I cut the bicycle computer off my handlebars this week. I just can’t ride like that anymore.
Some years ago I had gifted the bike, a race/touring model, to a young man having a hard time in his life. He had no car or bike or money and I wasn’t using the bike for commuting around town. I honestly thought I’d never see the bike again. Take care of it, I told him. I bought it when my dad died.
But this spring I started thinking about the bike again. It was a good bike, and after this long winter I was restless to ride some longer miles. So I contacted the young man. Do you still have my bike? Sure, he said, I’ll get it out of storage.
When I picked it up I saw the tires were flat, the chain grimy and a coat of dust had dulled the blood-red paint. But everything else looked good. Except for one thing: a stubby little bicycle computer strapped to the handlebars. It seemed ugly and out of place with its plastic housing, digital display and the black wiring that spidered along the fork and down tube. It took a moment to realize I had put the computer on myself years ago, while training for triathlons.
It was fun at first back then, and mentally challenging: seeing my pedaling cadence, average and max speed, elapsed time and trip distance all for the first time. The computer had an odometer, lap timer, stopwatch, clock, date and weekday readout. Paired with a heart rate monitor strapped to my ribs it could show kilocalories burned, and aerobic versus fat-burning heart rate levels. After a ride I could even upload all this data to a desktop and generate full color bar graphs of performance trends. In other words, the bike computer provided a complete geekfest of information for the mind.
But after a while, the computer began to have a fun-sucking effect on my riding. I have enjoyed riding bikes since I was a kid, to elementary school, paper routes, high school, college, grad school, jobs. In law school I pedaled miles of hills to the Multnomah Country Courthouse with a clean shirt and in my pack to argue misdemeanor cases in court all day, then biked home mentally exhausted but physically wound up. In those pre-computer days I had no idea what my pedaling cadence or “VO2 max” was. I just knew when I felt on and spun up the rolling hills like a machine, and when I felt off and labored hard just to get home. It was always obvious how my mental or spiritual state was doing from how the ride was going.
But now, with the computer that gave me the actual numbers down to the linear foot of how far, how fast (or not), how cardioefficient (or not)… the disappointments began to creep in. Sure, I just rode farther than the previous month…but my average pace was slower than I targeted. Rats. Or, yes, I did just burn three thousand calories on that ride… but because I missed Sunday’s ride I’m down by fifty miles. Darn. I’m not meeting my training goals. I’m getting behind.
A creeping dissatisfaction with body and self darkened what used to be the fun of just riding to get around. In the city, or out on the back roads with the farms, corn and cattle flashing by I could feel the flow. Just by riding I could often reach the mental state found in deep meditation of being alert yet not thinking. But now, with the bike computer, I spent the rides head-down, focused on a one-inch screen between my hands. I was aligning my purpose to numbers, not the actual world around me. Without planning to do so, I had joined the ranks of a puzzling breed: people who succeed in getting away from office computer screens and urban hypnosis only to get to the workout and… gaze at different screens. I was no different from that guy at the health club, completely dissociated from his body while pounding the Stairmaster, listening to his iPod and staring at the TV or reading a book.
Perhaps you’re thinking, sour grapes. You’re just too old to go fast anymore or benefit from the technology. Yet even cycling pros miss the days when they carried a spare tire over their shoulder, not a wiring harness. During the heyday of the U.S. Postal cycling team 1998-2004, I watched hours of videos of Lance Armstrong and his Tour de France team on training rides and races, hoping to glean their secrets. These guys had the best equipment in the world, including the innovative use of small, two-way radios to communicate with the team director following the riders in his car. I remember one U.S. Postal rider, Christian Vande Velde, being interviewed mid-ride on his bike by a camera crew while training for the 1999 Tour. The cameraman shouted out his car window to Christian, who was struggling with the radio receiver connected by wires from his helmet to his hip. “The radios just went out!” he cursed, “I hate these things!” He jerked the earbuds out and tossed them to the road. “You forget how to make your own decisions,” he shouted, “Johann (the director) isn’t even up here, he’s a quarter mile back in the peloton!” But it was too late for Christian and every other rider. The technology virus had spread. Within a year every pro team in the Tour had two-way radios and TV commentators could now provide live reports of Armstrong’s heart rate or Ullrich’s cadence as they tore up the Alps or Pyrenees. More information about the human machines, but less about their soul. Like Lance’s own deceptions.
So we are reminded there is another kind of heart we should be monitoring. Not the cardiac muscle fired by signals from the central nervous system. But the spiritual heart, fired by passion and doing things that bring deep joy. This heart, our core of aliveness, has the capacity to inspire and lead us in entirely different ways than numbers on a screen ever could.
When I got my returned bike back home I put it up on my repair stand, just like the old days. I looked at the bike’s computer sensors, electromagnets I had carefully placed years ago in precise locations on the front wheel, crank arm and the chain secured with zip ties. The whole arrangement now looked ridiculous to me, like tits on a boar my grandfather would say. Or like an iPhone strapped to a deer’s antlers. I saw the wire cutter laying in my tool box. That little computer was expensive, I thought. Top of the line model, back in its day.
In recent years there’s been a move toward simplicity in the bike community. Like the return of fat-tired cruiser bikes, or the single-speed “fixie” (fixed-gear) bikes with no brakes at all that are popular with urban bike messengers. I wish this trend had reached the children’s bicycle market. In my inner city neighborhood, my heart breaks for every kid stuck with an unnecessary multigear discount bike rendered unusable when its cheap derailleur bent, the brake calipers froze or thumbshifters broke. A special place in hell awaits the corporate heads who design bikes never intended to withstand actual children or be repairable. Who seduce parents into thinking they were buying the “fancier” bike when they were actually buying shit. By contrast, even a cheap single-speed bike has twenty times the life of a discount multigear bike. Remember those bombproof, single-speed Schwinn Stingrays and cruiser bikes from your childhood? They’re fetching a thousand bucks each now on EBay. Because they worked, and they lasted. Low tech, high joy.
I picked up the wire cutter from my tool box and snipped the zip ties holding the bike computer wires to the frame. I unscrewed the clamps holding the computer to the handlebars, pulled the magnets from the spokes and crank arm, and stripped the tangle of wires holding all this together. In two minutes I had undone what it had taken me hours to set up, back in the day of Lance and U.S. Postal. When I lifted the tangled little tyrant off my bike, I felt a sigh of relief from the bike. Thank you. Thank you.
Perhaps I am too old to benefit from the technology. Maybe I just long for simpler days gone by. But when I dropped my liberated bike down off the stand, clipped into the pedals again and pulled onto the road, man, did that bike sing. And my unmonitored heart? It was singing too.