Last weekend, I rode my bike. I joined a group of around 380 cyclists riding as many miles over three days, from San Francisco to Santa Barbara along the California coast. It was a consequential experience, and hence worth writing about.
For background context, I love cycling. Back in high school, I used to live and breathe it, and nearly all of my time was spent training or racing, working in a shop, or reading about it (and trawling Craigslist for any good finds). I eventually became a respectable cyclist, the kind who looks relaxed and smooth on the bike, doesn’t complain too much and can put the hurt into others’ legs when desired. I even had some good results at some races across the Canadian circuit. High school and my cycling career concluded at the same time. Better to invest in the brain than the legs, I (correctly) told myself, and I threw myself into my engineering studies with little time left for the bike. Fast forward 10 years to today, and I’ve only dabbled in riding since.
Given the sad state of my training in 2019, this ride was a reach. In fact, I had never ridden much over 100 miles, and here we were, doing well over that for three days in a row. I probably wouldn’t have signed up for it had it not been suggested by Emily - a fine individual in every respect - who has a keen nose for adventure. It’s one thing to generally want something (e.g. ride more, push yourself) and quite another to actually find an opportunity to level it up. I’m grateful for the push towards seizing this particular opportunity.
This is the value of doing things for which you think there’s a real chance of failure. It’s a win-win, really.
We all try to find opportunities to grow, but how far from your comfort zone are you willing to go? What if your range is totally mis-calibrated, and what you thought was pushing yourself was actually only scratching the surface? This is the value of doing things for which you think there’s a real chance of failure. It’s a win-win, really. You either confirm that it was too much, and hopefully learn something in the process, or you realize that you’re capable of much more than you thought. How magical it is to when the second one comes true.
My initial strategy was pretty straightforward: take it easy and leave something in the tank for later on. I’ve been down the path of destruction before: you’re riding along and feeling great, you keep pushing, until suddenly the battery at 0% and everything shuts down for the day. That went out the window almost immediately. Leaving SF, I made friends with a guy named Lucas and soon we were eating up the miles. I was late to rollout and was motivated to catch Emily and the crew. Plus, speed is addicting, and more is better. We eventually caught a fast group and fell into a more reasonable rhythm. Cyclists now have many forms of electrolyte-sugar combinations available to them, and I consumed as many of them as possible. Gels, bars, gummies, powder-in-water. I was resigned to my inevitable bonk, but at least wanted to control the damage.
The ride was a dream. Of course, the scenery was beautiful. You’d find yourself in a new group every couple of hours, and before long you’d have some new friends to share the journey with. People are surprised to hear that cycling is very social - indeed, it’s one of the best parts. You can talk at a conversational volume for hours at a time, but it’s less pressure than meeting someone at a party because you can always stop talking and enjoy the ride. I’m among the more talkative cyclists you’ll meet, perhaps to a fault, but I’ve really enjoyed learning from people sampled from a very broad distribution across the bay area.
130 miles later, after some very ambitious pulls into the wind and many hours hanging onto the group for dear life, we rolled up to the finish line/hotel. I made it, and actually finished pretty strong. Everything ached. The last 30 miles were a haze, a mental carousel of “my body hurts”, “I wonder if I’ll make it up this climb”, “I wish I had more water”, and “I can’t wait for the Coke and Costco pizza at the end of this”. But overall, pretty good, and with a 20.3 mph average speed to boot. In the evening, we hung out at the hotel, ate some food, edited photos, and prepped for the next day.
This set the tone for the next two days. Despite best intentions to take it easy, I always found there is a wheel to hang on to, a pace to maintain, an opportunity to see how deep you can go. Most trips involve you exploring the outside world. This was more of an internal exploration, one that can only happen while pushing yourself. There are many ways of doing the coast ride, many of which are more relaxed, but this is how I did mine, and I’m glad. I’m a bit of an addict for pushing myself, for squeezing out growth wherever possible, and this was fertile ground for doing so.
One of the many people I chatted with had a name lodged deep in my memory: Eamon Lucas. He was leading one of the bigger groups of cyclists and looked quite strong on the bike. It turns out we competed against each other back in 2010 at the Tour of Abitibi, a sort of “Tour de France” for junior riders. Riding for team USA, he took 2nd in the GC, and went on to ride professionally since. He’s riding for a respectable team in Belgium now, putting in some miles in the off season. He was grateful for his athletic gifts and all of the great experiences he’s had over the last decade, and you can tell he really loves his life - a rare thing. I don’t regret the path I chose at all (for the record I love and enjoy my job and life in San Francisco), and I don’t think I had quite as much athletic potential as him anyways. But it was fun to reminisce about that great fork in my life, when I switched from the blissful bubble of bikes to one characterized by technology and other, more pragmatic concerns.
It was fun to reminisce about that great fork in my life, when I switched from the blissful bubble of bikes to one characterized by technology and other, more pragmatic concerns
On the third day we rolled into Santa Barbara with smiles on our faces. I hung with the fast riders and finished strong. I got a taste of my legs feeling like motors, ready and willing to respond to any attacks, chases or pulls I asked of them. A long-dormant flame was fanned, and a personal cycling renaissance in the works. There’s no need for a hard dichotomy between impacting the world through my work and becoming a fast cyclist once again. Indeed, I expected my meetings on Tuesday to be a disaster, but they were among my best, so incentives are aligned there as well. More to come.
Photo cred: Emily Cheng