Mindfulness; The Soul of Cycling

I did a dumb thing.

The other day, after a week or so of hearing my bottom bracket creak every now and then, I rushed through repacking the bearings with grease. I didn’t take time to put the bike in the work stand. Instead I left the bike in the hanging storage stand. I didn’t clean the work area and gather all the tools and supplies. Instead I rushed through and tried to work in the clutter of the bike storage room–the room that at the end of the semester and in full on shoulder season has too many pairs of gloves, toe warmers, head coverings, etc. scattered around. I wasn’t mindful.

Olof P. Nelson and trainer
Olof P. Nelson and trainer

And because I wasn’t mindful, I botched the job in big and small ways. First the small. I didn’t take the time to make sure the grease gun had plenty of grease in it. As a result I probably didn’t get a full grease purge on my Chris King bottom bracket. And because I didn’t take the time to put the bike in the work stand and to make sure I had uncluttered workspace, I made a bigger mistake.


Because I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing I made a big mistake: I forgot to install one of the plastic bushings or spacers required to run the Chris King BB86 bottom bracket with Shimano cranks. Yep. And I knew something was wrong when I put it all back together, but because I wasn’t mindful, I let it go. I let the strange free play and tightness of the bottom bracket go. I tried the quick fix of loosing it bit. It kind of worked. I was in a hurry. I had other things on my mind and was looking towards a goal rather than being in the moment.

Because I wasn’t mindful, my bottom bracket made a weird moaning noise at the start of the Sunday Hammers ride. And then if felt weird; tight and then eventually loose. Then if my pedal stroke was off, it felt loose.

Today, I took the time to investigate. I was more mindful. I made sure I had all the tools. I made sure the grease gun was refilled. And that’s when I noticed what I feared; I had forgotten to install on of the plastic sleeves. But because I had done the original job in a cluttered space and wasn’t mindful, I wasn’t sure if I could find the sleeve. Was it wrapped up in a rag that was in the trash sitting out on the curb? Was it lost somewhere on the floor? Luckily for me, the sleeve was on the floor. Hopefully, despite the odd metallic smell the good folks at Chris King over engineered the bearings to compensate for my lack of mindfulness. I put some fresh grease in the bearings. I reinstalled and adjusted everything, but then I was worried about the gritty feel. Was it the bearings? The chain?

Because this time I was being mindful I took the chain off. The gritty feel was the chain. I soaked it. Brushed it. And then, I stopped being mindful. The girlfriend came home. Rather than being mindful with her–of giving her the time she deserves, I tried to split my attention between her and the final step of rinsing the chain. The result? I poured the quick link down the drain. Panic. Luckily, she was more mindful than me and urged me to use the drain trap rather than panicking and going the bike shop.

So, mindfulness. Cycling is about mindfulness. As Padrig over at Red Kite Prayer wrote a few weeks ago, group riding, any riding is about different kinds of mindfulness. A few weeks ago on a Saturday ride, a newer rider went down. He had just come off the front. We had another new rider with us. We went over a bump which for all of old hands was a known thing. Someone slowed just enough. Wheels touched. And someone went down. It’s easy to blame the guy at the back. But I bet there was a lot of non-mindfulness to go around that morning. Sometimes it takes us focusing on the moment. Sometimes it takes someone else to remind us to focus on the moment. Sometimes the universe reminds us to be mindful.

Cycling demands mindfulness. Not suffering. Cycling demands that we’re mindful of our equipment. Cycling demands that we’re mindful of the road, of the weather, of the traffic. Cycling demands that we’re mindful of the others in the pack–mindful of the people we ride with. Cycling demands that we’re mindful of the traditions of the ride, of the group, and of the area. And that’s why I love cycling. Because in a world that pulls me out of mindfulness, cycling pulls me into mindfulness. Sometimes cycling does it through suffering. Sometimes cycling does it through a well functioning paceline. Sometimes it does it through the sublime sunrise, or the lifting fog, or the play of light through the trees. Sometimes it does it with the horrible sound of metal, carbon, and flesh hitting the pavement. Sometimes it does it with the smiles and looks of mutual gratitude at the end of a ride. No matter how it does it, cycling always reminds me of the importance of mindfulness.


