The year I bought four bikes

There was one particular year in which, for some reason, I thought it entirely necessary to purchase no less than four bikes. If this strikes you as some sort of achievement, you probably consider yourself a cyclist and you probably also abide by rules, like ‘n+1,’ that are meant to dictate how many bikes you should own. This story isn’t so much a story about ‘n+1,’ or consumerism, or even bikes themselves; it’s a story about my changing 18-year relationship with a hobby, and a lesson in being true to yourself.

During those twelve months, I cycled through bikes so ferociously and with such reckless abandon that by the end of it, I was wrecked. Physically, my legs were toast and mentally, I was exhausted. I was working in a bike shop at the time, which probably had something to do with the sheer number of bikes I purchased; the ease of access to heavily discounted bikes made buying new ones easy. I never lost money selling a bike, but turning a profit wasn’t what motivated me to buy bike after bike. What scared me was that, for a while, I managed to convince myself time after time that it was always the next bike that would fix my complicated relationship with cycling.

“I’m a cyclist, god damn it!” I found myself saying on a terribly slow and lethargic commute to work one morning, “Why is this suddenly so hard?!” I wasn’t enjoying riding, yet I was a cyclist; it made my head spin. It’s safe to say that riding bikes formed the single biggest part of my identity over the last 18 years, but slowly I was finding that the thing I had always been able to count on as an endless source of joy, felt like it had taken a sour turn.

I blamed the bike; the lightweight, carbon fibre thing I was riding “just wasn’t me,” I told myself. I slowly lost interest in the solo, head-clearing, 100km-plus rides I used to devour. I found myself agreeing with people who had something against lycra simply because of the negative image they thought it portrayed of cycling. I was like putty; highly impressionable. Laying down on the grass drinking chocolate milk after smashing myself for 100km stopped bringing the same sense of satisfaction it used to and just started feeling empty and pointless. “Yes, that’s it,” I found myself concluding, “I’ve always hated the racing scene and what it’s done to real cycling.” Real cycling? Where did that come from? I built up these ridiculous strawmen, just to cut them down. I began gravitating to other scenes in cycling.

Bike-packing caught my attention. Here was a bunch of people who’d worked it all out. They weren’t hung up on all the latest gear, they were out enjoying nature in what seemed like a simple form of cycling. I pencilled in an overnight ride in the Hunter Valley and bought some fancy new camping gear. Only a year beforehand, I’d done a similar ride on a 5” travel dual suspension mountain bike with slick tyres and hadn’t thought anything of it, but over the course of a year, my mindset had changed and I’d convinced myself it was necessary to buy a bike specifically designed for lightweight touring, so I sold the road bike and bought a steel Kona Rove that fit the bill. Cue bike number two. I fell in with a new group of friends, met some interesting people and went on a few bike-packing adventures. I organised a week-long tour riding from Sydney to Victoria, which I did enjoy. I met a lovely girl through bike-packing and we dated for six months. I also discovered a whole new world of #hashtags with which to document my adventures. I learned that each ride should ideally be accompanied by a ride report and that nothing happened unless it was traced with a GPS and uploaded to Strava where it could receive ‘Kudos.’ But as it went on and the more I thought about it, the more I realised I was just doing what I thought I should do to keep my love of cycling afloat. I was on autopilot. I was going to things because Facebook suggested I go; I went to the next event because I’d been to the last one.

Around this time, I was having trouble at work as well. My boss had withheld my pay for almost two months, twice. I felt trapped because I was left to run the bike shop by myself while he was on a tropical island holiday not paying me. One day I turned up for work fifteen minutes late and thought about just putting a sign on the shop door and never coming back, but I felt a sense of duty to the customers and my work mates, so I grit my teeth and bought more two minute noodles for dinner.

I bounced between different cliques in cycling, like a pinball rapidly heading for the bottom of the table. Hanging out in the inner west of Sydney I met more and more people who were active on the left of the political spectrum and I got involved in cycling politics and advocacy. I found myself going on night rides with people who covered their bikes in lights and blasted music from portable speakers. I was amused, but always felt like a passenger. I hated that cycling had become political first and fun, second. I grew frustrated at the near-misses I’d inevitably have riding with a large group of people at night who didn’t know how to ride in a bunch. There was no focus on coaching or etiquette, like the cycling clubs I grew up in.

I swallowed the image single-speeders were selling, hook, line and sinker. The ‘purity’ of riding with only one gear. I attended the Single Speed World Champs and aside from getting to ride with a few good friends and meet some great people, I found myself feeling like a complete outsider. The heavy drinking and drug culture didn’t sit well with me and I felt like the costumes and single gears were more about wanting to stand out, than not giving a shit, like most people claimed. I saw people get outraged because the female winner of the race refused to get the compulsory tattoo in a dirty muddy tent at the finish line. For a scene that positioned itself as the punk of cycling, what could be more punk than refusing to take the rules seriously? The irony was as subtle as a piano down a staircase.

I jumped on the retro bandwagon. Maybe building up that bike from 1995 would bring back the same feelings that came from riding BMXs and building jumps in 1995. To me, bikes always represented freedom. Freedom to go anywhere and do anything. Freedom to have fun and forget about all the stress of the day. The feeling of freedom was what I missed. I’d become trapped.

The kicker came when I bumped into an old friend from high school during the week of our ten-year high school reunion. I hadn’t seen him for ten years but I couldn’t think of a single non-bike related thing to talk about; I felt estranged from my usual inquisitive and friendly self. “Perhaps I should just stop?” I finally allowed the thought to cross my mind.

I took a much-needed holiday and rode a total of 4 times in 5 months. I did everything other than ride a bike. I picked up a camera for the first time in years and got back into the habit of reading books again; something that I’d forgot always helped clear my head. While walking around a neighbourhood I found a communal library bookcase and took the only English book I could find. It was a book called The Answer to How is Yes. Reading it I was hit with the heavy realisation that the reason I felt the way I did was because I wasn’t doing what actually mattered to me.

I think what I learned from all of this can be summarised in two main points:

  1. Doing something because you think it’s what you should do is one of the worst reasons for doing anything, ever. Do what matters to you, and do it with all your heart. That is the only way.
  2. Just because you’ve always done something, doesn’t mean you have to keep on doing it if you’re not enjoying it. It’s okay to stop.

I’m allowing myself to leave the bike at home any time I’m not feeling it and I’m finally okay with that.

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