WHY EVERY CYCLIST SHOULD DO AT LEAST ONE BIG RIDE IN THEIR LIFE
Before I start blatting on about ‘big rides’ I guess we should define what, exactly, a ‘big ride’ is.
Personally, I’d consider it to be more about the time it takes than the distance covered, for two reasons:
First off, distance isn’t necessarily an indicator of just how ‘big’ – or challenging – the ride is. A hundred miles off-road through wild terrain is likely to be more challenging than, say, three hundred miles on easy, flat cycle paths, and may well take as long, if not longer to accomplish.
Secondly, the time you spend away from home on your bike is an essential element of a big ride since the longer you’re on the road the more you leave behind the humdrum predictability of day-to-day life, which is for me what really defines a big ride.
That said, my own big rides are rather pathetic when compared with many. The longest ride I’ve done involved just shy of a month cycling across France from the Channel coast to the Med (and around 1000-miles of riding, so a quick mental calculation will reveal that it wasn’t especially physically challenging). I’ve also done a couple of two-week rides in France and California, and several multi-day rides both on and off-road in locations that have varied from Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and the Alps to Cornwall and the Greek islands, so I like to think I’ve at least earned a right to a half-baked opinion on the matter.
What I’ve learned from these rides, particularly the longer ones – and why I think every cyclist should do a multi-day ride at least once – is that by heading out into the wild blue yonder on your bike, whether fully self-contained or credit card cycling, you effectively step into (maybe that should be cycle into) a kind of parallel universe which is shiningly good for the soul and spirit as well as your health and fitness.
The first couple of days tend to be all about getting into a rhythm and a routine – becoming accustomed to the handling of the bike when it’s loaded up with gear, adjusting to riding on the ‘wrong’ side of the road if you’re abroad and thinking ahead to pit stops, water stops and where you’ll be staying for the night.
There’s also the thrill of discovering new places – the sights, the sounds, the smells and the tastes are all so different from everyday life it’s an exciting bombardment of the senses that with luck should continue – and change regularly – as the ride progresses.
Eventually you’ll find yourself getting into a simple routine of waking, eating, riding, eating (eating becomes a major consideration by day two, if not before), sleeping, repeat. As the ride progresses, you’ll obviously get fitter, sometimes fitter than you could ever have imagined – I recall summiting a 16-km climb in the Alpes-Maritime on the penultimate day of my month-long ride across France and feeling disappointed that the hard work was over – after so long on the bike I felt like I could ride uphill for ever as opposed to the usual feeling on climbs of “Please let it stop soon”.
And that’s when you’ve got it cracked.
Such simplicity makes for a kind of Zen experience (I guess today you’d call it ‘mindfulness’, an irritating term I see as little more than the marketing of basic common sense), where the pressures, hassles and irritations of everyday life get forgotten, for a brief period at least.
It helps if you try to keep phone contact and involvement with social media to a minimum– they’re annoying outside influences that take away from the purity of the riding experience and bring the ‘real’ world crashing in to intrude on your parallel universe.
If I’m riding with a mate, we seem to develop an unconscious ability to move between making conversation and riding alone with our thoughts on and off throughout the day, without either feeling offended if the other decides to ride up ahead or drop behind to spend some time with their own thoughts.
We’ll also automatically take on the daily tasks that we’re better suited to – my regular riding companion Mark, for instance, enjoys cooking, whilst I hate it, so whilst he’s preparing a meal I’ll be planning the following day’s route which I enjoy and Mark ain’t too fussed about. No discussion is needed, we just get on with it like a well-oiled machine.
And when it comes time to crash out for the night – oh man, after a week or two on the road you sleep the sleep of the righteous…
There will regularly be occasions when you don’t know what day of the week it is (and don’t care), yet you can tell the time and the direction by the sun; you’ll immediately know what sort of fettle your bike is in by how it feels and sounds as you hop onto the saddle each morning; and you’ll be able to repair punctures and adjust gears faster than a Grand Tour mechanic.
To quote the Irish author Flann O’Brien in his novel ‘The Third Policeman’: ‘The gross and net result of it is that people who spen[d] most of their natural lives riding… bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles…’
Which is why every cyclist should do at least one big ride in their life, because what could be better than to be half man, half bike?