Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bicycling and the Art of Zen


A handlebar designed by Japanese artist Kosuke Masuda

Being present.  Finding a rhythm between my peddle strokes and breath.  Feeling the slight temperature change between the valleys and hilltops.  Smelling the thawing earth, decomposing leaves, distant cow pastures and the occasional dead skunk.  Seeing the countryside pass by at a rate fast enough to put miles behind me yet slow enough to absorb the details.  Hearing the call of spring peepers, cicadas, and sandhill cranes.  This is why I ride...and often times solo.

I've never been one for seated or still meditation.  For some reason I can't settle into it.  It's like wearing an ill-fitting pair of bike shorts for me.  Instead, I find I can relax into a meditative state while hiking or biking.  Travelling well known routes, ones that I haven't used a map for in years--my bike just seems to guide the way and my mind is allowed to release.

On these days, when everything seems to be "right", poetry sometimes floods my brain.  For a few years now, I've chosen to embrace this and have written quite a bit of Haiku while on two wheels.  Often times I allow it to drift out of my mind before I get home to a notebook and pen.  It's not really about writing it down, it's more about the "dance" I'm having with nature.  As a child I fell in love with Haiku.  The simplicity of it appealed to me as well as the non-rhyming nature.  I am also a lover of nature and Haiku tends to flow with it quite well.  The masters Basho, Busan and Issa all come to mind...writing about the fleeting moments that one cannot grasp.  While on my bike I often times feel this way.  I know that what I'm experiencing will never be repeated in the same sequence.  I could see the same oak tree daily on a ride and it will look different every time depending on the light, wind, time of year.  Instead of mourning this, I am trying to flow with it.  Once in a great while, a Haiku will stick with me.  One that I've never been able to shake is:

Grasshoppers please stay
out of my wheel spokes
you make a big mess

One I recently wrote on my first winter ride of the season is:

Winter wonderland
snow crunching beneath my tires
two tracks left behind

Here's one from Michael Rasmussen:

  Shadow emerges
cool morning soft light sharpens
chase myself Westward

And finally a piece from Basho (translated into English).  It's not on cycling but since I pass cranes almost daily on my rides it makes me smile.

The crane's legs
have gotten shorter
in the spring rain

When I raced and trained for specific events I tended to take myself too seriously.  Always thinking about the future and never truly enjoying what was going on in the present.  Basho wrote, "Make the universe your companion, always bearing in mind the true nature of things--mountains and rivers, trees and grasses, and humanity--and enjoy the falling blossoms and the scattering leaves."  

In 1999-2000 I lived in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.  I had the pleasure to train and work with many top triathletes.  I remember two sisters that both competed in Ironman competitions around the world.  Both trained seriously and paid their dues.  One of them went on to place well in just about every race she did while the other often struggled.  The difference I think was not in their training but rather in their mindset.  The one that consistently performed well seemed to "play" instead of train.  She received great pleasure in all movement and I rarely saw her without a smile. On the other hand, her sister beat herself up if she didn't do well in a race or during training.  I could tell that she was always making calculations in her head and followed her schedule to the letter...even if she didn't feel like training that day.  I have known many other athletes that seem to follow these patterns and only in the past six or seven years have I allowed myself to soften in my training as well.  The funny thing is that not only do I enjoy exercise more but I think I've actually become a better rider because of it!  It's as if a large sum of weight has been lifted off of me and I now have a new found freedom.
I can't say that I follow this "light" way of thinking all the time.  I succumb to pressures like everyone else.  I consider this all a learning experience and if I can improve just one day by being "here and now" it is all worth it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Biking in a winter wonderland!


A wintry chill is in the atmosphere,
As from the heaving lake the storm wind blows;
And weak-kneed brethren of the cycle fear
That brings the riding season to close.
Jack Frost assails us with his wicked thrusts;
Our polka-dotted mufflers are on guard
And many a good wheel in the basement rusts
Which should be speeding down the boulevard.

