Biking's Life Mantra

Cover photo by Heidi Ransom

Pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal. Roots. Rocks. Rocks. Roots. Shoot, I’m off.

I place my feet back on the pedals, only to slip off again after one rotation forward. I push the bike up to a dip in the trail, where I can gain some momentum and try pedaling again.

Sweat drips off my chin. My lungs are ravenous for more air. I realize that I might not be having fun, but I continue to pedal up the mountain. At the top, my husband waits for me with his bike resting in the grass. Cool as a cucumber, he stretches his quads as he looks out over the valley. I join him on the plateau and slump down on the bench, still panting.

This summer I put climbing on hold to enjoy other hobbies. When I climb, I spend days at the same crag. When I bike or hike, I can experience landscape by the miles. It’s a micro versus macro kind of relationship to nature, and I’m finding I need both to feel fulfilled.

Yet I’m humbled when I bike. I recognize my body’s cardiovascular and muscular endurance limits, and I lean into those thresholds every time I turn my wheels on a single track. No, I realize: I don’t always have fun when I’m out riding. My legs and lungs burn.

Embracing sensations of unfamiliar discomfort is the first skill to hone.

I set out on rides with friends who bike often and well, and I try to learn as much as I can from them. On a recent ride, I chased Heidi up the mountain. She’s all grace and power. At the top, I asked for advice.

“Train your eyes to look where you want to go,” she reminded me.

I learned this technique my first ride ever and every ride since. Where you look, there you go. It’s a skill—a mantra—requiring continued practice, second only to the skill of embracing discomfort. 

The thing is, I don’t bike or climb or hike as my profession. Most of us don’t. My reasons for pursuing outdoor sports may reflect your own: for physical and mental wellbeing, the tango between fun and discomfort, and lastly but possibly above all—skills gleaned from the challenges that I can apply to my career, relationships, and life at large.

Like where you look, there you go.

The mantra reminds me of a book I once read. I was killing time in Vermont at a bookstore when a title printed across a bright yellow cover caught my eye. You Are A Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life.

I hadn’t read much self-help literature at this point. The book’s subtitle spoke to me, though, as I had recently started a business and a novel. I felt overwhelmed by both and questioned my ability to successfully pursue either. I decided to purchase the book, despite my reservations about “self-help.” On the airplane home, I began reading it, making sure to hide the cover’s title as best as I could. 

I often found myself laughing out loud. The author, Jen Sincero, weaves together hilarious antidotes with larger lessons gleaned from psychology, mindfulness, and a diversity of spiritual practices. I ended up re-reading it a few more times, underlining passages and dog-earring pages.

One page with a dog-ear and a penciled star in the margin explores the relationship between our thoughts and reality. Essentially, what we focus on and visualize, manifests. “Our thoughts are the most powerful tools we’ve got,” Sincero writes. “I think, therefore, I can create awesomeness. Or horrendousness. But the bottom line is that it’s through our thoughts that we create our realities.”

Or as Einstein once said, “The world we have created is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

Where you look, there you go. As it is in biking, “training my eyes” in my life at large requires continued practice. Every time I sit down to write or bike, I’m asked to focus on the next six feet. If I look at the drop-off to my right, sure enough I end up squeezing the brakes and lifting the front wheel back onto the trail.  

But then comes the descent. I lower my seat and let gravity do most of the work. Gaining speed demands I maintain unwavering focus on the path ahead. There’s no doubt I’m having fun. The sweat dries on my face as wind whips my hair free of its braid. I’m whooping and hollering.

Discomfort from the incline succumbs to the thrill of manipulated velocity. It works, again, as if by magic: by looking where I want to go, I stay on the trail.

And in so doing, we may even experience the joy of flow.