Elements of Bike Riding 11 - Life Lessons

By Peter Burns

A couple of months ago I was in the locker room at the YMCA when a friend asked me about bike injuries.  I said, "Sometimes my wrists hurt and once in a while I get a sore knee or back, but I don't have any chronic problems because of bike riding. Even on a steep hill it is possible to go slowly and stay relaxed if you find the right gear and use the correct cadence."  My friend said, "That is a good life lesson."  Here are two more life lessons drawn from my bike riding experiences.

1. Every morning before I leave the house, I check the temperature and wind speed and dress accordingly. Over the years I have learned what clothing I need for what temperature.  I prepare for the actual weather, not the weather I wish for.  Sometimes I see people riding bikes with no hat or gloves and a light jacket when it is sunny, 40 degrees and there is a brisk breeze blowing.  It seems that these people are seduced by the sunshine into believing that it is a warm day.  I can't believe that they are not cold.  I also bring along rainwear if wet weather is predicted.  I still sometimes underestimate the cold. On a Sunday morning last month I rode  from my house in Winooski to Burlington by way of Mallets Bay and the Burlington Bike Path.  It was 38 degrees and I wore heavy mittens and shoes with toe warmers but I still got cold hands and feet.  I did not calculate the cumulative affect of colder temperatures.  I was fine for the first 45 minutes but then my extremities started to get cold. Many years ago I was riding back from Saint Albans on a day when the temperature was in the 40's.  It started raining in the town of Georgia  and my hands and feet got wet.  I did not have any backup gloves or socks and so my feet and hands got very cold.  I had a long and miserable ride home.  So when you start a project, begin a relationship or embrace a challenge, be realistic about what you can expect, and prepare for what will probably happen rather than what you wish will happen.

2. I got rid of my car a couple of years ago, so riding is how I get around.  On a Saturday in March I got up, rode my bike to work, and then rode home afterward.  In the evening I rode into town again to have dinner with my daughter and her boyfriend. When we finished the meal it was 8:30 and I felt tired.  It had been a long day, but I did not even think about taking a taxi or the bus.  Riding is what I do.  So I got on my bike and started pedaling.  I was fine.  When you give yourself to a way of life, or a project or a relationship, when you make a true commitment, you discovered strengths you did not know you had.  

Rubber bands
I carry rubber bands around my wrists.  They come in handy in a variety of circumstances. If, for example, I remove an outer layer, and put it in my backpack or pannier, it is convenient to roll up the item in question and keep it rolled up with a rubber band.  Leftover containers are also more secure with a rubber band around them.  Rubber bands can be handy for temporary repairs on the road.  Every once in a while a friend of mine who knows that I carry rubber bands on my wrist will ask for one and I am happy to oblige. I can also do a magic trick with a rubber band.  Next time you see me I will be happy to demonstrate. 

Hills and Challenges
Last summer I set myself the challenge of riding the three longest, steepest dirt road hills in Chittenden County on the same day.  Brigham Hill Road in Essex Junction, Osgood Hill Road in Westford, and Cilley Hill Road in Jericho.  I managed to do all three.  As I mentioned above, the key is to take hills slowly and keep your legs as relaxed as possible.  The summer before that I did a century.  This coming summer I hope to ride from Winooski to the top of Smugglers Notch and back. I have done the ride from the ski area to the top of Smugglers Notch, but a friend of mine who acts as my bike guru said I had to do better than that.  Unless I rode from Winooski to the top of the Notch and back on the same day, it does not count.

In a universe that I believe is essentially meaningless, short term goals are important.  They give focus to my life.  There are certainly things I believe in, such as social justice, the power of friendship and our obligation to be kind to others, but those rather abstract ideals are not enough to keep me going from one day to the next.  Small attainable goals help.

Food, Water and Coffee
On long bike rides I pack enough snacks so I can eat something every hour or so.  I bring along some combination of apples, bananas, figs and dates. I carry my banana in a banana holder.  Once in a while I also have chips or pretzels.  On full day rides I buy lunch and coffee.  I bring a water bottle with me and drink every time I stop.  Sometimes it is a challenge to get water along the way, but usually I find something.  I  have a long drink before starting off.  I want to be hydrated, but if I drink too much water I just end up having to pee all the time.

The Experience of Riding
When I am on a long bike ride, something happens to me that I find difficult to describe.  There is a fullness, a richness to the experience that goes beyond the physical sensations of riding and the pleasures of moving through the Vermont countryside.  Perhaps it has to do with being a different person, or expressing a unique part of myself on the bike. This does not mean that riding is always pleasurable.  There are difficult and uncomfortable moments, but the overall experience is often transcendent. 

After riding all day long, I glow and feel  a hum of well-being. I am relaxed  but also energized.  It is one of the great pleasures of my life.

About the author:

Peter Burns is a long time bike enthusiast, and one of the original year-round bike riders in Burlington.  He writes amazing monthly blogs and teaches a variety of Everyday Biking workshops.  In addition to his work at Local Motion, he also works at a group home for people with Psychiatric disabilities, teaches classes for the Vermont Humanities Council, teaches swimming at the Burlington YMCA, and is a regular host of Storytelling VT.