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It's Not About The Bike

May 9, 2009 | by Aryeh Markman

Learning life lessons -- on two wheels.

What's the big deal about Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France five straight times?

Believe me, it is a big deal.

The Tour de France is 20 days of biking, over 100 miles a day, throughout France at approximately 27 mph. The first time I tried to do something similar I went on a 52-mile ride a little over three hours, averaging 17 miles an hour.

If you don't think that sounds like much, try it yourself. Get on a stationary bike at your local health club and pedal at a pace of 17 mph for three hours without a break. Now factor in the hot sun, cars gunning by you, and menacing cracks, potholes and assorted obstacles in the road.

In those three hours, I learned how to exceed my physical limits through mind and spirit. And I learned some profound lessons about life.

The only thing I needed to bring was my will power.

My friend Fred had offered to take me on this ride. He was practicing for the cycling leg of an Iron Man triathlon competition. I naively thought I would bring my bike, tennis shoes and helmet, and we would ride along the beautiful outer limits of our Pacific Coast city. Wrong. The only thing I needed to bring was my will power.

Fred brought for me everything else: professional racing bike, new helmet, gloves, racing shorts and jersey... and shoes.

Not just any kind of shoes, but the type that lock onto the pedals. I literally became one with the bike. I had to learn a deft motion to release my imprisoned foot from the pedal at stop signs and traffic lights. Otherwise, the bike, with me strapped on, would teeter, crashing on the unforgiving asphalt. Thank God, I clot easily.

At 6 a.m. we met up with the other cyclists preparing for the Iron Man Triathlon, and they were fabulous about making me feel welcomed. Of course, they knew what lay ahead and how ill prepared I was. I guess I was there to provide entertainment.


Just before we pushed off I was given two bottles of a Gatorade/water formula.

"Hey, I don't think Gatorade is kosher. Can't I just use plain water?" I asked.

"Electrolytes. You need to replenish your electrolytes, or your body is going to shut down."

Ever get the feeling that you're out of your league? I took two bottles of water, and with great reluctance one bottle of the Gatorade cocktail -- just in case there was a genuine medical emergency.

And off we went. I almost wiped out at the first traffic light, as I barely unlocked my foot at the last possible moment. A half hour later, eight miles out and beyond the point of return, I fell. I wore the bruises for three weeks.


Early into the ride, Fred taught me about aerodynamics. He told me to get within six inches of his back wheel. "You'll save 30 percent of your energy by riding in my windbreak."

Yeah, right, I thought. I won't be able to see what's coming next, and if Fred brakes I'll be wearing his t-shirt.

Sure enough, by the last third of the trip I was six inches off of Fred's wheel. I had gone into survival mode. And he was right. He pedaled, while I glided along.

We all want to get ahead, and that rear position can feel uncomfortable.

The same applies to life. Many times we're in the shadows of others. We all want to get ahead, and that rear position can feel uncomfortable. But so what? Just ride behind them. When it's time to make your move, you won't be so exhausted, having ridden on their coattails. If you look closely at bike races, that is what everyone is doing -- until their moment of truth comes and they make their move to win.

Do we really have to be leading the pack all the time? What a waste of energy. Save it for when you truly need it.


Early in the going, having already finished off one of my two bottles of water, I was coming down a hill trying to brake without losing control. Fred had taught me that you only brake the right hand (back brake) before the left (front brake). If you brake with the left hand first, you'll stop the front wheel and the back of the bike will flip forward -- ejecting you out of the seat like a stone from a Roman catapult.

So as I was breaking at 30 miles an hour (Lance Armstrong comes down a mountain at close to 60 miles an hour), I ran over some of those smooth, saucer-shaped highway dividers. As I fought to keep my balance while my bicycle dangerously wobbled, my last water bottle was shaken from its brace and smashed to the ground.

"Keep going!" cried Fred. "Don't stop to get it!"

I was not about to, certainly not at my speed. I had the green light through a major 6-lane-wide intersection and cars were trailing us trying to pass. But no more water! Only non-kosher Gatorade. I decided right then and there that if my ancestors in Auschwitz and Siberia did not forgo their kashrut standards under the rigors of survival, then neither would I. Forget about with my thirst, which over time would grow debilitating. I was not going to jeopardize the spiritual pipeline for something as mundane as replacing my diminishing state of body fluid. Heaven help me.

