5 Lessons I Learned from Riding 500 Miles Across France
Mark a 30-something birthday by challenging yourself to an adventure way (way!) outside your comfort zone. You won't regret it.
All photos: Vincent Crossley
Sometimes it takes a very long (and very hilly) road to finally feel happy in your own skin. When I started planning a bikepacking trip across France-a 12-day, coast-to-coast journey from the North to South, averaging 60 miles a day-I simply wanted to raise money for World Bicycle Relief and have a romantic adventure with my husband and lots of rosé. (Our own Tour de France, if you will-just about a week shorter, and about a quarter of the distance.) But there I was, in the summer I turned 34 years old, accidentally reinventing myself.
Sure, being a working mom of a 2-year-old meant every day felt like living in a Mission Impossible: Rogue Toddler movie that not even Tom Cruise could survive-but, hey, the #struggleisreal for women everywhere and I thought I was doing just fine. I figured this was life in your 30s: You check off a few sizable goals and settle into an exhausting rhythm anchored by love and some sort of workout routine that's hopefully fending off your body's slowing metabolism. (Twenty-somethings, just you wait.)
I suppose I should've sensed the winds of change as I stood laughing over my bed one late night in June, already out of my comfort zone with the task before me: How the hell was I going to fit 14 days' worth of clothes and gear into the few small bags I'd have to carry on my bike?
After 500 miles, 20,000 feet of climbing, and the two most challenging weeks of my life, I realized that the winds of change most certainly weren't at my back-but it was all worth it. Here's what I learned along the way that I hope will serve as inspiration for you to set out on your own potentially life-changing adventure:
1. You have a reboot button, if you choose to push it.
When life is on track, it's tempting to stay in that sweet spot. And if it isn't, the fear of doing something about it can be all-consuming. Good news: If you enjoy aerobic pursuits and find ecstasy in the pain, changing your exercise landscape can recharge your workout-weary soul in surprising ways.
The great novelist Barbara Kingsolver said, "Small change, small wonders, these are the currency of my endurance and ultimately of my life." Indeed, this trip doesn't have to be about big changes (and since everyone is different, results will most definitely differ from mine). In opening yourself up to an epic challenge, you're already accessing and building on your untapped potential to evolve physically and mentally. (See: How to Scare Yourself Into Being Stronger, Happier, and Healthier)
To be clear, I'm not suggesting everyone throw on some padded bibs and pedal off into the sunset with buttered baguettes in their jersey pockets (though I highly recommend it). The bike turned out to be that transformative vessel for me. But if you love hiking, go summit a giant, dreamy mountain. If you're a ClassPass lover, go beyond those four studio walls and into the backcountry, up a rock, or down a rapid, free from a schedule-driven race against time. Do something that makes you feel alive, but also a little bit like you're about to die. That wild energy coupled with an unfamiliar setting is where you begin to reap the magic in the madness. Whatever adventure you choose-even a weekend journey-keep in mind that it should be as fun as it is hard. (Even if you're not "outdoorsy," consider the awesome advantages of combining regular exercise with the great outdoors.)
2. The trip of a lifetime can last a lifetime.
There's nothing more persuasive than glory staring you in the face, especially if you've just tasted failure. Not far from the finish line in Marseille, we planned to conquer one of the hardest climbs in the Tour de France, known as Mont Ventoux or the "Giant of Provence." I'd been visualizing this hallowed 13-mile ascent since my husband and I left the Atlantic Ocean, some 10 days and 475 miles earlier. Although I'd been riding with excruciatingly painful saddle sores almost from day one, I was committed to fighting my way up the steep moonscape of the mountain.
Well, Mother Nature (and the local police) had other plans. On the morning of our big climb, cyclists were being warned about dangerous 65-mph wind gusts near the 6,273-foot summit. Coming out of the sheltered forest, we felt the breeze pick up and saw groups of riders turning around. We'd come so far, how could we not at least give it a shot? The two of us pushed on until unseen forces knocked us off our bikes into the rocky shoulder. The cold wind whipped tears out of my eyes; fear clenched my chest. There was nothing to say. We tried. We walked down the mountain, white-knuckling our bikes that bucked like wild animals not ready to accept defeat. After five minutes, we stopped, rested our bikes against the railing and stood, possessed by the thought of a bald peak we knew lay just beyond those switchbacks, shrouded in fast-moving clouds.
