Musings on Bicycling and Buddhism

Monday, July 20, 2015

Yearning for the Road

Yearning for the road, your twists, your turns. Your subtle curves; gravel, dirt, pavement. 

The climbs that hurt, the descents that thrill. Those times when the air is wrenched from my burning lungs as I try to prove that, yes, this time I can. I will climb further, faster, forever

I want so much to be with you Road, where I pedal all the darkness, all the pain, and the disappointment I've ever known into joy. Where I pedal through the good times and the bad in this dialogue with nature. Nothing quite compares to you.

By this point so many have been riding their mountain bikes in woods or in races, or bikes on the trail or the peloton or in any and many an adventure journey, summer is for bikes. But for me, for now, my conversation with the road is one of those dreams of summer.

I yearn for the road like a long lost friend. I ride to and from work and everything else every day, year round. It's not just time on the bike that I yearn for, it's the road.

This spring and summer have seen my time at work be long, for historic peace accords only come once in a lifetime (these days). Travel too, but all on a mission. Coursework in my enduring labor of love with the Japanese language has claimed my waking hours as well.

But no matter how long the hours since last we met, as the days dawn hot and long, Road I yearn for you.

Cyclocross will come when it comes and at that time I will rejoice. Road racing is a magnificent thing but not in the plans for now.

What I long for are those long hours on quiet New England back roads with the speckled shade playing through the leaves above me. I long for the satisfaction that comes from challenging a climb and a distance and winning over myself, not a Strava segment, but something inside. No matter the distance, type, or speed so much of this is what we carry inside, and that's the challenge of a lifetime.

Since competing in cycling I've grown in ways I could never have imagined before. I so admire those that make this their life, those that make it possible, those that make the bikes, those that give their all for what they love.

But this small love letter is for where it all began, one girl's love affair with the road by bike.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Winter's Heart Dreaming of Spring

The miles pass by as I pedal on. Clipped in and on. The hills flow past, the sweat, the summer wind. I am almost there, fifty miles down - this trip a rare solo journey. Over the bridges in the woods, this one small rail trail - in this shade and by these brooks the temperature dips a few kind degrees. The worst hills will find me on the other end of this tiny section of solace. The hills I have had to walk up before will not win this time, I vow.

In this place the pain is less. Things aren't so great at home. It's not the same big problems like before, but sinister new ones that infect the spaces and the places that felt like home. And yet not. They have been with me always, just manifesting differently now than they used to. And so I pedal on.

The hills and the heat beg me stop. But in this pain, legs burning, lung yearning, I am purified. I am cleansed of all that came before, all that makes me lose my confidence, my sense of me.

In this space my imagination soars again, up into the cloudless blue sky. My solitary self upon the road free to be and dream and hope in ways that daily life does not afford me with its demands, its expectation, its endless hunger for efficiency.

Here the road is mine, the sky is mine, and my dreary self rejoices. I am revitalized. I am made whole again by this one simple act.

It is not that hope is gone, or that other things places and activities are less or less wonderful, less rejuvenating, or somehow tainted. It is not that the people I love are any less marvelous and wonderful, or that I lack gratitude for the fortune to know and love them. It is a different journey than that.

At the end of the day there is no one to wrestle my demons but me. I would not, I shall not compare them to anyone else's demons - you have yours and I mine - and we are allies and we help one another, but at the end of the day it's me and my demons.

And this is my favorite battlefield. For now, for me this is where my mettle is truly tested. It wasn't always this battleground, it may not always be this battleground, but for now this is the where.

The hills come, the pain comes. I arrive, those last few pedal strokes into the driveway and up to the porch where they are waiting, the most delicious reward. The embrace of a place. I have done it. I won the hills. I won over the demons in me. I am made anew and eagerly anticipate the ride back tomorrow, no matter what my legs feel now.

I sleep that rare sleep of true accomplishment. I awaken.

And I remember that it is winter. My heart yearns for the roads to come, in spring, in full bloom.

There is a little yearning pang of pain in my heart, for it is winter.

But winter always turns into spring.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Manning the Tiller

I heard somewhere once that you get sea sick because you're at the whim of the waves. You're not in control and that helplessness is sickening. But the man (somehow it's almost always a man in the stories) at the tiller - the man steering the ship doesn't get sea sick. Why? Because he's steering the boat.

And I suppose life is like that.