The Wall

In marathons, at around the 20-mile mark, runners hit "the wall." That's when the muscles are totally deprived of oxygen, poisoned with their own carbon dioxide waste. The body becomes almost immovable. It's at this point that runners either make it or break it. I kept wondering if this phenomenon was going to happen to me.

With only five miles to go, I was going uphill, straining with everything I had. After 20 excruciating minutes of grinding my way uphill (with my legs feeling like deadweights from the overdose of lactic acid flooding my muscles), the ground finally began to even out. Another hill conquered. I can do it! But how much energy did I have left?

The road curved beyond a bend, followed by a steeper grade. Then another bend and a steeper grade yet.

Quitters never win and winners never quit.

They say that "Quitters never win and winners never quit." When you have no choice but to succeed, you can do it. I had no idea where we were going, nor how to return once we had started. I did not want to disappoint Fred who had gone out of his way to include me with his well-conditioned friends, and had purchased all my biking gear. I decided under no circumstances would I quit. Either I make it, or almost kill myself trying.

Fear is a great motivator. The fear of being a quitter kept me going way beyond what I thought I could do. The dark, abysmal, chasm of defeat loomed beneath me and I was in total fear that I would "fall in." When someone is chasing you with a gun, it's not the love of running that keeps you ahead.

Help from Above

One thing I kept doing was praying to God. "Help me," I said over and over. " It's not me. It's You getting me through this ride."

Sure enough, when I thought all was lost, I would make it up the hill. (I think in Vermont they would call these "mountains.") This happened again and again. It really renewed my faith in the Almighty. I otherwise could not explain where this kind of stamina and strength originated. It was beyond my experience and out of my element.

I isolated my ride into each separate moment. I never really understood the concept that God recreates this universe every nanosecond -- for if He didn't, we would not be here. Then it struck me - I am being created every nanosecond. With every rotation of the pedals, I thought I was finished, and yet I had just enough in me for one more stroke.

At that moment, I heard a voice (Fred's, not God's) calling out to me: "Just get up this hill, then two more hills, and then two miles to the finish line."

I couldn't believe it. No way! I had come so far, done so well, but now I realized that the course was too long for my amateurish self. I was through.

I was morally deflated and physically spent. My left knee was bothering me. My wrists, having held me up for over two hours, were weakening. My neck, having craned forward for so long, needed a new position. I was in desperate need of water, and I was getting too tired to negotiate busy intersections by timing the green lights so not to have to stop.

I felt like I was on the "rack" from a medieval torture chamber. This is my last moment of riding, I thought.

It is well known among bicyclists that it's at the end of the ride, when exhaustion takes over, that dangerous mistakes happen.

So I quit.

But I did not stop pedaling.

Something other than me was giving the immeasurable boost I needed.

It was no longer me, for I had thrown in the towel. God had moved in. The sun was still beating down, the road was still climbing, my body was still depleted, and yet it felt easier. I can't explain it otherwise. Something other than me was giving the extra little immeasurable boost I needed.

I climbed that hill, and the two more that Fred had correctly promised. And I proved something to myself that all the theological study could not do: If we can get out of the way and let God in, we can go beyond the limited world we intern ourselves in.

The End Zone

We climbed the last hill and then it was downhill to the finish line. Going downhill was God's gift for conquering the uphill. God gives us the uphill battles, for our own good; to accomplish. But we need to remember: If there's an uphill, there's a downhill somewhere in the works. You just have to wait for it.

Instead of just coasting mindlessly to the bottom, I thanked God out loud with a smile and a laugh as the wind cooled my body and the blood returned to my extremities. I sublimated the feeling of relief and resuscitation of the downhill ride into an internalized realization that God loves me and is showing me lots of it right now! I was flying along on a gravitational joy ride.

We crossed the finish line and I felt a sense of victory akin to Lance winning the Tour. I did a little victory lap, and looked down to see, strapped to my bike, the still-unopened bottle of Gatorade. A spiritual triumph to accompany my physical feat.

I spent the next few days in the bathtub, waiting for the soreness to dissipate. What a challenge it was. But Lance is right: It's not about the bike. It's about digging deep down inside, and knowing that with the right combination of good gear and genuine prayer, we can triumph... over ourselves.


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