Grasp Life by the Handlebars


bicyclistI’ve spent a lot of time on my bicycle in the last year and a half, progressing from a breathless couple laps around the track to heart-thumping, leg-pumping 30-mile treks down the highway.  I’m strong but I’m slow, and those long rides mean a long time in the saddle trying to entertain myself.  Sometimes I gawk at the scenery–the roadside wildflowers, the shimmering lake off to the side, the occasional turkey or deer–but even that gets monotonous after a while.  Sometimes I sing to myself (the voice in my head is spectacular), and sometimes I create imaginary future conversations or re-visit previous conversations and edit them to my satisfaction.

And then sometimes I just let my mind wander where it may, twisting and turning and sliding into deep left field where the daisies bloom and the unicorns giggle and Bill Clinton leads a chorus of “Kumbaya.”  Perhaps it’s the combination of endorphins and adrenaline churning through my veins at the time, but my mind frequently wanders off into some pretty strange territory (fodder for a future post when I’m brave enough to share and convinced that my readers are brave enough to handle it).

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about all the lessons I’ve learned while riding my bike and how those lessons carry over into other aspects of everyday life.  And I’m willing to bet that most of those lessons could pertain to just about everybody.  For example:

  • Make a list and check it twice.  Before every ride I used to mentally check off everything I needed to do (go to bathroom, take Advil, fill water bottle, go to bathroom again) and everything I needed to take with me (gloves, sunglasses, Icy Hot, phone, tissue, gum, odometer)–and yet, invariably, I would forget something.  The worst was the time I drove to town to ride on the high school track and didn’t realize until I got there that I had forgotten the most important accessory of all–my bike.  I have since learned that in biking–as in every other pursuit, trivial or not–a written checklist might guarantee that significant details aren’t overlooked (provided, of course, that I remember to look at the list).
  • Comfort trumps style.  I had no intentions of squeezing my already generously padded derriere into a pair of skin-tight, padded biking shorts that all my biking friends recommended (baby’s already got enough back, thank you very much)–that is, until I completed my first 30-mile ride and then felt the need to sit on ice packs for the next three days.  Lesson learned.  Lookin’ good is irrelevant if not accompanied by feelin’ good.   
  • Set goals and then work your tail off to exceed them.  Every time I start a ride, I have in my mind how far I want to go, and then I try my best to go farther.  It isn’t always easy (and sometimes leg cramps, downpours, and bike wrecks make it downright impossible), but tremendous satisfaction and pride come from knowing that a goal has been met and–even better–surpassed.
  • Even though squirrels are annoying and stupid and probably deserve to have their death wishes granted, avoid them whenever possible. Suicidal squirrels dart in front of and between my bike tires, seemingly intent upon testing my braking and swerving reflexes.  Those reflexes aren’t what they used to be, and I am convinced that some day soon I will be giving one of them a most improper roadside burial (translation: slamming its mangled hide against the nearest oak tree) before driving my bruised and bloodied self to the ER.  There are a lot of squirrelly people out there, too; maybe running into them isn’t as physically painful as crashing into their rodent counterparts, but the emotional and mental drain can be just as painful.  Note to self:  Watch for their approach and then brake and swerve; life’s too short to spend it in the company of squirrels.   
  • Be happy with your oatmeal even when everyone else is eating bacon.  I eat oatmeal before every morning ride because I know it’s good for me and will give me the energy I need, but dadgum, why is it that every other kitchen along my route seems to be serving up bacon for breakfast?  It doesn’t matter that my belly is full; the delicious aroma of bacon frying tempts my taste buds and tortures my very soul.  I want to hurt those people–but I won’t.  Instead, I’ll try to hold my breath until I’m out of sniffing range, and I’ll remind myself that I need to appreciate what I do have and to remember that even the most envy-inducing tidbits carry with them negative side effects (like hundreds of fat grams and an abundance of artery-clogging cholesterol–so there!).    
  • The uphill battle makes the downhill drift worthwhile.  Sure, it’s a lot easier to coast downhill (and sometimes that’s the most joyous part of the ride), but real progress and satisfaction come from conquering the challenges of the uphill climb.  And, yeah, sometimes I’m going to skid sideways on loose gravel, and sometimes I’m going to strip my gears and spin in place, but the important thing is to keep on pedaling, to keep on moving until I reach the top.