Get What you Give

It’s been a long couple of weeks full of job-related stuff, horrible allergies, the lingering Louisiana heat, and well just life. And life without much of the bike. And a couple of flats, which is odd for me since traditionally I’ve been the “I don’t get flat tires” kind of guy. This summer I got three in a row. Then nothing. And then cane season rolled around in south Louisiana. The roads are full of mud, gravel, and cane cuttings dragged and dropped by the cane trucks. I got two flats in a row. One out on the road with friends. And then two days later as I was turning the corner on my way home from riding with some students.

It’s been that kind of October. But things are looking up. It’s no longer 90+ degrees with 80% humidity every day. The semester is finally calming down (just in time for it roar back to life with a vengeance) and I’m finally back on the road. It’s base building season. Or just riding season. Today I saw a Tweet by Joe Friel “You get out of it what you put into it.” And I generally agree with that when it comes to cycling. I tell my collegiate riders a version of Friel. I tell them, “you get what you give” and just not in fitness, but in terms of the cycling community. You put some time in the wind and people in the paceline or the pack will give you something-respect, a break, room to move up in the pack when things get hot and heavy (or you just get strong). You show up to rides, be friendly, push those who need a push, encourage those who need some encouragement, instruct those who need some instruction, etc. and eventually it’ll come back. People will stop and help you (or watch you) change a flat. Or they’ll sit up and wait for you (or not, knowing that you don’t want them to–knowing that you want to catch your breath and then flay yourself chasing them down). Or people in the cycling community will see you, a young college kid on a bike giving it your all, giving it time, giving it love, and next thing you know they’re offering to donate equipment to the club, to you. Or they’re offering to show you how to sprint better, or…. You get respect and love. You get community.

But there’s another way that you get what you give works. Spend time on the bike and the rhythm of the road, the cadence, the sun, wind, clouds, the seasons, and breathing will give you some peace if you put peace into it. Or anger if you put anger into it (though sometimes the bike lets you pedal out your anger and find some peace). And you put enough time, love, anger, sadness, hope, sweat, and yourself and you become a cyclist. Maybe wiser, but you become a cyclist.


It’s not About the Bike or the Clothes, but it Is

A couple of weeks ago, I forgot to pack my jersey. Bibs, yes. Helmet, yes. Gloves, yes. But there I was in my office with no jersey and not enough time to ride home and get one before I had to meet folks for a quick after school/work ride. And then I remembered the bag full of old jerseys, bibs, etc. I keep in my office for college kids who don’t have any and who want to try cycling.

Rifling through the bag, I ended up with an old Pearl Izumi jersey from the late 90s. Visually it’s pretty similar to the Quest with the white epaulet type things with the PI logo. It’s blue. Kind of Sky blue before the was Sky. Maybe it’s digital blue. Whatever it is, the girlfriend likes it after she overcame her suspicion of its origins. It was a fairly high end jersey from the late 90s, but wow how times have changed.

Forgot a 3/4 zipper, this thing has a 1/4 zipper, which may have been fine back in Ohio, but 1/4 zipper ain’t cutting it in south Louisiana. And that’s just the start of it.

I’ve spent the last few years riding fairly high end kit–mostly by Hincapie, Biemme, Girodana, and Garneau. Ok, so not Assos. And not top, top of the line but good race kit level stuff. After a few miles in a heavy, scratchy, and meh fitting jersey from the 90s, I realized how much I’ve been taking my good kit for granted. How much, in not having to pay attention to my kit, how it basically disappears, good equipment makes the ride better. Makes the experience better. I was reminded of this yesterday in a different way as I sat on the wheel of someone with skipping gears and alongside someone with a creaky bottom bracket. Bad equipment gets in the way of Flow. Just like riding with faster or better handling cyclists make you better, good equipment makes the experience better (and yeah I’ve had horrible days wearing my best kit).

When I bought the PI jersey in the months before leaving the bike shop for grad school, and in the years of grad school wearing it, I never noticed its shortcomings. It was one of my favorite jerseys. But now, despite the girlfriend having washed it and hung it with care–saying again how much she likes it, the chances of it getting worn again are slim. The hems of the sleeves are tight but not tight enough: they don’t move with me. Instead I move around them. The fabric is rough (this might be from all the washings). The already mentioned zipper. And then it just didn’t feel like it breathed very well. It was there and in a bad way.

