OK, so I spend quite a bit of time on a bike. Plus, I spend a lot of time thinking about the act of cycling, and I’ve been doing this for over 40 years. Which means I’ve given this subject WAY too much thought. I may not have clocked the most miles of someone doing this for four decades. However, I’ve been keeping a detailed cycling spreadsheet for the last 15 of those years, and in that time, my total miles equal about 5.5 times around the equator.
I’ve been passed by hundreds of thousands of cars, so I’ve had a lot of time to consider the safest way for me to ride on busy roads. I know a lot more about being around cars than any driver knows about being around bikes, ‘cause it’s impossible that any driver has passed hundreds of thousands of bikes. My new Garmin Radar counts passing cars and gives their absolute and relative speed, which means for the last few months I have real data on this. The actual numbers are amazing. I can be passed by more than 300 cars in a few hour ride… in Santa Fe, NM!
I’ve ridden in 22 countries in Western Europe, South America, and Asia. Without a doubt, the US is one of the least bike-friendly places to ride. Our roads mostly suck, it’s a car culture, and the majority of drivers have zero concept of how to be around bikes. Plus, about 5% of them are openly hostile and aggressive towards anyone on a bike. Way too many cyclists have been been angrily told to, “Get off the F***ing” road”. Way too many cyclists have been killed or injured by aggressive drivers. But we still do it; though, I’ve been putting more of my miles indoors, which keeps my wife happy. I still relish the annual trips to Spain and Japan as those places are far more bike-friendly then here, plus their roads, on average are a lot nicer.
These series of essays are about Being On The Bike.
When riding, well, actually, when doing just about anything, it’s easy to have your body living the physical experience while your mind is living a completely different experience.If you’re riding and listening to music, you’re only half-riding.If you’re riding and thinking about…pick one… work, an earlier conversation you had with your wife, a future conversation you plan to have with someone, a theoretical conversation you would like to have, the plans for some future event, etc, etc, ad nauseam, then you are only half-riding.
If you are half-riding, then you are not only missing the point of being on the bike (except, say if you are on a regular commute, then you can be excused for half-riding sometimes), but you are taking a serious risk of having an unpleasant surprise.If you are not paying attention to the road, the cars, and the regular obstacles in your path, you will most certainly increase your risk of flats, close calls with vehicles, and even an accident.
If you are half-riding with a group, then you dramatically increase the likelihood of having a run-in with a riding partner.But for me, the biggest problem of half-riding is to miss the point of being on the bike in the first place.
This realization came to me very clearly many years ago when living in Belgium.I did group rides on Saturday, and usually my own ride on Sunday.Often, I did the same 65km Sunday loop from my house in the rolling hills south of Brussels.It was a pleasant ride that took me through several small villages that seemed to always have different activities going on.The loop had countless turns, and after a while, I stopped getting lost.
One day, I came up to a stop light near the end of the ride and could not remember the previous hour.I couldn’t remember any people I saw, other cyclists, events in any of the village squares, nothing.The prior hour was a complete and total blank.But I could remember what I was thinking about, which was mostly crap.I lost an hour on the bike.Gone. And this wasn’t the first time, it’s just that this time it became an epiphany of sorts. This shocked me into the realization that something must change.I was missing the point of being on the bike.
I explained this experience to my wife, who’s much more intuitive about these sorts of things then me, and she had a suggestion taken from her meditation practice.In those days whenever I tried to meditate I would usually fall asleep (fortunately, I’m now past that). Alison knew how important cycling was to me, so she had a simple suggestion.She suggested I try developing a cycling mantra that I could think about when my mind started to wander from riding. So that’s what I did.
From that point on, I decided to bring my focus onto what I consider the main aspects of being on the bike as a way to stop my mind from wandering.In the beginning, I even created acronyms for my mantra.When I started to think about work, I would recite my mantra.When I would think about a prior conversation, I would bring myself back to cycling with my mantra.It was a lot of work, and took me years before I found myself needing it less and less.I still use one today, but I find I only need it a few times each ride!
What is my mantra?Sometimes it changes, but usually it’s simply a focus on the physical aspect of riding: Breathing, Shoulder Relaxation, and Pedal stroke.There’s a bit more to each, which I’ll discuss in detail on a further chapter.
