Finding the zone: The Zen of urban cycling
I am a mountain biker and mountain bike racing is a big part of my love for cycling. There’s only one problem: I live in the city. To get to the hills, I have to put my bike on the car and drive an hour out of town. Luckily for me, there are many aspects of urban riding that fulfill a similar sensory experience to the high I find on the trail.
I’m no World Cup racer, but hammering down the mountain biking trails, I still have moments when I find myself in a state of athletic euphoria that riders call “the zone.” When you’re in the zone, your bike and body operate as a single unit. Your thoughts and actions are intertwined. Your mind measures the variables as they approach at warp speed and you respond without thinking, arcing tight twists and turns through gaps just inches wider than your handlebars.
Riding in the zone is an amazing, Zen-like experience. It is the cyclist’s version of a “runner’s high.” This immense state of focus not only happens in the woods. The zone can be achieved when riding in the city, too.
In a mountain bike race, the competition adds to the adrenalin. The effort required to chase the racers in front of you or escape the racers behind you can fuel the experience. In town, encounters with car drivers can act in very much the same way.
In the woods, it is about flowing over logs in the trail, cruising through seemingly lineless rock gardens, and dipping between tight trees. On the city streets, it’s about weaving past the guy on his cell phone who steps out from between parked cars, adapting to an aggressive lane change by a soccer mom in a minivan, or avoiding a car door swinging open into your lane. In so many ways, urban riding is just a series of close calls.
Yesterday, I was taking a standard route across town. I was moving at a pretty good clip, when a driver behind me laid on the horn. Instead of riding submissively and pulling over so the car could pass, I held my ground. Sure enough, the car came screaming past obnoxiously fast and obnoxiously close, then cut right, into my lane, stopping at a traffic light and blocking my passage forward.
The racing instincts kicked in. Rather than stopping, I made the calculation that it was safe and cut left, riding the double yellow line past the stopped cars. The timing was perfect. Just as I hit the intersection, the light turned green. I had the momentum to make a jump past the cars, fading back to the right side of the right lane and leaving the obnoxious driver trapped in traffic many car-lengths behind.
Just as my grade school basketball coach told me, “Sometimes the best defense is a strong offense.”
If you’re in the zone, all this happens effortlessly. But the zone is not something that can be found by changing your diet or crunching the numbers from your power meter. It is not an experience that a coach can deliver you to. The zone is an infrequent experience that occurs when the stars are aligned, a moment served up to you as a treat for all the hard work that has been done to achieve this level of fitness and a reward for being able to focus your entire attention on the moment.
And sometimes, in the streets as on the mountain bike trails, discretion is the better part of valor. While it is vital for cyclists to assert their right to the road, in a game of chicken between a bike and a car, the car almost always wins.
Yesterday, there was another honk from a car approaching fast from behind. I glanced back to see if it was intended for me, and saw a massive black SUV approaching fast. Once again, the “Spidey senses” kicked in. I felt that if I did not clear the way, this set of oversized wheels was going to roll right over me. I glided to the side, just in time, as a car built to carry seven but driven by one passed with a swoosh that felt like a freight train.
Urban cycling is about being smart, not being stubborn. In this situation, it was best to stay out of trouble’s way, and grant this American Psycho clear passage to the next bumper 20 yards ahead.
Yes, some days on the street, you find yourself beaten back. But spend enough time out there, and you’ll have days when your bike and body are operating without issue. The chain is not skipping and your stomach is not giving you cramps. You throw your leg over the bike and for some reason find yourself in a personal time trial. Racing a city bus to the hole shot, you feel like Superman racing the train.
After the ride, you’ll find yourself with a wide smile and a sparkle in your eye. Without even knowing it, you have found the zone.
Get Grist in your inbox