Finally worked it out.

Dartmoor Classic 2011

For over a decade, my obsession with cycling has known few- if any – financial, geographical or verbal boundaries. I’ve spent a whole lot of time and money buying, riding, writing and talking about bikes. It has been solely responsible for a circle of fantastic friends, deep holes where cash was buried, broken bones and frequent abandonment of work and family. I owe that obsession all of that, and it owes me nothing in return.

But I’ve never really worked out why. That’s because fast talking belies slow thinking. Sure there’s been navel gazing extremism, pretentious nonsense, occasional bouts of self-doubt, and boring repeats of wondering what comes next. Yet, rather than a laser focus on what’s important, it was more about a lighthouse illuminating new areas of interest – then chasing them down with very little method and much madness.

Take road bikes. They had no place in “Al’s Cycling World” – a place where every road was a singletrack, every climb opened up a perfect descent, a landscape chopped by distant peaks and filled with sun kissed valleys. Trails would end in cool bars filled with good friends and colder beer. Road bikes would be an irrelevance; at best a sporting challenge designed to break them in the most amusing manner.

But taking a fixed position on shifting sands is a silly game only zealots play. So you slide into thin tyres via most mountain bikes, then hybrids, then cheap commuters and onwards to the inevitable U-Turn. Last week saw me come full circle at the Dartmoor Classic. But only because of fitness ground out over multiple winters on mountain bikes. And that allows single minded and nasty competitiveness to turn you proud. And there is some visceral joy of bending the tarmac to your will.

Lightbulb moment. Loathing endurance events circling endless laps is as much about boredom as it is about not being good enough. It isn’t about the pain and suffering, it’s about the pain and suffering AND still losing. Losing places and hope and the will to live. No laps in my cycling world, we’ll be on the shoulder of a jagged peak spying miles of sinuous singletrack just over the summit.

Logic dictates then that riding a many lapped loop last night should bring on the same weary tedium. It’s unrelenting – hard and steep and shared with fit riders who make it harder still. Flick the bulb again; because now I’ve riding with my friends, having the craic between hastily drawn breaths and the competitiveness may be dulled by companionship, but it is absolutely still there.

That’s the root of it; trying to beat someone, even if it’s only yourself. I can’t get excited about 223rd place against 224th, but if it’s you and you’re half wheeling me and I can see the top then we’re racing. If I know you’re quicker on the next descent, I’m flicking shocks and snicking gears while you’re distracted. Just me and the risk of the going faster is balanced against the danger of consequences, against you there is no balance, no arguments, only getting there first.

Losing is fine too. Because next time / next week / next year I’ll get you back. And while that is the root, it’s not the whole damn cause. I never could understand gym-rats who admire their glistening form because it pleases them. Getting fit is a painful journey, my intent to stay there is entirely predicated on a) winning a bit more often and b) not having the mental strength to undertake that journey again. It’s a symptom of riding not the reason for doing it.

Last night was a perfect ride; it was full of happy stuff – gripolicious dry trails, good friends riding at the top of their game, nobody else on our hills, t-shirts, shorts, a setting sun and the confidence that everything under dusty tyres can be ridden just a little bit faster.

And it was. One of those rides where flow, speed and luck are joined at the point of lucky rider. You live for days like these. 20 desperate winter slogs are nothing when compared to one night of perfection. Aches, pains, broken bones, haemorrhaged bank accounts, guilt and selfishness are not even a price. Because if they were, you might stop for one second to consider if it was worth paying.

And I’ll never, ever get that from a road bike. That’s what I worked out. It’s taken me a while but I think I’ve got it now.

Cycling is in my blood. Mountain Biking is in my soul.

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