RenoThis is an opinion piece by Reno Toffoli. Reno’s opinions don’t necessary represent the opinions of Your Group Ride or its advertisers but I always enjoy his rants.  You can read is first article here: If you’d like to write an article for YGR, please email me at

I can still remember the day I learned to ride a bike without training wheels. I don’t know exactly how old I was, maybe 5 or so. It was fall, I remember that. I also remember my dad running behind me as I rolled down the slight hill in front of our house. I think I might have crashed once or twice. Little did I know that the sense of freedom and accomplishment that I felt that day would still be with me nearly 40 years later.

I vividly remember my first real BMX bike when I was 12 or so. I soon discovered how that bike could go anywhere I could pedal it, and go over, under, around, or through anything I had the skill or guts to try and ride.

With some skill and bravery in hand, I started doing the thing on my bike that I still enjoy most to this day; exploring. Well, let me expand that for a moment…it was exploration in the beginning. I think that it soon became as much escape as anything. In the mid 1980s, in central Minnesota, on the outskirts of the Minneapolis suburbs, I would explore and escape on my bike any time that I could. I was fortunate enough to live kind of on the edge of the sticks and adjacent to a county park/ natural area that had lots of dirt roads, and singletrack paths through the dense Midwestern forests. Little did I know that I was mountain biking in 1983 on a BMX bike in central Minnesota.

Along with my explorations in the woods, I would ride my bike with my friends, build jumps in empty lots, and even go to BMX races from time to time.  In doing these things, I discovered something about my developing introverted self…I had more fun riding alone in the woods. When I was by myself, I could think, process, and forget about everything else except the ribbon of dirt in front of me. I could enjoy the wind, the g-forces, and the serene pleasure of speed without distraction. It was cycling Zen.

Unfortunately, being alone, no one ever saw my sweet jumps, or my insane feats of daring. I didn’t mind so much because I never had to wait for anyone, they never had to wait for me, and I could go where ever I wanted for as long or as short as I wanted. I learned that having someone with me interrupted my Zen, even if I didn’t know what Zen was.

I got my first mountain bike somewhere around 1991. It was a used, free, Trek 850 and it was too big for me. That didn’t stop me from riding it everywhere I could and finding every little piece of dirt adjacent to inner-city Minneapolis (which is actually quite a bit). Maybe not so mysteriously, my search for Zen soon found me in Colorado where I could really (and quite literally) get lost on my bike.

To this day, I always ride alone, and nobody sees my sweet jumps or insane feats of daring. But I still ride for that Zen feeling, that ability to lose myself in the moment, think, process, and feel at one with one of the most amazing machines ever invented. For me, cycling Zen can only be attained on a mountain bike somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps some can attain it on the roads with cars whizzing by them, but I can’t.

I tend to schedule my rides to minimize the amount of people I run across. I’ll ride when it’s 95 degrees in the summer, or cold as hell in the winter. When it’s windy or overcast and threatening snow, I’m out there. My ideal ride is when I don’t see another soul and feel like I’m the last person on earth. I like it when it’s just me vs. the mountain, the weather, or myself.

All aspects of the ride come together and contribute to the Zen feeling. Being a nerd for anything mechanical, I love feeling the bike working beneath me. The whir of the chain, a click of shifting gears, the raspy hum of hot disc brakes on a steep descent, and the smooth, pillowy feeling of  the suspension are all comforting reminders that I am one with the machine. The satisfaction of making the machine carry me up and down the steepest, gnarliest terrain is also there. Sometimes I’ll be riding down something I came up earlier in the ride and think to myself, ‘how did I ride this?!’ Other times I’ll stop at the bottom of a descent, look back up and think the same thing.

I love just being outside and noticing all the things one might normally miss: wind through the pines, the smell of the forest, the glint of mica and pyrite in the rocks on the trail, bees and wildflowers, butterflies, snakes, beetles, rabbits, and deer. There’s so much life in the world that we are insulated from. I like to just stop and observe it for a few minutes at a time. When you find yourself being lost in that moment, you’ve found the mysterious Zen.

I guess this is why I’m not much of a racer. I don’t live to hammer, turn myself inside out, and feel pain and agony. I think maybe years ago I was slightly more into that stuff but the older I get, the more I enjoy the pauses. That statement feels rather cliché but I’ve gotta say that it’s true. Also, to be perfectly honest, the real reason I’m not much of a racer is that I don’t have the genes for it. I’m just slow where I need to be fast, I don’t take it all that seriously, and I like things like pizza and cheeseburgers way too much.

That doesn’t mean I don’t love speed. I do find Zen in the speed of the descent. There is the flow, the G forces, and the many calculations per second of picking that perfect line, shifting your weight to just the right spot, modulating brakes, maintaining traction, calculating lean angle, and the blurring of the scenery in one’s peripheral vision. I love descents so much that I will put myself through torturous climbs just to feel those few minutes (or seconds) of speed and serenity.

Of course, sometimes things just don’t come together right. Sometimes you just have a bad day and the experience doesn’t add up. Sometimes I feel weak, or can’t concentrate and it seems like every little rock bucks me off the trail. Sometimes my brain is just too overwhelmed with stuff and I can’t pick a line. Sometimes my bike lets me down and something quits working at just the wrong time. I don’t crash much but if it’s going to happen, it’s going to be on one of these rides. Sometimes I just wish I was home and sometimes I say ‘screw it’ and cut the ride short.

Even when I have a bad day, I can recognize it as such and it usually motivates me to get back out there as soon as I can because I know what it can be, I know Zen is out there waiting to be experienced. It can be elusive and hard to grab hold of but once you get it, you get it.

I think that one of the coolest things about cycling is that it can be something different to everybody. Cycling can be anything you want it to be from a Grand Tour or World Cup downhill, to riding on the bike trails with your kids to building jumps in an empty lot with your friends. Because of  this, there is potential Zen out there for everyone. So now we have a mission for everyone; hop on a bike, and find your Zen.