From May to October of this year I was able to take a long ride almost every week. I am lucky to be able to have these adventures, and I have been thinking about the things that make them possible.
I am blessed with the ability to ride for a long time. Years of biking, swimming and yoga have kept me fit and strong. I do not have any nagging injuries that make riding difficult, although I do have aches and pains that come and go. My vision and hearing are fine.
I also have the temperament for endurance. I enjoy long books, longs swims and long bike rides. These are things I look forward to. Even when I have to get up early to ride, and it is dark and chilly outside, I seldom hesitate about going. I am interested in how the mind and body work under duress. That said, I am not interested in seeking out pain. Riding, swimming and reading are pleasures.
Although I have a full time job, it is flexible enough to afford me the time I need to ride. My work schedule is from Saturday to Wednesday. My vacation time is generous, and last summer I took every other Sunday off. I was able to ride on most of those Sundays. My children are grown up, so I don't have to do childcare anymore. This leaves me free for other activities.
After many years of living from paycheck to paycheck, I have managed to attain a modicum of financial stability. This means I do not have to work seven days a week, as I felt obligated to do in the past.
Because of the infrastructure in Chittenden County, including CarShare and the bus system, I can live without owning a car. Instead, I have three bicycles, one for my daily commuting, one for dirt road riding, and one for on road riding. I can use some of the money I save from not owning a car to help me maintain my mini-fleet of bikes.
Last but not least, I live in Vermont. Ten minutes from home and I am out in the countryside. I am so lucky to be able to ride in a truly beautiful place.
I still experience road rage from time to time, but I have not chased anyone down in a while. Usually I try to just let the feeling go.
This story helps me --
Two zen monks, a young man and an old master, come across a young woman who is dressed very formally and wearing delicate shoes. She is about to cross a muddy stream. The master offers to carry the young woman across the stream, and she accepts. The younger monk is outraged, because monks at that time were not supposed to have contact with women. Half an hour later the younger monk said, "I can't believe that you picked up that young woman." The older monk said, "I put her down half an hour ago but you are still carrying her."
Sometimes, half an hour after an incident, I find myself indulging in revenge fantasies. This is a waste of time.
When I am happy, songs come into my head, or rather fragments of songs. Sometimes I sing out loud, sometimes not. Once in a while a place reminds me of a song. There is an Irene Avenue in Essex and when I pass by I often sing a few verses of 'Goodnight Irene,' which was written by Huddie Ledbetter, the great American folk song writer. He also recorded another song that comes to me when I am riding called 'In the Pines'. Other songs include, 'Delta Dawn' and two songs from Little Feat, 'Whenever I'm in the World' and 'Dixie Chicken.' I first came across the band Little Feat when I was living in the East End of London. I also like to sing My Life Flows On'. I learned it 40 years ago when I was a member of the Green Mountain Volunteers, a contra dance performing group. In the past couple of weeks, 'Down by the Bay' has been the song going through my head. I also sing 'Willoughby Wallaby Woo.' The song begins like this -
Willoughby wallaby woo, an elephant sat on you,
Willoughby wallaby whee, an elephant sat on me.
Then you put in a person's name -
Willoughby wallaby weter, an elephant sat on Peter.
On a ride back from Montpelier, I sang the song with names from the time of the American Revolutionary War.
Willoughby wallaby Wefferson,
An elephant sat on Jefferson,
Willoughby wallaby Wamilton,
An elephant sat on Hamilton.
I think that may have come up because I had just read a review of 'These Truths' a book about American history by Jill Lapore.
Often only sing fragments of the songs, or just the chorus. Recently I went to a friend's birthday party. It was a singing party led by Robert Resnik and Brian Perkins. Audience members selected items from 'The American Songbook' and we sang them together. I was amazed at how many I knew.
In a few places in Vermont there have been improvements in the biking infrastructure. One of the more striking examples is the Barre-Montpelier Road. For part of the road there are clearly marked biked lanes and new pavement. Sadly this is not true for the entire route. It is like being in a kind of bike utopia for a while, only to return to the real world where bikes are an afterthought at best. The same kind of thing happens on Route 15 in Essex Junction. Heading to Essex Junction from Winooski I can take a back way through Saint Michael's College and Fort Ethan Allen, but the section of Route 15 between Suzie Wilson Road and West Street Extension remains problematical. If I am going straight, I have to ride between two lanes of traffic. The same thing happens on Shelburne Road heading South from Burlington. There is no provision for bikes when the road splits into a right turn only lane and a lane for going straight. The list could go on and on, but those are two extreme examples.
