Keep Pedaling


“What is life but a slow march to death?”

I said that a lot as a kid, feigning misery in response to having to do chores or homework, anything more obligatory than fun. I’d picture a line of lugubrious people drooping into the grave, a dark parody of that famous illustration of evolution. I don’t know whether the quote was the product of my mind or someone else’s. I was a happy, active kid, playing ice hockey in the winter and soccer in the warmer months, always climbing trees and rocks. I was obsessed with things that moved—planes, trains, cars, the faster the better—and stopped moving only to read books, the next best thing to going somewhere. The crushing weight of depression would only become familiar to me in my junior year of college, a decade ago, when anhedonia ground my life to a halt. Burdened by consciousness and feeling like a burden to those around me, I skipped class and social engagements to sleep, because sleep was weightless time travel. The problem was its impermanence. It would be nice to die, I thought, if only I could do so without having to do anything.

By the spring of 2020, having spent every year since college in an on-again, off-again relationship with depression, I no longer saw the humor in my morbid query. I didn’t think I was dying slowly—that implied movement, a means to an end—so much as just . . . not living. I was going nowhere, and not even fast. Outside, an airborne virus was killing people. Inside, I was toxic to myself, a lethargic sludge oozing among my bed and couch and broom-closet half-bathroom, whose cracked mirror struck me as symbolic. I got parking tickets because I couldn’t rouse myself to move my car by 9 a.m. I dealt with the fruit flies attracted to leftover smoothies souring on my desk by covering the mason jars with dirty plates. My roommate was as frenetic as I was static. His regular weeknight threesomes, carnal cacophonies that underscored the thinness of the French doors dividing our rooms, concluded with him handing Gatorade to his spent companions as they traipsed out the front door at sunrise. He was blasé about Covid, a menace to public health, but I couldn’t deny that he was, as his trendy tote bag stated, Doing Things.

Vigor. Vitality. Movement. I needed to sweat, raise my pulse, do something physical that demanded my body’s full attention. Underground raves, where I’d dance furiously to Berlin-style techno until I lost track of time and my sense of self, were shut down. The gym was closed. Running wasn’t an option (bad knees). And I couldn’t bike because I didn’t have one. Besides, weren’t urban cyclists perpetually endangered for merely existing, getting harassed by cab drivers or doored by Uber passengers or maimed by garbage trucks? But what other option did I have? I could feel my body wasting away, sullied by my inactivity and the appetite-suppressing side effect of my Wellbutrin. I weighed the possible outcomes: A bike might get me killed, but it would definitely get me out of my apartment.

Being 6’4” and all legs, I took my chances on a size-XXL bike that I found on Craigslist and bought from a scraggly older man for the princely sum of five $20 bills. For my inaugural ride, I decided to bike the length of the Shore Parkway skirting Brooklyn’s western edge. It became clear, a few too many miles from home, that I’d made costly rookie mistakes. My undercarriage, loosely kept in place by gym shorts, was chafing with a fiery intensity. My helmet was too small, a vice against my forehead. My bike was too big. I felt as though I were steering a large and inelegant boat, like one of the honking cargo ships I observed beneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

When I returned home, sore and crusted with dried sweat, I looked at the iPhone pictures I’d taken on my ride. A pothole marked by a comically small stick that was spray-painted red. A woman tossing handfuls of breadcrumbs to a single, lucky pigeon. My blue bike silhouetted against the gray Manhattan skyline. My face, glistening and rosy with exertion, smiling. I’d learned in a college class that the act of smiling could trick your brain into happiness, and I recalled all the times I’d smiled to myself in a mirror, hoping to brighten the darkness of my interior life. This wasn’t an image of psychological subterfuge. Nor was it a selfie motivated by the validation of social media. This was a reflection of unprompted joy writ large across my face, a shit-eating grin captured purely for its novelty.

I sold that bike and bought a smaller, prettier one, a circa-1980 Japanese road bike whose pearlescent orange paint and royal-blue stripes reminded me of a vintage race car. I was initially skittish on the city’s streets, but in time the freedom of biking subjugated its inherent danger, or else the ever-present threat of death intensified my sense of unconstrained independence. The urban obstacle course became familiar to me, mapped into memory by repetition. There were the streets always squeezed with double-parked police cars. The bike lanes whose cracks and debris seemed to multiply predictably. The stoplights where I beat food-delivery workers on e-bikes in races they didn’t know they were a part of. I biked everywhere: to my girlfriend’s apartment, to Central Park, to my favorite bar in Red Hook, to cafés with sidewalk seating from which I could admire my handsome machine. I was more than a guy with a bike. I was a cyclist. 

