The Three "Levels" Of Cycling
I've been cycling for a while now, and I've been coaching almost as long as I've been fitting bikes (all can be measured in decades). Over the years, I've noticed that there are three distinct levels of cycling. Me being me, I've named these levels "the Rider," "the Cyclist," and "the Transcendent."
Almost all cyclists are at this first level. The bike is the focal point. The individual on the bike can ride from point A to point B without issue, and even get there very quickly. The bike does what it wants to do, and, for the most part, the cyclist is along for the ride.
At this level, most riders don't push their bikes to the limit. Perhaps they're new to cycling, or they have a new bike they're not entirely comfortable with yet. Maybe the rider is trying a new kind of cycling.
I dare say that there are more Riders at a given triathlon than any other level. There is absolutely no shame in being a Rider. Riders tend to be some of the happiest people on bikes, going out and riding a bike for the sake of riding a bike.
In this second level, the individual and the bike are equals. Mountain bikers sometimes talk about how a trail can "flow," this is a sign of the cyclist. A Rider will look at the same trail, seeing all the rocks/roots/sand/trees/drops/cliffs/etc., and find the ride to be more a balance challenge and/or test of the brakes. On the other hand, a Cyclist is in tune with the bike and understands both the bike's and pilot's limitations. Experienced road sprinters and enduro riders are also common in the Cyclist category.
In my experience, the Cyclist is found most often in the more specialized disciplines of cycling. The trialists, radballers, bike gymnasts, BMX racers, and (to a lesser extent) cyclocrossers are more often than not Cyclists.
An important thing to remember is that an individual can be a Rider and a Cyclist at the same time; both of these levels have the bike playing a part in the equation. You can be a Cyclist on a road bike, but if you have never ridden a mountain bike, the first time you ride a trail, you will be a Rider.
(Side note - I have recently fallen in love with gravel biking, and it is my belief that gravel biking was born for Riders that like Cyclocross.)
This is the third and rarest level. At this stage, the bike is slowing down the individual. The limits of the individual outpace the limits of the bike (not to be confused with reckless abandon).
I have been racing bikes for nearly 20 years (with a few years at a high level). I've only been at this cycling level for a handful of moments during rides.
I got to play with a set of Fabian Cancellara's wheels back when he was World Champion. The consumer version of the wheel was one of the lightest 58mm deep carbon wheels on the market, but Fabian's were about twice as heavy. I asked the company why a professional's wheels would be so heavy. Most people would expect them to be lighter!
Fabian is a strong guy, but not outside the norm. I was told that the consumer wheel would be stiff enough for Cancellara's straight-line sprint, but Cancellara could put down the same power going through a 90-degree turn as he could in a straight line. The forces on the wheel would destroy the consumer wheels. So, Fabian needed more durable, heavier wheels.
That was the moment when I realized that the Transcendent level existed. I had been racing for a while and could sprint, but I knew that I could not sprint full speed through a corner.
The Transcendent is rare; the way to see them is by finding people that have a high level of success in more than one discipline or simply dominate their peers. Marianne Voss, Peter Sagan, Nico Schurter, Danny Macaskill, and Chris Hoy are a few Transcendent Cyclists that come to mind.
At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter what level you fall into. Biking is fun, no matter what. But, it's helpful to honestly identify what level you're in.
A good coach can help you identify your cycling strengths and weaknesses so you get the most enjoyment out of your riding and ensure you have the right skills to accomplish your goals.