When I got my first ‘proper’ job after graduating University there was a senior colleague who sort of became my Yoda. He wasn’t my boss, but he is someone of huge talent and integrity who, in hindsight, I probably pestered so much that it was easier for him to humour me than try to avoid me! We used to discuss all sorts of things, mainly work related, but plenty of other stuff as well. One such conversation got on to the subject of quality-of-life and a discussion about the things that we really value. He suggested that all we really have is time – it is the ultimate currency – and it is up to each of us to choose what we do with it. You can earn money, learn something new, watch your children grow up, spend time with friends, rest and recuperate or whatever else you fancy. But we only have so much time and so it’s probably best not to squander it. It was one of those conversations that sticks with you.
So, I was wondering the other day “Where does the humble bicycle fit into this?” Does riding my bike justify itself as a worthy use of my precious time? I suppose that there is the obvious stuff. I ride my bike to work, which saves me a chunk of money relative to owning a car or buying a train ticket (so I don’t need to spend so much time earning it or can spend it in other stuff). It keeps me fit, which, in the short term, makes me happier and healthier and, in the long term, actually provides me with a bit more of that ultimate currency if I’m lucky. And in its own small way, it helps everyone else out a bit by reducing pollution and congestion. All-in-all, probably not a bad way to spend my time?
But what about the really frivolous stuff – a quick blast along the North Downs after work or a weekend away to a Welsh trail centre? The indulgent, selfish sort of riding that’s just for cheap thrills rather than saving the planet or my bank balance. Does this stack-up in the ultimate cost-benefit calculation? For me it comes down to two different benefits that are almost polar opposites.
The first is time to think. This is especially true of a solo road ride, but is actually just as relevant to the mountain bike. While I would love to live at the epicentre of miles of exhilarating singletrack, the truth is that every ride from my house includes a bit of fire road climbing, some rather bland bridleways and a road connection or two. At first glance this may seem rather mundane, but over the years I’ve found that I do some of my best thinking whilst riding these sections. Mulling over ideas that haven’t fully fermented, making connections between seemingly unconnected topics, or working through a solution to a tricky problem. I suppose I’ve never really understood how some people can just drift off, clear their mind or meditate – I just don’t seem to be that way. I’m often most happy and excited when I’m on the cusp of fitting all the pieces together. And more often than not, this happens on the bike.
The second big reason for spending time on the bike is the chance to find that magic flow. Apparently, there is a point at which the cognitive load associated with an activity is just enough to fully engage you in the task at hand without overloading the senses. Where you immerse yourself in the here and now, fully focused. Not really thinking, but just doing. It’s these moments on the bike that I live for. For me it’s the combination of a flowing piece of singletrack combined with just enough bike to perfectly challenge your skills and fitness. And this little formula can have a very narrow window of operation. A few weeks off the bike can dull the fitness and skill levels or a few days of rain can slow the trails just enough to turn one week’s perfect ride into the next week’s inelegant staccato. And it’s this illusive nature that makes it all the more special when it does all fall into place.
So, on the one hand my mountain bike provides me with the opportunity to lose myself in my thoughts and on the other it becomes all consuming. Either way it is incredibly restorative and, for me at least, a very worthwhile use of my precious time. I hope that you’re using yours wisely!