Friday, May 31, 2024

Cycling Spotlight: “I Must Do This … Alone”


There are so many reasons why cycling is the coolest sport ever. You get to go fast, you cover vast swaths of terrain every ride, you get to eat whatever you want because you’re burning so many calories, and there’s all this cool equipment besides. But one of the best things about it is that you can keep doing it well into middle age. I went to a Coors Classic bike race reunion a couple decades ago and saw all my childhood heroes (Andy Hampsten, Davis Phinney, Ron Keifel, Alexi Grewal, pretty much every great American pro from the ‘80s), and they were in their fifties, and all still looked great and were still riding. Can you imagine an NFL reunion of fifty-somethings? Especially if they’d all kept playing football?

The low-impact nature of cycling isn’t the only thing that makes it a good choice as we age. Cycling is also logistically simple. Other sports, like Ultimate and soccer, require two entire teams to coordinate their schedules and play on a designated field. Golf requires reserving a tee time, paying a bunch of money, and wearing dorky clothing (while getting relatively little exercise). Tennis is only two people, but again you need to secure the court. With cycling, you obviously just need your bike and some public roads or trails. Thus, this sport can accommodate the most unpredictable of schedules. Perhaps only running is logistically simpler, though ageing runners usually have bad knees, tendonitis, lockjaw, and depression. (Yes, I made all that up and I have no fact checker.)

What I didn’t realize until the last few years, though, is that not all cyclists ever learn the art of riding solo. My brothers seldom ride alone, and my older daughter (a former racer) almost never does. As an assistant high school mountain biking coach, I occasionally encounter graduates from the program who, I’m disappointed to learn, stopped riding once the team element came to an end.

This post is about the particular joys and challenges of riding solo.

I must do this … alone

Often as I head out for a ride, I’ll tell my family members, “I’m going out there. Don’t try to stop me.” This is a family shibboleth, and they’re supposed to respond, “You fool! You’ll be killed!” (I guess it’s been long enough since my worst ever cycling accident that this isn’t too sore a subject.) To this I reply, “I must do this … alone.” My brother and I have been saying this last part since about 1988, quoting some junior I coached back then who was, I believe, quoting “Buck Rogers.” Googling this quote now, I find it attributed to “Thor,” “South Park,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Monsters vs. Aliens.” I guess it’s kind of a classic sentiment, perhaps particularly for Americans, with our love of the individual and the individually heroic.

Solo riding has been part of my routine since about 1984. That was when, as described here, my cycling friends kind of “outgrew” me, because while I was still floundering in races, they were winning, and they became too fast and—they evidently felt—too cool to even hang out with me, much less ride with me. We went our separate ways and I realized I would have to either train alone, make some new friends, or quit the sport. So for about a year, before making new cycling friends, I rode alone most of the time. I had a part-time job on top of school, so a fair bit of this training was after dark as well. It’s remarkable I was able to build much fitness during that off-season; the next year was when I finally broke through and got some results.


I suppose the willingness to ride alone is related to a tolerance for drudgery, or at least for resignation. As I’ve discussed elsewhere in these pages, gaining the fitness to succeed at bike racing requires a lot of sheer repetition, just like with anything difficult. Endless repetition produces the incremental improvements in performance that matter to the diehard. It’s not always that interesting and it’s not always that fun, but that doesn’t stop the committed athlete.

The more recreational cyclist, on the other hand, rides for fun and as a social outlet, and probably has better things to do than ride alone. If he or she can’t get a group organized, or at least one pal, perhaps the ride simply gets postponed. My wife likes to ride with me, but not so much by herself. And when we do ride, she doesn’t want to ride my standard, well-worn routes. She’s curious—what’s up this street? Where does this go? We end up touring the residential streets of the Berkeley hills which I otherwise seldom do. When I ride alone, I stick to a plan and a route and it wouldn’t occur to me to alter it. (Actually, that’s not entirely true; sometimes Lomas Cantadas, a particularly hard climb, beckons, like it’s actually taunting me, and ignites my caprice by being such a pointlessly difficult way to get home. For details click here.)

