I Don’t Know How to Ride My Bike for Fun Anymore

Tracking every detail of my workouts is too ingrained.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock and Garmin and Strava.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock and Garmin and Strava.

I started using the app Strava to track my rides before I’d even purchased my first road bike. I was competitive. After downloading it and getting my first taste of landing on the leaderboards, I was hooked. I never got on my bike without it. In a matter of months, my bike-riding addiction had become a bike-racing addiction. I started donning a heart-rate monitor to quantify my efforts and recovery and after my first year of racing added a power meter to my activity-tracking collection too.

I loved it. I loved seeing my rides mapped out in my app, a concrete testament to my achievements in mileage or elevation. The heart-rate data taught me how hard my body was working. With the power data, I could fine-tune my workouts—organized in yet another app, TrainingPeaks—with specific goals and measure my progress with hard numbers. (Your heart rate can vary whether you’re rested, sick, or just not wearing the darn strap correctly. My Type A personality preferred the absoluteness offered by the feedback of my power meter.) During rides, I can see my stats—speed, power, heart rate, distance traveled—on my Garmin. It’s affixed near the center of my handlebars, always in my peripheral vision. Afterward, I analyze, agonize, or admire what I’ve accomplished in Strava or TrainingPeaks. I’ve now been riding, training, and racing for several years, always with the aid of my digital companions. No ride goes untracked.

But for road racers, fall and winter are the offseason: a time to wind down and relax, to take some time to do other activities or ride a bike without the stress of specifically planned workouts. “Leave your Garmin at home, don’t look at the numbers, just have fun!” my coach said. Just have fun? Having been indoctrinated into all these tech tools for so long, the idea of riding “just for fun” was, frankly, anxiety inducing. If I don’t track anything, how will I get an accurate picture of my fitness? And if I don’t share my workout with the world, how will the world know what I’ve done? Most importantly: How do I know if I had fun if I don’t know how hard I worked out?

I knew that my dependence on my ride tracking was a problem, and I’m not the first to experience it. Professional cyclist Kathryn Bertine found herself in a similar situation:

“You know, you could just not look at the power meter,” a friend suggested.
“That’s crazy talk,” [she] said.

I’ve had similar conversations. Bertine ended up taking a year away from the technology, and she came away better for it. While I’m not sure I’m ready to take that step, I do recognize the value in getting outside just for the pure joy of it, and I have been taking baby steps toward doing it.

I started making some improvements with my time off the bike this year. In the past, when leaving two wheels behind and going for a run, I typically wore my heart-rate monitor and brought along my Garmin. While I weaned myself off of the HRM, tracking every workout is too ingrained: I still tracked my runs (and walks) on my phone and examined the data afterward for signs of improvement. But I also took a week in October for a six-day gravel-riding adventure. I still wore my HRM and tracked my workouts. But with next to no connectivity in the wilderness, and a focus on appreciating the natural beauty around me (and also not crashing on rocks), I was finally able to ride while ignoring the numbers on my Garmin’s screen.

Now, training days loom, but I’ve done some mountain bike rides recently. Being so focused on picking an obstacle-free path in the trail ahead—which requires a lot more mental energy than your average road ride—I haven’t had time to self-analyze midride. I even stopped to admire a family of deer leaping and grazing in the hill alongside me and took a detour for a photo-op. But what about the Strava segment? a small part of my brain needled. I shut it down. Then, the true test: a ride on my road bike, complete with power meter and Garmin in front of my face. And I did it. I rode, letting the fresh air hit my face and my mind exalt in the feelings of flying downhill and muscling uphill. I didn’t look at the numbers. I didn’t look at them afterward either. I hate to admit it, but it was freeing.

In the coming weeks, I’ll have to jump back into my training plan, which means tracking and monitoring my stats again. Maybe one day I will ditch all the tech and just ride purely for joy, or sorrow, or whatever I’m feeling that day. For now, at least, I’ll try to channel that freedom a couple times a week and stash my Garmin in my back pocket. Even if I need that data, it doesn’t have to control me.