On a lonely and unrelentingly steep ribbon of highway between Taylor and Georgetown, Texas, I pedaled into an August headwind.
Consistent 70mph traffic droned past my left shoulder. Nothing at all changed between here and the horizon, and it looked very far away.
In punishing direct sunlight and triple-digit heat, I toiled in the saddle. Sunscreen-laced sweat burned my eyeballs. My favorite cycling-designated jorts started feeling a little spicy on my nethers. This was mile 65 or something, and I’d thrown up my lunch back around mile 50.
But if I wasn’t exactly happy, I was fulfilled. The base joy of riding a bike had me by the root, and I was hooked — ever since ponying up $120 for a dilapidated but alluring Facebook roadie that spring.
As it turned out, the bike was a steel Miyata from the 1980s, a rare bird. And I’d ridden it all over central Texas in the three months since I’d started biking again. Now, I was in the thick of my first “century,” as cyclists put it, or 100-mile ride in a push.
That ride was not pretty. Depending on when you came across me, I could have been:
- Screaming into the wind at the top of my lungs
- Dismounting, then immediately cramping in all major lower-body muscle groups, and toppling over like a stick man
No, it wasn’t the cleanest burn ever, but I did it and wouldn’t trade it for anything. Not even at the time. Because I could have thrown in the towel and Ubered to a safe quarter anywhere on the route.
I loved that ride. And one of the biggest reasons was that by finishing it, I proved a truth to myself that I was burning to prove. It’s possible to make biking a vital part of your life without making it expensive.
Road cycling can be acutely costly. Blood-curdling price tags are the norm unless you’re either numb to the effects or so well-endorsed that you don’t care. Electronic shifting is here. So are watt-saving socks.
Is your headset not fully integrated, and is your cabling not internal? Is your seat post not aero, and is your rear triangle not asymmetrical? And not made from at least two different types of carbon to promote the perfect balance between stiffness and compliance?
If that describes your equipment, well, you’re like me. And I think concentrating on the expense sort of misses the point of the whole enterprise. Really, riding a bike is about simple freedom.
That’s what I found myself craving at the beginning of summer 2022. For years, all I did for outdoor exercise was rock climb. That gets pretty marginal in the summer heat. Suddenly I was a lease-restricted Austin, Texas, resident who no longer had so many friends psyched on night climbing. I needed an outlet.
Budget Road Bike False Start
One of my good buddies had landed in cycling after repeated knee surgeries beat his climbing stoke into submission. Kurt was always one of my boon companions. He listened patiently one afternoon while I complained about my malaise.
“Why don’t you start biking?” he said. At the time, he had sold his car, becoming a full-time bike commuter.
I imagined cardio dirges, heat stroke, and screaming at negligent drivers. I wasn’t sold. But Kurt, who’s always been a bit of an instigator, started feeding me Facebook Marketplace finds.
Soon, I had a bike again. But my relationship with it wasn’t destined to work out.
Kurt found me an old Specialized Rockhopper for an absurdly low sum. But it was in great shape, and I figured I’d have more beer money this way. Why not?
After two very short rides that felt very long, I dumped the Rockhopper on the curb at my apartment. I taped a “FREE” sign to it. Nothing at all was wrong with it. The problem was my abject failure to connect with it.
The Rockhopper never felt like my bike. I thought it was cool, but I felt awkward on it. And it always seemed like I rode it way harder than its performance merited.
I thought I didn’t like biking anymore. Eventually, I was to realize that I was going about it all wrong. Kurt was undeterred that I’d ditched the first rig he selected for me. His following recommendations started to make more sense somehow.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody
One day a steel-framed fuchsia and gunmetal road bike from a brand I’d never heard of showed up in my messages. It was unapologetic, a little busted, and cheap. Its angles were severe; it struck me as gazelle-like, with a Whitney Houston twist.
As soon as I took my first pedal stroke on the street outside the seller’s house, I knew it was on.
Improvements had to be made, and that’s why it was so important to feel strongly about this budget road bike. I went about it intuitively — another acceptable descriptor would be “haphazardly.”
Right away, it needed tires, bar tape, and a saddle. Other concerns included brakes that I’d rate somewhere between “meh” and “uh-oh.” And add a clicky bottom bracket.
If you put in miles on the road, it’s worth thinking about your tires. I opted for the iconic Continental Gatorskins on the recommendation of one friend who proudly claimed he’d gotten one flat on his set in five years of daily work commutes.