Feel tired, overwhelmed? Want to avoid the things you used to love? At cross-purposes with yourself? "Won't everyone just leave me alone!" "Why do I have to keep being interrupted?" "I feel trapped in this place." "This doesn't feel like home anymore." "It's too loud here, I can't hear myself think." "I can't be myself here."

We live in an interconnected universe. Our very existence depends on others, and they on us - this inter-related dependence of life on life on life on the environment and back on forth is called dependent origination in Buddhism.

It doesn't have to mean we live at the whim of an arbitrarily cruel or kind universe. Buddhism says the opposite, that the universe is a cosmic life of infinite compassion, that we are as inherently part of as the cells that make up your body. Are you your cells or the amalgamation thereof or something more?

Grasp the Tiller

Even amongst this inter-dependency there is agency and responsibility. The person at the tiller of the ship cannot tell the sea what to do, the sea is too large, too beyond the power and comprehension of one life form, too expansive to be persuaded to change by one tiller.

Yet the person at the tiller guides the ship toward the goal in this environment. And in so doing does not fall prey to the whims of the waves, which themselves may not be helping in the transit to the goal.

The waves in between are just part of the journey, the goal is paramount. The control of the journey to the goal gives the tiller-operator agency and independence. The sea is still there, the waves that countermand the goal are still there - but operating with determination in an interdependent system makes for a journey of purpose, free from that one ill, seasickness.


We complain for all sorts of reasons. But what many of them come down to is that things are not how we would have made them. Much complaint comes from lack of responsibility or a feeling of not being in control.

No control? Make some goals - chart a course for your ship and pilot that great journey beyond your comfort zone.

It's always someone else's fault? Somehow things never go your way? People never really do what they say they're going to do, they never get it right. They don't get it?  Take responsibility. We're all interconnected. When one person stands up to take responsibility and makes goals, everything can change. This boat is carrying more than just one life you know.

Will you pilot your own ship?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Cheerful Caboose: My First Century

Tales from the Road
Shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased.
Thus we refute entropy.
--Spider Robinson

Last Sunday I rode my first century. In bicycle-speak that's a 100 mile ride. I'd ridden a metric century, 100k, before - every time I've ridden to my childhood home where my mother still resides has meant another. One hundred kilometers is a good ride these days, but it doesn't represent the distance challenge it used to. (On the other hand if you fill it with hills, it's still just as difficult.)

But to this point, never yet 100 miles.

In the cycle-verse a century is some kind of stepping stone. Maybe even a right of passage? And mine was a long time coming. Within the past 3 months I have taken to my most consistent longer-distance riding. I'm not talking anything like what endurance teams do or what stage races mean, I just mean for me anything over 60 miles still feels like a pretty long way.

And I voyaged into clipless about a month ago.

All to do this.

Rapha Women's 100

July 7th marked the Rapha Women's 100 - all around the world, women on bikes riding perhaps a metric century, perhaps an imperial century. I participated in a joint ride effort put together by the most excellent folks at RAWRbikes in concert with RideStudioCafe in Lexington. This was my first group ride of this nature.

Last fall was my first Hub on Wheels - my first large-scale, coordinated bike ride for a purpose; and in June the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon was my second. In both of these I rode primarily amongst many other strangers and acquaintances, primarily with the Bandit Man as my only dedicated riding companion. Social bike rides and themed bike rides, like Boston by Bike at Night or the Boston Bike Party are familiar to me. 

The ethos and protocol of this kind of road ride was pretty new to me. Any training I completed was either solo or with the Bandit Man. I signal my stops and directions but much more than the idea of don't leave anyone behind, I was new to.

Our ride was divided into different speed groups. The faster 17-19 mph group left first. In the promotional/planning materials we were told that there would be a 14-15 mph group and a 13 mph group.

One other thing I have very little knowledge of is how fast I actually ride. I can guess from how long certain rides take, but I generally map them after and forget to keep track of how long my stops are.

I do not yet have a bicycle computer.

From conversations in passing I had a pretty good idea that 14mph would be a challenge for me to maintain with so much climbing for so long a distance. 

And I was correct.

Of my marvelous century group several of us were first timers. I was grateful not to be the only one. 

So we set off - our fearless leader consistently setting us on the true course.


On a hill in Stow I met my lungs. This hill has a decently steep grade (~9%) and I attacked it. And I forgot to breathe. I started hyperventilating half way up the hill. I vaguely recognized a need to stop but I couldn't unclip. So I performed a strategic fall over on someone's lawn. Unclipped, got up - lungs heaving. By this point everyone had gone by. I was anxious and not at all recovered. I was faced with how I really was not conditioned well enough for a hill of this magnitude, not at that speed at any rate.

