How My Bicycle Has Changed My Life

I’m a slightly podgy 27-year old motoring scribe that has attempted taking up more hobbies than most in my relatively short life. But, on the 26 July this year, I walked into my local cycling store and bought a secondhand mountain bike. – By Sean Nurse

You see, it’s become quite a regular occurrence for those in the motoring journalism field to take up some form of cycling, so I thought that it was only fair for me to give it a shot. So with the advice of my colleagues Aaron Borrill and Ashley Oldfield, my relatively impulsive decision has opened up a new world for me.

I now take part in a sport that I have enjoyed more than anything that I can remember over the past decade, apart from karting, which, as I alluded to earlier, my chubby frame isn’t exactly ideal for.

From what started as a 6.4km ride on the first afternoon has developed in to a five-day-a-week routine with around 140km/7 hours in the saddle. It’s a compulsion – something that I look forward to, similar to what I’d imagine it would be like to form a small drug habit, only more expensive. But all of the thousands upon thousands of Rands that I’ve spent I feel are totally justified for what I’ve taken from the discipline.

I get paid to write about cars, it’s the best job on earth, but as with all professions, you need something to take your mind from work and, when your hobbies include cars and motorcycles, you tend to feel as if you’re constantly ‘working’ after a while.

That’s where the cycling has come in. For those one or two hours each day I feel as if the only thing in the world that matters is getting my average speed up and ensuring that I beat my previous time in each segment on Strava. It also helps that I am decidedly less plump after four months of riding, heck; I might even be karting-weight by this time next year.

Apart from the escapism and weight loss that it has provided, I’ve also taken a few life lessons on board and even had a mild epiphany during my first 94.7 Cycle Challenge recently. Here’s what I’ve taken away, having cycled for just over four months now…

This too shall pass

Anyone who has cycled a meaningful distance on or off-road at an event or in a club/fun ride will have encountered a hill that appears to have come from the very depths of hell itself. For experienced and indeed, fit riders, the hills are a challenge met with glee and determination – but for someone in their first month it can be a deal breaker.

I was at a local (Gauteng) mountain bike trail recently with a few friends who have also taken up cycling recently. My riding companions reached the first set of climbs and simply refused to continue and headed back to the parking lot. I watched them turn back and knew that I would have to tackle this on my own.

I’ve never been one to quit something once I’ve started, so I pushed and pushed until the 32km of pain was over. Climbing up each hill I adopted the phrase ‘This too shall pass’, because there’s usually, but not always, a wonderful downhill section that follows the climb.

This has helped me in the real world too, each time I get impatient or frustrated with something because I’m part of the generation of instant gratification, I think back to one of those hills and remember that sometimes things are more difficult than I may have anticipated and will require more of my time and effort. But most importantly, it’s the realisation that I can now deal with the fact that some things take more time.

There’s not always a reward for your effort

Again, the climbs are what I’ll use to prove my point here. It’s often logical to assume that there will be a downhill after an intense uphill or vice versa, only this isn’t always the case as I discovered. I recently rode the properly tough trails at the Mankele Bike Park just outside of Nelspruit and was given a hard lesson in climbing when it gets muddy.

The first five-or-so kilometres of the ride at Mankele is one enormous uphill with a fairly hectic gradient and a view of the unrelenting ascent as you navigate your way up. I completed the climb and was expecting the mother of all downhill rides to follow it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. At the top of the hill I was greeted by a rocky forest and yet another climb, which on the day was tough because the rocky terrain was absolutely sopping wet.

The lesson? Well, much like my generation is the generation of instant gratification as I mentioned earlier, we are also the generation where ‘Everyone’s a winner.’ I feel that this has produced a generation so shielded from the feeling of failure that we’ve become soft, incapable of coming to terms with the fact that there has to be winners and there has to be losers in both competition and indeed, in life.

This simple fact of life came to me while I was riding up that hill. It’s probably the root of the problem with my generation. Everyone feels entitled to something because they put some sort of effort in, but effort and participation doesn’t guarantee a reward and the sooner we all realise that I think the happier we’ll be as a result.