I wasn’t any slower with the old jersey, but the experience of the ride wasn’t quite the same. There were other reasons why the ride didn’t reach Flow state, but the jersey was part of it.

So yeah, it’s not about the bike, until it is. And I’ll keep shopping for my off the bike clothes at the thrift store so I can ride in a nice kit.


Rituals, Habits, & Routines

Some like Padraig at Red Kite Prayer call them rituals, some call them habits, and others call them routines. If you’ve ridden bikes for any length of time, you’ve got ’em. It doesn’t matter if you’re mostly a commuter, a racer, a club rider, or some combination of all of the above, but you’ve got rituals, habits, and routines. Maybe you call what you do a habit. Or a routine. Or a ritual.Or you reserve ritual for certain types of rides. It doesn’t matter what you call ’em, you have them if you ride a bike.

Padraig’s post got me thinking about rituals, about habits, and about history. Mostly about how our rituals, habits, or routines define us, create our histories. And how our rituals, habits, and routines are the result of our histories.

For some, rituals are about time. For others rituals are about places. And for others still, rituals are about people. I’m not much of time person. Sometimes, I think cycling is ruined by early mornings (and since I live in south Louisiana where riding at the crack of dawn is a must in the summer, it can be hard for me to enjoy cycling in the summer). What that means is for me, rituals are about places and people. Mostly about places, because people change. They move away. They grow as cyclists and sometimes you and person who you’ve established a ritual grow differently. Sure places change, but not as much or perhaps they change at a different pace.

Laurel Valley Road is one of my rituals. It started as a gravel road. Then the parish paved it. It runs through sugar cane fields and then briefly through some woods/swamp. In the winter and early summer it’s flat and open to the wind. In the late summer and early fall it’s a tunnel of cane and sometimes reminds me of riding through the corn fields of Ohio. Even when the cane is high, LVR is a wind fest. In the summer, there’s a tail wind on the way out and head wind on the way in. Or there’s a nasty cross cabins3wind on both legs. In the winter, it’s reversed. Unless it isn’t. And since we’re so close to the Gulf of Mexico, the wind will switch and be in your face on both legs.

LVR is flat. Dead flat. Ok, there are a few little burps, but they are microscopic and really only become apparent after you’ve put a few thousand miles on the road. It’s an easy road, but then it isn’t. The wind can kill you. The two 90 degree turns–one just past the slave cabins and one in the swamp can challenge you, especially when you’re in a pace line.

LVR is smooth new pavement, but it’s slowly changing. It’s a good cut through road for some folks and in the late fall it sees heavy truck traffic–cane trucks full of sugar cane. But it’s still smooth. One of my rituals is watching the road change. The last time I rode it with one of my collegiate cyclists and an alumni supporter, I had the presence of mind to really notice the road–Padraig’s first ritual post fresh in my mind. I spent most of the ride in front or I was on Vance’s wheel. He’s steady. We weren’t pushing the pace. That gave me the chance to be mindful of how the road moves. How I know how to find the nice line through the cabin curve. The line that lets me miss the gravel. The line that lets me rest for a few seconds.

After the cabin curve, I pulled off the front at just at the same point that Jonathan, the kid (no longer a kid) who started the collegiate club with mecabins4 always would. Sitting in, I noticed how the small line caused by someone dragging a trailer chain is getting wider. More pronounced. I remembered the Saturday I first noticed it–the late 90s Nissan pickup truck passing us and hearing the tink tink of its trailer chain hitting the still new pavement. Now two years latter the small divots are a nice scribe line. When it happened, I pictured how one person’s inattention would slowly destroy the road. It hasn’t yet, but I can see the day when there’s a series nice cracks running just to the left of the fog line. I’m not annoyed (ok, just a little), but aware.

As we slipped towards the woods near the end of the cane fields, I thought of the road kill we were seeing and thought back back to the day years ago we saw families of raccoons running across the road. And then how over curvethe next week we saw lots of dead raccoons on the road. The newly paved road and its traffic impacted what was clearly a migration route for small mammals. And then I thought of the series of winter mornings I saw two bald eagles fighting in the sky, then hunting and feeding in the newly harvested cane fields, and finally mating. Perhaps one of the males had run off the other to claim the hunting grounds and a mate.