So I pulled air and made it up the last part of the hill where my group was waiting. And then the hyperventilating began in earnest. Looking back I think this was equal parts lack of air and confronting my very apparent limits in this situation. 

Most of my hill battles, moments of truth, and failures have been on solo missions, or with the Bandit Man.

Struggling for breath, tears streaming down my face - this was my public moment of truth.

One of our participants was a physician who inquired about my heart rate, if I'd eaten enough, and was generally very helpful and calming - I have an immense appreciation for her. 

After that as we climbed each hill - and there were a lot of hills - everyone asked how I was doing.

I was mildly embarrassed at first, but the genuine concern of people you've only just met is an encouraging thing.

I don't consider myself to be a strong climber but over the course of the day I think I actually got better.

Problems I've had all along as I've taken on longer distance rides - pacing, cadence, which gear, do I stand up or stay in the saddle, remembering to breathe, suddenly started to sort themselves out. Yes I did have to walk up a couple of steep grades (according to what I looked up on ridewithgps these were more than 9% grades), and yes I was incredibly slow, but some of the painful mystery became empowering realizations.

Overall my cycling is not the the point where I could even maintain the 14 mph to stay with my group. I was consistently the last person, losing sight of our mini-peloton. At each navigational stop they waited for those of us who had fallen behind, myself usually the farthest back. 

As my jersey was red and I was at the end, so most naturally I was named myself the caboose.

And as the miles went on I was told I was a very cheerful caboose.

The Cheerful Caboose

The hyperventilating moment of truth unlocked something important. That moment was a struggle in the deepest sense - a struggle we all face again and again in life, the place where expectation meets reality. We have goals, or expectations of perhaps a level of performance or insert yours here and eventually when it meets reality we must face it for exactly what it is

Sometimes it delights and enthralls us. Sometimes it disappoints. These moments of publicly discovering either weakness or strength have always been deeply changing for me. When I competed in horseback riding in college I cried every time I rode in a show, whether I placed well or poorly. It never failed. On some of these long bike rides I have been reduced to tears.

But that hill, that moment let me shed the transient and reveal the truth - that no matter what I was going to do this. That my present level of climbing or biking or strength or what-have-you is only the beginning of what is possible. Maybe I'm not "good at bikes" the way racers and long-time enthusiasts are yet, but my love of cycling powers my persistence to get me there.

After that moment of truth I was free to learn to climb better. Appreciate another one of our group members teaching me to draft, which I was not able to maintain. Appreciate the birds, the land, the potholes, the deer flies, the sun, the music in my heart - each and every sore muscle, delay, or advance.

I was the cheerful caboose because I was weighed, measured, and found myself wanting - and wanting to continue anyway. Having been revitalized by others I did my utmost to reciprocate - when a fellow first timer centurian dropped a chain I stopped to help. When one of my fellow riders was the last on the climbs with me, we stayed together. 

I also must shout my gratitude to our amazing ride leader (vocabulary word: domestique) for waiting for my lagging self at the turns then riding all the way back to the front to lead the main group onward. Patience thy name is domestique (or maybe just Cindy?).

I was one of the few to ride to RSC before the ride, a simple seven or so miles from my house. But as the ride concluded and the rain began (which I relished!), the simple seven miles home seemed a very long way indeed. The Bandit Man in his kindness rode out in the rain from Somerville to meet my dirty, smelly, exhausted husk on the Minuteman to ride back home. 

By the end of the day it was 115 miles and more climbing than I have ever done before. And I am gaming for more!

Future cycling education will probably include, pacelines, drafting, a bicycle computer, and more miles of self discovery.

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Voyage Into Clipless

Tales from the Road

So I lay on the path with gravel embedded in my knee and I laughed. Bike on top of me, a couple of people going by and they may very well have figured that I'd completely lost it. But that was a good laugh.

You see, I'd just gone my first 60 some odd miles with clipless shoes and pedals.

With the final 10 miles and the most challenging hills yet to come I was getting a little tired and did not disengage my foot in time. I've got a few scratches and a purple knee but I earned my newbie markings with pride.

This entire change has been a long time coming.