One bright Friday afternoon, I rode my bike to Downtown Brooklyn and locked it to the bike rack in front of CVS. The pharmacy line was short, and I emerged into the sunlight with a refill of my antidepressants and the embarrassing realization that I hadn’t taken off my helmet while inside. Then I looked to where I’d left my bike. Bewilderment became horror so swiftly that I felt lightheaded. The bike rack was empty. My bike was gone. Beneath the rack lay fresh metal shavings and the two cleanly cut pieces of my lock. Standing next to a hot-dog cart on a sidewalk thronged with besuited businessmen, wearing my neon-green helmet and skin-tight bike shorts, holding the worthless key to a $100 bike lock and thirty doses of Wellbutrin, I burst into tears.

I’ve had six therapists. I’ve been prescribed SSRIs and SNRIs. I’ve experimented with micro- and concerningly-macro- doses of marijuana, ketamine, psychedelic mushrooms, LSD, and MDMA. I don’t believe that I can completely rid myself of my depression any more than I can stop myself from writing about it. By now I know that it will be a part of my life forever, to varying degrees of debilitation. And by now I know that, for me, managing it, beyond therapy and antidepressants, is about one thing: distraction.

There was alcohol, the smooth slip into abandon and forgetfulness, and there was sex, the brief physical validation from women whose feelings mattered less than how they made me feel. If these distractions were fleeting, their consequences were not. They never failed to make me feel worse the next day, my body poisoned or my conscience heavy with regret. As the length of my bike rides increased—thirty miles, fifty, one hundred—so, too, did my understanding that cycling, while still ultimately a distraction, is different. It’s healthy, and therefore guiltless, but that’s not why I do it. I cycle because it’s all-encompassing, a form of active meditation in which I’m so focused on what I’m doing that negative thoughts disappear. It demands a harmony between body and mind. It’s mindless, almost hypnotic, my pedaling as instinctive as breathing. And it fucking hurts.

People claim to love endurance sports because there’s pleasure in the pain. But I’m not a masochist. I don’t particularly enjoy the torment of my quads being on fire during a hard effort, the desperate burning in my lungs as I willfully deplete them of oxygen, the ache in my calves that crescendos to relentless hammer of agony after four hours spent pedaling, pedaling, pedaling. 

The pain is the point. I feel the physical pain so deeply that it has a volume, so loud that it drowns out its emotional counterpart: my self-doubt and -hatred, my internal monologue that tells me I’m not and will never be enough. Depression often feels like pain without a definite source, pain from everywhere and nowhere, amorphous. The pain I feel from cycling is in my control, of my own doing. I choose to hurt now, on my bike, so I might hurt less later. I always do. The pain is what literally moves me.

I replaced my stolen bike with a brand-new gravel bike whose wider tires made the city’s broken roads more manageable. A year later I upgraded to an expensive, versatile road bike made from sleek carbon fiber, painted the matte black of stealth aircraft. This bike is my bike, the one I still own. It feels like an extension of me, as if it were filling the void of a phantom limb. In a car, I travel passively through the world. On my bike, I force the world to move past me. The churning of my legs fades from my peripheral vision, and suddenly I’ve gone from here to there, and there, and there. My routes are often the same—I’ve done a five-lap spin around Prospect Park dozens of times and will do it dozens more—but no two rides are. Each ride refreshes the world anew. 

When I’m in the depths of a depressive episode, I register my surroundings as if I’m watching a black-and-white, single-take film in torturously slow motion. My thoughts plod along, and my gaze along with them. Everything I see is accusatory evidence of the banality of my depression. There are my sheets, unwashed for weeks, and the Pop Tart crumbs that have collected in the concavity left by my sallow torso. The empty beer can, and the water glasses beside them, and the coffee cups. The plain white wall, as blank as my mind, and the ceiling with the cobweb I should but won’t swat down. Here is my bedroom, which I won’t leave except to drag myself to the bathroom. Here is my little life.

Before the holidays two years ago, I create a customized photo book of me and my girlfriend and all the places we’ve traveled. When I give it to my parents for Christmas, I begin to sob inconsolably. The book belies the truth. Our relationship of three years is falling apart, and two weeks later, it’s over. I stop eating. I run out of Wellbutrin and don’t email my psychiatrist to refill my prescription. I feel sorry for myself and my now-ex-girlfriend. I resent the winter’s suffocating cold, the streets’ polluted slush that precludes cycling. Then one of my new roommates, a cyclist, leaves for a month, and I mount my bike to his indoor trainer. It’s not the thing, but it’s something. I start riding four days a week, five, my sweat pooling on the floor. I feel myself getting stronger. I feel myself getting better.

