Aggressive Cycling: A “Research Report”

“Why do you bicycle the way you? What satisfactions do you derive from this kind of sport?” When people ask me these questions, I haven’t known how to answer other than to mutter a few generalities about feeling alive while traveling places using my own power.

Hoping to find a better answer, I’m spending a week doing field research, bicycling through the southern Arizona desert with a company of people who cycle much as I do. We are doing PAC Tour’s Desert Camp 2011, week five.

Sixty-four are listed on the roster for the week; half a dozen are crew and the rest of us are registered cyclists who have signed up for six days of hard cycling. Ages of the company, as reported in the roster, range from 21 through 79, with the average at fifty-six. Eighteen are women, and three couples are riding tandems. Three fourths of the group have bicycled with PAC Tour on other events, some over a period of many years. My roommate this week started with the company seventeen years ago and has a wide and deep experience with how it operates. On this my fourth PAC Tour there are eighteen people with whom I have previously cycled.

PAC Tour attracts a diversified, highly talented group of people. After the first day’s ride (a very hard eighty-one miles), I ate dinner with the chief executive of a state teachers’ pension fund with assets of more than fifty billion dollars, two lawyers, an electrical engineer specializing in magnetic resonance, and a psychiatrist. I was the religious historian in the group. The conversation ranged over the challenges to pension systems because of the current political climate, the functions of physician’s assistants, and the formulas for compensation of people in various professions and occupations. Although we didn’t talk about bicycling, other than to comment on how hard the day’s ride had been (rough pavement, significant elevation gain, and rising wind), our mutual interest in hard core, long distance, aggressive cycling is what had brought us to Sierra Vista, Arizona, for a week of the kind of cycling we all enjoy.

As I talk with people this week, I hope to discover how some of my companions of the road became the aggressive road cyclists that we are. How did they get started as adult cyclists and what experiences or events moved them away from casual and practical bicycling to the highly demanding way they ride their two-wheeled machines on tours like this.

By the end of the week, I hope to have answers to two questions: Why do you bike so hard? What satisfactions to you derive from this extreme sport?

In his book Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities Jeff Mapes reports a conversation with a woman cyclist in Los Angeles. When she changed work (from carpenter to office job) she needed to find a way to get more exercise. A friend suggested that she get a bike. She discovered that she enjoyed it because it allowed her to see parts of the city she had never seen before and it gave her a new sense of freedom. In time, bicycling “became completely addictive.”

My hunch is that many aggressive cyclists have gone through a similar sequence. 1) A person starts cycling for some practical reason. For me, it was to commute to my teaching job when the seminary relocated farther from home than I wanted to walk. 2) Once on a bike, a person discovers new aspects that had not been expected. For me, it was the opportunity to develop an exhilarating and challenging activity to share with a teen-age son. 3) Then a cyclist crosses a line into a new stage, which the woman in Los Angeles described as addictive. For me, the event was our first trip to TOSRV, a two-day, 200-mile event in Ohio with 7,500 cyclists.

During the noon break on the third day of this year’s ride, I asked one of my PAC Tour friends the first question. His answer was that a friend cajoled him into riding a little. Then he discovered that he wanted to ride more than his friend. Then he signed up for a PAC Tour event of hard-core road cycling in interesting places. And before he realized what had happened he was cycling 5,000 miles a year.

The three-fold pattern perfectly illustrated.

“Addiction is probably not the right word,” my PAC Tour room mate, a psychiatrist by profession, commented when I read the comment from Mapes’ book. We agreed, however, that cycling does become deeply rooted in a person’s life patterns. It increases the cyclist’s sense of well-being and becomes an important part of the way that cyclists understand themselves.

Photo at top courtesy of cyclist Susan Reed.

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