“Theoretically, you can always push your endurance, strength, pain barrier, competitive objectives and social challenges out further. What stops you, apart from fear?”

Burning Quads & Squirting Dopamine

Have you ever wondered why riding takes precedence over everything else in your life? Fielded questions about why you are poring over images of carbon frames instead of human ones? Struggled to come to terms with the fact that you are daydreaming your way up a long hill climb instead of getting your job done? Wondered at your boss, teacher, wife/husband nagging you about time spent in the saddle instead of with them? In short, why you are a salivating pedal-addict?

I’m not about to start cyclists anonymous, not just yet, but the following words might give you some insights as well as some ammunition to use in your arguments the next time you find yourself justifying your obsession. I say ‘might’ because after five years of a PhD studying drugs, addiction and reward, and five as a research scientist electrically stimulating different areas of people’s brains, I still can’t fully explain why I would prefer to be terrifying myself on a fast descent – walking the edge where the rubber just maintains traction, than just about anywhere else (I have never convinced my partner either). Nonetheless, come with me on a journey through the neuroscience of cycling addiction, hopefully there will be some motivational explication along the way.

The first step – we have to acknowledge that cycling shares many similarities with other forms of addiction. There is a reasonable amount of science to back this up: riding hard and fast, like all good things, releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine into a part of our brain called the nucleus accumbens. Scientists have done brain scans of people high on cocaine and the brain area mentioned above lights up like a Christmas tree. Sex, food, water, stress, and the apprehension or signalling of something good to come, all do the same as well.

It is important to note here that dopamine is not simply a pleasure chemical. Stresses to the body release dopamine as well and it is likely that complex combinations of the above factors release dopamine more potently than singular ones. Cycling has these complex combinations in spades; massive exertion, endorphin release, adrenaline, anticipation, sensory-motor stimulation and speed. All of these must release an intense load of dopamine.

Unfortunately they haven’t invented a small and light enough MRI machine that could scan a cyclist’s brain when they are redlining up a hill or going into a hellish corner. But if they did, I bet dopamine would be releasing harder than when a person is high on any substance. And I’m sure the only reason that dopamine isn’t on the banned substances list is that it doesn’t pass through the blood brain barrier – this means it doesn’t get to your brain if you eat it, or even inject it.

“Theoretically, you can always push your endurance, strength, pain barrier, competitive objectives and social challenges out further. What stops you, apart from fear?”

Earlier I mentioned that a lot of dopamine is released in apprehension or anticipation. Upon reflection, cycling is full of apprehension both in the short and long term. On hills you’re thinking about the summit, when/if you are going to hit the wall, the descent, when your legs will finally stop screaming and you will be able to keep some air in your lungs. These all happen pretty slowly in cycles. On the descent however, as you gear up and the wind starts to whistle through your hair, you take the apex and dopamine spurts as you anticipate being blinded until you can see the road ahead. This creates fear/apprehension and reward in a constant cycle. In both long phase (climb and descent) and short phase (corner and release). I will come back to these ratios of reward later. It is an intoxicating mix. Further, mental and physical ‘hardness’ (synonymous for the non-cycling civilian as ‘addiction’) comes from this same cycle of deep suffering and then being rewarded for it. Jens Voigt is able ride the tour at his age not because his body is getting stronger; it is a hard and merciless fact that his legs cannot recover like they did when he was 21. He is able to do it, not in spite of the suffering, but because of the suffering—and being rewarded for it afterwards. The ‘pain then reward’ cycle has galvanised his will to the point that his mental game dwarfs the competitors that are 20 years his junior.

Apprehension is riveting because it is fundamental to survival. When a monkey finds a banana in the jungle, it is valuable for him that he continues to be able to find that banana tree again (so he doesn’t starve). His brain releases a little excitement package of dopamine before he actually eats the banana (as well as when he is actually eating the banana). This acts like a kind of brain highlighter pen and the monkey finds himself going back to the same spot. A similar thing happens with cycling; you get the dopamine surge of anticipation as well as release when you are riding. Have you ever noticed that you start to tingle as you anticipate the corners before you get to them? On your training route this tingle extends out with familiarity. This also probably explains why you have a favourite ride. I bet it is one that you had an epic adventure at the first time you went there. Often you will keep going back even after you realise the place isn’t really that great. In drug addiction, this process is exemplified by a user wanting the drug more and more but liking it less and less.  Anticipation is an important part of bike addiction but I think there are also more profound reasons…

For me, one of the strongest pull factors of cycling is fear. In this sense, motivation and fear are synonyms. Fritz Perls, the gestalt psychologist, explained this concept the clearest: “Fear is excitement compressed into the future”. Cycling offers fear on so many levels and in its finest forms. You can choose exactly the right level for where you are at – on a straight adrenaline-junkie level you have the descents, you can cautiously roll in at 5kph if you are scared or become like Felix Baumgartner and break the sound barrier but everyone has to throw out the anchors at some point. The skill of descending is at least as much about knowing yourself, knowing which actions are based in fear and which are hubris, as it is about knowing your machine and the terrain you are riding down. Gaining an extra few seconds on descent can save hundreds of watts of expenditure up the hill and knowing exactly where the edge is, so that you still maintain a small margin of safety is crucial. You can only get there by trial and error – experimenting with your bike and with yourself and that is where it gets really exciting.

