By Peter Burns
One July morning I was walking my bicycle toward the corner of South Union Street and College Street. South Union is a one way street with a one-way bike lane headed south. I saw a young woman going the wrong way in the bike lane. Disobeying certain rules puts the rider in danger and is annoying to drivers but I most strongly object to behavior that makes it harder for other bicyclists. That what riding the wrong way in a bike lane does. When she reached the corner of South Union and College she very conscientiously signaled for a right-hand turn. This seemed ironic for a couple of reasons. First of all, because she was going the wrong way, there was no car traffic behind her to signal to, and there was also no oncoming traffic either. It also seems silly to blatantly disregard the bike lane rules and then be so careful about signaling.
For some time I thought that a traffic mirror would be useful at the very bottom of Weaver Street in Winooski. It was hard to see traffic coming from the right on West Canal Street. A building blocked the view. I contacted Jonathan Rauscher Director of Winooski Public Works. He said he would look into it, and after a few nudges it finally went up earlier this summer. Most of the time I take Weaver Street when I am heading into Burlington and I am grateful each time I look into the mirror to check traffic. I also feel that I have helped, in a small way, to make biking and driving safer in Winooski.
Over the years I have found many things while on walks or bike rides. I keep my eyes open and tend to notice stuff dropped by the side of the road. I have found wallets and cell phones which I have dutifully turned in to the police, but other things I have kept for myself. I justify this by remembering all the things I have lost and never recovered. I am part of an ecology of lost and found objects. Recently I thought that I lost my state park pass. I used the pass to get into Mount Philo State Park and I thought I had lost it when I was taking a break and having a snack out by the dumpsters and port o potties at the back of the parking lot. The next day I decided to ride out to the park in the evening and look for the card. Since the COVID epidemic, I have not been on a bus, but I was planning to take the bus from Winooski to Shelburne to avoid rush hour traffic. I was getting ready to go when I found the card tucked into a pocket of my fanny pack. Losing things is inconvenient but what bothers me more is my own carelessness. Recently I also misplaced at Darn Tough bike sock. It was gone for a couple of weeks until I finally found it in a bag I use to store swimming equipment.
For every biking situation, there is an optimal cadence. Cadence is how fast or slow you pedal. The optimal cadence depends on many different factors - the terrain, your fitness level, the bike you are riding, the weather conditions, what you are wearing, and your energy level. Finding that sweet spot takes practice, but when you get it right there is a sense of ease. When I am on a flat stretch of road, with no headwind, pedaling is nearly effortless. This optimal cadence may not make you the fastest rider on the road. When I ride into work on the Burlington Bike Path I often get passed by faster riders. It is tempting to catch up. I try to maintain my sense of ease and rhythm and ride my own ride. I comfort myself by thinking “I could smoke you if I wanted to, but I choose not to.”
It is easy to over pedal when climbing a hill. This results in putting more effort than necessary into the climb. A challenging hill forces me to be focused and mindful. I believe one of the longest steepest dirt road hills in Chittenden County is Osgood Hill Road. I still find it a challenge, even after having climbed it many times. I always take a break for water and a snack before I start up the hill. I try to stay relaxed as I put in the necessary effort to make it up the steeper parts of the hill. Even when I am working hard, it is possible to keep my legs relaxed. I also use the minimum force necessary to keep moving. This means that I go up the hill slowly, but I am not completely out of breath when I get to the top.
Hill climbing is a good model for other kinds of challenges. For any difficult task, it is good to have a strategy, to stay as relaxed as possible even as effort is needed and to take a break before beginning.
Riding Slowly, Walking Slowly, Swimming Slowly
Last fall a friend of mine said, “I was driving on Riverside Avenue and I thought I saw your riding up the hill. Then I noticed that the guy was pedaling fast, and I knew it was not you.” She did not mean to say that I was slow but that was the implication. I will be 64 this month and I don’t ride as fast as I once did, but I feel good about just keeping at it. I have also let go of most of my competitiveness. Two years ago I did the Old Spokes Fall Fundo and I found myself pushing really hard to keep up with the fast riders. I was not riding at a comfortable pace, because I did not want to be left behind. Last year I skipped the Fundo, but I am going to ride in the next one and go at my own pace. It seems silly to miss an enjoyable event because of my need to compete.
