I found my escape route 23 years ago. It was a bike ride that turned into a bike life. I discovered that when I rode my bike I could be transported to an inner world of serene contemplation by the metronomic rhythm of turning circles with my pedals. It slowed my beating brain down, honed my focus, and allowed my subconscious to playfully stretch its legs. I also learned mindfulness, because there’s no way I could worry about the certainty of death or taxes when there was a likelihood of casualty if I didn’t focus on the trail I was thundering through. Riding a bike became something I enjoyed not just because it was fun, challenging and took me places, but also that it made me feel better, both physically and mentally.
Finding what I refer to as escape routes – activities or practices that allow us to transcend our day-to-day reality or the experience of our normal lives – is something many people look for. Whether it’s riding in the woods behind your house after work, or going on grand bike tours that take us far away from the reality we know. Whether it’s diving into our phone and becoming absorbed by the digital habitat of our fabricated avatars. Or whether it’s just reading a book, with a cup of tea, feet up on the couch. There are many ways we can escape and which allows us to feel better about ourselves and the world we exist within.
But what if escape isn’t healthy? What if we were to escape too much or in ways that become detrimental to our wellbeing?
I recently saw a fellow bike-obsessed friend who confessed that he was sick. Not sick in the kind of way that a doctor could prescribe him back to health. No, something in his head wasn’t ‘right’; it hadn’t been for a long-time. He was like this long before he found bikes however riding had become his healing medicine. It gave him something to refocus his negative energy against. It was an outlet.
The physical act of cycling was like a form of meditation – the long slogs in the rain to the trailhead that first winter he started riding were where the real headway was made. The simple act of putting one crank in front of the other, over and over again, calmed his mind from everything that was less than ideal about his home life, his job, and his deteriorating relationships due to his poor choices.
Then the ferocious fun of learning to crash through the woods (literally) flushed away everything. Total focus on navigating throughout the rugged trails meant he became attentive to the absolute present. In those moments the anxiety of the past and future utterly disappeared. He discovered that it’s hard to worry about wrongdoings from five years ago or the paranoia of potential mistakes far into the future when, right in front of him, lay a web of slick roots that lead into an off-camber drop-off followed immediately by an awkward right-hander, and you’re flying through this scenario at 30km/h on something that provides no protection from the consequence of a fall.
But then biking became another form of mania. It crept up on him, silently taking hold as he became obsessive about riding a bicycle. He craved the mental cleansing, adrenalin and sense of empowerment that it gave him. He would become depressed if he went some time without biking. At first it would take weeks but then it would only have to be a matter of days before he would become agitated and easily angered. Not only that but he found that he was constantly needing to escalate his riding. He had to keep getting better and better, which became harder and harder as he rode more and more. When he started out it was easy to make gains and even small improvements in his fitness or skills felt like huge victories. But now, several years in, it felt like he’d plateaued and any development or betterment was severely hard-fought, especially for someone that had a job and young family to attend to.
He confessed that he’d started to shirk some responsibilities in order to keep riding at a frequency or level that he felt he needed. He’d take days off work just to ride his bike, but when his wages began to suffer so did the material wellbeing of his family.
He also became so focused on biking that he couldn’t focus on other aspects of “normal” life. He began missing sleep so he could ride before work, then missing eating lunch to ride on his break, and then slip out of the house once the kids and wife had gone to bed at night to go on a night ride. Sometimes all three in the same day.
He became absorbed by everything bike-related. He’d spend hours on internet forums, debating with invisible opponents about the minutiae of anything. It would keep him awake wondering if someone had said something wrong on the internet while he wasn’t there to police it. He’d spend time racing against digital adversaries, often skipping previous engagements to go win back a KOM that was torn away from him while he was at work or with his family. He became resentful towards friends, family and his job because they were distractions from his principal concern, bikes.
At first biking had helped him cope with his mental illness, but it hadn’t really cured it. In fact, now he used biking as a way to keep running away from standing up to it and trying to really get to the bottom of it. So now he had the same illness but he’d wrapped it up in something else, which made it even harder to really get to grips with it. He’d disguised his unhappiness from the rest of the world – and himself – by finding something that seemed to give him so much joy. But that joy hadn’t reshaped him, it had just been a costume.
His hyper-focus on biking had captured him. He became sidetracked by it, unable to become suitably engaged in his real life or to imbue his normal life with the significance that was needed to navigate it appropriately. He told me that he didn’t know what the answer was to all of this. Biking had helped him through the worst of times and it had made him better in many ways, so he was understandably reluctant to let go of the aspect of his life that had been so positive. But perhaps there was a balance to be found, if only he could.
There’s escapism, and then there’s running away from something so that you lose yourself. There’s taking a healthy break from something, and then there’s going so deep that it breaks your connection to other aspects of your life. There’s finding something life-affirming, and then there’s seeking distraction and relief from unpleasant realities by putting your head down and pedaling off regardless.