Elements of Bike Riding 9

By Peter Burns


In the summer I am not usually bothered by mosquitoes or ticks but I still wear bug repellent because when I stop by the side of the road for a break or go into the woods to answer the call of nature, I  get swarmed by mosquitoes. I also get attacked by mosquitoes when I ride up steep hills.  I climb so slowly that they can keep up with me but when I get to the top of a hill I leave them behind.  On sunny days I wear sun glasses and on cloudy days I wear clear glasses.  This keeps most of the insects out of my eyes. Once, many years ago, I rode into a bee and it stung me on the chest.  It was startling.    From time to time I spot a butterfly flitting through a field.  I can identify Monarch Butterflies, Swallowtails  and yellow Cabbage Butterflies.  Beyond that I am clueless.  In the summer I often hear the sound of crickets and cicadas. One December, a couple of years ago, it was 70 degrees just before Christmas.  I went for a ride in Shelburne and as I glided through the countryside I felt strange because although the temperature felt like summertime, I did not hear any birds or insects. 


Last month I mentioned that I have a limited knowledge of the landscape through which I ride.  Every part of it, the geology, architecture, flora and fauna, history and weather would reward a lifetime of investigation. Sometimes I feel guilty that I don't know more, but I only have a limited amount of time for reading and I prefer to read novels.  The only thing I know a bit about is wildflowers.  In 'Pig Earth'  John Berger explains that the peasant experience of the landscape is conditioned by the need to survive. The peasant is highly attuned to the environment because if not, starvation is a real possibility. Every plant, animal and change in weather is keenly observed.  There is nothing romantic about it.  While riding recreationally, my attention is focused on the act of riding, my emotional and physical state, weather conditions, traffic and my need for food, water and a place to relieve myself.  I also have the luxury of being able to let my mind wander, especially when there is little or no traffic.  Once in a while when I am riding I get ideas or remember things I have to do.  Sometimes I stop and write down the ideas or add to my to do list, sometimes I do not. I am not riding for  practical reasons.  Part of the reason I ride is to achieve the feeling of awayness.  When I have been riding for a while, and I am out in the countryside, I feel a sense of release, as if I am free, at least temporarily, from the everyday troubles we all face.  I know my troubles are still there, but for a while at least, they are in the background.  

In 'Frederick' by Leo Lioni,  the eponymous mouse is a poet who is able to save up sunshine from the summer and give it to his fellow mice during the cold days of winter.  When I am riding in the summer and early fall  I store away memories.  In the winter, every once in a while, a vivid image of a  summer ride comes back to me all of a sudden.  It helps me survive the cold dark times.

Why I Ride

I ride for a number of intertwined reasons. My motivation shifts from day to day and season to season.  Mostly I ride from habit, it is part of my daily routine like going to work, writing, meditation, and going to the gym.  Riding is part of my fitness program, along with weight lifting, yoga, swimming, and walking.  My commute provides me with about 40 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each day. I also ride to save money.  Owning a car was a real drain on my finances.  Being outside all year round is  important for my mental health.  Even a short ride  puts me in a better mood.  I appreciate that my bike is easy on the environment but that is not one of my main motivations.  I like being admired for riding a bicycle all year round in Vermont.
Finally, if I did not spend time on a bike, I couldn't write these essays!


For me, outdoor swimming and bike riding is complicated.  I bring along my cell phone and wallet when I ride, and what to do with them while swimming is a dilemma. I have not found a good system for bringing them into the water with me, yet I do not want to worry about having them taken while I am swimming.  I have a backpack that I can lock with a padlock, and I can lock the backpack to my bike.  Unfortunately the backpack is cumbersome. Overade, a French company that makes  folding helmets, also has a waterproof bike bag lock.  The lock and the bag are one unit.  This might solve my problem.  The bike bag lock rests on a rack while you ride.  I plan to get one this summer and will report back on how it works for me.

When I swim I  bring along a small towel, my bathing suit, goggles and a swim cap.  On longer rides the extra weight of that stuff plus the weight of the lockable backpack makes a difference. Swimming is wonderful and when I am finished I feel extra energy in my legs. Being in the water seems to give them a charge.  On hot days I could just jump into the water with my bike shorts on and take a quick dip, but I don't like riding with a wet pair of shorts.  In the summer I usually do longer rides without bringing along my bathing suit. 

There seem to be fewer and fewer good swimming places.  I used to go to Colchester Pond, but there is not any real swimming area there and sometimes people fish in the place from which I like to swim.  North Beach is often crowded, and Mallets Bay gets weedy fairly quickly.  I like Charlotte Beach, but it is a bit of ride from my house so I don't go there often.  When the bike ferry is in operation, I sometimes leave my bicycle at the dock and swim along the causeway.  There are also a couple of beaches in South Hero and Grande Isle.  Having achieved the venerable age of 62, I now have a pass to all the State Parks in Vermont.  Some of the parks have good swimming areas.  I am eager to try Niquette Bay Park which I believe is the closest State Park to Burlington.  A friend told me that there is some good swimming there from the rocks.  I will investigate. 

My phone

I bought an iPhone years ago, mostly for bike riding emergencies. If I got a flat I could not repair, or had some other mechanical difficultly, I wanted to be able to call for help.  So far I have not had to use the phone for an emergency but it does provide an added sense of security.  While the primary use of the phone is for emergencies, it has affected my rides in many ways. I find myself taking photographs along the way.  Sometimes there is a tension between seeing something I want to photograph and the urge to keep moving.  In the winter there is the question of whether I want to get cold hands in exchange for a photo.  Often I skip the photo and ride on.  The riding is more important to me than photography.  Last spring and summer I photographed wildflowers  and posted them on Facebook. Next summer I am planning to photograph abandoned sheds and shacks.  I don't stop when I have an incoming call.  I let it go to voicemail.  Last year I bought a little pouch that attaches to the shoulder strap of my backpacks.  I can carry my phone in the pouch and that makes it more likely that I will stop for photographs.  iPhone cameras are better at short and medium ranger than for long distance shots.  Having a camera  changes the way I look at the landscape.  My eye is more attuned to photo opportunities. I also have kindle audible and podcasts on my phone.  When I stop for a snack, meal or coffee, I  either read on kindle or listen to an audible recording or a podcast.  This also changes the texture of my rides.  

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.