LVR is just a road, but for me it’s a ritual. When I ride it, I notice the slow changes of the seasons and the slow changes wrought by time on the road, the cane fields, the old slave cabins, and the woods. I also think of the people I’ve ridden with and come to know without talking a lot. The quiet hours Jonathan and I spent on it when he was still in college. The hours we spent with KitKat as she grew from a just fast to an eye watering fast collegiate racer. Or the hours I spent riding with Allan, or Jose, or whatever the hell his name is talking about bikes, cycling, his plans to be an archaeologist, then a public historian, and how about how passionate he’s about life that even his faux hipster attitude can’t hide it. Or the hours Michael and I spent riding and talking about literature, poetry, and life as he grew from a squirrely hot mess of a rider to fast, smooth monster. And the hours I’ve spent riding with Jonathan’s dad, Joey, being pushed again and again by his competitiveness. I think of all I’ve taught and learned about cycling and life on LVR. For me, it’s a ritual. It’s a place I go to think. To learn. To challenge myself. And to grow. And to be.




Breathe. Recover. Drink.

I’ve had a tough summer on the bike. I’d like to say it was the extreme south Louisiana heat (July was the second hottest on record), but really it was the old combination of not riding enough, not doing enough of the right kinds of riding, not eating right, and lack of confidence.

Last week I was on an easy ride with some hammers. I was doing ok until I wasn’t, which has been the story all summer. I hit my limit and just collapsed–off the back and left to finish the last 10 miles at 16 mph with short bursts of something resembling a respectable speed. While I was feeling good I had some time to think. I had just tucked back in line after taking a pull, which had followed a bit too soon after chasing  the lead two riders out of corner.

As  sat in, I patted myself on the back for not blowing up on the front and told myself to recover and relax. I reminded myself to breathe. After a few good deep breaths while telling myself to breathe, I told myself to recover and then reminded myself to drink. These three words–Breathe, recover, and drink became my mantra for the rest of the ride. As the pace slowly picked up on the way to the turn around, I kept telling myself, breathe, recover, and drink. It worked more or less until I did a stupid thing and rolled up to the front when Keith, the college kid I’m trying to teach how to race bikes, didn’t quite keep the pace when Jonathan, the college kid I did teach how to race, picked up the pace in the last 500 meters. Despite being within sight of the turn around, I was stupid and rolled up to the front and spiked my heart rate. It wasn’t a fatal mistake, but given the heat and the quick turn around, that stupid move set me up for getting dropped 8 or so miles down the road.

As we headed back, the pace picked up. The easy ride wasn’t quite as easy. Sure no one was attacking and the pace increase was done slowly, but I was starting to feel the pace. All the way to the turn onto Sanchez, I keep telling myself, breathe. Stay on Clark’s wheel, just a bit more until the turn, and a bunch of other positive bullshit. It worked sorta. And then once we made the turn, I forgot about breathe, recover, drink. Sure I slowed and tried to recover and I did drink as we waiting to make sure everyone made the turn–there was a bit of traffic, I didn’t really believe it. I drank, but didn’t recover. Instead I focused on how I knew if Clark kept the pace, I’d be cooked. Instead of picturing the blinking stop head sign that signals the end of the ride, I started picturing the turn off of Sanchez. Or the convenience store just past there. Telling myself not breathe, recover, drink, but just make it to the turn. Just make it Mike’s. And off course that’s what I did. I made it to the turn off of Sanchez and pulled out from behind Clark. Instead of breathing, recovering, and drinking, I let the line of eight hammers roll past me. I didn’t even try to get back in line.

And then I pedaled back at 15 and then 16 mph. And then as I was coming out of the Cabin Curve I saw Joey’s blinking headlight. I got in my drops and picked up the pace. And then there was Clark making a uturn. I got on his wheel. We rolled to the blinking stop head sign at 20 mph.

And then I got home and did the Strava upload. And yeah. I was bit gassed on Sanchez. But not that gassed. I could have recovered. Clark would have dropped the pace back to what we said we were going to do as we rolled out of the parking lot. But instead, I gave up.

Breathe. Recover. Drink.