My rides often wander into the hinterlands of Michigan, the place between the coasts, unpopulated expanses where one hand can count the cars that pass in an hour and a hundred miles can pass between stoplights. Out here, the world moves at the pace of your thoughts. Nothing but a rough patch of road exists to wrench you from whatever reality you choose to enter. Into your head you spiral, plucking stray musings and absorbing sensations from the world around you.
My goal on long rides — or any other ride — is the cessation of time and distance. I seek a consciousness where progression becomes measured in experiences — fording a flooded road, passing through a dying town, waving to a little boy playing in his yard, smelling another rotting raccoon carcass. In this world, the next marker isn’t inexorable, ticking time or passing miles, but is rather something unpredictable and maybe trivial. Something that gains the same significance we adhere to time precisely because I’ve given up concerns about time.
Entering this experiential mindset is one of the joys of riding long. Knowing the only thing I need to do is eat, drink, and pedal — and not get run over — for the next six or more hours allows me to escape the bombardments of life: digital devices that, unlike a book, crave attention and aren’t satisfied to wait idly until I return; a thesis; cleaning; and everything else that consumes sacred moments of consciousness. I am able to look down the road and see corn lolling in the breeze rather than remembering the remnants of the rice that I managed to yet again boil over glued to the stovetop. The time until I can take care of such things is far enough away at the beginning of a ride that there’s no point in thinking about it. Near the end of the ride, when life could potentially begin to intercede with my hazy thoughts, I’m reduced to primal urges — burritos, pizza, coffee — so normalcy doesn’t return until I’ve sated these needs, keeping the ride itself pure.
While any ride has the potential to become an experiential journey, leaving the bounds of the routine distances, the 60-, 80-, or even 100-milers, and riding long makes slipping free of the constraints of measured progress easier. Aside from knowing the ride is going to last all day, the ride itself will carry you outside your routine routes, the places you ride before, after, or — on great days — during work. Being in a new place forces you to pay attention to where you are, which means you’ll notice the names of the roads you go by — many are amusing — and will be looking for landmarks to tell you you’re where you expected to be. Or not.
Along with fresh vistas, a long ride almost guarantees the unexpected. If you spend enough time on your bike in new places, weird things will happen. I’ve accidentally filled my Camelbak with lake water and spent the next six hours feeling burpy and nauseous. I’ve encountered the same section of road flooded two months apart, the second time noticing a permanent measuring stick for the depth of the water — don’t build your road through a marsh! I’ve seen a fire-fueled sunset over the desert in Josuha Tree that made the sun seem like a dragon spewing blood across the clouds. For each of these, I don’t know the GPS coordinates or the mile marker or my wattage, instead I recall the vivid experience, the sense of being there, absorbed and engaged in the world, in the essence of existence — sensation.