When Cycling Found Me

I remember trying my damnedest to run it off; to ignore the white hot pain, telling myself it was OK; but immediately feeling the weakness in the moments that followed. My patellar tendon had stretched and I knew my knee may dislocate once more if I pushed myself.

The calling card was buried underneath layers of pain at the time, but cycling would become my counterpart after a winter league basketball game in early-2011. My right leg, planting in the way it always had before, buckled. In that moment my patella shifted out of place in a riveting jolt I’ll never forget.

Scans, x-rays, and opinions at two different facilities turned up nothing. It wasn’t my ACL or meniscus and, thankfully, nothing was torn. But large amounts of scar tissue were forming on the outside of my knee, and my patellar tendon—the entire knee joint, really—was going to need time to heal. To repair itself. To learn to bend completely again, without pain.

Weeks and months would follow of me telling my buddies I’d be back soon. That I just needed a little more time. But privately, I’d never felt my body fail on me like that before. I’d never felt so physically helpless, so confused and angered by my body. I was a twenty-something athlete and I could barely walk.

My life’s trajectory shifted in that moment, unbeknownst to me, by paving a small, rickety, unassuming path to a sport I never knew I would befriend.

On the advice of multiple doctors, and as the months passed, I would get on a bike and ride around. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I did it anyway. I asked for tips along the way. I knew a few cycling friends. How to do this, where to find that. Ideas on interesting rides, whatever that meant. I was talking to talk, a complete novice just hoping to fix my knee.

I’ll never forget first challenging myself at the local climb in the fall of 2011. I was being escorted by my new friend and cycling mentor (an ambassador to the sport, really) Chris Case. That evening, I was humbled beyond words. A ride at dusk left me at once literally breathless, but somehow, yearning for more.

While Chris was out of the saddle speaking effortlessly, his cadence calm and collected, I was suffering. I could barely catch my breath to say anything in response. My gear was slammed to the easiest possible cog, but I wasn’t going anywhere fast.

What was this feeling? I was having my first taste.

Winter came and went, and I didn’t bother too much with cycling. When the trees greened and the roads shed their cold weather blanket of sand and small rocks, I embarked once more. A year after the injury, the knee still wasn’t right. The presence of pain remained very real and full range of motion had not returned. Something had to change.

So, I decided to give cycling my first legitimate run in 2012. From April to November, I learned that cycling would forever be the most humbling sport I will ever attempt. Greg LeMond once said no truer words about the act (or art, or love) of cycling:

It doesn’t get any easier; you just go faster.

My rides varied from triumphant personal records to debilitating climbs of a breadth and depth I’d never attempted before.

I would come home shattered.

I would say yes to rides I had no business being on, then bury myself to keep up with the group. I stubbornly rode Pikes Peak through a snowstorm above 13k feet. I blindly followed my mentor on a birthday ride into terrain I’d never experienced before. I recall having to excuse myself from the post-ride meal to get home in order to avoid fainting… again.

Why was I doing this to myself?

As many cyclists can attest, I did it because I was getting closer to something each time. I was leaning into a force that has no words. A romantic battle with parallels to life itself. Emotional struggle and strife. Physical let down and recovery. Small victories and epic personal feats. Moments when it would never be possible. Then, moments when it becomes possible and all is attained.

My knee at first, but then my mind and physical body, were all getting stronger in unison.

The 2013 season is now a wrap (the most fulfilling of my short cycling tenure), yet I still face many of the same things.

I rode longer than I ever have. Climbed harder than I ever thought possible. Tag teamed group rides with buddies. Attempted to ride 100 miles to the top of Mt. Evans, only to be turned back by a hail storm. Cycled with friends for charity in beautiful mountain terrain.

I dispatched myself on a modern day vision quest before traveling to Costa Rica, simply because I needed to check in with myself at my rawest form. And I knew cycling would deliver that to me.

This past weekend I returned to the saddle after 4 weeks off. I’d been traveling and making time for other necessities in life that took precedence. I spun myself right back to that local climb, right back to another road that holds a spot close to my heart, Grapevine Road, and up a new-to-me ribbon-filled climb just to see what was there.

If I’m honest, a good portion of the time, I was suffering. I wasn’t in the shape I was in a mere 2 months ago. Cycling fitness leaves just as quickly as it can return, and I was right back at Greg’s quote. This never gets any fucking easier.

And that right there, that subtle but telling notion, is exactly what I love about riding my bike. It’s always a challenge. I’m always on my edge. I can always rely on a single ear bud pumping tunes into my soul.

But there’s one thing that strikes me so incessantly; so immediately; so soul-affirming, about cycling, and that is this:

You can learn more about yourself in a few short hours than you can over weeks at a time when you engage in a proper bike ride.

Who you are. Why you’re doing what you’re doing. The important people in your life. What you need to be happy and the facilitation of that happiness. Deep, core-reflective authenticity.

When you put your mind and body amidst such sheer vulnerability, you cannot help but look. You cannot help but meditate on the things that make you tick. In these moments, you feel your breath. You feel your body. You sense the sun on your neck or the wind on your face. The whirling of the wheels guide your way.

It changes you. It morphs you. Every time, in a different way, but in the exact way you needed to be morphed on that particular day.

What I get from cycling can only be explained as I’m diving into the reserve tank, mindlessly setting a cadence I can contend with for some unknown duration when I believe I’ll reach where I think I’m headed.

It is during those times that the magic happens. The air, the trees, the thoughts, the sounds, the pain, and then… the joy. The sheer joy and satisfaction of what you’ve come through. And the excitement of where you’re going next.

Should I forever hold close that appreciation, I won’t mind if it never gets any easier.

The above image is my silhouette during a summer climb up Old Fall River Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Chris Case snapped the photo; one of my favorite in the saddle so far.

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This article has 8 comments

  1. Beautifully said Chris. Glad I could witness some of this.

    The last part about diving into the reserve tank is a monster part of cycling for me. When you slack out of shape and then come back to a familiar ride, your mind has to take on such a bigger part of getting you through what you *know* you should be able to do. It’s a gut check, but it’s also shutting down that voice in your head that’s stuck on a 5 second loop, “Just turn around. Nobody cares if you make it to the top.” I don’t always win those battles, but the feeling when I do is pretty damn sweet.

    Ride on, man.

    • Chris Arnold
      Nov 7, 2013 Reply

      I’m glad that struck a chord. It’s such a huge part for me, but I never really hear anyone else talking about it. There’s no question that gut checks (mind and body) are a big part of this sport. It’s a thread we both enjoy, I know.

  2. I’m proud of you. You’ve come such a long way in such a short time. And, just as importantly, you have quickly come to appreciate the soul-changing qualities of this great love of ours. Cycling is very powerful, if you let it be. You have chosen wisely, and have opened your arms and mind to the evolution. Great read.

    • Chris Arnold
      Nov 7, 2013 Reply

      Means a lot to hear, Chris. I’m grateful for your openness to the sport and willingness to drag me around when I first started exploring. So much more ahead, I know, and for that I’m very thankful. Cheers to you.

  3. 9 words>>> This makes me want to get on a bike…

    • Chris Arnold
      Nov 7, 2013 Reply

      You can, you will, and I’d be happy to spin around with you!
      Thank you for your kind (9) words.

  4. Great read. Thanks so much for sharing… it was beautifully written. Happy I’ve been able to share some of this with you (and hopefully many more crank turns to come).

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