By Lettie Stratton
Cycling can be a meditative and spiritual experience. Nothing leads me to a space of quiet contemplation and reflection more reliably than focusing on the whir of wheels on pavement and the steady rhythm of pedals repeatedly rotating around a crank. The intermittent squeaks of an unsatisfactorily greased chain and the occasional squirrel blocking my path are the only interruptions to my meditation.
I didn’t always know cycling could lead me to this place. It wasn’t until I found myself pedaling uphill with full panniers in my lowest gear into a relentless wind for what seemed like forever that I discovered I could be content with discomfort. Now, I find that I can get to this meditative state rather quickly on a bike, and bicycle-inspired musings are a given whenever I go for a ride.
Now back to the wind. Cycling into the wind presents its own set of challenges, both physical and mental. Personally, I found the mental aspect to be more challenging. Feeling like you’re moving backward with every pedal stroke is not the most fun thing in the world when you’re one hour into a six-hour day of biking and halfway through a two-week cycling trip through New Zealand’s South Island. There is literally nowhere to go except forward, and “forward” seemed to be a place I could not go.
No matter how beautiful the scenery (and New Zealand offered some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen), feeling like you’re on a stationary bike when you’re actually on a real one is far from ideal.
Finally, though, I relaxed into the struggle, pedaling not just to reach the top of the pass but rather to just pedal for the sake of pedaling and enjoying the ride. This was a new concept for me. I found it easier said than done to enjoy the journey and not just the destination. But somehow I surpassed my point of struggle and settled into the discomfort.
“Sure, this hill may be the steepest and longest I’ve encountered so far,” I thought, “but why just wish for the top? If I do that, I’m missing the experience entirely. I’d rather be present, even when the going is tough.”
I think that had this happened on day one, I would have remained in struggle mode. Something tells me that I earned my reprieve through many days and many miles of pedaling, pedaling, pedaling — all day long. My newfound wisdom of settling into discomfort was something I had to pay my dues to receive.
Long-distance cyclists are familiar with certain mental blocks that must be pedaled through. Every day or every hour on on the bike is not necessarily the epitome of a good time. Some days are perfect — the wind is at your back, you have a delicious mid-afternoon snack in your pannier, and the sun is shining (but not too brightly).
Other days, you grit your teeth, do a series of bicycle-specific hip-opening stretches in hopes of helping yourself make it over the mountain pass without cramping, put on a trash bag that you fashioned into a makeshift rain coat, pack up your essential cycling gear (I never leave home without my Lifestraw and travel pump — and good thing because both came in handy on my windy day), get in the saddle, and hope for the best.
Halfway up the hill, perhaps the only thing that sustains you is thinking about all the calories you burn biking and how you’ll be able to replace those calories in the form of ice cream when you reach your destination (if you ever reach it!).
Breaking through these blocks and coming out on the other end not only unscathed, but better because it was hard, is one of the greatest joys of long-distance cycling.
At its core, cycling is simple. Push on the pedals and your bike will be propelled forward. Just keep riding. Sometimes I see this as a metaphor for life. The simplicity of cycling helps me find what’s important in life. In the saddle I’ve realized things like how few material possessions I need to be happy and how unnecessarily complicated we often make our lives.
When it’s just you, the bike, and the passing landscape for a long period of time, it’s difficult to distract yourself from what’s really going on in your head and your life — especially when you’re cycling into adversity, like a strong headwind. Even when you think you can’t go on, you somehow find a way to keep going, settling into discomfort and pushing forward.
Lettie Stratton is a writer and urban farmer in Boise, ID. A Vermont native, she is a lover of travel, tea, bicycles, plants, cooperative board games, women’s basketball, and the outdoors. She’s still waiting for a letter from Hogwarts.Tweet Print