Commitment is key

Don’t believe me? Get out there and try one of the many wonderful mountain bike trails our country has to offer, many feature large sections of singletrack, so turning around is not an option, unless you’re keen on running into a group of lesser spotted racing snakes who, in a caffeine-infused rage will tell you to turn around and go the right way. My point is that cycling teaches you to finish things, to commit, which is another problem with people these days.

I see many hopping from career to career or relationship to relationship because the minute something is perceived as ‘too difficult’ people quit, call a time out on their lives and start over. I know all about this, because I’ve been there, teetering on the point of giving up on things, but then I remember my father always saying to me when I was growing up ‘Never give up. When it gets tough you must have vasbyt.’

His words and my now several attempts at taking on difficult trails have taught me that tough is relative, relative to the person perceiving it. If you’re able to approach the situation with the right attitude, you’ll find that you will finish, and in the process you’ll learn more about yourself than you could possibly imagine.

It’s about the journey

As stereotypical as that sub-heading appears, I will stand by it. You see, cycling for me was all about being less fat, adding years to my life and feeling healthier. But having been out on the road and at various trails at the most ungodly hours of the day, I realised that the real enjoyment comes from the sights, sounds and smells encountered when you’re riding.

Whether it be the familiar smell of warm tarmac evaporating the recent rain, or the scent of hundreds of trees, shrubs and flowers all coming together to create a specific fragrance as you ride through a forest, it’s all a sensory overload.

I’ve realised that despite the fact that Strava is calling for that PB, that I should be cognisant of the fact that all around me, there’s a beautiful landscape to absorb, while I exercise. It has now become more about adding life to my years rather than adding physical time on this planet.

You’re stronger than you think

The aforementioned epiphany that I experienced during my first 94.7 Cycle Challenge recently involved my mental and physical toughness. To put it in perspective, I wasn’t prepared for the 94.7; at least I thought that I wasn’t.

Three weeks before the event, a friend of mine acquired an entry for me courtesy of a gentleman in the B seeding group who had damaged his hand and was unable to compete. I had no idea what to expect, so I kept on riding as I had been during the build-up to the race and obviously consumed some literature surrounding the subject to at least prepare myself mentally.

The day of the race crept up on me unexpectedly, but I felt that I had at least done enough to finish. So there I was, a four-month veteran of the sport starting in one of the fastest groups at 6:22am. I lined-up on my dual-sus, legs slightly fuzzy and less streamline than most in my immediate vicinity, my shirt stuffed with as many energy bars as possible while my drinks holder housed the obligatory electrolyte drink ready to quench my thirst.

The race began, and so did the relentless overtaking, I now know what Fernando Alonso must have felt like this season, only with him it was his less-than-satisfactory power plant, in my case, it was my legs allowing everyone to pass me. I must be honest, the first 30km-or-so I felt really rather good, in fact, I was shocked to reach the halfway point feeling as fresh as I did.

The kilometres kept on ticking by with each passing waterpoint triggering my own private celebration while the roadside support, in the form of cheers, boiled potatoes, bananas and water also kept me happy and motivated. It was at around the 80-km-or-so mark where I felt my body getting tired of the constant exertion. This also happens to be the point at which there are several painful climbs, including Malibongwe, Cedar and Steyn City.

It was at this point where I felt really tired, my groins were sore, my butt hurt from being in the saddle and it was insanely hot, but in the back of my mind I knew that I was close to finishing something that I thought I’d never do, and that I’d be doing it in a reasonably respectable time. It was a cathartic moment, I felt so happy and realised that all of the effort, the pain and the money was worth it to say that you’ve done something that makes you proud of yourself.

I approached the board saying 1km to go and cracked the biggest smile I could, even if it was a cramp-induced grimace. My girlfriend and mother were waiting for me at the finish line and even remarked on how good I looked, despite the fact that I felt absolutely shattered. The time read 4hours 27 minutes, a time that I was happy with, proud of even, considering that I could barely finish a 12km trail a few months earlier.

Four months of this sport had taught me more about me than years in the gym, playing golf, racing karts or writing about my favourite thing, cars has ever done. I look forward to many more years of riding and learning valuable life lessons along the way.

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Sean Nurse is the editor of Autodealer – a weekly motoring publication distributed across Gauteng. A self-confessed petrolhead, he loves speed and is currently on a quest to ride his bicycle as fast as he can.

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