Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. ~ unknown
The other day, a loyal reader added this on a blog comment: “My last comment is to say that I want to read about how you became the cyclist that you are.” – The individual asking the question is a friend of Harlan’s and has followed our bicycling ventures via Facebook. I had to laugh out loud when I read it because I would never use the word ‘cyclist’ to describe what I do and I’m pretty sure that people who are truly ‘cyclists’ might be insulted to consider what I do any part of the sport.
You see, I hate… more than strongly dislike… exercise of any kind. I always did. I remember being laughed at in grade school when we were trying to complete tasks to receive the Presidential Fitness Award. I couldn’t do chin-ups – I just didn’t have the upper body strength or perhaps my lower body was far too big and mismatched for the muscles in my upper torso. It was better to stand in the back than to fail miserably. I didn’t have any competitive spirit apparently. Consequently, I was the kid who was always the last pick; cementing my dislike of sports.
I did play basketball in high school because I was tall and it was expected. What I disliked most of all was running across the court over and over… and over again. I often thought about finding a sport that allowed you to stand still but I never found one. In gym, we were expected to run a mile at least once each marking period. That was four times around the track and the ‘runners’ could make it in six or seven minutes but it took me twelve to fourteen. Of course, I walked most of the way and was generally last, or close to it.
I did love to walk. I could walk for miles and did often. My long legs created a lengthy stride and I rarely got tired of walking. I loved all of the things that I got a chance to see when I was walking. We frequently laughed over the idea that I would walk from Oakland, CA to Chicago, Illinois twice a month when I worked for the railroad. Since I worked in the dining car, I was on my feet most of the time as we covered that distance.
No matter how much I ‘knew’ that exercise was good for me and no matter how many different types of equipment, sports, or activity I tried… I just couldn’t ‘get into’ the practice of exercising. It really was problematic since my body composition and metabolism required some form of external motivation. I thought people who enjoyed exercise were in possession of a magic gene that passed by me during conception. I didn’t get it.
When we were in Europe visiting Sara – who spent a year in Amsterdam as an Au Pair – we considered renting bicycles and touring around but it sounded like work and I was on vacation. Besides, somewhere after the age of 50, arthritis began to build in my hip and walking was challenging some days and so I believed that bicycle riding seemed out of the question.
Harlan, on the other hand, has always been an avid sportsman. From football to baseball and golf to running, his body almost required movement and elevated heart rate. He often spoke of the euphoria that occurred when he exercised. He loved the endorphins that were produced while I was always waiting for them to show up.
About two years ago Harlan decided he was going to buy a bicycle and begin cycling. He began researching and by late April made his decision. He encouraged me to invest in a bike but we were talking hundreds of dollars for something that required this exercise thing that I wasn’t into at all.
I decided to ‘test’ my interest in cycling by inviting my family along for a ‘Mother’s Day’ ride in a state park near the ocean. They looked at me a little funny when I said that’s how I wanted to spend my day but followed along. We rented bikes close to the trail head and the four of us set out, helmets on, across saltwater marsh lands full of blue herons. I was riding a hybrid with a cushy seat and twenty-one gears. I couldn’t remember that last time I had been on a bicycle.
Of course, as a kid – that was the primary mode of transportation. We went everywhere on our bikes and the best part of the year was decorating it for the annual Memorial Day parade. We wove streamers into our spokes and tied all kinds of noise makers behind us but… that was then – when I was ten and it wasn’t considered exercise. It was a necessity, a required method of transportation if you were one of the ‘cool’ kids.
We had a perfectly beautiful day to ride through incredibly beautiful scenery. I puttered along the trail which was predominately crushed stone and enjoyed the sun on my face, the breeze across my cheeks, and the smell of the fresh air. In fact, I barely noticed that anyone was with me. I embraced the sound of nature, the melody of the tire against the ground, and the tone of air moving past my ears. I loved it! My ass hurt but my hip was fine! I was happy as a lark and after about ten miles, the kids asked me how far we were going… I could have gone on and on but they were pretty much over it. We turned around and headed back – it was a total of sixteen miles that day. Not bad for a lady who hadn’t ridden a bike in more than thirty years.
That day, I found a Hollandia style bicycle – a hybrid ladies bike with fenders – very classic looking and it had seven speeds. I assured the salesman that I would ‘never’ need more than that as I had only used five all day on the flat trail we had traveled and that was just experimenting. I went for broke – buying as much bicycle as I thought I could afford while making sure it made sense for the kind of riding that we (Harlan) talked about doing. He had gotten a road bike and I wanted something a bit more versatile. I agreed to go with him if “it didn’t feel like exercise”, I said.
I’ll admit that I was pretty excited. We live in a mostly flat community that touts itself as being ‘bike friendly’ and indeed, there are bike lanes on almost every road. In addition, there are a variety of trails in town that are bicycle friendly. Furthermore, the Rails-To-Trails conservancy is a tremendous organization – converting old railroad beds into pedestrian and bike trails. We live in an area where there are a number of them within an easy driving distance. The nice part about Rail Trails is that they are FLAT – mostly. There is often a grade but it is hardly noticeable.
We started slowly… biking around town, after work, and on weekends. We biked into town and rewarded ourselves with a latte or ice cream. I noticed the calorie burn and my body started to take on a different shape. I wasn’t working hard at all. I pushed myself a bit… beginning to compete with myself to see if I could get up a slope in second gear instead of shifting down to first. And then, we headed out to trails that were longer… and longer… I fell in love with ‘my’ kind of biking. It was easy and fun. It wasn’t sport riding, though. It was leisure. But… it WAS exercise and my body liked it.
Before long, I was riding without Harlan’s influence. I was exercising just because I liked the sensation of those things that I fell in love with that first day… the sound of the air moving past my ears, the breeze on my face, etc. When I was out there – especially by myself – I could think about nothing at all or about everything at once. I allowed thoughts to flow through my brain at the same speed that I was moving but it wasn’t exhausting.
Eventually, my behind became accustomed to my seat and it stopped hurting. I was riding for 45 or 60 minutes several times a week and not thinking twice about it. Each time I left the house I could hear the theme song of The Wizzard of Oz playing ‘Duh – di duh – di da.’ Imagining myself with a full-on basket on the front of my bike, carrying a little dog. I wonder how many people saw me and thought the same thing? It didn’t matter. When I am on my bike, I am in a state of Peace.
I have challenged myself with longer and longer rides but let me be clear… they are leisure rides of 25 & 30 miles on relatively flat surfaces. One day last fall I took my bike up to Philadelphia and ran the Schuylkill River trail for 34 miles round-trip. I was done by mile 30 and the last four were brutal but it was exhilarating to know that I did it.
Harlan hasn’t been able to ride in months now and I don’t ride when it is cold. I bought an indoor ‘trainer’ last year so that I could bring the bike inside and maintain the routine but there is absolutely NO comparison and I don’t like it. I’d just as soon go to the gym and ride there – which I do now although not as religiously as I’d like you to imagine.
In any regard, that is how and why I became a ‘cyclist’… For me, it has nothing to do with the sport and everything to do with the PEACE I experience as I move through space on those wheels.