To feel small

View of the Carquinez Bridge in Vallejo, CA.
View of the Carquinez Bridge in Vallejo.

Before my recent century ride for No Kid Hungry, I hadn’t been out on my bike in months. My only view during that time consisted of the inside of my garage and my TV. But, for the century, the route I mapped out would take me out of my garage-world to face a little of everything. Cities, people, busy roads, animals, countryside, and bike paths. And, on top of all those things not in my garage, the ride also had bridges. The Tower Bridge. The Carquinez Bridge. The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. And, the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, you could even include the Yolo Causeway if roads that are elevated off the ground is the criteria.

The first time I rode a bike over a large bridge was probably back in Southern California during the American Diabetes Association Ship-to-Shore Tour de Cure in 2016. The organizers arranged that our side of San Pedro’s Vincent Thomas Bridge would be closed to vehicles which gave us exclusive use of those lanes to us as we pedaled high over the Port of Los Angeles.

This was a major highlight of that ride for me (aside from my first real exploration of cycling in LA). I remember trying to watch where I was going on the bridge and also trying to take in the view. High above the ground, when I looked out over the waterway and the port, I’d felt unbalanced and kept turning my head forward again. I pedaled past people stopping to take a photo. Despite all the times I stop to take a photo while riding, I felt an aversion to doing so here. Maybe it was because I was in an event with a finish line so making time felt important. It probably was a cool spot for a selfie too, but something made me want to keep pedaling.

I remember the feeling of being up so high in relation to everything else. I could see so much more all around, much farther out than when I was on the ground. I remember feeling small and somewhat vulnerable as I rode over, but once I reached the other side, it was just me and my bike again. On the ground, there wasn’t an expansive view, so perhaps I felt a little bigger. My world was a little smaller, a little more in my control again. My ego returned to its place in my consciousness.

How I felt going over a large bridge is not just about the elevation. My No Kid Hungry ride was relatively flat for the first 60 miles and when the climbing finally started in the hills between Fairfield and Vallejo, as high as I climbed, I was still at ground level — or, everything was at my level. It lacked the same rush of riding over a bridge (the descent was fun, though) because I didn’t feel as isolated from the earth below.

Later, passing through Vallejo, I stopped for quick photos before crossing the Carquinez Bridge and then got back on my bike and rode over. About two-thirds of a mile long, the bridge only stands about 150 feet above sea level, but riding over it, it felt a lot higher. It was a long way down. I remember the feeling of vulnerability again, with just my two wheels on this giant man-made structure suspended across the banks with the Pacific Ocean in view. I passed by a few joggers on the path over the bridge and continued on my way with fading remnants of a familiar rush of emotions.

A lot of cycling is about personals. Personal bests, improving personal abilities, on your personal bike. We compare ourselves to others and try to get faster and stronger. We look at friends doing rides on Strava, their speed, their distances, and want to feel worthy enough to fit in. So, we try to get more fit, buy better parts, study all our numbers, get more light in pursuit of feeling like we are our best selves and that will place us among those we think are better. Indeed, this is a sense of feeling small. It’s the kind of small you feel when you feel like you’re not enough. And, so we chase the feeling of being enough to be considered good. It’s a discontented kind of small. One that makes you not feel good about yourself.

But, riding my bike over these bridges makes me feel a different kind of small. Over these giant structures and amidst awe-inspiring views, I’m taken out of my own sense of self. I feel small in relation to my surroundings. Not the not-enough kind of small, however, but more an awareness that there is a whole universal process going on of which I’m a small part. My own little world is a part of a much bigger process. There are the things I can control and there are things of which I am at the mercy. Universal machinations influence my trajectory and perhaps manifest their will. I’m but a small cog in this gigantic machine channeling a universal will. And, as I am of this machine, it is of me. I am this machine manifesting a specific purpose that exceeds the little personal purposes that I comprehend in my conscious mind. There is something both intimidating and empowering about this.

Maybe this is a taste of what astronauts in space feel like when they look at the Earth. Maybe it’s a symptom of a lack of oxygen.

After the Carquinez Bridge, I eventually made my way to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. At over five miles long, the bridge stands at 185 feet at its highest point. It felt much, much higher, and I felt much, much smaller as I took in sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay. The breeze felt different on the bridge than it did on the ground, and my legs a little more shakey. Cars speeding by my left, and the ocean to my right. I kept pedaling up and down the bridge’s expanses until I finally crossed. I passed by several cyclists and pedestrians, some stopping to take a selfie.

As I’d done in the past, I rode by the photo-takers ignoring thoughts of taking a photo myself on that bridge too. It just didn’t feel important. I got back to low ground on the other side of the bridge. The rush faded as it usually does en route to my finish line and I settled back into my little world, not having to comprehend the thoughts of my place in the grand scheme.

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