Nine Lessons I Learned Thanks to Cycling
As I reflect on my year, one accomplishment I am proud of is having ridden 4,500 miles (7,242 kilometers) on my bicycle. The same distance it takes to go from Washington D.C. to Rome, Italy, or from Krakow, Poland to Mumbai, India.
Several years ago, a friend from work convinced me to join a “Bike-Buddy” group. The group commutes to work on their bikes from the area where I live. It’s a way to make the ride more fun, while reducing the amount of cars congesting our local roads, reduce cost of the commute, and a great way to stay healthy.
Initially, I would ride to and from the office once a week. When the weather was nice, I would even push myself to ride twice a week. But, that was the maximum physical effort my body could tolerate. A round trip is 25 miles (40 kilometers).
I was nervous when I first started. The weekend before my attempt to cycle to work, I ended up doing a practice ride just to make sure I could actually complete the trip and reach my office.
The other barrier was being able to do my work effectively after an hour of riding, and then at the end of the day, being able to jump back on my bike, pedal home, prepare dinner, and attend to all the other “mommy” duties waiting for me at home.
That was two years ago. During my first year of cycling to work I managed to reach a distance of 503 miles (810 kilometers). The following year I challenged myself to double that benchmark and attempt to ride 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers)! With deliberate effort and determination, I also managed to reach that goal and even exceed it.
Beginnings are often the hardest
When I started biking to work, I didn’t think I was even capable of conquering a distance of more than 500 miles in a single year. Sure, I know cyclists who do 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) per year or more without blinking, but these are extreme individuals. People who only sleep, eat, and bike.
Last year, when I made a full commitment to commute on my bike, my goal was to ride 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers). At the time, that distance seemed enormous. I wasn’t even sure it was a realistic goal. The year before I managed to reach 1,215 miles (1,955 Kilometers). But, that took some effort and determination. To almost triple that distance was a whole new level.
Despite my concerns, and few obstacles, I finished the year with 4,500 miles (7,242 kilometers). During the many hours I spent moving on my bike, many thoughts moved across my mind too. And, in addition to learning that often beginnings are the hardest, here are some other lessons I learned on my 4,500 mile journey:
Together is better
When I started cycling to work, it was thanks to my bike buddy group. The group not only gave me the support I needed to feel comfortable biking across two counties, but also motivated me to push myself to ride close to 13 miles each way.
Simply being aware of the fact that others expected me to be there, propelled me to get up at 6:00 am each day, get on my bike and ride. On gray and rainy mornings, when I just wanted to stay in bed or climb into a dry warm car, knowing that my friends were expecting me, gave me the push I needed to overcome that lazy moment and start peddling. Once I was riding alongside others, neither the rain nor the clouds bothered me as much.
When I got a flat one day, it was also a great relief to have someone there to assist me with changing my tube and offering me their pump.
And when a torrential rain flooded the bike path as high as my waist, it was good to have someone there to guide me towards an alternate route.
When you have someone by your side, things feel less intimidating and challenges less daunting. Conversation helps the long distances feel shorter, and when you’re tired, drafting off one another reduces the amount of effort needed to peddle. Those who win famous biking races, like Tour de France or Giro d’Italia, do it only because they are supported by an entire team of powerful cyclists creating the best possible conditions for the winner to reach the finish line seconds ahead of the rest. Working together takes you further.
Live in the moment
When I’m riding my bike I need to stay alert and focus on the road ahead. I need to watch out for pedestrians, runners, kids, pets, cars, pot holes, branches and other bicyclists. Riding in a constantly shifting environment requires you to be present in the here and now. You need to pay attention to what you’re doing. When to shift, when to brake, when to swerve or to speed up. You’re constantly making decisions, often in split seconds, that determine if you’ll arrive safely at your destination.
Bicycling forces you to be aware of your environment, sharpen your reflexes and to trust your instincts. It helps you become more mindful and live in the moment as you’re trying to reach your destination.
Move the body, still the mind
Mindfulness makes experiences richer and more fulfilling. Paying attention to my environment and what I am doing allows my mind to tune out the noise caused by endless responsibilities or the stress at work. When my mind is clear, I notice more of what is around me, take in more, even discover something new and feel greater appreciation of what is around me.
In fact, by stepping away from the stress of my day in order to focus on my riding, I gain perspective, and often find solutions to the challenges that seemed so daunting earlier on.
Living in the moment is like going back to childhood. As kids, we live in the present. Children have trouble distinguishing yesterday from today. If I tell my daughter that we’ll be home in 10 minutes, to her it feels like eternity. She’ll ask me every minute, are we there yet? But, not being aware of yesterday or tomorrow, also means greater happiness. Children don’t spend today worrying about tomorrow, nor do they hold on to the past. They are happy with what’s in front of them, here and now. Sometimes, ignorance is a bliss.
Now, I am not suggesting to never grow up and live carelessly in the moment, but rather to take breaks during the day to simply breathe, look around and find something in your space or, your mind, that you’re grateful for.
Celebrate the ups and learn from the downs
On my way home, I climb a total of about 700 feet (213 meters), and the hardest part of that climb are two steep hills, back to back, that divide my ride in half. When I first started riding this route, I had to dismount my bike and walk up both hills on foot. Gradually, with some practice and help from efficient use of my gears, I was able to ride up one hill and then eventually ride up both of them.