Then I go from monitoring these physical movements to the bigger riding attributes, such as sideway movements (there should be none except somewhat on a climb) and cadence.Then I notice my place on the road: my line relative to the available cycling path, my position to other riders, debris in the road (I try to be very aware of approximately 5 seconds ahead, which is usually well over 100’), cars, and pedestrians.
Then, I pay attention to my senses:the sounds (this is particularly interesting on small quiet roads), the smells (in a car you will miss the smell of the stream running along the road, but on a bike the smell is very noticeable), the sights, and the feelings (the road surface changes constantly).Not a lot to taste while riding, so that sensation usually gets passed by.
While riding, especially on a long climb, I can spend a ridiculous amount of time just paying attention to the position of me feet.I can dedicate large blocks of time paying attention to my pedal stroke and posture, and then I might switch to hearing birds chirping, and then focus on smelling the air, or feeling the air enter my nose.
With all that, why would I want to listen to music?Who has time to think about planning something?Why dwell on problems when I can feel myself moving along a beautiful road?That’s why I ride… I ride to be on the bike.
When faced with a long sustained climb, say 1-3 hours with a 6% grade or more, I look forward to the prospect of getting into a mental zone for the long haul. It’s a form of moving meditation: clearing your mind and then intensely focusing on your body, your physical motion, your bike, and your senses for the next few hours.
There is a good summertime road climb just a few miles from my house up to the Santa Fe Ski Basin. I start at 7000’ and ride up to 10,200’ for 15 miles. It usually takes me about 90 minutes. The road twists up through the National Forest, and on weekdays it has relatively few cars, and is quiet. However, this road is not only without a bike lane, there isn’t even a shoulder. So I never go up on weekends, or in autumn because everyone is looking at the fall color and not the road. The last thing I want is to have a nice ride interrupted by being run over.
As soon as I start the ascent, I focus my mind on the act of cycling: rotating my attention through a series of physical checks starting from the top of my body and working down. I pay attention to my breathing, then I relax my shoulders which results in having a light touch on the bars, I flat my back while maintaining full pressure throughout each 360 degree pedal stroke with a flat pedal and shoe especially at the bottom of the stroke.
Most long climbs have some switchbacks. One of my best cycling experiences is looking up at a steep switchback and thinking how exciting it will be for me to be up there. Over the years I’ve seen two normal responses to steep climbs. When people like me see a road twisting up a hill, we think with excitement, “yes…look at that hill”, an other type of rider might say, “damn… look at that hill”. I’m convinced that climbing is 10% in your legs, 10% in your lungs, 80% in your mind.
One of the most extreme examples of this was when I was cycling in Tibet a few years ago. The average elevation of the Tibetan Plateau is around 12,000 to 15,000’. And there are no trees. This means some of the bigger climbs can easily be a 4,000’ gain, which is mostly visible as a seemingly endless cascade of switchbacks winding up the side of the mountain. On once such climb I lost count after 50 switchbacks. Seeing the road twist up the mountain only increased my sense of excitement about the ride. Some riders would much rather not see what’s ahead of them on a climb. Not me, I love the anticipation.
When I get to a steep switchback, I always get out of the saddle, and power around the turn. It feels good to break up the pace of the consistent climbing. Plus, the inside of a switchback will normally have an increase in the overall grade of the road which makes being out of the saddle much more efficient. Then, once around the turn, I resume my prior cadence.
If I feel any pain in my legs, I concentrate on that feeling. I try to look at the pain as an observer, not as someone who’s “in pain”, but someone who’s seeing pain or discomfort. The pain just becomes another sensation. And after a while, I put it with the other sensations and it becomes just something else to observe. Eventually, it goes away, or at least I stop noticing it.
Another great climb I did recently was up to Mount Fuji. It was twenty-two miles, and 3 ½ hours of perfectly consistent ascent. The GPS profile of the out and back ride looks like the actual mountain: A conical shape that represents the ride up to the high point, and then back down again. The ride starts at about 400’ and ends close to 8000’. This was one of my longest climbs, and I loved every second. I used all of my Cycling Meditation techniques, and was in cycling heaven.
