I’ve ridden bicycles all of my life. But a set of fortunate circumstances – including available time, beautiful weather, a first-rate bicycle and a good riding partner – have resulted in my spending more time and miles on two wheels lately than ever before. With a good fifty years of riding behind me, I have learned only lately one technique that can reduce the amount of work required and also multiply the pleasure and thrill of riding.
I ride on rural roads in West Virginia and so my circuits are filled with ups and downs, some of them steep and some of them long. You learn quickly to try and maximize your speed on the downhills so as to give yourself the best boost possible for the next, immediate uphill climb. Until just recently, I did that by shifting into a high gear and pedaling like mad on the downhills. That works, to some degree, but you get no break that way. You’ve just pumped yourself up the hill, your quads are burning and now you’ve got to keep spinning on the downhill. It never ends.
I don’t remember exactly what it was that got me to experiment with this – maybe watching my riding partner – but a few days ago I started laying off of the pedals on the downhills and bending low over the handlebars and tucking my body in at every angle to minimize wind resistance. The result was surprising. On the downhills – even the gentle ones – I would gain more speed resting in this streamlined position than if had been pedaling like a madman. On the steep downhills the difference was profound. I found that if I tucked very low and stayed tucked I could often simply coast to the top of the next uphill. And what a rush it was, lowering myself and watching the pavement roll underneath me like a mountain stream.
Here’s another thing: my every impulse, even now, even knowing what I now know, is to pedal all the time. I’ll tuck and ride the steep part of the hill down and when I near the bottom I’ll sit back up and start pedaling again and the result is always the same. No matter how hard I push, I still lose speed when I resume pedaling. I constantly misjudge my speed while I am coasting, believing, too early, that the fun is over and I had better get back to work. I will learn and adapt eventually, but the whole experience has made me think about my own presumptions about riding and, well, about life.
I guess I never leaned low before for one principle reason – fear. I knew other riders did it, but I didn’t push myself to get low because it looked scary and when I even tried to approach it a little I felt out of control. But riders do this all the time. It’s a part of the sport and feeling out of control, well, that was just a matter of perspective. It’s just different. Something I’m not used to.
I wonder how much of my dogged impulse to pedal even when pedaling will slow me down is an extension of some kind of long-engrained work ethic. The idea that you can coast through anything is antithetical to our – to my – presumption that everything must be earned, and there are no short cuts.
But the lesson here – and I think that it is applicable across all of experience as it is to cycling – is that there are downhills in life. There are times and places we are given rest and allowed to coast. We should not try to pedal and force our way through them. Rather, we need to learn to savor and maximize them. For the Christian, it is a matter of faith. A matter of letting God be in charge and accepting His grace as He gives it. Even when we are not working and even when life seems out of control, He’s still got us, and we’ll get to where we’re going faster and be fresher when we arrive if we only trust Him and lean low.