Cycling is pedaling through a reckoning and it’s in the next few months that collectively, we can decide where as a community we want to go. To that end, we’ve asked for insights from riders and writers, industry veterans and newcomers to the sport, high performance and high enthusiasm riders alike for a series of essays. These personal stories are aimed to give insight into the moment we find cycling in today and where we can move forward to find a better way in the years to come.
Where racing fits (and doesn't fit) moving forward
by Marc Peruzzi
Marc has carved a living out of writing, riding and being outside. A contributing editor to Outside Magazine and the Editorial Director of Mountain Magazine, Marc has also written for Men’s Journal, Bicycling, 5280 Magazine and Skiing. As a committed cyclist, Marc’s overseen magazine bike testing, raced countless events and has had a front seat to the cycling industry for the better part of a quarter century. He lives in Missoula, Montana.
I was perhaps more prepared than most when the cycling community and the nation were overwhelmed by ill news, personal and national tragedies, and the fear that cycling as we know it would end. Like everyone, the pandemic canceled the races, group rides, and cycling road trips I had planned. And like most everyone, I watched with dismay as a handful of event promoters smoldering in their own self pity reacted poorly to the times. But I also knew that even as cycling was cut to its roots, it would thrive in a new light. I knew this because I never deeply appreciated the simple joys of cycling—until I almost lost them.
This started about six years ago. I’d be high tempo riding up a climb on dirt or tarmac around my old hometown of Boulder, locked into my sweet spot training zone of 155bpm, and then my heart would flutter spasmodically in my chest, my heart rate monitor would top out a 220bpm, and to end that staccato burst before I passed out I’d have to get off the bike and bear down like a weightlifter. Those rides ended with me—distraught—rolling downhill in a mood so black that my vision tunneled. It wasn’t long after that I found myself on an operating table with an electrophysiologist and his bag of adrenaline jacking my heart to 350 beats a minute to see if he could locate the misfire and burn it away.
Except, the doctor couldn’t find the short. The procedure failed. I left the hospital knowing that, at best, I’d never again ride beyond long slow distance spinning. I faced a future of no hard recreational racing, no competitive group rides, and certainly no skate skiing or bootpacking up couloirs. I wouldn’t be able to ride mountain bikes with my NICA racing son or even alpine ski or hike with my family. “Exertion would be limited to a walking pace,” the doctor told me. My career as an outdoor journalist was jeopardized. And secretly I was terrified that, without the self medication that intense cycling secreted into my system, I would fall into depression. What kind of a father, husband, brother, friend would I become?
Therapists call this negative filtering. It might sound familiar in 2020. When we’re overwhelmed with bad news and the dread of uncertainty, the sieve of our consciousness lets positivity wash away and we’re left with a basket of acrid, smoldering, selfish, self pity. That was me in my nadir.
I recovered. But it wasn’t some untapped strength that saw me through. I honestly don’t think I’m that strong. It was blind luck that saved me. Before the procedure, the doctors had insisted that caffeine played no role in my condition, but out of desperation I stopped drinking coffee that day in the hospital. And my arrhythmia went away, only returning once six months later when I accidentally drank a caffeinated drink and chased a friend up a gravel road.
That was my personal cycling reckoning. It doesn’t even register in 2020, a year that has seen existential reckonings on leadership, racism, truth, environmental degradation, and the perils of science denial to only name a few. Cycling may seem small in comparison, but it isn’t immune from the cold self reflection of these times. There are toxic components of our sport, and 2020 has exposed many of them. Cycling is still a closed door to most non-white riders. (My own lived experience heavy with riding reflects this: I lived in Colorado for 15 years and didn’t ride with a single Latino in that time, even though the state counts 1.1 million. I only consistently rode with one Black rider. In Montana, I’ve only ridden and built trail with one American Indian.) Cycling’s economic elitism, too, is like a noxious weed spreading from the wealthy cycling hubs. And the competition that was once contained to actual racing now permeates too much of the sport. I don’t need to compete on who has the newest cycling overload addiction, divorce, leisure time, or Sardinian vacation. In general, too many of us treat cycling like some birthright, an heirloom that only the cognoscenti can enjoy. I was like that.