A Balanced Life
Earlier this year a discussion group I participate in read Middlemarch by George Eliot. Here is a famous passage from that book --
“Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! The scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round the little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent—of Miss Vincy, for example.” (Chapter 27, pp. 194-5)
In much the same way, any activity I engage in passionately can pull into its gravitational field other areas of my life. For example, if I made bike riding the center of my life, I might end up working in the field, and socializing more with bike folks. I might enter races but that would mean getting a car to transport my bike. The more time one devotes to one's ruling passion, the less time there is for other things. Bikes are certainly better than gambling, but obsessive following of any passion means sacrificing other areas of life. In an area like biking or meditation, or storytelling, there is always more to learn, always more to explore. I recently read an article about a young coach in the NFL who devotes every waking hour to his job. He is obsessed with winning the Super Bowl. Sadly for him, luck plays a large part in sports, and that is something no amount of work can affect.
I have been forced to chose a balanced lifestyle, because I am not really good at any one thing. I am pretty good at lots of things, and right now that is just fine. At one point I thought that I could make a career at performance art, but that did not happen. Instead I make my living in many different fields. As storytelling for children has stopped being viable, I have turned to teaching bike classes and teaching swimming.
I am grateful that bikes and bicycle riding is such an important part of my life, but also blessed to have other thing that give me pleasure and satisfaction.
By Peter Burns
Riding as a Skill
I often see people riding in ways that are not efficient. I don't make comments to other riders, but sometimes I want to. When I am lifeguarding at the YMCA I see a lot of awkward swimming. Even though I teach swimming for the Y, I don't offer comments there either. Everyone is sensitive to what they perceive as criticism. I know that there are things I do inefficiently, but like most people I am reluctant to change.
Every once in a while, during a ride, I interact with someone as I am passing by. Being on a bicycle means that the interactions are brief, I think of these little scenes as mini-plays with only one short act. Here are a few of them:
On Discovery Road in Colchester I passed a mom with her little girl. They were standing at the end of a driveway. The girl was about five years old. She was pushing a bike with training wheels. I said to her, "Do you want to race?" Her mom said, "Not yet, she is still in training. Come back in a couple of months."
On Old Stage Road in Essex, a Dad was pushing a little girl on a small bike. He said to her, "Are you sick of biking yet?" As I rode by I said, "How could anyone ever be sick of biking?"
On different day, on Old Stage Road, I saw a man at the Essex Country Club. He swung his club and hit the golf ball and then grimaced as he turned away. I said, "It wasn't that bad." He said, "It was that bad."
This interaction took a little longer --
In June, while taking a break from a ride, I was at the Maplefieds store in Georgia waiting to use the bathroom. I was behind two guys who had ridden in on Harley motorcycles. The bathrooms are single occupancy and the men's room was occupied. After a few minutes, the first guy in the line kind of shrugged and went into the women's room, which was empty. The other guy turned to me and said, "Both bathrooms are pretty much the same." I said, "Yes, they should be gender neutral." After the first guy left the woman's room, the guy I had been talking to used it and finally it was my turn. I wonder if I would have used the women's room if I had been the first in line.
What I hear
Most of my attention is focused on what I see and the physical sensations of riding but sound also plays a big part in the riding experience. I never listen to music or recorded books while I ride, I would find that too distracting. I also don't recite poetry or practice stories. I do those things when I am walking. In traffic I listen for the cars behind me, especially when I am getting into position to make a left turn. Cars are remarkably loud and when there is no traffic, other sounds emerge - birds, running water, the wind in the trees. Occasionally, when I stop for a break on the Burlington Bike Path, I can hear the sound of trains from the New York side of the lake. Once in a while, when there is an exceptionally warm day in December, I get to take a long ride through the countryside. I feel warm enough but the experience is always strange because the bird songs of summer and fall are missing. There is a kind of dissonance between the weather and the lack of birds.
After many years of riding a bike, my legs usually feel strong. At 62 I can do a six hour ride without too much trouble. By the middle of the summer, after many long rides, pedaling on level ground is almost effortless. This is a wonderful feeling. Because weight is so important when it comes to bike riding, I keep mine between 140 and 145. If I go over 145 I eat a little less the next week, if I am under 140 I eat a little more. Even with a lot of physical activity, I still have to watch what I eat.
On some rides old aches and pains present themselves. My back gets sore, my left knee aches, my left wrist hurts or I get twinges in my right ankle. Usually I can ride through the discomfort. I also have physical difficulties that are not related directly to riding a bike, but can affect the ride. I get headaches and feel dizzy. Sometimes I have diarrhea and have to take anti-diarrhea pills.