For me, the key to enjoying my time on the bike is to be 100% present, and to simply BE on the bike. There is no better place to do this than on a long sustained climb.
To stay present and maintain a mental focus on the bike takes a strong desire and lots of practice. However, a cyclist must also pay attention to the world outside of himself. Bikes encounter many obstacles, but the most significant of course, are cars and trucks…because in the vast majority of US cities, most drivers are not overly bike friendly (yea, I know, that would be an understatement).
In New Mexico, I think of the drivers in 3 categories: 20% are courteous, 20% are hostile, and 60% are oblivious. The courteous drives are much appreciated. I can live with the hostile drives because sure, they are often raging assholes, but at least they SEE me. It’s the oblivious that scare me. Texting, talking on the phone, talking to passengers, yelling at the kids in the back seat, petting their dog, and normally just being deep into their head and not actively driving. This results in a potentially dangerous situation for a cyclist. And to make this category even more dangerous is the fact that many drivers simply don’t know how to act around bikes.
To help my odds, I use a rear-view side mirror (total uncool, I know), which I look at whenever I see a car approaching from ahead, or when I hear a car approaching from behind. I also use two rear blinking lights, one on my helmet and one on my seat post – though honestly I don’t think it does much good, and may even make me a better target, but if I get hit, at least I can say I was doing my part to be noticeable which of course will do me little good if I’m lying in the morgue. Anyway, why do I look into my mirror when a car is approaching from ahead? I do it to avoid “The Squeeze”. There are precious few bike lanes in New Mexico, and many roads don’t even have a ride-able shoulder, so The Squeeze is a common occurrence.
The Squeeze is when you, a car coming from behind, and a car approaching from ahead all meet at the same point on a two-lane road that does not have a bike lane or ride-able shoulder. 99% of the time in New Mexico here’s what happens: The car coming from behind will NOT slow down for some MAMIL (middle aged man in Lycra), so he passes the bike (usually speeding up) coming as close as possible as to not kill the cyclist, thereby forcing the oncoming car into the opposite shoulder. I’ve seen happen way too many times.
Remember, the car from behind feels righteous indignation at the idea of slowing down for a bike and delaying his trip a few seconds, and damn it, he’s totally justified, and has the right to run the oncoming car into the ditch if necessary. For most cars the thought of slowing down for a cyclist is an outrageous and unjustifiable inconvenience, but being behind say, a construction truck or tractor for a few minutes is perfectly acceptable. Maybe it’s because they all have engines.
So, anyway, all three of you meet at the same instant, and the result is usually the car from ahead swerves over – that’s assuming there is room for him to do so – then the car from behind cuts within arms reach of the bike, and the cyclist pulls over as much as possible. And, thank-goodness, it’s usually over in a second, and no one is hurt.
I’ve experienced “The Squeeze” so many times in the last 40 years it has become a simple fact of life on the bike. Then, one day a few years ago, I had an epiphany; and now I have a solution that works perfectly almost 100% of the time, and it pisses off amazingly few drivers:
When riding on a two lane road without a shoulder or bike lane, and I see a car approaching from ahead and then I also see a car coming up in my mirror, and I determine The Squeeze will occur, I stick my left arm out at about 45 degrees to my bike and point at the oncoming car. That’s it. I have no idea why this works, but almost every single time the oncoming car slows down (though it doesn’t really need to), and the car from behind will usually dramatically slows down to match my speed until the car ahead passes by. Then the car behind goes around me with good clearance, while usually driving reasonably slowly.
I’ve performed this maneuver hundreds of times, and it has works about 90% of the time. Yes, sometimes the car behind simply speeds up and makes a very dangerous mad dash around me, thereby successfully shaving 3 seconds off his valuable time. I have no idea why this maneuver mostly works, but I’ve only been beeped at a few times, and I’ve never been yelled at.
Staying focused on the bike, and the physical action of riding, are essential to enjoying the riding experience. But let’s face it, cycling on the road is a dangerous activity, so being fully present and aware of your environment will not only improve your ride, it may save your life. Yea, wearing a helmet mirror is complete geekiness, but I don’t care ’cause it helps me avoid The Squeeze.