The ride of your life: how to find paradise on a bike

Let us praise the perfect ride: It comes from nowhere, and from everywhere. It’s an exquisite stretch of freedom in which you are your bike, the terrain is your canvas and the ride is a work of art. While you can prepare for it (and we’ll show you how), you can’t stage it.

On a bike, perfection is improv. Years ago, I experienced two all-time great rides in one. The first was up, and the other was down. My friend Mark and I were doing the 450-mile Natchez Trace Parkway from Mississippi to Tennessee, and we detoured into Vicksburg National Military Park, scene of a bloody Civil War showdown. On every climb of that 20-mile, lung-busting loop of hills, we grew less interested in challenging each other to the top, and more concerned with the 19,223 soldiers who died there. We traveled through history at human speed, struggling up the hills among those dead men. This was more than a ride; it was a memorial service.

The struggle switched to pure adrenaline when the historic parkway ended with a peak that fell away into nearly 2 miles of winding turns. Mark, a triathlete, had been busting my legs all the way up. But tri-geeks can’t corner. I willed my hands off the brake levers and laid into the turns with insane confidence. It felt as if my tires were cornering on their sidewalls. This more than a ride; it was a freefall.

No other form of travel gives you that combination of mobility and intimacy. You’re not behind glass. You’re not being told which sights to see from the top deck of a bus. On a bike, you don’t see sights, you live life.

Which leads me to the greatest trip I ever took. In 1998, I went to Madagascar in the midst of a famine that killed 40,000 people. Accompanying three doctors from an aid group called ASOS (Action Sante Organization Secours), I biked medicine into villages reachable only by jungle footpaths too rough for a four-wheel-drive. It would have taken two days to hike in–too long for the cold-packed drugs in our backpacks to stay effective.

The paths were so narrow, the jungle brushed my shoulders; but every hour or so, the walls of green would suddenly fall away and we’d ride onto vast stretches of red topsoil, laid bare by erosion. Blinking, we’d look up at a 7-mile-long swarm of locusts infesting the sky; then search the edges of the dead zones until we picked up the trail again.

Seven hours into the jungle, we came to a village. The doctors used the meds in my pack on a woman who had malaria, parasites and diarrhea, along with gonorrhea that she had contracted when she was raped. We charged her 1,200 Malagasy francs: about 23 cents.

It was the perfect ride. Sure, I’ve climbed the legendary Tourmalet road in France. I’ve crunched millions of red leaves in peak Vermont foliage season. I’ve ridden the big rocks out West. I’ll remember those rides, and my other pilgrimages to cycling’s Meccas, all my life; but that one in Madagascar changed my life.

The perfect ride can last for weeks or a millisecond. It can cover a continent or the weightless span between a rock and the mud below. It can come at any time, in any place. But you can stack the deck in your favor. Read the following pages for the flawless saddle-up, the most meaningful places to ride and the best ways to tune body and bike for exquisite operation.

Then hang on.