Tending the Spark: The Joy of Cycling

The weather has been better and I rode five days in a row. However, I feel like a water buffalo on a bike. This is in part because I gained about ten pounds over the winter, as well as I have been off the bike for a while and am not in very good shape. Sometimes when I feel this way it is hard to remember the joy of riding because it is such an effort and the internal voices which chastise me about not doing more over the winter or how could I let myself gain weight start up. However, ultimately the joy of cycling is WHY I do it. If it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t do it.

Sometimes, even when I am at the top of my game during the season, I lose track of the joy. It is more a mindset than anything else. When I set workout goals and do grueling intervals or hills, without feeling the joy of movement and the outdoors, I lose track of the point (at least for me).

I have noticed that when I feel that cycling is a chore, it is time for a ride where I smell the roses, not a hammer fest with club members out to chase you down. There are other times when hammering is the thing that gives me joy. Pushing my body and limits can be fun and give me a sense of satisfaction, but in reasonable doses.

I have to approach my riding with joyful mindset. Although riding has many intrinsic benefits (defined leg muscles, lower blood pressure, fitness etc…) I find the joy and spiritual connection I feel when I ride to be the most motivating and satisfying. Some of this mindset has to do with being in the moment. Usually when I ride, I can put aside all the rest of the worries and troubles and just be in the present. Not only is riding a moving meditation, but it clears my mind and can give me a new perspective on life.

So this season, I want to be more mindful of the joy and spiritual aspects of my riding. For it to be a lifelong pursuit for me, I have to not lose that spark – instead I have to nurture it into the passion it currently is for me.

Freezing and Thawing and the Coming of Spring

Yesterday it snowed. The trees are shrouded in white and quite beautiful. The day before it was 38 degrees and I rode 25 miles on my bike. It was my first ride over twenty miles this year. On that day, it felt like spring was coming, but then it snowed. But the coming of spring is like that. It is not linear. The stream freezes, thaws, freezes, and thaws some more, until finally it flows and spring arrives.

This has been a rough winter for me though. Often with the coming of the snow and the cold, darkness of mood comes too – and like the frozen stream it makes it hard to move and flow. Depression is a thief. It robs me of vitality, energy and life. It makes it difficult to write or ride or even get out of bed. The world is drained of its color. Yet, I am reminded, on the warming days, that spring will come and my depression will also wane.

Imbolc, on February 2nd, is a time to remember this. It is the celebration of the imperceptible new growth under the snow. It is a time to figuratively plant seeds that will blossom in the spring and bear fruit in the summer. It is my favorite pagan holiday because it heralds the change in season and reminds me, often when I am at my darkest, that the days are lengthening and change is inevitable. This year I began coming out of my physical hibernation to begin to think about training again.

Depression drags me down and makes it hard to get motivated to train, especially when it means doing it indoors on a trainer or in a spin class. I realize, more and more, that when I ride outside it feeds my soul. This is not the case indoors where I feel like every pedal stroke is a chore. Sometimes in the dead of winter, I forget how much I love riding outside and the spiritual connection I feel when I do. I forget that riding is energy giving. I forget that it is not just about staying in shape, or riding to improve my mood or any of that. It is about feeling alive.

The other day, even though I felt slow, heavy and out of shape, I was reminded of this. Spring will come and my blues will recede in the warmth of the sun.

Cycling in Middle Age

I am forty-seven years old and before now I was never an athlete.  Growing up I was more interested in poetry than sports.  I was a member of the literary club in high school snubbing anything as physical as soccer or running.  People ask me all the time, so what sport did you do before cycling?  I look sheepishly and say, “none.”  Before now, I was an avid couch potato without the slightest interest in anything that could be called exercise.  I spent most of my time up in my head.  I had well developed intellectual muscles but physically I was out of shape.  For me, it is a unique experience to be developing my body as well as my mind. 


In my first year of cycling, I rode over 6000 miles.  It was a thrilling year of fast learning and improvement.  I went from barely making it 25 miles down a bike trail to riding 200 miles a week during the summer months.  I went from being scared of drafting with my partner, to riding with a club.  My body changed too.  I developed muscles I didn’t know I had in my legs and knees. 