 But adrenaline-junkie fear is only a very small part of road cycling. Sustained ‘aspirational’ fear is what can really be harnessed and turned into motivation. Theoretically, you can always push your endurance, strength, pain-barrier, competitive objectives and social challenges out further. What stops you, apart from fear? Fear of failure, pain, making a fool of yourself, losing face in your group? But this same fear has a massively important flip-side; without it you get bored. If you know what is going to happen, and it turns out that it does every time you get on the bike, what are you getting out of it other than the health benefits? If this is the case, what you should be frightened of is the absence of failing. Learning how to flip this coin is what I think Fritz Perls meant; fear becomes excitement as soon as you act on it. Ideally, when you push yourself out there, natural internal variability and the unpredictable nature of other riders’ psyches will mean that you always get a little more than you bargained for and this really turns cycling into a thrilling mental and psychological endeavour. This is what gets the heart pumping, the brain cogs whirring and the dopamine surging. We crave the unknown, and respond to the unpredictable. Everything is so structured, rule-bound and safe these days – we need this stuff to keep us breathing. The demands of cycling; the physical and emotional struggles, the monomaniacal battle with yourself and others and the very real dangers of the horizontal tango with the bitumen, make it more than just a sport. Cycling hard becomes like a microcosm of life itself, only cast in much sharper relief. And nothing can hook you harder than that.

If your boss still wants to fire you for turning up late again and isn’t convinced that training at the crack of dawn is beyond your control, you can also try this argument: poker-machines are addictive precisely because they operate on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule. This means that you don’t lose your money every single time, nor do you get a win every time, nor do you get a win every eighth time, but you do get a win occasionally on an unpredictable basis. We have learned that this is the way to get rats to keep pressing a bar (to get a reward) for the longest period of time. Poker machine owners also know this and they program their machines with this same ratio. But isn’t the parallel to cycling striking? Every ride comes with a profile containing flats, climbs and descents. The position and duration of the hills is randomly spaced and largely unpredictable in an experiential sense for the rider, but the reward of reaching the top, the cessation of pain and the fun of the descent, almost always immediately follows – in psychological terms it produces both positive and negative reinforcement simultaneously. Rats would ride bikes forever. What is more, a training ride is not always good. It is satisfactory mostly, it is fantastic sometimes and it really hurts every now and again too. But we clip into the pedals regardless of what conditions are like. The reward is intermittent. In this sense we really are like the rats, pressing the pedals instead of a bar and instead of food pellets getting less tangible but no less real satisfaction.

Thus, cycling addiction is a complex mix of both long- and short-term rewards, pleasure and pain. It has little to do with the fact that riding is also ‘fun’.  There are plenty of other things in life that are fun and they aren’t necessarily addictive – getting pushed down a hill in a shopping trolley when you’re drunk is fun – once. But there are a few things in life that do have an enduring lustre, an intoxication that can last for a lifetime – cycling is one of them.  In truth, all of the aforementioned positive things are important but it is the negative, the dark things that loom largest. The reason for this, that I keep coming back to, is the constant challenge of the wrestle with yourself (even if it occurs within the context of competing with others) – the dark night where you test your soul, the pushing into the unknown. You can win races, have rides of great camaraderie with friends, tour through beautiful countryside – all of these things are fun.  But the addictive part is pushing it out to the edge. Seeing what your body and psyche can take. At its most fundamental level, cycling is training for the final wrestle with the guy in the dark cloak with the sickle. A way to confront our anxieties. Putting yourself into situations where you don’t know exactly what is going to happen. The fear of not knowing if you are going to make it. If you didn’t push it, if you didn’t break new ground, riding might still be fun but would you have the same irrepressible passion for it?

There is a deeply motivational aspect of this for cycling. If you are plateauing and getting frustrated, push yourself into a novel situation where you either succeed or fail heroically. The success part is obviously motivational, but with the failing you have suddenly found yourself in a brand new environment that is highly motivational – the house of pain. It is here that you can set yourself a new and real benchmark to aspire to. It is here where you either dig deep and fight against the internal and external barriers, the self imposed limitations, against the ravages of time, or start to pretend. I believe that this function holds irrespective or where your riding is at objectively. What I mean by this is, our peak physical potential/prowess only occurs once, but in reality this is largely irrelevant. As ageing advances, you can be on the decline in terms of objective performance, but you can still jump into the ring wrestle and win against yourself. Hell, this is a lot more interesting than shaving seven seconds of your PB in an objective sense.

There is something deep within us that makes this inevitable – you know, deep in your bones, that the dark flow of time is relentlessly one directional, hunting you, lurking around like a lion somewhere deep in your subconscious, until it comes into reality, galloping up at you in the form of a milestone birthday, a forced withdrawal or debilitating injury. No-one escapes this forever, however, it is our response in the face of these fears that defines us.

Paradoxically, we cannot tolerate fear, yet also crave it. Perhaps it is primordial, some atavistic trait that is no longer satisfied by escaping from tigers and spearing buffalo. Perhaps it is our forgotten love of the dark side, a wild howling in the night that still titillates as it terrifies. These sorts of experiences are now so rare in modern urban life.  We spend so much time working, talking about work, going to school, mowing lawns, paying bills, answering email, interacting with our friends and plugging into the e-bot. It is little wonder that we want to reach out and touch the fire, even if we get the occasional burn, just to experience something real.

It is worth it. 


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