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.
By Peter Burns
I can use the map apps on my phone, but I prefer paper maps. In an unfamiliar place, the phone maps are difficult to follow. They give a micro view of where you are, but not the bigger picture. When you zoom out, street names disappear. Last summer when I ventured across the lake to ride south to Port Henry and then took the ferry back to Charlotte, I almost got lost. I used my phone and maps copied from a New York State Atlas, but I would have preferred a regional map. Sometimes I can tell where I am but I am not sure if I am heading in the right direction. There is also the option of mapping out a route using one of the map apps and then printing it out. I first learned to use maps in England, when I was walking through the countryside. I used Ordinance Survey maps which are beautifully designed. Perhaps I inherited a bit of map reading ability from my father. He was a flight navigator for B-52 airplanes, although he was never involved in any actual bombing runs.
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.
I have an old pair of Pearl Izumi winter bike tights that have a zipper at the bottom of each leg. One of the zippers broke and this presented a problem. The tights are second hand, so I did not feel that I could return them to the manufacturer. Having a seamstress replace the zipper would be expensive and my sewing skills are not up to replacing a zipper myself. The tights are very warm and aside from the zipper, in good shape. I did not want to get rid of them. I needed a way to keep the lower part of the tights closed. I could have duct taped them shut, but that would make it hard to put them on and take them off. The most obvious solution would be to tuck the tights into my socks. This would work, but I wear long underwear under the tights and I need to tuck my long underwear into my socks so the long underwear does not ride up under the tights. I tried keeping the tights closed with rubber bands, but that left big gaps. The same thing happened when I used metal pant leg cuff clips. Then I remembered a pair of footless wool socks that I bought a couple of years ago when Eastern Mountain Sports was going out of business. They proved to be the perfect solution! First I tucked my long underwear into my socks, then I put on my tights and finally I pulled on the footless wool socks. They kept the bottom of the tights secure and also provided an extra layer of warmth. I was very pleased.
Elements of Bike Riding, Part 7
Recreational Winter Riding
The elements have to be just right for a fun winter road ride. The roads have to be clear of snow and dry, because the bike I ride for pleasure has no fenders. The temperature has to be above 35 degrees with no rain, I have to have time to ride and it has to be well before dark. In December, when the sun is setting at around 4, just finding enough daylight is a challenge. On December 21st, all the elements came together and I was able to take my first fun ride in quite some time. I have been riding daily for practical purposes and I am in good enough shape to ride for two hours without any difficulty. I went on my usual short ride route -- from Winooski through the Intervale to Mallets Bay, then the Colchester Bike Path to 2A where I stopped at the Burnham Library to use the bathroom and get some water. I went on Depot Road, Sand Road and Gentes Road which took me back to 2A. I circled back to Suzie Wilson Road and then rode through Fort Ethan Allen and Saint Michael's to get back to Winooski. There was a moment, on the Colchester Bike Path, overlooking Mallets Bay, when I felt that opening up of the mind and body that is one reason I ride. It is a feeling of spaciousness and joy, a sense of freedom difficult for me to achieve in other areas of my life. One of the pleasures of riding in the winter is that you can look through the woods and see things that are blocked by the leaves in the summertime. I see houses and sheds that are invisible during the warmer months. Last summer I photographed wild flowers. This spring I will start photographing abandoned sheds and barns. I saw two good sheds on my ride. Even on warmer winter rides, I don't take photographs because my hands get cold easily, even with gloves liners on. That is why my photography project will start in the spring.
In the winter, when I get home from riding, I bring my bike into the front porch so that it can dry off from the snow or rain. Later I bring the bike into the house. There are many advantages to having an inside bike. It is easy to put more air in the tires or lubricate the chain. The bike and the bike lock dry throughly every night. Last year when I kept my bikes out in a shed, my lock got wet in the rain and then froze overnight. It was really hard to get open in the morning, and from then on, when it got really cold, the lock was hard to use. The biggest advantage in the winter is that you can leave the house with both you and the bike warm. In single digit temperatures, even with glove liners on, my hands quickly get cold if I have to unlock my bike and put my lock in my pannier then close the pannier. It also takes some time to put on my bike helmet and switch on my lights. Once my hands get cold, they don't warm up again until I am inside.
When I teach winter bike classes I tell participants about the importance of the indoor bike, and I suggest that if necessary, they may have to get rid of a roommate or a spouse to make room for the bicycle. It it just a matter of getting ones priorities straight.