Back home, I did not expect the adrenaline rush of that day to stay with me. Yes, we ultimately conquered Mont Ventoux and it made me feel like a goddamn wonder woman, but vacation vibes usually wear off when you get back to reality. Not this time! The daily grind hasn't changed, but I have. And that's been enough to make the kind of meaningful difference that lasts. To preserve this natural high and all the perks that come with it-a fierce confidence, less anxiety, more focus, greater patience, a happier state of mind-I've created a handy mechanism. I may still get a tattoo, but for now I'm using a mental trick, something I've dubbed my 'Mont Ventoux motor.' Whatever that challenge is, be it a stressful deadline, a difficult workout, in-laws visiting and your house is a mess, summon your trip's most rewarding moment and commit it to memory so that it could've happened yesterday. I've taught myself to be in two places at once: In the hard-hitting present but also turning the pedals, pushing through 65-mph winds, and reaching the moon. Let that powerful "I'm crushing this" sensation take over and you'll be invincible. (Also read how Olympic Medalist Deena Kastor trains for her mental game.)
3. An epic challenge will make you more open-minded.
A cool side effect of doing a physically and mentally demanding adventure is the lingering urge to try new things-particularly activities that champion your heightened level of fitness. Strangely enough, even if you go back to the familiar confines of that Pure Barre class, the temptation to experiment, to find that next challenge, will only get stronger as time passes (and your 40th birthday looms).
I went back to Brooklyn to ride my usual laps of Prospect Park, but I soon found myself biking indoors on a Wahoo KICKR trainer, spinning through the majestic world of Watopia. I always preferred to exercise outside, but I was instantly hooked on the grueling workouts and supportive global community (4,500 women strong and counting) in the Zwift Academy virtual training program, and now live out my weekly mornings as one badass avatar. (Here are more livestreaming workouts you'll get hooked on.) I've also been inspired to start studying for my PADI scuba diving license (despite a fear of drowning) and I've joined a French mommy-and-me group, though I'm far better at eating French than speaking it. Oh, and we're talking about having a second child. (No news yet, Mom!)
4. Embracing a less-is-more lifestyle is everything.
I've always wanted to be a minimalist. One of those carefree, carbon-neutral outliers who isn't tempted to buy unnecessary stuff or conditioned to believe new shiny gadgets and clothes will make us happy. Admittedly, despite my best efforts after my son was born, I still struggled to pare down. Even though our new budget allotted for diapers, not dresses, I told myself, "You dropped the baby weight, let's celebrate!" Well, it took hauling everything I'd need for a two-week bikepacking trip across France to see the light. Altogether, my cargo, Canyon Endurace bike, and I weighed roughly 150 pounds. Carrying that weight up and over mountains every day brought the profound revelation that I really didn't need much to enjoy the ride. Odds are, you won't be keen to carry a heavy load on your adventure either.
I flew home and KonMari'd the shit out of our two-bedroom apartment. Decluttering and learning to live with a lot less has given me an empowering sense of clarity and control-even over the ever-addictive and incessantly entertaining screen of a smartphone or TV. (BTW, here's how to KonMari your activewear drawer.)
5. Having a super-healthy body image is the gift that keeps on giving in your 30s.
Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the trip was feeling overwhelmingly proud of my body. I once dreamed of being a pro soccer star and played all my life until I had a baby (though I haven't hung my cleats up just yet). As a teenager, I started to hate what I perceived as my big soccer thighs, envying the skinny model legs that roamed my hometown of Los Angeles. Though I'd gradually accept my more muscular build as I discovered new sports like rowing and cycling, I still felt self-conscious about my thighs while wearing bathing suits, jeans, or nothing at all in front of my husband. (Related: This Mom Is Pointing Out That Everyone Is Entitled to Their Own Body Insecurities)
Now when I look at my well-toned thighs, it's with an unburdened sense of awe and gratitude for the immense strength they provided in getting me across France and up to the summit of Mont Ventoux. I certainly never imagined I'd love my body more than ever after I'd grown a human inside of me, but that's the enduring magic of a trip like this-and the one you're (hopefully) about to take.