Bike touring, with all the wonders it offers, is an exercise in focus and patience. For five to eight hours a day, we do nothing but pedal.
It should come as no surprise that the physical stress, hunger, dehydration and endorphins fuel huge mood swings in short amounts of time. Yesterday was a great example. As the ride started, the clouds rolled in, and side winds drove cold pellets of rain across us. I’d also forgotten a piece of gear with our host, and to say that this put me in a bad mood is an understatement. No subject was safe from my brooding, especially not Chris’ superior speed or the stripped bolt I could not fix on my bike. The bolt especially angered me. It meant that I could not lower my handle bars, which were about an inch and a half too high. I saw that bolt as the root of all evil, of all the pain in my knee and spine, which coincidentally also started to hurt like hell.
We called lunch a few hours into the ride, assembling our daily staple of bread, cheese, and some unknown meat. The sun had started to come out across the fields, warming the air and calming the winds. What winds were left pushed us from the back, gently encouraging us towards Novi Sad. Refeuled and warm, we spent the afternoon breaking speed records on Serbian country roads, elated to be outside and exploring such an exotic place.
Transition time from depression to ecstasy: 25 minutes. Yesterday, we were lucky it only happened once.
These mood swings are part of the deal, but we’ve had to learn to accept them. We can’t escape them, but we can keep them at arm’s length; we see them as a biological sensation that should never dictate our goals or interactions. The only thing they dictate is lunch.
If we are lucky enough to have a straight path, Chris and I have learned to spend the long hours day dreaming, letting the endorphins and the occasional boredom take our minds for a walk. We can go thirty miles and barely remember what we passed. I dream about where we’re going, about how we’re going to find the perfect story. I dream about what the subject will look like, or woman, or make up stories where I’m always the hero. At the 50 mile mark, when thinking takes too much energy, the dreaming stops and I have no idea where my mind goes. This is great—when my mind is nowhere, I can ride hard without emotion.
When we have to be earthbound, which is much of the time, we’re listening to our muscles in between the turns and bumps. Small changes have huge impacts. Straightening the back a little bit can prevent agonizing pain, adjusting cadence can save precious energy. We shift gears up, down, and up again, working to find the sweet spot of rhythm and pressure. We listen to our bikes, too. We try and hear the half second delays in gear shifts that ask for a change in cable tension, or the slight groans of the chain that beg for just a few more drops of oil.
The distances taunt us if we watch them, but disappear if we don’t. The biggest task is often just keeping our minds off the kilometers. Sometimes I can’t help it, especially at the end of a long ride, when the sun is setting and the cold winds are arriving and all the sugar in my blood is gone. So we think really hard about what we’re looking forward to at the end of the day. I think about hot water flowing over my head, of beer and well-cooked pasta. As we head over that last hill, I’ll say those words a thousand times in my head, just focusing on how good that bite, shower, or gulp will be.
Whatever the strategy, we always try and remember how vulnerable and lucky we are. We are at the mercy of the weather, politics, our bodies, and a million other tiny factors we cannot predict. What they throw at us must be accepted with a mixture of stoicism and joy. It’s all part of the adventure we’re so lucky to be riding.