Since describing my overnight ride to Maine last week, I've received an unexpected amount of correspondence from readers who feel drawn to long bike rides, but aren't sure they can handle them physically. The only other time I've had such a volume of email, was after my 100 mile ride along the Danube last Autumn - a similar theme. There is considerable interest out there in long distance cycling among those who love bikes but are not necessarily athletic.
Here is an excerpt from an email from Barbara that sums up the sentiment nicely:
"...[I am] not a strong cyclist, but I just loved your description of riding to Maine in the moonlight. I want to do a ride like this so much, it makes me want to cry! Can the weaklings among us experience a similar journey, or am I a hopeless romantic?"
This resonated with me, because it pretty much expresses my own point of view. I love the idea of covering long distances by bicycle, of experiencing beauty and adventure along the way, of bonding with companions as our wheels hum and our headlights illuminate the road. In my imagination, I do not envision this as an athletic activity or an endurance event. Ideally, it would be just a very long bike ride.
And therein lies the paradox: Yes, it is possible to experience long distance cycling from this perspective. But in order to do so, we have to get to the point where we are strong enough, so that a 100+ mile ride feels like a fun adventure and not like a physical feat we've just barely managed to survive. And this, in turn, means working up to it and getting in shape for it.
How is this different from just riding? I suspect there is more than one answer. But the way I interpret it, the crucial difference is that the rides are more structured - with the goal of building up miles, speed, and time in the saddle. Prior to last summer, I never followed any kind of structure, hoping that my endurance and handling skills would just build up organically, inspired by the joy of riding alone. I am sorry to say that this did not happen. Only when I started taking part in club rides, met experienced riding partners, and adapted a more focused approach, did I undergo significant improvements. The structure and discipline changed my body, ultimately giving me more freedom. This may not be the path for everyone, but I am being honest about what it's been like for me.
While the readers who contacted me about long distance riding did so seeking some form of insight, it was in fact I who ended up gaining insight from them; insofar that they helped me recognise this contradiction. I am sometimes asked what my goal in roadcycling is. And I think that my goal, if any, is to get to the point where riding long distance is entirely about the journey and the scenery, not about overcoming physical limitations. But I am willing to work on overcoming those limitations in order to get to that point.