  • You’re going to crash, and it’s going to hurt. And sometimes it’s the tiniest, most unexpected things that throw me into that tailspin.  My most recent bike wreck (yes, there has been more than one, and yes, there will be more to come) occurred when I made a turn too tightly and my front tire hit a small rock in the road, skidding the bike out from under me and slamming my entire left side (from knee to hip to ribs to elbow to helmeted head) into the pavement.  It hurt.  I screamed.  I cried.  It’s also quite possible that I uttered a few curses (but I’m going to pretend I don’t remember for sure).   I was a mile and a half from home, and there was nothing to do but get up, dust myself off, wipe the tears from my eyes, and ride.  And regardless of the nature of the crash, that’s always the best way to deal with it–get up and go on, no matter how much it hurts.
  • It’s a ride, not a race.  Sometimes I worry too much about increasing my pace, trying to keep up with the biker ahead of me or trying to impress the runners behind me (“Wow!  Did you see how fast her little legs were pedaling?!”).  And in so doing, I forget that my focus really should be on my destination, not on how quickly I can get there.  Slow down and enjoy the ride.
  • Stop paying so much attention to the rear-view mirror.  Yes, what’s behind me is important (especially when it’s a near-sighted 90-year-old in a mow-’em-down Caddy), but constantly looking back slows me down and makes me wobble in uncertainty.  The road ahead is where the future lies–where progress and satisfaction and joy are waiting–and I need to focus on that instead. 
  • You can’t always go with the flow.  Most of the time I ride with the traffic flow, but sometimes I have to adapt to current conditions and switch lanes, and sometimes it’s more important to pull out in front and lead the way.  And even though it’s not always the most comfortable place to be, it is a lot easier to see where I’m going (and what obstacles lie in my path) when I’m out in front.
  • A little sweat, dirt and swallowed bugs never hurt anyone.  Not only do they not hurt, they can also make me look tough and serve as evidence that I’m out “doin’ stuff” instead of sitting on the couch with my hand in the potato chip bag (no one has to know that the potato chips come after I’ve showered off all the sweat and dirt and brushed the gnats from between my teeth).
  • Not everyone will applaud your success.  Last year when I committed to getting in shape and improving my health, I had the support of so many wonderful friends that the work was much easier than I had expected, and the pounds began to disappear.  I was pleasantly surprised by all the heart-warming encouragement; I was also dismayed by the occasional behind-the-back negativity.  I overheard one woman saying to another that there was absolutely no way I had lost all that weight just by bicycling–that I had to be “taking something.”  From that experience I learned that while many will be happy for my accomplishments and may even be inspired by them, others will be indifferent (which is fine), and still others will question, ridicule and find fault–and the important thing to remember is that, at the end of the day, the only opinion that really matters is my own.  
  • Work now, relax later.  My best rides are in the early morning, when the day is young, my energy level is high, and it’s much harder to make up excuses not to go.  Whether it’s bicycling, housecleaning, or countless other tasks, if I wait to “work” until after I’ve rested in my recliner, it’s too easy to take just a little nap, to read just a few pages, to watch just a little TV–and to put off until tomorrow what I know I shouldn’t.  Work first. 
  • Finish strong.  I know I’ve had a really good ride when my last mile is even faster than my first.  It doesn’t always happen that way, but it’s a great feeling when it does.  And that’s how I try to approach other aspects of my life as well–keep plugging along, do better than the last time, and go out on top.  As I near retirement, I’ve had so many friends and colleagues ask why I’m still showing up for work every day when I have enough accumulated sick days and vacation days that I could have called it quits back in January–and the answer is simple, really.  Whether it’s the last mile of a long bike ride or the last days of a long career, I just don’t quit–that’s not how I roll.      
And finally, the most important lesson bicycling has taught me (again and again and again) is to grasp life by the handlebars–to embrace the joy of flying by the seat of my padded pants, to breathe deeply (and hope the air is tinged with the aroma of honeysuckle and not bacon) and to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the way.

