My Year of Riding Everything: A lesson in self-discovery and fun
CyclingTips VeloClub member Lauren Giles hasn’t always been into cycling. In fact, it was only last year that she properly discovered the sport. Since then she’s been riding as much as she can, on whatever bike she can, to learn as much about the sport as she can. Along the way she’s learnt a considerable amount about herself as well. But perhaps most importantly, she’s rediscovered her ability to have fun. This is the story of Lauren’s Year of Riding Everything.
“I just don’t want to be that asshole who drops the hammer on a guy on a beach cruiser,” I said to my friend as we waited on the start line. It was 10 minutes to the start of the 2019 Brownwood Bike Rally Adult Fun Race. To my right was a woman in sneakers on a hybrid with a rearview mirror; to my left, a twentysomething on a BMX. Further down the line was a guy in sandals on a bike that looked custom and expensive; I had already pegged him as the competition.
My pulse was hammering, my mouth was dry, and I was ready to leave it all on the line for a $10 payout and a polyester ribbon – as long as somebody else kicked it off first.
Eighteen months ago, I’d never done a bike race. I’d watched a lot of bike races — spending lavish, indulgent hours encamped on the couch as the pro peloton rolled through the muddy fields of Flanders or the sunflowers of southern France – but I was a runner. A serious runner. It’s hard to remember that now, as I sit on my sofa in a bike t-shirt, next to my bike trainer, with my feet propped on a coffee table that’s scattered with copies of Bicycling, writing an article about riding bikes.
I fell into bikes in 2018 with the same passionate abandon that I fell in love with my high school boyfriend, the one with the floppy hair and the Moleskine notebook and the comprehensive collection of Radiohead CDs. I fell in love and I wanted to know everything about the object of my affections: I wanted to ride everything.
I’ve spent the last year and change doing just that — I’ve ridden crits and stage races, gravel grinders and gran fondos. I’ve climbed famous Belgian bergs and scrambled over barriers and taken Double-Stuffed Oreo handups. I’ve washed mud out of my ears in South Carolina and volcanic grit out of my hair in Iceland.
I thought that I’d learn a lot about bikes this year, and I did. I own a disc truing tool. I know that I prefer a hardtail to full suspension for most trails in my area. I discovered that while I love watching road racing, actually doing it bores me. I have new scars, an unjustifiable number of bikes in my spare room, and to my frequent surprise, I am a very different person than I was when I decided, after a couple of beers on a January night in 2018, to sign up for a bike race.
Perhaps I should have expected that I would learn a lot about myself over the course of riding everything I could get my hands on, but I didn’t really intend to have a dramatic transformational journey of self-discovery. I just wanted to ride my bike. I never expected where it would take me.
“You’re going to the finish line,” my friend Kathryn said to me as I prepared to leave Trailshead Lodge, the final checkpoint of the 2019 Gold Rush Motherlode, a 210-mile (338km) gravel race in the Black Hills of South Dakota, “and I’m going to get you a burrito.”
The boys – three guys I’d grouped up with early in the race – were clustered in a corner of the lodge dining room, nursing hot chocolate and vainly trying to dry socks in front of an electric heater. Outside, the sun was dropping and even though it was June, the temperature was plummeting toward freezing, the spitting rain turning to snow. We’d been cold and wet for 14 hours and 180 miles (290km). We were finally warm, and no one was eager to leave except me.
I’d heard the next 10 miles (16km), the final climb, covered the roughest roads of the entire race, and I wanted to get through them and onto the long 20-mile (32km) descent to the finish line before full dark settled in. I gave the boys a final wave, hugged Kathryn, shoved a paper map of the Black Hills down the front of my jersey like an old-school Euro pro, and headed out into the twilight. As the first wave of wet sleet blew into my face, I thought, This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Of course, that wasn’t the first time I’d said that to myself in my Year of Riding Everything. It wasn’t even the third time. If you’re the kind of idiot that needs to keep finding novel ways to hurt yourself, cycling is infinitely rewarding. I thought I knew myself fairly well by my fourth decade of life, but I’ve gone so far beyond my limits in the last year that I don’t even remember where they used to be.