Other Bike Riders
Cars present the real danger for bike riders but It can be annoying when too many pedestrians and bike riders are using the same recreation path. Last year, in early October, on the holiday weekend, I took the Colchester Causeway to the bike ferry. It was a cool gray day and I thought that the weather might keep others away, but the Causeway was crowded with riders and walkers of all ages. I don't go very fast, but I do go faster than most causal riders, so I passed others bike riders. People coming the opposite way often drifted into my lane and only looked up at the last minute. Riders and pedestrians going my way did not stay over on the right hand side. It was no fun. If we suddenly had as many bike riders as we have car drivers, chaos would result and it would be frustrating to ride a bike. There will be more riders as time goes on and infrastructure and bike riding culture will have to keep pace.
I see other bike riders most days. There are still few enough of us to stand out among pedestrians and cars. I know a handful of people to wave to, the rest are strangers. Some riders are slower than me, some faster. There is one particular man who seems in a great hurry and he is always passing me in town. It is usually when I am on my commuter bike, loaded down with stuff. Also, in the city, I see no need to ride fast. Sometimes he passes me on Riverside Avenue. I confess that I fantasize about seeing him when I am on my road bike. Then I would leave him in the dust! This is unlikely to happen because I rarely ride my road bike in town.
By being involved with Local Motion and Old Spokes Home, as well as online groups, I have come to feel that I am part of the bike community here in Burlington. It is a good feeling. Many of the things I love to do are solitary pursuits. I usually ride, swim, do yoga, read, and meditate alone. I try to add some group element to each of those activities, so I don't feel isolated. Teaching bike classes and going on occasional group bike rides keeps me in direct contact with other bike riders.
As the weather gets colder, I see fewer bike riders. Many people stop when the roads get icy. In the late fall the Church Street Marketplace and City Market remove some of their bike racks, which makes things just a little bit harder. That said, during the first real snow storm of the year, in late November, I saw four other bike riders on my way to work. This would not have happened every a few years ago. We are making progress!
There are more and more electric bikes on the roads. They are great for people who would not ordinarily get out on a bicycle. For people with disabilities they are a godsend. I prefer to ride a regular bike. I find it very satisfying to utilize only human power. I can't imagine engaging in any sports activity in which I did not provide the power myself. The question is whether electric bikes should go everywhere that regular bikes go. I am leaning toward use on the road and recreation paths but maybe not on single track trails. In early November I saw a man standing by his electric bike on a trail in the Intervale. There had been rain the day before and the trail was muddy. The man had skidded on his bike and now the fender was rubbing. He had just fixed it with a dime embedded in a stick. Very creative. I offered to help but he was fine. I wondered if having an electric bike made it too easy to go fast on a slippery trail.
Although I have not experienced extreme road rage recently, I still get angry every couple of days. I just don't chase car drivers down so I can yell at them. I have done that in the past. Recently a white truck cut me off on Riverside Avenue by taking a right onto Intervale Road. The driver turned into a driveway on Intervale Road and I resisted the impulse to follow him and have a little discussion. I also worked on not spending the next fifteen minutes on revenge fantasies. On a regular basis cars come too close or start moving at a stop sign before I have finished crossing. Riverside Avenue heading into Burlington is a challenge in the morning. At the top of the hill I turn left onto either Hyde Street or North Winooski Avenue. If it is after 7 AM, traffic gets heavy and it is hard to get into the left lane to make my turn. I often have to stop on the right side of the road and look back until all the cars have passed. Then I can get into the correct lane. This is not pleasant, especially when there is snow on the right side of the road and I have less space than usual. Given a choice, I prefer to ride on car-free roads. This happens less and less frequently in Chittenden County. New homes and businesses are going up all the time, and there is more traffic than ever. The infrastructure for bikes is still patchy.
I am glad I do not own a car. Once in a while I use a Car Share vehicle but mostly I ride, take the bus or walk. When I do get behind the wheel of a car, I find myself instantly returning to car consciousness. Recently I was driving in town when I saw two people approaching a crosswalk. Instead of slowing down I sped up to get through the crosswalk so I would not have to stop. It was automatic, I didn't even think about it. We change who we are when we change from rider to driver .
By Peter Burns
Join Local Motion (and Peter) at a winter biking workshop near you this December! These fun events are free and include food and prizes. Find the schedule at www.localmotion.org/events
When I started riding through the winter 35 years ago, there were only a handful of us. Each year more and more folks are riding though the winter. The technology for cold weather riding is constantly improving. Even more important is the change in consciousness. Many people see winter riding as not only possible, but desirable. If you can ski, you can bike in the winter!
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.