Riding up these hills is still a challenge but the reward of riding downhill and seeing the city scape from the top is priceless. And once I pass the hills, the road twists through a tunnel of trees, making me feel like I am flying past the hardest part of my ride.
When you bike each day, you learn to accept the ups and the downs on the road. The tough climb up a steep hill and the breezy descent downwards as you glide effortlessly at an accelerated speed. The rain, the heat, the cold winter air, the wind, the pink light of the morning sun and the black darkness of the night. You learn to accept all the colors of nature and its seasons.
Let go of what is difficult to control and focus on what you can change
Acceptance is one of the biggest lessons I learned while biking. To accept that there are certain things that are out of your control is very liberating. Fighting or trying to change them will only lead you to frustration and anger.
By letting go and accepting that I can’t change the weather or the steep hill, gives me a sense of calm. I accept the things that are out of my control and focus on what I can change. I carry lights to see the path ahead when I ride at night. I wear extra layers and invested in a heavy-duty cycling jacket for the cold winter days. I shift downwards when I have to climb that steep hill on my way home and I always wear a helmet in case of a fall.
It’s ok if you fall as long as you know how to pick yourself up and learn from it
One day on my way to work, it was raining and I was trying to go around a turning car. To avoid getting hit, I had to swerve onto a sidewalk and cross a wet grate. My back wheel slid and I fell. In addition to some bruises, I cut my knee and my left forearm. For a couple of weeks it was tough to walk and use my left arm but I dealt with the pain and carried on. I became more cautious and learned a very important lesson, to never ride on wet grates. Stop if you must, wait for the car to make its move, then proceed. You can’t win with a car. Pace yourself and be patient. Being impatient is often the reason behind accidents. I’d rather arrive a minute or two late then to never arrive at all.
Pain is part of life
When I fell, I cleaned and bandaged my wounds, and run into a meeting an hour after my fall. That evening I also rode home. Most cyclists I know, at one point or another suffered an injury. And even got on a bike and rode to urgent care to get their wounds stitched up. Then, got right back on their bike and rode home. Luckily, most injuries I am familiar with have not prevented these toughies from cycling, even if they had to temporarily take a break.
Part of riding is getting used to scrapes and bruises. You learn to tolerate pain. As a regular cyclist, you learn to accept that an occasional fall and pain is part of the game. The key is that you learn to avoid the falls or make them less painful.
You wear a helmet, you steer clear of wet metal surfaces, you don’t ride on ice and you put fat, knobby tires for a better grip. You make sure your brakes work well, you always need to be prepared for sudden stops. In life, and when riding a bike. It can save you.
Don’t give up easily
If, despite your best attempt not to fall, you do end up falling, fall in such a way that you’ll be able to recover and bounce back. On a bike or in life, work, relationships, parenting, etc. There is a reason why most cyclists wear helmets. So, if they do end up falling, their most precious body part will be protected.
After the fall it might take a little effort to get over your injury, the pain, or the fear, but keep trying. Take it day by day, and don’t give up after the first attempt.
Sometimes you need to try three or four times before you see any progress. And some days, it might even feel like your progress is reversing. That’s ok, we all have bad days. But it’s one thing to have a bad day here and there, and another to have a life that you’re unhappy with because of obstacles that you’re unwilling to face and try to improve upon.
Choosing what is comfortable and convenient can lead you, one day, to the most painful realization. That you missed out on some of the best opportunities in your life because you feared pain. I am not just referring to physical pain. I mean the pain of regret that might catch up with you one day because you didn’t want to face the pain of a breakup. Or, the pain of rejection, the pain of going back to school to earn a degree so you could get a better job, the pain of quitting smoking so you could breathe lighter and save your lungs. The pain of waking up each morning at 5:00 am to exercise in order to become healthier and feel better about yourself.
Just because you avoid pain, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Pain is part of life. Learning how to deal with pain, and overcome it, will condition you to be more resilient rather than live constrained by the fear of it. Your only constraint will be the boundaries you put on yourself.
About the Illustration: Enjoying the Ups and Accepting the Downs
In this picture two cyclists are riding along a hilly path in the birch forest. The leaves on the trees are like bubbles, floating upwards. The two cyclists stroll peacefully along, riding up and down, as if the hills were waves across the ocean. There is a natural flow between them and with the nature that surrounds them. The boy and the girl accept the natural flow of the terrain. They embrace the steep climb up and enjoy the descent.
The girl’s bicycle looks as if she’s about to be lifted off the ground. Almost as if she’s flying. The girl is elevated by the experience and feels lightness as she reaches the peak of the hill. The boy is grounded and about to climb a hill, but he’s happy and accepting of the challenge.
Comparing this to a relationship, often two people who are together are not on the same plane. Sometimes one partner is a dreamer while the other one is grounded. When one is up, sometimes the other one is down. Occasionally one wants more freedom while the other one seeks security. Learning to accept your partner’s natural flow, rather than try to change it, helps balance the relationship. Balance between the two individuals is an essential ingredient in a happy relationship. Just like in nature. To every peak there is a valley. To love spring, one must experience winter.