Coasting downhill is the cycling experience that most closely mimics flying. It’s the perfect natural consequence and just reward for the hard work of getting to the top of a hill. There’s nothing quite like finally cresting a hill and feeling the pull of gravity take you down, down, down the other side, while you silently glide and swerve, dodging potholes and weaving between the dotted yellow lines like a hawk floating on an air current.
“Serious” cycling, that being cycling for sport as in road racing, mountain bike racing, time trials and the like, took away from me this most enjoyable aspect of cycling. Serious cycling would have the cyclist pedal all the time at the same cadence; uphill, downhill, into the wind, with the wind, all the while frantically shifting between 27 (or even 30 now) gear combinations, turning the rider into a humanoid Lime drive. Serious cyclists don’t coast.
Of course, if a person is racing, there’s good reason to pedal all the time; the object, after all, is to get to the finish line first, and coasting doesn’t contribute to forward momentum. Where it all breaks down though, is when edicts from the Racing Gods trickle down and infect the thinking of average, non-racing schmucks like me. The latest How to Win the TDF manual may suggest that it’s most efficient to keep your cadence high, constant, and within a narrow range, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an appropriate technique for a leisurely ride to the coffee shop. [Note to self: Efficiency has its time-and-place and we do well to recognize when-and-where it is-or-isn’t required.]
It took a decidedly inefficient bike, and the desire to avoid soaking my street clothes, to reintroduce me to the joys of coasting. A 50-pound bike with a 5-speed transmission is not conducive to maintaining a “high and steady” cadence. As a matter of fact, a 50-pound bike with a 5-speed transmission pretty much discourages anything remotely resembling such behavior. A 50-pound bike wants to go at its own pace, not unlike a stubborn mule that knows the route and will take you to your destination at her pace, thank you very much. What you learn, when riding a mule masquerading as a bike, is that working with the bike, not against it, is the only reasonable approach. And you also learn that a mule-bike requires extra effort from the rider to get to the top of the hill, but it doubly rewards the rider by going down the other side like an anvil dropped from a third story window.
Most people don’t consider excess weight to be a desirable quality in a bike. As a matter of fact, many people spend silly amounts of money to shave even sillier amounts of weight from their already silly-light bicycles. Uber-light bikes go uphill like crazy, but they’re no good at all for encouraging a coasting state of mind. They’re the most serious of serious bikes that demand to be pedaled continuously. And while they may be “light as a feather”, without a willing engine they go downhill about as fast as a feather on an updraft. A 50-pound anvil-bike smokes an 18-pound feather-bike in a downhill coast-off.
But I digress. Of course, as a famous cyclist once said, “It’s not about the bike.” Whatever your ride, coasting is actually a state of mind, a desire to experience again the free rides and the long glides of youth, a chance to let go of the trappings of serious cycling and once again fly like an eagle.