“To sweep down hills and plunge into valley hollows; to cover as on wings
the far stretches of the road ahead and find them in bloom at your approach.”
— Alain Fournier, The Wanderer

Below are photos of a few of the wildflowers along my route.  To see a larger version of any picture, simply click on it.  And please remember that all photos are copyrighted and can’t be used without my permission (I’m bossy like that).

wild12

wild1

wild3

wild4

wild11

wild5

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About icedteawithlemon

I have recently retired from a 30-year career in education in one of the best school districts in the world. I hope to spend my second life reading, writing, photographing, traveling, biking, cheering on my favorite baseball team (the St. Louis Cardinals), and soaking up glorious sunshine. In my spare time I enjoy playing with my pet tarantulas, trying out new flavors of chewing gum, and knitting socks for prison inmates. I'm almost positive that in a past life I was one of the Seven Dwarfs (most likely "Grumpy"), and in my next life I'm going to be either a taste tester for Hershey's or a model for Victoria's Secret's new line, "Bloomers for Boomers." I want to travel country back roads, singing Vanilla Ice songs at every karaoke bar and rating bathroom cleanliness at every truckstop. And someday I plan to own a private beach where skinny girls aren't allowed. I want to be a writer when I grow up. "Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."--Henry David Thoreau
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14 Responses to Grasp Life by the Handlebars

  1. One of my favorite blog’s Karen. It made me smile.

  2. Kathy says:

    What a wonderful way to start the day, Karen. 😀

  3. Jamie Adams says:

    All GREAT Lessons!!! And I love the photographs!! You’re quite skilled with that 100mm macro lens now!! Amazing work!

  4. Kip Light says:

    Excellent, as always. If you have a smart phone, there are many free apps that keep track of lists for you (and allow you to mark the ones that are done). I use them all the time because of the loss of short term memory (thanks MS).

    “A little sweat, dirt and swallowed bugs never hurt anyone.” I might have to disagree with that one 🙂 I know you probably don’t go this fast, but in my motorcycling days a yellow jacket or hornet that strikes my face shield and then falls down my shirt can actually be EXTREMELY dangerous, LOL.

    Thanks for sharing the cycling tips and the beautiful pics!

    • Thank you, and you’re welcome! I don’t have a smart phone; I don’t even have cell phone reception where I live, so I rely on the pen and paper method of list-making and hope for the best. And you’re right about being attacked by bugs while motorcycling–I’ve never been the driver, only the rider, but I know they can create a dangerous situation. Fortunately, my biking speed is much slower, and the bugs I’m swallowing are much smaller.

  5. SUE says:

    Love this blog – and I especially love your attitude!! You really ARE enjoying such a special life & we always appreciate your sharing.

  6. You are such an inspiration! I remember when you began your “journey” and commitment to improved health – really, you are a rock star! I’ve been venturing out on my bike with the hope of making the rides a regular thing. No such luck yet. But your post may do the trick! I recently did a 20-mile ride – did you say ice packs? Oh … my … gosh! This past weekend, I stopped at a bike shop to inquire about getting a new padded seat, and I eyed the padded shorts. I LOVE your photos! Happy cycling!

    • Thank you, AA! I’m still so busy that I can’t always work in a ride every day (those long bike rides take a lot of time!), but I ride more days than not–and once those rides become a “regular thing,” it’s hard NOT to ride (I crave those endorphins and that adrenaline rush). I hope you will continue to venture out on your bike and that you experience the same health benefits and joy that I have. Good for you–and good luck!

  7. bronxboy55 says:

    Have you ever thought about becoming a motivational speaker, Karen? Your posts are filled with wisdom, humility, and humor, and I think audiences — especially young people — would benefit from what you’ve learned, and continue to learn.

    • You are incredibly kind, Charles. Because of my career path, I have had to speak in front of audiences on numerous occasions–I think the message is usually well received, but I could definitely improve upon the delivery! It is much easier for me to write than it is for me to speak (I get a little nervous). Thank you.

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