Late for Dinner

I get into things late. When I was seven and I couldn't transition out of training wheels I made the kind of cut-and-dried decision that young children seem so good at; I decided I would never bike again and I would be damned if I kept those training wheels on at that age. Three years went by and I started riding horses in between. At the ripe old age of ten I got on a bike for the first time in three years, and just rode. Wobbly yes, but there was no going back after that.

My story followed that frequently told tale, I bicycled everywhere until I could drive. Then I kept biking. College came, but I did not take my try at urban cycling until I moved off-campus and the advent of Gus the hybrid commuter. When Charlie came along I learned to ride with the toe basket (aka toe clip) pedals that he came with. But ever on the periphery of my cyclist observations from biking around were these shoe/pedal interfaces - part of both the shoe and the pedal that I saw seemingly certain people had. Science fiction bicycle feet.

(And as a linguist, that they're called clipless when they are actually clips is ever so annoying..If this is a new thing for you, read this.)


This past year has brought a lot of changes. At this time last year I had only one bicycle and was still relatively ignorant of how to care for it properly. (Now I have 3 and do most of the maintenance myself.) At this time last year I'd never built up a bike. (Now I've built up several.) At this time last year my longest bike ride had been about 30 miles. (Now I've gone over a metric century a few times.) At this time last year I would never have tried to do some of the things I do now.

Last fall, in one of those manic ideas that seems great at the time, I took my exhausted self on my first 60 mile bike ride. I was struggling so deeply at work and in my life at the time biking alone on an unknown route, in 20+mph headwinds, in November with no support, no specialized equipment, no experience, and a yearning desire to prove something to myself all seemed like a great idea.

I bonked, but I did it. It took me seven hours and multiple times getting lost, but I made it.

While it snowed all winter I dreamed of biking more and further than I could imagine was physically possible for me.

Clipless Voyages

As I trained for the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon I rode with the Bandit Man many times. The Bandit Man, being as he is, can climb hills with his rocketship legs. To my observance he has never met a hill he couldn't climb. Myself on the other hand, I've meet with hills and they have won, time and again - relegating me to walking up them.

The November solo ride where I bonked had me walking up all the hills for the last 10 miles. And it's those 10 miles that have the most hills. In April the Bandit Man accompanied me on the ride home, part of which was the Boston Populaire route by the NER. With getting lost and making up the last part of the route to my mother's house, that day's ride was over 70 miles. There were many hills. I walked up quite a few. The Bandit Man climbed them all and waited for me at the top.

That was my first long ride this year. In late March I struggled with just 30 miles. In April I was able to do over 50 for the Midnight Marathon Ride (out and back, no hill walking there!). The day after the 70+ mile ride, we rode the 65 miles back. Back and forth the training rides have gone - I've made a route that is just about 70 miles long and finally have it memorized, so that's helped with time and stopping.

But those hills keep pestering me.

Long over the winter I asked the pro-cyclist of my household for her product reviews on clipless pedals. She has consistently answered my ridiculous questions on all manner of topics for which I am incredibly grateful.

And so came my voyage into clipless. On Saturday I rode 70 miles clipless. And 70 the next day.

I had never quite realized how tilty I ride. The shoes have rather helped realign me. My body was confused as it fought to put me back into my off-kilter, one shoulder pitched up and front, hips facing too far to the left position I have adopted unconsciously over the years. Once I stopped fighting this I found that I did not hurt as much and tire as quickly. My legs got more bang for their buck. The time it took to reach my destination was shortened.

I was floored.

Back to the Top

As as I fell over on the Wachusett Greenway, and later at a red light in Somerville I got to laugh. As I've acquired the scrapes and purple knee I wear my newbie badges with honor. I'm learning how to ride all over again and it's great.

Maybe you're never too old to start anew?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Charlie Day!

June 2, 2013 marks Charlie's third birthday with me.

After spending last fall and winter "out to pasture", waiting for me to build him some new wheels and change up a few things, Charlie was brought back to the roads of Somerville in late March.

He's been rebuilt. My first wheelset, White Industries track hubs laced to H Plus Son Archetype rims. New cranks by FSA (Full Speed Ahead). He's running 42:15, instead of the old 40:16. New breaks and cabling - hat tip to Broadway Bicycle School for the instruction on that and the wheel building. Drop bars which once belonged to Mr. Epic - purchased at the Bike Swap. Same old bottom bracket, head set, and saddle.

