Sometimes you just need to go for a really long bike ride

In her latest column, Gracie Elvin shares the story of her longest ride ever - one that offered some much needed perspective.

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It feels trite to pen another piece relating to mental health, even though it was RUOK Day this week. Simply put, none of us in COVID lockdowns are really OK, but most of us are OK enough. My friend and old teammate Chloe McConville commented on my #RUOKday Instagram post with “I read a great article the other day which describes the feeling I am having from this prolonged COVID pandemic – languishing.”  

I agree. A definition of languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. In his article Adam Grant describes it as “the neglected middle child of mental health (that) can dull your motivation and focus … as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”

Surely in this incredible CyclingTips community many of us must be feeling the same. In Grant’s words it is not depression; it is just a sense of things being somewhat joyless and aimless.

But instead of diving into this dark rabbit hole, I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to give you an escape that isn’t Netflix or Candy Crush. I want to take you on the open roads of a ride I did last year that was one of the best days on a bike I’ve ever had.

I set off in the dark and frosty Canberra morning with a backpack full of food and water. I met two friends along the way who escorted me for the first hour and a half of my ride. We rode east into the sunrise, chatting and puffing, steam rising from our mouths in the crisp morning light. Once I was farewelled, I settled into a thumping rhythm. I was somewhat concerned the pace was not sustainable but it felt so good I just couldn’t help myself.

The early morning rays streamed across the icy paddocks, and they glittered for many kilometres before the sun could melt the frost. The sleepy cows and horses barely registered my passing. There were a few drivers out on the rural roads, but they gave me plenty of room and mostly I was on my own. I had brought some earphones with me but didn’t yet feel like listening to anything. It felt impertinent to interrupt the show that nature was putting on for me that morning. 

Hours passed and my legs kept stomping on the pedals at a pace that I was surprised by. I still hadn’t reached for my phone or a distraction to listen to. I was riding a cadence that was setting me into a trance and all I wanted to do was just watch the scenes as I trundled by. Open grazing lands were punctuated by small native forests full of bird life. The prehistoric screech of a black cockatoo pierced the silence before it swooped from its perch and cruised powerfully over my head, flying in front of me for a few meters as if to tell me I was on the right path.

My mind was still busy, but its pace had slowed to be in harmony with the ride and the views. I understood I was finally in a new day since my dark night of the soul. I thought about my life so far, a wonderful life filled with much fortune, but one that had also been filled in recent years by the turmoil of divorce, unsatisfying career events, and a shift in sexuality and identity. I was also in the throes of the decision to retire from professional sport.

Though I was riding far and fast, I felt lighter with each kilometre. Nature was providing the space for my mind to sift and to rest, and my bicycle was providing the momentum to shed layers of doubt and sadness.

My mind said hello to every cow, sheep, and horse as I sped by, and the birds gifted me their songs and their playful antics as they ducked and dived in front of me like tiny fighter jets. It was a perfectly clear sunny day and with each hour I was met with a new horizon crisp against the bright blue sky. I was in awe of each landscape, wanting to take photos at every turn but knowing it was enough to just take snapshots with my own eyes. Plus, I knew that I didn’t have a lot of time to waste.

Nearing the outskirts of Canberra as I returned from the long loop north, the sky faded softly into pinks and purples. As I veered eastward over a small hill, a massive full moon was peeking over the crest. I couldn’t believe my luck to have such a view at the end of an amazing ride. It felt like the moon pulled me up that hill as it was lifting itself into the sky.

I rode the long way home because I had a goal for the day, even though it seemed less important now than my perspective of what a great day on the bike really meant. If I had to stop then and there with the moon that would have been OK, but being the athlete I was, I needed to complete my task.

A few local loops later, in the dark again, I arrived safely at home. My bike computer read 300 km, more than 3,000 metres of climbing, and 12 hours of riding time. It was by far my longest day on the bike. I felt changed, not from the distance, but from the time spent in the rolling plains, in the crackling forests, along the jagged dirt roads, with the animals that thought me strange.

Nature’s brilliance had humbled me once again, but this time in a profound way. No big life decisions were made out there that day, but a depth of thought had sprung from just being there, just listening, just riding.

Follow the link to see the Strava file from Gracie’s ride.

Now reader, as I am day-dreaming about my next long ride to clear my mind once COVID restrictions are eased, I would love to hear what adventures you are craving or planning. Do you have any suggestions for me?

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