And shall we join the patient, suffering throng,
Which crowds the rumbling street cars to the door?
Which kicks against the service loud and long,
But keeps on riding as it did before?
Nay! Perish such a thought. On every street
The hardy wheelman has the right of way;
No ancient female comes to claims his seat;
No cable breaks, no lumbering teams delay.

Our hearts beat high, our life-blood dancing flows,
Though ice-flakes sparkle in the biting air;
While street-car heaters, every patron knows,
Are but a vain delusion and a snare.
The steed that bore us through the woods aglow
With sunshine, where the morning glories creep,
Will bear us safely through the mud-streaked snow
Until it lies at least five inches deep.

-PETER GRANT, late 1800's

My feet are blocks of ice.  My hands feel like there is sludge in their veins vs. blood.  My limbs are slow to respond to anything I ask of them.  My thoughts are foggy.  I think there is an icicle made of snot hanging from my nose.  Through all of this, there is a smile on my face--although you can't see it under the balaclava and layer of hoar frost.  It is winter in Wisconsin and I'm on my bike!
Am I crazy?  Maybe.  Am I happy?  The remaining unfrozen brain cells scream YES!.  Although this isn't my first choice of weather for riding, there is something to the saying "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger".  

My winter steed is a Surly Cross Check.  A bit rusty form the salt that coats Madison roads.  Definitely grimy--even though it gets cleaned frequently.  My normal winter gear consists of a balaclava, ski goggles when it's below zero to prevent my eyelids from freezing together, several layers of synthetic tops and bottoms, a wind jacket and wind pants, vapor barrier socks, winter cycling boots and Outdoor Research mitts.

Long gone are the days of 50 mile rides.  Now I gear up for commuting into work, running a few errands and partaking in the Madison Bike Winter events.  It usually takes me longer to get ready for the ride than to do the ride itself but most of the time I consider it worthwhile.  I feel like a kid out there after a few inches of fresh snow have fallen (my version of making freshies since I'm not skiing much anymore).  There are times I feel like giving up and those days I choose to walk.  When the sky drops a layer of ice on the road or six inches of slush I just don't feel safe biking anymore (in my old age I've either become soft or smart).  I'm not too worried about falling since I usually take a few spills each winter.  I'm mainly concerned about cars driving out of control or not giving me enough passing room.

Here in Madison there are some really strong feelings about winter cyclists.  In December 2007, Paul Soglin, stated in his blog "The bicyclists who braved the week's second storm should be taken out and shot."  Mayor Soglin, just "Paul" at the time, was referring to a snowstorm that dumped 5 inches on top of a recent 6 inch snowstorm.  The statement went completely viral in a matter of days.  I was getting e-mails from friends around the country asking me if he really said this and if he was crazy.  The only crazy thing is that he calls himself a bike advocate and claims he has done more for Madison's cycling infrastructure than any other mayor.  Of course after he received hate mail galore, his editor made a snide comment stating "Paul wrote this tongue-in-cheek- you know, a joke.  It's called hyperbole.  Don't get your undies in a bundle.".

O.K., so let's dissect this a bit since I biked to work twice that week.  Were they the safest conditions?  No.  But the roads weren't even safe for cars and the sidewalks/paths were impassible for days.  My work didn't close and if I wanted to get paid, I had to make my way in.  It's funny how Soglin stated that the paths he saw were meticulously clear.  I'm not sure where he was but the paths that I take were actually covered in slush/ice for a month following that storm (even after several calls to the city).  

So here we are, entering another winter bike season.  Soglin is once again mayor and the conceal/carry law recently passed in Wisconsin.  Although I love winter biking, a little bit of me wonders if my base layer should now be a bullet proof vest vs. long underwear.  
Me showing off my base layer at the Winter Bike fashion show
Another winter bike...this one in Madison
One of the bikes from the 2011 Arrowhead Ultra 
Markham explaining the importance of wind proof briefs