments.
I love the fans of bike racing. I see the old French couple sitting at a bridge table at the end of their driveway enjoying rose and cheese as they wait for the Tour to fly by. I appreciate the thicket of languages and camper vans jumbled together on the Galibier and the Stelvio. I identify with the club riders in kit who run next to their favorite pros up high on the Angliru. No other sport plays out over such a broad landscape, where fans can literally touch their heroes. And no other sport has fans who have been subjected to so much idiocy and who continue to love their beautiful sport anyway.
I love that cycling is like life. Riding a bike brings lessons in success and failure, that dishes out suffering and elation, that helps you think through your problems and find a better version of yourself and get to the store with the wind in your hair. Cycling is exercise and transport and therapy, the greatest and most joyful machine ever invented.
Like Coltrane said, I’m like someone in love.