In the spring I was riding near the Burlington Bike Path thinking about a recent post in which a friend described getting passed and then catching up with someone. I was mentally congratulating myself on the fact that I no longer feel the need to catch up and re-pass someone who has passed me. Just then a big shirtless guy on an old mountain bike blew by me. I was tempted to catch up, but I was able to restrain myself. A couple of miles farther on I did catch up with him, but not because I was trying to. I believe that when I am riding on a bike path, with lots of pedestrians around, as well as other bike riders, it makes sense to move along at a moderate pace. I see other riders tearing along the bike path and it seems to me that they are an accident waiting to happen.
Sometimes at the end of a long ride, a faster biker will pass me and this motivates me to try and catch up and stay with them. I am not trying to pass, just keep up. This gives me a little kick of adrenaline when I am tired.
I am also a relatively slow walker. I find that I naturally keep to a certain pace which gets me where I want to go. Some people walk more slowly than I do, and some more quickly, and that is OK.
It seems that I am even a slow swimmer. In January I was doing laps when Jordon, one of the lifeguards said, “Don’t swim so fast, you are making me dizzy!”
I consider myself a member of the “Slow” movement which includes slow readers, slow eaters, and slow thinkers.
‘Walking Meditation’ by Thich Nhat Hahn
Thich Nhat Hahn writes that both sitting and walking meditation should be pleasurable. I have done sitting meditation almost every morning for seven years but I do not yet find it enjoyable. I get glimpses of how it might be pleasurable but I am not there yet.
Walking is more pleasurable. Usually, I recite poetry or practice stories when I am walking, but sometimes I focus on the walking itself. Bicycle riding is mostly pleasurable but it is a complex activity that includes both pleasure and pain. In this difficult time, it is useful to make a list of the things that give you pleasure. Most things that give pleasure can be destructive if taken to excess. Americans in particular seem to have a fraught relationship with pleasure. We often don’t have structures for the moderate enjoyment of alcohol, food, sex, exercise, shopping, or using drugs. These are some of the things that I enjoy - drinking coffee, reading, talking with friends, swimming, bicycle riding, stretching, walking, telling stories, drinking beer, buying clothing, and sleeping.
Other things I do either take discipline or are mixed pleasures. Sometimes writing is fun, at other times it is a chore, but I continue to do it. Working at the group home is another mixed pleasure. I really like the people I work with, but sometimes it can be a challenge. Gardening is satisfying but I am not very good at it.
This is a blog that is about bicycle riding and walking, but sometimes I enjoy writing about other things as well. Maybe riding and walking are not great pleasures in your life, and fall more into the mixed bag category, but I encourage you to keep at it, because sometimes things that start off as challenges can become great joys.
Thich Nhat Hahn advises us to not make a display of walking meditation. He writes that we should not walk so slowly as to draw attention to ourselves. His advice reminds me that walking is always a question of how we experience the walk subjectively and how we project ourselves to the world. Without a cloak of invisibility, walking where others can see us is always a question of the display. Whether or not we choose our outfits carefully, how we dress, and how we walk is a social act, we always project a certain image of who we are to the world. He also asks us not to pretend to be walking mindfully when in fact our mind is preoccupied with other thoughts. Which reminds me of one of my many pet peeves. I sometimes see people who are geared up for running but are moving so slowly that they are really just walking quickly. They move their arms as if they are running, but they are not really running. I want to stop them and say, “Stop pretending that you are out for a run and just take a walk. You would enjoy it more!” For some reason, most people don’t appreciate it when you point our their self-delusional behavior. Just yesterday I found out that in fact, slow jogging is a thing. In Japan, there is a whole movement toward jogging at a walking pace. Maybe slow runners are not delusional after all!
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.