However, becoming an athlete at 47 is a different experience than becoming one at 27 (and even that is old in athlete years!).   My body is aging and I have to be mindful of that even as I push it to find its limits.  However, if there was ever a time to become an athlete now is the time.  Before I started cycling, I was on the verge of developing a number of health problems, including elevated blood sugar and high blood pressure.  Both of those conditions have resolved because I lost some weight and improved my health with riding.   Cycling also helps me deal with my depression which (as I have written before) is critical for my well-being.


I also feel good about venturing into something new in middle-age.  There are times, especially when I am riding with the twenty-something women of my team, that I wonder what AM I doing here?  But for the most part, I feel that cycling is a new and exciting learning opportunity for me. 


I have learned a lot about my body and what it means to be athletic, but most importantly I have learned about who I am and what I am made of.  Cycling has caused me to be more disciplined (although I am still working on this).  It has pushed me to be competitive when I am usually cooperative.  It has allowed me to be cooperative when I work with other riders in a pace line, or teach riding to beginners.  It has pushed me to overcome the years of “girl conditioning” which taught me that I am not good with mechanical things.  It has made me think about what is important to me as an athlete and as a person. 


As an older but newer rider, I do bring the experience of my life to the endeavor.  I bring a perspective of having lived through many trials and come out the other side.  I know I may never be the fastest racer or the top winner, but that is not important to me in the bigger scheme of things.  What is important is that I am learning and growing and sharing with others the love of cycling.

Riding with the Blues

In this month’s Psychology Today there is an article which profiles four people who live with depression.  I am one of them.  In fact the article opens with a picture of me and a paragraph which reads: “Last Summer, Pata Suyemoto rode her bike from Boston to Cape Cod, 125 miles in one day.  An educator who has taught everything for art to English, to Reiki, she’s funny, she’s intense, and she is passionate.  Never a jock, three years ago she became a relentless road warrior, riding more than 6,000 miles the first year she took up cycling.  But she would not say she has conquered depression.  Instead, like many people who experience major depression – and there are roughly 15 million Americans who do – she has achieved a kind of delicate détente with it.”


Although it is a bit odd to be famous for being depressed, I figure the article might help someone else and I believe silence around tough issues is never the way to go.  Cycling, as the article touches upon, has helped me cope with my chronic depression, but the relationship between my cycling and my depression is more complicated than the article reveals.


Depression is the backdrop of my life right now and has been for many years.  It is a constant, although varying in degree depending on the day, the circumstances, the moon and the stars.  Much of what I do is to cope with my depression.  However, when I got into cycling it was not with the purpose of helping the depression.  I got into it at first because my partner was a big cyclist and then I made it my own because it was challenging yet fun.  However, a benefit of cycling was that it helped stabilize my mood and improved my overall health.


Cycling helps me relieve stress and anxiety as well as sends those well-known endorphins into my system.  It also has given me community and friends who support me as a person and an athlete.  This support is critical to my healing.  It also gives me a sense of purpose as I train for racing and teach bike riding to beginners.


Although cycling helps me deal with my depression, the depression sometimes makes it harder to cycle.  When I am in a deep funk, it is very hard to train and to get motivated to go out.  My energy is low and my ability to ride well diminishes.  I know at these times, I need to ride anyway, but it is a monumental task to get there.  My depression also can make my outlook less positive than is usually is, which affects my perspective about goals and training.  I can fall into the “what does it matter” trap and feel like what I am doing is not productive or meaningful. 


I know that there will always be a dialectic between my depression and my cycling.  I know that to help manage my depression I need to ride.  I also know that I have to overcome the negative thinking that goes with the depression and hinders my cycling.  I am working on this and realize that it is a process of learning and growing.   I also have to realize that there are times when I need to stop and rest and attend to the depression.  It is not always the case that I should push through it without addressing what I might need at the moment.  It is a delicate balance between the yin and the yang, and I am learning to listen to my needs.    Sometimes what I need is to ride and just feel how I am feeling.  There has been more than one time when I have ridden and cried, but still ridden on.  