Your tires are your bike’s contact point with the road, and it made sense that the following priorities I tackled were my body’s contact points with the bike: bars, saddle, and (indirectly) pedals.
Retaping the bars had to happen because the old tape was burned off on one side, presumably from a prior wipeout. The subtler adjustment was to dial in the angle. I tipped my bars forward a hair because reaching far and flattening my back felt good. The deep drops felt great when I wanted to dig in, and the narrow grip felt natural.
The budget road bike came with a moderately collapsed gel saddle. The same friend who recommended my Gatorskins took one look at it and told me to throw it in the trash. “Why?” I asked. “It’s comfortable.”
“Wait until you ride 50 miles on it. Also, it looks stupid.”
In short, he was right. A bike saddle should contour the rider’s sit bones, not squish into shape around them. I located a narrower spare unit. I lifted it high enough to extend my ankles at the bottom of my pedal stroke and tilted it noticeably forward. The setup dovetailed nicely with my preference to reach long, lay flat, and stretch out my stubby legs when pedaling.
Then, even though I felt as comfortable as I could be on the bike, I quickly developed knee pain. I tried to grind through it but soon realized it wasn’t going anywhere. This, I found out with help from some other key bike-savvy confidantes, was coming from my feet.
I first rode in Vans because I do pretty much everything else in Vans. When I determined that I wasn’t committing the mistakes in pedaling form that can cause pain, I landed at the very bottom of the system: the pedal. I had crap pedals but had made peace with them (and still ride on the same ones). So I bought low-top Chrome bike shoes, and the pain abated. Essentially, the shape of the pedals let my foot flex against the bottom of the ragged-out Vans. The reinforced and stiffer Chrome soles made all the difference.
Rip, Rinse, Repeat
Kitted out, I felt ready to take on anything. I bought a Coors Original jersey on the internet, plus a pair of gloves, and suddenly wanted to ride my budget road bike all the time. I ramped up and up and up. I did 25-mile days, then 25-mile rides after work, then a 50-miler, then a 100K. Soon, my old 25-mile routes felt like brisk jogs.
I had a few more dollars, and other things, invested in my prized Miyata before long. Treasured memories from hare-brained maintenance ploys had brought us closer together. Once, I buried a broken drillbit a quarter inch into my bicep when a maintenance task went awry. Kurt was standing by. With my shirtsleeve twisted around the busted metal in my arm, we looked at each other and laughed. (The video below does not depict the incident itself, but you get the idea.)
All summer, I put work into my riding and into my budget road bike that seemed equal parts painstakingly careful and wantonly reckless. Some parts still on it today came from people’s trash cans.
I’d sweat my balls off in brutal heat. But then take a plunge in “Barking” Springs and down a few ice-cold beers plus a cup of melon con picante from the nice woman selling them from a cooler. I felt I could ride anywhere, as long as there was a road with a convenience store stocked with sour gummies and individually-packed pickles.
Once, I plunged 30 miles dead into a stiff south wind, relishing the thought of flying back the other way. It took me three entirely awful hours to get to my turnaround point. I ate a Slim Jim and drank a Gatorade, then felt like God for the 90-minute ride back.
Elsewhere, I paused to throw up around the middle of the Hotter’N Hell Hundred, which turned into about an 80-miler when organizers bumped up the cutoff time by two hours for extreme heat concerns. Then I sat eating banana halves with Kurt, his fiancee, and our new friend Robert and giddily recalled the atrocious sleep we’d all gotten in the easement of the Wichita Falls parking lot we “camped” in the night before.
Everything about riding was now a cheerful joke. The hours spent pedaling moronically forward, mechanicals in the middle of nowhere, the way sour gummi octopuses can make everything better, bowel agony, loading a tall boy of beer into one bottle cage for a groggy 50-miler, overtaking someone riding a Lime scooter on a climb in the middle of the city and leaving them in the dust.
Could I ride a century? Yes, my friends reassured me. I was stoked to do it.
There’s not much to the story of that ride itself, molten and sordid as it was. Regurgitation, overheating, anger induced by persistently crappy road surfaces, and emotional boil-over are common suffering points for anyone who rides far enough.
The best part, by far, was that I’d prepared myself and my bike to handle it on my terms. I wore my best-fitting jorts, my Coors jersey, and a helmet from Play It Again Sports and didn’t desire equipment of any higher spec.
My point is this: You do not need significant monetary resources to go out and ride bikes — even if you want to be goal-oriented about it. I bet I’ve invested $500 or less in my budget road bike. And that’s such a low hurdle to jump for all the widely-varied fulfillment it’s brought me.