My depression is exacerbated by my tendency to direct the frame of reference of my life at other people. I see what someone is or has or does and think of what I’m not, what I lack, what I can’t do. This comparison trap isn’t limited to strangers or peers. Friends and family are sometimes its subjects. I am always its victim. My roommates get new jobs with big salaries, money that seems infinite, unreal, and I question my career choices. My friends move in with their partners, decorate their lofts with plants and handmade furniture, and I envy their confidence in committing to a shared future, entwined in love. I read an article or book published to acclaim and feel not motivation but self-flagellating frustration (Why didn’t I write that?) followed by hopeless exasperation (I could never write that!). My depression sees the world as a zero-sum game. Other people winning means I must be losing.

Cycling, however, is solitary, singular in the numerical sense. On my bike, my frame of reference, of comparison, is not my subjective perception of other people but the infallible objectivity of time, space, and distance. Did I ride more miles, climb to greater altitudes, pedal for a longer period of time than I did yesterday, last week, last year? The questions are simple. The answers are binary. I don’t race. I don’t care to compare my numbers to other cyclists. Even with a cyclist roommate who has cyclist friends, I rarely go on group rides. I cycle for myself. I leave home on my bike and come home hours later and in between I’ve changed. I’ve been somewhere. Outside, and outside myself. There’s a purity to the act of cycling that verges on monasticism. You sit and spin your legs over and over and over again. It’s the perfect foil to depression’s complications and convolutions. To be depressed is to be overcome by stasis. If you stop moving on a bike, you fall.

I go upstate with a group of college friends. They’re all rich. They’re all happy. They invite me to go golfing on a course inside a gated community. Instead, I go for a 60-mile bike ride through a state park, climbing a road so steep that it closes in winter. I eat a Clif Bar outside a sun-dappled church, where a yellow pedestrian-crossing sign has been vandalized with a halo drawn in black marker around the figure. By the end of the ride, my thighs are cramping so badly that I can see the muscles spasming. I’m no longer thinking about my friends’ successes and what I perceive to be my relative failures. I’m thinking about how my sources of happiness are different from my friends’. I’m thinking about how it looks like the flesh-eating scarabs from The Mummy have crawled beneath my skin, and I’m laughing.

Covid cases are spiking. Businesses are closing. I’m not riding my bike because I’ve fallen yet again into the bland enervation of depression. I’m not leaving my neighborhood because there’s nothing to leave it for. In my journal I write, “I know there’s a whole city out there, struggling through the pandemic just as I am, but I don’t see it. I don’t move. I just am.” I’m not scared of dying from Covid. I’m scared of living like this until something else kills me. Then unseasonably warm weather arrives at the same time that I get a new mirror in my bedroom. I’m invigorated but self-conscious. I decide to ride at night, 30 miles around the park, with raccoons as my company. It’s past 10 p.m. when I get home. Still in my sweaty bike shorts, giddy with endorphins, I sit in the kitchen and write my own take on the Misfit’s memorable line from Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find: “He would have been a good man if it had been somebody there to make him ride his bike every minute of his life.”

The woman I’ve been dating for two months turns to me while we’re watching TV and tells me she loves me. I assume she’s being playful, doing a bit. She’s not. She means it. I gently tell her I don’t feel the same way. That night she weeps outside a bar and hurls a martini glass into a bush. We don’t speak again. A week later, unable to stop thinking about her, I drive 350 miles north to an island near the Canadian border. I sit in an Adirondack chair and stare at the lake and wonder if I’m a bad person. I ruminate on romantic rejections and people I’ve hurt. Then I get on my bike and ride into Canada. For the duration of the ride, I don’t think about love, or whether I’ll ever find it again. I think only about the lush greens and soft browns of the rolling farmland, the cows’ stench that trails me through the air, the trucks carrying enormous bales of hay that slow down to give me a wide berth on the road, with characteristic Canadian kindness. I gently wash my bike in the yard with dish soap and a garden hose, then let it dry in the sun, sparkling. I think about how good it feels to care for something, even when that something is a bicycle.

My bike is proof of life. To ride it, especially in a city like New York, is to constantly fight for mine. I have been forced off the road by unaware pedestrians and uncaring drivers. I have bumped into cars. I have been hit, once, in the shadowless dazzle of Times Square, by a car, thrown over the hood at twenty-five miles an hour, my helmet cracking on the pavement. I have not thought, during or after any of these interactions with people and their vehicles indifferent to whether I lived or died, about how I wish I had died. I don’t have that thought anymore, not even on the passive, languid days I don’t ride my bike. On those days, feeling hemmed in, crowded by gloom, I reach out and touch my bike each time I pass it in the hallway, the way you extend a tender hand toward a pet in your vicinity. The sticky pliancy of the handlebar tape, the unbroken smoothness of the top tube, the supple give of the saddle: My bike’s physicality reassures me of its existence, and of my own. My bike being there means I’m still here.


Themed month logo by Honey Gilmore, essay art by Dmitry Samarov

Kieran Dahl is a freelance journalist and copywriter. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, GQ, Eater, AFAR, Travel + Leisure, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →