Thursday, August 27, 2009

Biking forward and discovering a new you

Trek-NavigatorI haven’t written much about biking even though I practically live on my bike. It hasn’t been a deliberate omission; rather I think biking has become so naturalized into my life that it sort of blurred into the background. Let’s see if we can make up some lost ground today.

I did write a post titled The Big Bike for Scribbit’s monthly Write-Away contest about my first two-wheeler which was a 1961 J. C. Higgins with single speed, balloon tires, and coaster brakes. I rode it until 1974 after which it rusted away in my parents’ garage until 1995 when what was left of it was scrapped.

I was bike-less from 1974 until 1987 when I once again became a bike owner-rider and have had four bikes over the past 22 years. The current bike, a Trek, I have owned about nine years and has an estimated 3,000 miles on it. It would have had more but 2006-08 were low riding years. The early years were long summer weekend rides. This year, however, I have put about a thousand miles on it so far. Did I mention that I’ve been biking a lot?

So why do I bike so much at my age?

Some of the reason I bike so much goes back to the first Big Bike; biking is freedom. On an off-road trail or a road with low traffic, the feel of the breeze on my face and the fact that I can cover more miles than on foot is an empowering sensation.

Biking has a lot of side benefits that I was not aware of until about 30 days ago. As I have been putting more and more regular miles over mixed terrain into my biking I have gotten stronger, more resilient, and more confident. There is something about being able to keep upright in loose gravel or not needing to ride the brakes all the way down every hill that creates other internal shifts.

I feel – and have read many other testimonials – that biking as a regular source of exercise has helped me through the multiple transitions I have been moving through. Biking has provided an escape from the daily grind, beneficial physical activity, increased my strength, endurance, aerobic conditioning and balance; and also my stress levels are significantly lower so I am less erratic emotionally. Just being outdoors in fresh air and a change of scenery to hear birds and see the seasonal plants brings refreshment to the spirit.

Where do I bike?

Of course I ride just for the fun of it to wherever suits me at the moment. With just my bike, safety gear, ID, water and a snack; I can head out on the local rail-to-trail and have access to 500 miles of off-road riding. You could say I’m in biking heaven since these trails connect to other trails, so it’s possible to go anywhere in the state if you’re up to the mileage.

I am also a destination biker. I bike any place I safely can around town. A half-mile roadway stretch puts me on the trail from home and I can get to the post office, library, shopping centers, banking, restaurants and two ice cream stands. Unfortunately my freelance reporting cannot be done on a bike since most events take place where the roads are not safe for shared use or after dark. Still my gas consumption has been cut in half this summer because I bike whenever possible.

What’s the point?

Most agree that biking is a pretty green activity but that was not my main point. The point for me, and the one I want to emphasize for those going through the upheaval of a life transition, is that regular exercise is generally recommended as a coping strategy. I found biking to be far more interesting and motivating than just doing sit-ups or jumping jacks (those have their place but I can only do so much before I get bored).

If you own an under-used bike or have toyed with getting back to bike riding again this is a good time to start. You will have low expectations for wowing other riders because your focus will be elsewhere. Just start slow and don’t be bullied into challenges you are not ready for. Every activity has its snobs, so don’t let irregular people persuade you to stay at home because they didn’t burn up the road when they started out either (they just prefer to forget that fact).

How do I start?

There is no one way to start. However, if you’re having trouble overcoming inertia here are some suggestions:

1. Make sure you have a well-fitted bike (does not mean most expensive) to improve your comfort and success.

2. Make sure the bike is in good working order to minimize your risk of injury or being stranded.

3. Invest in basic safety equipment like an ASTM or Snell-rated helmet, portable ID, good tires, reflectors, and a cell phone at least; a safety yellow vest or windbreaker is also good if you ride shared roadways.

4. Become familiar with the rules of the road or trail and etiquette so your movements are predictable to other users.

5. Learn some basic repairs if you do long rides away from town.

6. Set a modest schedule and benchmarks to measure your progress but the important thing is consistency.

Most important though is to know your own physical condition. If you haven’t gotten off the couch in a long time you would be wise to check with your physician to see if you’re up to biking or need pre-ride conditioning to start out successfully. Everyone needs to take into consideration their age and pre-existing conditions before starting any new physical activity and that includes biking.

Now, go out and have fun. Find some friends to ride with. But most of all prepare to be surprised by the new you who will emerge through regular biking.


Melissa Donovan said...

I love the idea of biking, especially when I see people riding around on those vintage-looking cruisers (I love the pink ones!). Unfortunately, I've never been very athletic, and biking has never interested me as an activity. I do dance, however, and I love yoga and walking on the treadmill, so at least those activities help me stay in shape. I like this post a lot, especially the part about going downhill without riding the brakes. Even though I don't bike, I get a good sense of that sensation!

Deb said...

@Melissa - I think it is really commendable that you recognize that you love the "idea" of biking. So many people invest in a big program of some sort only to discover they loved the idea but not actually doing the activity.

I love dancing too but there's a small problem; it takes a partner and I'm fresh out of that at the moment.

Just to clarify, I use brakes on hills for safety but I no longer crawl down them by the inch. Yes, seriously.