For those who develop a taste for solo riding, subtle pleasures do accrue. Sure, it’s not as fun as riding with a group or a pal, but it’s a way to get outside your routine, remove all social interaction from your plate, and get both inside and completely outside your head. You can ponder something, or alternatively zone out completely, without any specific demands on your attention (other than navigating and negotiating the terrain, of course). Nowadays, when I haven’t had a solo ride in a while, I begin to crave it.


It was spring of 1986 and most of my training was with my friend Pete, and often our pal Dave who had been on my team in the 1985 Red Zinger Mini Classic. Pete was way stronger which could make things difficult. He’d be hammering at the front and I’d be hanging on for dear life, and then when I would take the lead, looking forward to slacking off a bit, he’d yell, “Don’t let the speed drop below thirty!

One cold, windy spring day we were riding around the Morgul Bismark course east of Boulder (a route made somewhat famous by the Coors Classic bike race and the movie “American Flyers”) and I just wasn’t feeling it. I couldn’t match Pete’s pace and, he, being an angry young man (actually, more moody than angry I guess), was getting ornery. I in turn was getting fed up, and we finally agreed it was best to part ways. He kept going, and I turned around and started heading home. Well, this was no better because now I was pedaling straight into the wind. (It was well known in those days that you always had a headwind on the Morgul; the theory went that there was a tornado in the middle, blowing counter-clockwise unless you turn around and then it reversed itself.) I plodded my miserable way along, more lugubrious than ever, and at one point I happened to look behind me. (Who knows why; maybe I thought Pete might have changed his mind and would come scoop me up.) In the distance I saw a rider in a red and green uniform; I took him to be one of Boulder’s 7-Eleven juniors coached by Dale Stetina. This guy was coming up fast. And then I realized he looked pretty big. Too big to be a junior.

Well, whoever it was, he came blowing on by, and I dove for his wheel and managed to catch it. He was moving at a great clip and somehow I found the resolve, and the strength, that had been missing throughout my ride thus far. I was absolutely dying on this guy’s wheel but totally stoked to get these miles done faster, with no more headwind, and besides, who was this guy? Somebody important? I hung on all the way into Boulder, when the guy slowed down and sat up, and I rode up alongside him. He gave me a friendly greeting and asked my name. Though shy, I managed to introduce myself. He grinned and put out his hand for a handshake. “Davis,” he intoned. Daaaaaamn! Davis Phinney, the famous pro, who later that year became the first American to win a stage of the Tour de France! Just think: had I continued my original ride, instead of being willing to peel off and ride home alone, I’d have never had a chance to ride with this great champion.

Alone, but not alone

If you’re lucky enough to live in a community where cycling is popular, you’re seldom really alone out there. (In there—meaning at home on a stationary trainer or rollers—is of course a whole other story.) Where I live, in the Berkeley area, there are always all kinds of cyclists out and about. I see the same guys out there all the time whom I recognize though they’re still strangers, and then I see all kinds of random riders I’ve never seen before and may never see again. I always say hello if I’m passing someone or being passed, and offer a head nod or chin lift to a cyclist coming the other way. Some riders are too cool to acknowledge me, or perhaps just too far into their heads. It does seem like a slick club-racer type is more likely to ignore me, to a point … the pros I’d see as a kid in Boulder always smiled and acknowledged me (though perhaps it’s just because I was young?). The riders I encounter whom I like the most are generally the more novice ones who really light up when I nod or wave. They flash a big grin, like they really appreciate the novelty of becoming a part of the cycling community.

I guess ever since suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic, I have developed a keener appreciation for just being among my fellow humans, even if just to share a public space with them, however briefly. I want to see people and feel their presence ... even if I do not actually wish to interact with them beyond a simple greeting. I guess this is what you get when you cross an introvert with a claustrophobic

During the high school mountain bike season, I coach the Albany High Cougars a couple times a week. Sometimes the late afternoon ride isn’t possible for me due to work commitments, so I don’t get out until well after five to do a solo road ride. Several times this year I’ve seen the team heading home along Wildcat Canyon Road as I’ve been heading out, and they’ve waved and called out, “Hey, Coach Dana!” I’m stoked that they notice me even though I’m on a road bike and in a different kit. It means they’re paying attention, and moreover I’m setting a good example of riding alone when meeting others isn’t possible. Nota bene, Cougars!

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