I feel fortunate that cycling is a way for me to grapple with the pain of depression while being a vehicle of growth in my life.  And at this point, riding is not only for pleasure but it is an imperative.  I need to ride to live.

Riding on the Margin or What Money Can’t Buy

I grew up in an affluent suburb of Boston.  We had good public schools and libraries.  However, my mother was divorced and a single-mother.  We were lucky – we had a home, plenty of food, and clothes.  What we didn’t have was a vacation house on the Cape or ski trips at Christmas, or designer shoes, or a fancy car.   I always felt a bit out of step in school where I was not only different because I was Japanese-American in a primarily white community, but I also was not able to keep up with the Jones – not that I even tried.    


Now I am in a couple of cycling clubs.  One in particular has a large population of competitive racers.  (I am a racer wanna-be.)    I was at a social event with this club and found myself feeling like I did in high school when my friends talked about their European vacations.  At this social people were talking about their powertaps and coaches and VO2 testing.  Things at this point I can’t afford.   I felt a bit out of place.  I have a nice bike (more than one if the truth be told), but I don’t have all the high-end expensive accessories.  I wondered if I belonged there?  I wondered if I could compete without these tools?


Cycling, and racing in particular, is an expensive sport.  At a minimum, you need a racing bike, a cyclo-computer, a kit, and a helmet.  This alone, would cost you around $3500, at a minimum.  Then there is the cost of the race entry fees, the racing license, etc. . .   This all adds up to quite a bit of money.  And from this point, there are many other tools that one could purchase to help with training and competing such as a heart rate monitor, a powertap, a coach, a bike fitting, VO2 testing, race wheels, and more.  The sport really caters to people with a lot of expendable income – which is not me. 


I ride.  I ride a lot.  I ride hard.  I am training with the guidance of books and friends.  I am lucky to have what I do.  For instance, my partner bought me race wheels for the winter holidays.  It was a wonderful gift and I am looking forward to riding them when the weather improves.  But I have to ask myself can someone like me be accepted into a club where it seems most folks have a lot more resources to spend on cycling?    


I know for me, I have to get over the feeling that I am not quite good enough because I don’t have enough.  This is my baggage.  What I have is not a reflection of my worth as a person, or cyclist.  What I have does not reflect my ability to ride.  What I have does not make me a good team member.  I have to remember that I bring to the club my skills as a rider and teacher and I think that there is a place for me, even without a powertap or a coach.    I know that part of my task is to make that place for myself.  It is a personal challenge to confront my own sense of inadequacy to realize that a lot of what I am comparing myself to is window dressing.  What is at the core is a love of riding and a drive to be the best cyclist I can be.  This is what I share with the other club members.


In this life time, I know that I will always feel on the margins of the mainstream.   Being a mixed heritage Japanese-American woman alone, makes me feel that way.  However, I don’t really mind and know there is a kind of power on the margin.  From the margin, I can speak a different truth and walk my own path – the one less travelled.    I can know that I am enough and bring my strengths to the team and the club, without apologies.  What makes a good cyclist, is not the extras.  It is combination of ability, tenacity, discipline and drive that makes a good cyclist – and none of these things can one buy.

On Being Grateful

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A couple of days ago I was in Newton passing by a Tibetan store and saw a miniature bicycle in the window.  I had to go in.  It is (as you can see in the picture) a perfect little commuter bike with wonderful details like the generator light and the crank the really moves the chain and the wheel.  A Tibetan artist made it and obviously I bought it (not that I need another thing, or could I really afford it. . . ).  The wonderful thing was that it sparked an inspirational conversation between me and the owner of the store.


She had been a Tibetan refugee in India growing up.  For a long time, her family didn’t have enough money to get her a bicycle.  When they finally saved enough and she got one and she felt a tremendous sense of freedom, which given her circumstances amazes me.  She talked about how it was such a big deal to get the bicycle and what an impact it had on her life. 