Rolling strong toward 10,000 miles. Or do we have to start over now that he's been rebuilt?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Training the Never Defeated Spirit

In approximately 12 days, depending on how you count it - The Bandit Man, my cousin Watson, my brother, a friend of his, and I will take to the sides of Gunstock Mountain in NH and run into the jaws of a Tough Mudder. This will be my second Mudder (and Watson's as well). The rest of the team are newbies. My brother is, however the veteran of many a Spartan and Warrior Dash.

I ran my first Mudder solo last October, I learned an awful lot about what I'm made of inside and out. (More on that here.) But Tough Mudder is meant to be a team. It's designed for that, and while participating solo has its own rewards, a team is well, just that - the right approach for the challenge at hand.

Our team is named "Never Defeated".

Never Defeated: What's In a Name

This isn't a competition. Tough Mudder Pledge, Part 1 - Tough Mudder is not a race, but a challenge.  And parts 2 and  4 - This is about teamwork and camaraderie, helping fellow Mudders comes before course time.

So it's not as though we each all win competitions all the time, well maybe my brother does, but that's another story. The idea behind the name is that as a team we have what it takes to never be defeated by anything; mud, heights, distance, electricity, water, cold, heat - all of these things cannot claim to have trodden us down. But more so than the physical is the heart.

Tough Mudder talks about mental grit. Yes, your physical strength gets you over and through, but it is what you carry in your heart and mind that determines if you really win.

And that is something we put to the test in 12 days.

Training the Never Defeated Spirit

We all have been preparing in different ways, as team Never Defeated gathers from more than one state. But being only myself, here I will share my part of this tale.

Last Monday I ran ten and a half miles. I hadn't run in a month due to a foot injury. It was wonderful to run again.

During that month, while I couldn't run I could ride.

Ride a bike, you see.

Boston Populaire

The Bandit Man and I took part in a parcel of the NER's Boston Populaire but made our own route.

Day 1, 70 miles, a longer winding route to my mother's house than last November. This time sun, sunburns, and still the always dependable hills. Left the randonneur route in Sterling, and went to my childhood home. It meant a DNF (did not finish), but our journeys never fit into molds very well.

Day 2, 65 miles back to Somerville.

A two-day century, well more than a century actually, it was 130 miles+ by the end.

The most I've ever ridden in a day, and in consecutive days.

The goal of the century draws near.

Run On

And since the foot has been back in action - what then?

Also the Bandit Man and I, and he has been able to partake more-so than I (early morning work hours call one in), of the wonderful November Project. Morning people, being active, joyous and pushing the limits year-round outdoors. Such a lovely invention. I am very new - only twice so far- but this is a group of people I look forward to seeing even on many a cold morning to come when one's breath is in the air.

Here we find exemplified the spirit of never defeated in daily life. Self-motivated, but also team/tribe motivated, and not because someone's wallet is saying "Well, you paid for this, so you'd better show up!". Each one pushing to beat their best, to beat fatigue, self doubt, maybe fear. I see no signs of begrudging life anywhere here.

Small things matter. It is important never to forget how simple a smile and a hug can be in the morning. Especially when it took everything you had to get there. We run up and down Harvard Stadium stairs, we run up hills, we find new places to strengthen our hearts, minds, bodies, spirits, friendships.

We come back again and again because each time we break through we realize the only limits are those we came in with, those we brought with us - so frequently our limitations are those we set for ourselves because of fear. Maybe fear of failing. But the never defeated spirit knows no fear of failing, or at least cowers not before it.

The Tough Mudder itself is one brilliant moment to shine with the never defeated spirit. And training for events like this can take us onto the road of growth and change, to confront the self and develop courage. But it is only one day. The truly never defeated spirit lives in our daily lives, is shown each day. To get up early and run and strive as November Project does, is one way to train and practice, to nurture the never defeated spirit in our daily lives. (There are other ways and many stories one can tell about this kind of development, but for now this is the story I am telling.)

And having company on this journey to the better self is surely one of the finest experiences one can ask for.

From all of this I will learn anew and re-solidify in my life, down to the depths of my being what it is to be truly fearless. Not reckless and crass, not overly cautious and filled with excuses as I once was. But truly free to be and fail and win and laugh and fall and get up again. To dance in my pedals, to dance on my feet. To rise up when I fall and help someone else do the same - whether it's literal mud or the muck of life.

We make mistakes in this lifetime. I'm transforming mine.

I overcome all fears.

And next?

The day after the Mudder, Team Falcor (so far the Bandit Man, and I (and maybe some recruits?)) will ride the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon. 65 miles. We'll talk more about that later.

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Tour de What You Will by Jessie Calkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License