By Peter Burns
Repetition and Difference
Most mornings I ride into Burlington, either to go to the YMCA or to work. With slight variations, my daily route is the same but each time I ride, there are differences. The weather shifts from day to day, my mood is different and as the seasons flow one into the other, the flora and fauna change as does my outerwear.
Every time I ride on the bridge over the Winooski River, the river is different. Sometimes, when the light is just right, I see a rainbow above the falls. I am a man of habit, and I do the same things over and over again. This repetition provides me with a sense of structure and purpose. At the same time, my life, like everyone else's, is in constant flux. Change is inevitable. My father liked to quote the first line from Charles Olson’s poem ‘The Kingfishers’, “What does not change is the will to change.” I believe in paying attention to every moment of my life. This is a nearly impossible challenge, our minds seemed designed to drift. I find that it is easier for me to focus when I am exercising. Sometimes I can keep my mind on swimming, walking, yoga, or bike riding. I listen to podcasts when I am doing housework, but not when I exercise. I try to ride as skillfully as possible, even if I am only going from Winooski to Burlington or vice verse. For me, skill means pedaling as efficiently as possible, negotiating traffic and pedestrians gracefully and keeping my body relaxed and open. My commitment to mindful riding ebbs and flows. Sometimes when I am riding around town, my mind is filled with chatter. At other times I feel a mystical union with my bike and the world around me. Perhaps because of the lack of traffic, I can often achieve this state of flow on the Burlington Bike Path.
Index Card Riding
In the early spring of this year, my back got so sore I had to stop taking yoga classes and weightlifting. I was sore because I did too much exercise without enough rest. I told my therapist that I was worried that I would not be able to take long bike rides as I had the summer before. He told me that it was possible that I might not take many rides, but that would be OK. My back got better, but I decided to shift around the way I work out. I have seven different exercise options - Swimming, riding, walking, yoga, mowing the lawn, riding/walking and rest. I shuffled the cards and then pick the top card for that day’s exercise. I fit the workout into whatever other activities I have planned that day. In the past, I arranged my life around exercise, now I arrange exercise around my life. It has been a big change. I used to go on long rides two or three times a week, but that has not happened this year. Sometimes, on beautiful days, I feel a sense of loss, a longing to ride, but that feeling has become less intense. I still take a long ride once a week or so, but some of the rides are three hours long not six or seven hours. My therapist’s statement proved to be true. I have not taken as many long rides this summer and it has been OK. My back soreness has not returned.
Riding Alone, Riding Together
Solitude is one of the things I like best about bike riding. I crave time by myself but It is easy to become isolated, so I make an effort to ride with others. Every once in awhile I go on a group ride or lead one myself. Last week I did a Critical Mass ride. I have the sense that I am part of the bike community in Burlington. Writing these essays is another way to connect with others.
Business and Recreation
Almost every day I am on my bike for practical reasons. The cluster of places I visit most - The YMCA, City Market, The Fletcher Free Library and work, are all in downtown Burlington so unless it is early in the morning, I am contending with traffic. Almost every day a driver does something that is either dangerous or rude. I have learned to live with it. Sometimes I even enjoy the challenge of riding with danger. As described above I take recreational rides once a week. This year I have made a commitment to keep riding for pleasure every week of the year. Usually, that kind of riding stops in the middle of December when real winter descends, but last year I got a fat bike and it has studded tires. I also have the gear to ride down into subzero temperatures so I have no excuses. The cold will certainly shorten my recreational rides, but I still want to get out there.
Moving and Sitting Still
The central paradox of riding is that you are moving and sitting still at the same time. You move your legs and the rest of your body also moves slightly, but unless you are up out of the saddle, you are essentially sitting still. While our legs do the work of propulsion, your whole body is riding the bike. This means you have to be aware of your back and arms, as well as your legs. The back should be as straight as possible, but not held stiffly. One of the biggest challenges is to keep your shoulders relaxed, and not hunched up. Arms should be slightly bent. Avoid locking the elbows. The back is engaged so that you don’t have too much weight on your wrists and hands. You are looking for a sense of lightness and buoyancy as you ride. I know, I am asking a lot when sometimes riding is just a struggle to get up a hill and from point A to point B. Riding is closer to seated meditation than walking, swimming or running. It is possible while riding to combine a sense of movement through space with a feeling of stillness and tranquility.
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.