The afternoon ride is a ritual of summer: ditching out of work an hour early, pedaling through the New England hills. It's not a casual thing. It's a form of worship. At 16 miles an hour, God's creation slides by in a blur of green and yellow and blue. The wind constantly reminds me that I'm moving. The slow burn in my lungs and legs reminds me that I'm alive.
But it can be a lonely business. Which is why the afternoon ride is best done with my friend Charles. I've riding with (mostly behind) Charles' for decades. The first "real" ride I remember was sometime in the late '70s. He'd acquired a "real" road bike -- Italian steel, Italian parts. I was on a laughable hunk of heavy Japanese crap. And yet, he put up with my overweight huffing and we rode as hard as we could, as long as we could, as often as we could.
In the intervening 30 years, we've gotten a little better. Riding with the same partner for so long is a kind of marriage. We don't suck. We're certainly not going to win any races, even those marked "masters," shorthand for "old." But in the last thirty years we've gone through phases where we did try to race. We've both done our share of long, tortuous multi-day rides. And now we've reached that an old-man athleticism which has nothing to do with actually being strong and fit, and everything to do with training your body to do the least amount of work possible. We can ride for hours, never once paying attention, just talking. We ride 6 inches apart and can read each others body language so well that I know he's going to hit the brakes before he does, saving myself countless crashes over the years.
But I don't always get to ride with Charles. Now that we both work and have kids, most of the time I end up riding my myself. I could lie and tell you that these solo rides are times to be at peace with my inner whatsit and commune with the great Dalmuti or whatever, but the honest truth is that it's usually a lonely drag. Necessary, because I don't want to be dropped like a fat guy every Saturday morning. But still a drag.
So I became an bike-geek achievement whore.
When I get on the bike, I'm climbing into the only cockpit I own. Having long since abandoned flying or driving, my two bicycles are my only self-motivated transportation other than my Nikes. And like a teenager tricking out his Honda with chrome exhaust and faux-carbon fiber dash panels that stick on with double-sided tape, I spend far more energy on the technology and nerdiness of my bike than I do in actual riding. A decade ago, at the beginning of the dotcom boom, the bike was itself a purchase of geek-lust. The Trek 5500 was the bike the new USPS team was riding under the bony ass of Lance Armstrong. I was in crap shape in 1997, but it didn't matter. Because I had the cool techno-whiz bike, I felt fast, so I rode harder.
And that's the pattern. I spend money on toys that make me feel faster, so I ride harder. Once I had the bike I had to turn to other forms of technology Cyclocomputers. Heart rate monitors. Rollers. Better wheels. Handmade Vredestein tires rolled on the thighs of Danish virgins. It almost didn't matter. The mere consumption of crap kept me motivated.
And now there are achievement points. I never knew what to call them until I became an Xbox 360 player, but that's what they are. A few years ago, I bought a power meter. This ridiculous piece of technology combines heart rate, temperature, speed, cadence and actual power delivered to the pedals into one gigantic storm of computer-processed data. The result of all this data is that I can tell you exactly how I rode -- every minute detail -- on any day for the last several years. I can tell you, for instance, that my time up the local mountain has averaged about 7:45 since 2005. During my one glorious spring I dropped that to about 7:15, and this year, I opened the season at 8:15.
I can tell you that two years ago, I was able to average about 150 watts over two hours, and that I've slowly managed to increase that while at the same time losing weight and getting my heart rate down. Unless it's over 85 degrees. I can tell you that my peak output has gone from about 450 watts when I bought the damn thing to 580 (which I can hold for less than 5 seconds). I can tell you that when I draft Charles on the flats, I use 20 percent less power for a given speed than I do if I'm in front. And of course I can compare all this pointless data with equally geeky riders on the Internet. These are my achievement points.
Charles hates this. He is an anti-achievement whore. He believes that things should just "be." He hates the idea that life can be measured, captured, sliced and broken into component pieces. He hates the data from my bicycle interrupting our rides. He hates the continuous measurement of scores in games, the achievement points. He hates the numbers that tally in his bank account.
But for me all of this is what makes the mundane tolerable. When I'm riding alone, I create a cocoon. The data from the bike, the phone in my back pocket with the headphone cord, listening to net-radio from half a wold away, delivered through towers and satellites and Lithium-Ion haze. It's a cocoon of information all supporting an ego that lives for that little "ping" that means I did something useful, something worthwhile, or even just something interesting.
When that logo pops up on my screen in the middle of a game of Catan, or Gears of War, or anything, and I know I just added another 10 meaningless points to my Xbox 360 tag, it's motivating. When I get the check from a client, being able to to type "PAID" in my billing spreadsheet is almost more important than the actual money.
Is it sad that I sometimes need these achievement points to be motivated to work, game and even ride? Of course. Is it sad I need external validation to be motivated for anything? Sure.
But I'm human, an animal walking upright and wearing clothes. Underneath all this super-ego there lives an id-driven dog. And my how he likes it when the bell rings.