Just as we are different people in different social situations, we have many different bodies that manifest themselves as we begin an activity. This switching of bodies is largely automatic. My swimming body is not like my riding body. When I get ready to ride, my bike body starts to emerge and is fully present when I start to pedal. There are different kinds of bike bodies as well. I have one body that I use when riding around town, and another one for my road bike and a third one for long rides on dirt roads. I wear bike gloves even for riding around town, because putting them on helps me manifest my bike body.
Elements of Bike Riding
Time and Distance - Last year I downloaded Strava for tracking my speed and distance. I wanted to do a century, so I needed to have a way to see how far I was riding. After I did the 100 mile ride, I removed the app from my phone. I tend to be obsessive. I can easily see myself tracking every mile I ride, swim and walk. I want to be more relaxed about exercise. I am also a very slow rider, so knowing my average speed of travel is a little depressing.
Emotions - When I jump on my bike, I don't leave my feelings behind. If I am sad, anxious or angry, those feelings can stay with me as I ride. If I am feeling anxious about say my health, or a mistake I made at work, that anxiety can shift to anxiety about flat tires, the weather or getting lost. Emotions flow and change, so sometimes I am anxious when I leave my house and feel better after twenty minutes of riding. Once in a while, I feel a transcendent happiness. This does not happen often, but it is always a possibility. The last time it happened was when I rode on Boro Hill Road near East Moncton. It is a dirt road with a steep hill. Behind me was a stiff breeze and I rode slowly up the hill, with almost no effort at all. It felt as if I was levitating. Pedaling with the exact force needed to keep on going kept me focused in the moment. But riding is not always joyful. On May 21st I rode from Winooski up Riverside Avenue then through the Intervale to the 127 bike path, along the Burlington bike path over the Winooski River to Airport Park and then back to Winooski by way of Mallets Bay Avenue. It was sunny and in the 70's. A beautiful evening for a ride. I took my time, and felt strong through the whole ride. I was grateful to be out on the bike on such a fine evening. Rather than joy or anxiety, I felt a quiet contentment.
Traffic -- Traffic makes a difference in how I ride. I would prefer to avoid heavy traffic but in Chittenden County that is impossible. Riding around I am amazed at how many new houses are being built. Traffic is not going to get any better unless a lot more of us ride bicycles. I prefer steady traffic with room to ride on the side of the road to intermittent traffic on roads with very little room. Time of day also makes a big difference. In late June I headed south on Route 116 in South Burlington at 3:45. Rush hour traffic had already started. It took 40 minutes to escape traffic. I finally found some peaceful riding on a back road in Williston. Dirt roads are a gift to the traffic averse. Within half an hour ride of my house in Winooski, there are plenty of dirt roads that have very few cars, even at rush hour. What a blessing! Sometimes, unreasonably, I get annoyed with traffic. Last year I was riding on East Road in Colchester on a Saturday afternoon. It is a narrow road, with little room for bikes. The traffic was heavy and fast. I thought to myself, "This is not rush hour, there should not be so many cars on the road."
What I See - Seeing is both practical and aesthetic. I keep alert for traffic, cars, and pedestrians. I observe the sky for signs that the weather is about to change. Every type of road user perceives the environment in a different way. The moment I get on my bike I start viewing the world as a bike rider rather than as pedestrian or a car driver. I actually perceive the world differently. I notice the road surface, especially potholes and grates. I also visually calculate the steepness of hills and I am constantly aware of the speed and trajectory of other moving things in the environment. I can give more attention to the countryside when I don't have to focus on traffic. In a couple of places in Chittenden County there are unexpectedly spectacular views of Lake Champlain, the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains. The top of Riverside Avenue in Burlington is a great place to view Mount Mansfield. In the afternoon, on a clear winter day, the sun in the west illuminates the snow on the mountain. The snow glows with a celestial light. It looks as if you could reach out and touch the mountain. On Duffy road in Milton there is a fine view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks. Last month I wrote about my wild flower project, and that project has continued. I post the Wildflowers on Facebook. I find that I am not willing to stop every time I see a new wildflowers, once or twice a ride is enough. I know that most flowers will be blooming for a while, so if I do not catch them on one ride, I am sure to see them on the next. Because of my interest I notice wild flowers rather than trees or birds or insects. I also document each long ride with a photo I post on Instagram. My inspiration is the artist Richard Long, who walks all over the world and takes one photograph to commemorate each walk. Last year I upgraded my iPhone, mostly because I wanted a better camera. Now, when I ride, I look for potential photographs and that changes the way I see the world.