As someone with a bona fide addiction, I considered this question from a fellow rider as we two-by-two’ed our way up the Switchbacks today.
Here are my thoughts: First, with regard to Lemmy from Motorhead, David Bowie, and now Glenn Frey, please stop acting like the world just came to an end. These were wizened, drug-addled, head-banging, groupie-groping, career rock musicians, for dog’s sake. Did you think they were going to live to be a hundred? Most of them, especially David Crosby, are lucky they ever saw thirty. Fact is all of their work has been preserved in something called “recordings” and no matter how dead they are, their complex 3-chord arrangements and inarticulate, off-key, guttural grunts will live forever.
And here’s my big prediction: As time passes, they all will die except for Keith Richards, who has been dead since 1969. If you want to get upset about someone dying, why not focus on the children being starved in Syria?
Where were we? Oh right, rock ‘n roll, Keith Richards, addiction.
So my buddy suggested that cycling was an addiction, and I rebelled a bit at that. For me, an addiction is something that you habitually do to deal with a problem, and that effectively treats the problem, but after treating the problem it leaves you with other, worse ones.
With regard to drunkenness, its purpose is quite simple: Silence unpleasant thoughts and replace them with pleasant ones, or better yet, with slurred goop. You see, my head is full of Rated B thoughts (“B” is for “Bad”) and I would rather they were not there. Drinking makes those thoughts go completely away, replacing them with happy thoughts or goop, and it does so immediately. No foreplay, no asking permission, no beating around the bush. Drink one, buzz. Drink two, bigger buzz. Drink three, everything unpleasant is in the rearview mirror and disappearing quickly from sight.
Drunkenness is an addiction (for me) because after accomplishing its objective–obliterating the unpleasant–it runs out of steam and after each treatment session replaces the odious thoughts with even more odious ones. This requires more drinking, until eventually something breaks or someone breaks down.
I suppose cycling could fit this pattern of addiction for some people, but for me (and I think addiction is personal rather than, say, malaria, which infects all its victims under identical conditions) it is not.
To apply the same test, cycling is an activity that silences unpleasant thoughts and replaces them with happy ones, so it starts off looking like an addiction. For me, the happy thoughts are the happiness of beating the living snot out of a real or imagined adversary and watching them struggle, shudder, crack, and crater into a puddle of demolished self-esteem. There is an amazing happiness that comes from riding people off your wheel or jumping around them when they are at the end of their rope, driving a stake through the heart of their hopes and aspirations. It is a very warm, very fuzzy feeling, especially when you know the person well or they are a close friend, to see them wriggle on the end of a meathook and slowly, painfully expire as they gaspingly breathe and groan.
Of course more often than not it is the other person driving the stake through me and I’m the one getting shelled, the one spiraling backwards, legs broken like a wayward SpaceX rocket flopping awkwardly off its landing barge and into the dark, cold, bottomless sea. But even being on the receiving end of the club serves the purpose of taking away bad thoughts and replacing them with good ones: It is pleasant to give it everything you have, to empty your mental and physical tanks, to greedily grasp for the unattainable, to feel the iron bootheel on your skull after pushing yourself to collapse. It’s a glow that some call endorphins, others call “taking the bit between your teeth,” and others refer to simply as “You’re fucked up, dude.”
And yet …
It is this process that differentiates cycling from alcoholism, because after the ride, or rather the mauling, I’m a better person. I’m easier to deal with at home and at work. I’m more sympathetic. I think more clearly, especially after the 2-hour post-ride REM “nap” and 4,000-calorie lunch. And along the way there is a reduction in quantity or intensity or both of unhappy thoughts. When things are really clicking, solutions appear that were invisible before. On top of all this, there’s a residue of physical health, as long as I don’t fall off my bicycle or hop onto the hood of an oncoming truck.
In contrast, any self-respecting addiction leaves an “after the party” set of problems that revolves around the twin challenges of getting out of the gutter and wiping the puke out of your hair. Which isn’t to say that cycling can’t be an addiction for some people, as we all know the person who rode his way out of a job, out of a family, and into state prison as a result of too much cycling. Oh, wait–no, we don’t.
In other words, carry on cycling. While you can.
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