But here’s what I learned when I was testing my heart in the wake of that failed procedure. I was surprised to find that an incident-free solo ride brought me as much joy as an age class podium. After six weeks, when it was clear that I could ride at intensity again without an episode, all I cared to do was ride tempo with close friends and then pop in a coffee shop—for soda water and a conversation. I eventually raced again and more importantly race trained with faster riders, but my attitude had changed. I no longer stressed if I blew up on the final lap or couldn’t hang on the occasional lunchtime throwdown. The experience mattered more to me than the results, which, unless you’re a total sandbagger, tend to be disappointing anyway. My racer’s remorse wasn’t as biting. The hard training was more fun than the racing. That was always true for me. But it took a forced sabbatical to recognize it. I started seeing cycling as the gift that it is. And the biggest of those gifts was helping to coach my son’s high school mountain bike team. Giving back to kids is always rewarding. But it was the time I spent with my son during his early teens that I cherish. After evening practice we’d lean our bikes against a railing downtown and decimate burritos in the golden light of dusk. Pretty routine perhaps, but I’ll never again look that horse in the mouth.
Ask anyone that loves to ride their bike and they’ll tell you similar meaningful stories from this year. As much as we devote ourselves to them, we don’t need Strava, Thursday Night time trials, merciless drop rides, masters class bike races, and crushing gravel events in broiling heat to find cycling joy. We also don’t need the uniforms, costumes, clubhouses, and brand new bikes every year. We can leave our egoes behind and relish the flow. This year has proven it. And cycling is better for it.
I was reminded of this the other day when I took five minutes to fill out one of those surveys in a cycling newsletter. Under the header “Why Do You ride Bikes?” I checked every box of dozens.
To relieve stress: √.
To stay out of gyms: √.
To eat what I want: √.
“To compete” was on that list, and I did check the box, but I also checked “spending time with friends and family” and “enjoying nature.”
In some ways I’ve come full circle. When I first started riding road and mountain bikes in college, I was a thick rugby player and couldn’t keep up with my fast brother or the Wednesday Night Worlds crew. I rode with slow friends. I rode by myself and saw bears and coyotes and moose. I rode with my dog. For the rest of my life, I’ll ride whether or not there are any formalized events.
Earlier in the pandemic, my cycling might have looked a lot like yours did. Respecting the distancing rules, I’d head out on solo gravel tours or follow the snowmelt to singletrack. Unlike normal times, there were fewer time constraints and I would stop and eat while taking in the snow-covered peaks. Resigned to a season without racing, I still made goals for myself. That was me riding our earn-your-berms DH and Flow trails with pads on, lapping the jump line and DH drops until I was actually taking air and landing on the transitions. With my workload dramatically cut by the pandemic, I rode more than I had in years and through default achieved baseline fitness. Focusing on another weakness, I managed to fight through lactate threshold to execute a few decent VO2 Max intervals at a time. Later, as it became clear that we could ride outdoors safely, my mountain biking friends and I took to the singletrack just glad for the company. We never hammered. We never dropped anybody. We just talked on the climbs and shredded the downhills. That’s what we do anyway. It’s one of the reasons I left Colorado to return to Montana three years ago. At least among my friend group, cycling is less judgemental here. Competition is left to races.
I don't know how to solve cycling's inequities, how to push the industry to speak to more than just the Boulder bubble I once floated in. But since we’re all currently examining our lives and the society we’ve built anyway, now might be the time to try. At the least, cycling can do a better job of becoming an open and kind community. There’s not a lot that really matters beyond that. Ultimately we all ride to self medicate ourselves with fresh air, exercise, and friendship. The importance of the last bit can’t be overstated.
Yesterday I went for a mountain bike ride with a close friend. He’d lost his wife and riding partner to tragedy two weeks before. We’d all been there for him and his daughter before the extended family arrived, and we’re here for him now that they’re gone. But riding is also part of recovery—his and ours. On yesterday’s ride we felt obligated to talk more than we normally do at first. I felt as though I needed to check in. And I’m sure he felt he had to show me he was healing.
After about 30 minutes, though, the conversations stopped. Like most of the people I gravitate to, he’s always been fine with long silences on the bike. When we hit the climb I went to the front—unusual with him as a former pro—and settled into that high tempo sweet spot riding that we both love. The hot weather had broken with cool northwesterly air. On the forest floor, the grasses had dried to chafe. My eyes were drawn to the Larch trees that would soon go yellow in the mist of fall. The only sounds were of our tires and our breath. And that’s all we needed of cycling.