What’s so great about riding a bloody bike anyway?

It’s a not-uncommon refrain to hear from cyclists – “this is why I ride”.  Best used sarcastically I think, when riding through an industrial estate in Crawley in the rain for example (though PaulS does better with “well, when you have all this on your doorstep…”). 

You also hear it said straight when there is a relatively rare confluence of factors – weather, scenery, challenge, camaraderie, etc – aligning to create a sublime situation.  However, whilst it is one of the reasons we ride – it can’t be the only one.  The hours of indoor training, riding in the cold, and wet, the dieting, the time, and expense and so on can’t be for these handful-a-season experiences.

Analysing why we ride seems to me a somewhat dangerous enterprise.  Rather like John Keat’s concern that Isaac Newton had destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by explaining it, maybe looking too closely at the reason  we ride could make the magic disappear.  What if the sum of the parts do not add up?  What if the not inconsiderable costs in terms of time, money, effort and so on outweigh the somewhat less tangible benefits?

If I was younger (much younger!) I could probably delude myself that one day I could be a pro.  Fortunately my very late start in the sport precludes that.  But not only that of course – I am, at best, a very mediocre athlete lacking in the physiological and psychological strengths necessary to make it in the toughest of sports.  So what could be the likely pinnacle of my cycling career be?  A decent ride or two in sportives?  Maybe a win or two in small local races – even then in the lower categories. These would be reasonable achievements for sure, but hardly compensation for the very considerable amount of time and effort required for such humble outcomes.

And so, if the ends do not appear to justify the means, the means must justify themselves!  So, I will try and explain why I ride.



My life is almost comically characterised by an all-or-nothing approach.  This is by no means a positive trait and I envy those that are able to take a more measured approach to life. If I drink, I drink a lot.  If I take drugs, I take a lot.  If I’m not on a diet, I eat a lot

If I cycle, then I cycle a lot.  I get up early.  I ride hard.  I train.  I diet.  I barely drink alcohol.  I read.  I study.  I find a gym to ride every night when I go skiing.  I sweat it out at the crack of dawn on my indoor trainer.  I subscribe to every magazine.  And so on.

Whether this actually takes any willpower, and therefore self-discipline, or not is somewhat debatable. Sometimes I think this is the case.  Other times I think that there is pleasure in sacrifice – or apparent sacrifice.  Self-discipline, to me, is the ability to forego a short-term pleasure for some longer-term gain.

Either way, getting down to the sea-front in Brighton in time for breakfast feels a good deal more rewarding than waking up late with a hangover!



I’ve not been “properly” cycling for very long, but in this time I’ve been able to progress in relatively small steps – at each point I’ve been able to find an appropriate challenge.  When I first started “training” for my London to Newquay ride a couple of years ago, a 30 mile loop around the countryside was a challenge.  After I joined Bigfoot I was helped and encouraged to take on bigger challenges each one feeling like a reasonable jump in difficulty but achievable. 

The opportunities are so varied; riding in the Alps, or in Belgium, or on the roads of Kent, or hammering around the park in Crystal Palace.  All offer the potential for a terrific challenge in very different ways.


Club mates

Let’s make no mistake – without the other member’s of Bigfoot Bike Club I would not have had any of the wonderful experiences that I have had on a bike.  Without the encouragement, wisdom, advice, ideas, friendly competition and infectious enthusiasm I would still be ploughing a lonely (but level!) furrow around the lanes of Kent.  And life offers few greater pleasures than meeting up early on an autumn weekend morning and riding and chatting for a few hours with friends.



In my first year of riding I could have only just been what might technically be called training, but more likely I was going out and riding my bike.  A lot, for sure, but just riding my bike.  Mainly for the pleasure of riding and with the knowledge that I was getting fitter.  Doubtless this was not the most efficient way of achieving what fitness I managed, but it was great fun.

This year has been rather different and I would say that I have been training.  What’s the difference?  Training is having a plan.  Training is knowing what you are trying to achieve before jumping on the bike and riding.  Training is riding indoors.  Training is monitoring power. Training quite often involves riding hard and that hurts.  Training is about every ride being part of an integrated strategy.  Training is fun.  Training is an intellectual as well as a physical pursuit.  And the best part – nobody really  knows what works!



It’s a cycling cliché that says if you have two men on bikes you have a race – or something like that anyway. I think that I would be perceived as a competitive person but I’m not sure that this is the case, not in the traditional sense, anyway. 

I feel 3 quite distinct levels of competition, with each new level being vastly less relevant as a motivating factor.  The first level is competition with myself – it is this that really drives me on.  As legend Chris Boardman says in his excellent book – he was not the most gifted athlete of all time (though not far off I think!), but he aspired to be the very best that he could be.  And so it is for me.

I’m my own level playing field.  When I ride ‘competitively’ it’s really me I’m competing with.  No-one else has the same genetic heritage, time, equipment, experience and so on.  And so, when I ride, really I’m trying to beat myself.  Beat my own expectations.  Or previous efforts.  If I ride faster than another guy, well maybe he has a cold today.  Or maybe his genetically determined VO2max is not as good as mine.  Maybe his bike weighs more than mine.  Or vice versa, when, more likely, I get my ass kicked instead.

The next level of competition is with my club-mates.  It is really great to have people around you that you like and respect that really understand what it is like to ride a bike hard.  Friends and family I’m sure try to listen and understand, but anyone that has not climbed Alpe D’Huez having already ridden a hundred miles and 3 serious mountains will never really be able to comprehend just how much it hurts and what that achievement feels like.  When I crossed the line having completed the Marmotte in under 7hr30 I was nearly as thrilled for AndyC who had come in just over a minute before me.  Does it feel good to ride better than a club-mate?  Maybe.  Sometimes. However, I’d far (far!) rather ride brilliantly and finish second behind a club-mate who has done a better ride than me, than ride a so-so race and finish first.

Finally there is the rest of the world.  The diversity in genetic potential, training, age, facility, motivation and so on is so great that I feel almost no will or desire to compete with anyone else. 



Cycling is probably good for your health.  For sure I’ve never been fitter.  Nor have I, in my adult life at least, tried to take such good care of myself.  I drink nothing like the quantity of alcohol I used to and spend most of the year trying to reduce my weight.

However, health and longevity are subject to a number of factors and cycling alone provides no guarantees.

Health I guess is not purely physical either and I would guess that there are considerable benefits to one’s mental health too. 


Measured suffering

Cycling is a sport that allows you to reasonably precisely measure out your own suffering.  Tools like HRMs (heart-rate monitors) and Power Meters help, but even using feel as a guide it is possible to mete out serious and sustained punishment on a bike that I think most other sports do not permit. 

“Glory through Suffering” is a great expression and maybe in a way it’s as appropriate for a relatively casual cyclist such as myself as it is for Lance Armstrong.  I have so much less to gain for a start!

Cycling hurts.  Sometimes a lot (Galibier anyone?). But to overcome that pain and succeed is a wonderful feeling.

Even better, with increased fitness you can hurt yourself more!  The suffering never lessens, only the pace increases.


And so…

As usual I run out of time.  This article wants more time that it’s going to get.  Alas, in a busy life, everything must compete for the most precious resource we have; time.  And writing about thinking about cycling, well… has only so much merit.  Back to my family Christmas for me…

No Comments on “What’s so great about riding a bloody bike anyway?”

  1. 1 Hugh G said at 10:52 pm on January 20th, 2010:

    Paul, I saw this and I thought of you.
    His blog is worth a look. I’d like to think he’s in with a chance but my head tells me – delusional.