Choice, or the perception of it, is one of the most powerful forces on Earth. The great secret lies in the locus of control, which suggests that if given the perception of a choice we will be more willing to endure hardship or suffering. We’ll suffer even for the promise of a future intangible reward so long as we feel we have a choice. The Matrix was based on this principle, which means it’s true.
On good days, I will ride with a strong sense of control over my pain. It still doesn’t mean I enjoy the pain itself, but I enjoy the power I feel in my legs, the constant hum emanating from my tires telling me that I am pedalling smoothly (a pulsating sound indicates I am starting to pedal more square than round). My legs will burn as always – as will my lungs – but there is a calm that cannot be shaken with this kind of form. At will, I can push hard enough to force infantile wails from the deepest recesses of my being – sounds that feel as though they originate from another person altogether. Those sounds may well be coming from me, but I feel as though I’m outside myself, driving the tempo and benevolently amused at the suffering I’m imposing on myself.
Most days, however, the suffering doesn’t come so easily. However much I love Cycling, the reality of life means a constant push and pull between getting on the bike and staying at home. Some days, it will be a relief to climb aboard the bike and stamp away at the pedals, squashing some workday quibble that couldn’t be resolved at the water cooler. Other days, it will take every bit of determination to stumble into the cellar and emerge with a bicycle and not a bottle of wine. On still other days, the bike is a break in the routine of a rough day at the office; I won’t go hard, I won’t seek out the hills; I’ll just get on the my machine and wrap myself in the sensations of being one with my bike until the stress melts into pleasure.
On every one of my usual rides, I know exactly where the challenges along the route lay. I feel them as I get closer to them, and I count them off, one by one. I’ll have them laid out even before I clip into my pedals. I will have been steeling myself against the first of the day’s efforts – an effort so different from my professional life. To ride is to enter a simple word full of the sort of physical exertion that purges worry and concern from the mind while it is completely occupied by the singular focus that only pain can offer; pain is a greedy thing that can coexist with nothing else. If only for a few fleeting minutes, I will be away in the Cave, where nothing else can touch me.
But the freedom found at the other end of the Cave isn’t free and it never gets easier to accept. I’ll prepare myself for the suffering I know is coming long before it arrives. Sometimes, even days before. I will remind myself of its fleeting nature, that it will settle in like a shadow before it strikes out in full force. But after the effort is through, the pain will wash away. And like a dream, it will be hard to remember how it felt when it was there; only the notion will remain. I will compartmentalize what is coming, put it in a box of defined size that I know I can understand during the effort. During the effort, I will choose to put myself inside the box. After, I will choose to be free.
As adults, we understand that most of what we do are those things we must do. The rest of the time, we do the things we choose to do. The artist is said to suffer because they must, whereas the Cyclist suffers because we choose to.
Riding a bike spelled freedom to me as a child seeking to escape the bounds of my house. As an adult, it spells freedom from the stresses of daily life.
The variables have changed, but the fact remains: the bicycle is freedom.