In full disclosure, I suspect not everyone in my life believes this particular aspect of my personal growth is wholly positive, particularly those who don’t see seven-hour training rides as an optimal use of a perfectly good Saturday.
When I decided to ride up Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest peak, I was far away in the United States and blissfully unaware that Hong Kong had real mountains. The climb, up a cracked, off-camber, concrete single-lane road, was unrelenting, but the view from the top – across the rumpled green blanket of the forested New Territories to the bay, with its scattering of hilly islands – gave me my first real sense of the geography of the place. My companion, a cheerful graphic designer with a custom jersey business and a passion for Bromptons, waved at a strip of shiny buildings, barely visible through the haze. “That’s China, but I never go there.”
As we picked our way down the mountain in the rain, he told me stories about growing up in Hong Kong as a cycling-mad teenager, about club races up Victoria Peak, and ferry trips to ride climbs on the outer islands, and the ever-changing rules about taking bikes on the metro. When we got back to the subway station, we hugged. I’ve exchanged a lot of sweaty hugs with near-strangers after brutal rides.
When I started riding bikes, I’d had a lot of years of the worst of human behavior – a rough divorce, a demanding, high-conflict job, a series of personal disappointments. And yet, the small, everyday kindnesses cyclists exchange in a group felt like holy acts of grace at some of my lowest points – the spare granola bar when I was bonking on Howard’s Gap at Gran Fondo Hincapie, the extra-long pulls a singlespeeder took when I started faltering in the final miles of the Hellhole Gravel Grind Stage Race, the arm warmers one of the boys handed over when he saw me shivering as we soldiered through the long, cold hours at the Motherlode.
I have friends I’ve known for years for whom I’ve never felt anything like the intense, overwhelming gratitude that I still feel for those arm warmers. I’d stopped expecting much from people, but the last year has reminded me how much strangers can give you, and how much it can matter.
“They asked me what I was gonna do now that I’m retired, and I said I’m gonna race bikes and play the banjo.”
A few months after I started riding, I joined a local women’s club, Sorella Cycling. The Sorellas are largely north of 50. They’ve been riding bikes for years. Some of them are elite masters racers, but most of them couldn’t be bothered pinning on a number. Their tolerance for bullshit is low; their appetite for adventures on bikes is high. I call them the Department of No Fucks Given.
Last October, the Sorellas rented a house in Greenville, SC for Gran Fondo Hincapie. We spent the weekend drinking wine, riding bikes, talking about riding bikes, and making plans to ride more bikes. Diane had just retired, and was getting ready to spend the next nine months training for the Gran Fondo World Championships. Jennifer, who directs the Sorella race team, was busy convincing me that I’d really like racing on the road.
We raced each other up climbs and posed for pictures at mountain overlooks and celebrated with beer and paella on the lawn at the finish line, sprawled for hours in happy exhaustion. My friend Teri and I stopped at Waffle House on the drive back to Atlanta on Sunday. Over a pecan waffle, Teri sighed happily: “That was fun, wasn’t it?”
The thing about coming to bikes late in life is that I’m pretty bad at it. After that Adult Fun Race (Sandals Guy did drop the hammer, and then it was on), I rolled my singlespeed to the other side of the park for the co-ed beginner crit-cross. I tripped over a barrier, fishtailed in a sand pit and went through the tape, and almost took out a course marshal when I flew off a curb at the wrong angle. It was embarrassing as hell and ridiculously enjoyable, the kind of happiness I thought was long behind me: fun.
Of all the things I’ve discovered during my Year of Riding Everything, fun might be the most important. I learned the depths of my own willpower and capacity to endure. I have been reminded, over and over, of the immense kindness of others. But rediscovering my ability to have fun, to feel that light, unburdened enjoyment that needs neither higher purpose nor justification – that has been the greatest gift.
We’re grown-ups in lycra onesies on bikes. It’s all a bit silly. And it’s a wonderful thing.