Since I teach bicycle riding to adults who never learned as children, I understand the way in which learning ride and getting a bicycle are momentous occasions.  For these learners, riding a bike is often an accomplishment they never thought possible.  And to do it, they must overcome their fears and doubt and take a risk.  This is hard for anyone, but for those of us over the age of 30, it is even harder.   But each year, during the spring, summer, and fall, many people come to The Bicycle Riding School to learn.  They are brave souls.  And many times learning to ride changes their lives.


It is good for me to remember that the simple bicycle can have tremendous power in the lives of ordinary folks.   It is good for me to remember that for many people the bicycle symbolizes and IS freedom.  It allows one to move outside of one’s immediate surroundings which can be life-saving.  The bicycle also symbolizes childhood and for people who didn’t learn as children, a missed opportunity, which can be reclaimed by learning as an adult.   I am fortunate to be part of this reclaiming as their teacher, as well as fortunate to be a cyclist.  I need to appreciate my bicycles, my ability to ride, and the ways it gives me freedom, health, and a sense of identity. 


P.S. The name of the store is: Karma

                                                Fine Imported Crafts

                                                57 Union St.

                                                Newton Centre, MA

The Sin of Dirty Bicycles

Although I am a confirmed roadie, I have a good friend, who is a mountain bike racer.  She likes to be in the woods.  I like spending time with her, so I decided to buy a low-end used mountain bike.   The bike I bought has a solid frame and reasonable components, it was, however filthy.  I don’t mean just a little dirty.  I mean gritty, nasty, hair from the drain, filthy.  I am pretty sure it had not been cleaned at all in its two year life, although the woman told me she lubed it regularly.  My guess is that she kept dumping lube on it and never cleaned it.  Here is a picture of the crank we took off before cleaning. 


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I can’t quite describe how gross it was to take apart the pulleys, cassette, chain, derailleurs, and crank.  I couldn’t touch it with my bare hands.  I don’t quite understand how she could have let the bicycle get that dirty. 


Here is the clean crank:

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During season, my partner and I wash our bicycles weekly.  We always wipe them down, including the chain, after each ride, adding fresh lube only after the old stuff is cleaned off.  Basic maintenance goes a long way toward making the bicycle ride well.  When there is grit in the drive train it wears the components out and can feel rough.  Not only does the bike last longer and ride smoother when clean, it is also a matter of pride.


I have pride in and respect for my bicycles.  They are a reflection of me and what I value.  I would not go to work with dirty hair, and I would not ride a filthy bicycle (especially in a group or with the club).  When I am riding with my team, the state of my bike reflects not only me, but the team.  I want people to know that I love my bikes and care for them well.   Other riders have asked me if my bike is new, when really it has about 10,000 miles on it.  I say no, it is just very clean. 


When we brought the filthy mountain bike home, my friend say she heard it sigh a sigh of relief to be in my house because now it would be cleaned and cared for.   I think I heard it too.  Now that bike is being cleaned, and lubed, and re-cabled and will be ready to ride come spring.


Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Winter Riding

Spy Pond January 2009After a short 18 mile ride at Spy Pond.It’s January and I am finally getting back to my neglected blog.  During my absence, the season turned and it is fully winter in Boston.   Today the high was in the low twenties with a wind chill factor of five degrees.  On days like today, I stay indoors and work on the trainer; however, if it is thirty or above, I will venture out on my bicycle.  


Winter riding is qualitatively different than riding in more temperate conditions.  It takes a kind of mindfulness that riding in summer does not.  For one, in cold weather, you have to be more prepared.  When I get ready to go out it takes me up to a half an hour to get ready.  The other day when I went out I wore a base layer, a heavy jersey, a down vest, two jackets, and shorts under a heavy pair of riding tights.  On my feet I wore two pairs of socks, one neoprene and the other wool, heated insoles and heavy winter riding boots and my hands hand two pairs of gloves and hand warmers inside.  To top it off, I wore a baklava, a hat, and my helmet.  I looked like my daughter the first time we dressed her to go out in the snow.  The snowsuit was so heavy and she was so bundled we had to prop her up against the fence to take a picture.  She could barely move.  I looked like that – but not as cute.


For me, winter riding reminds me that I have to accept that there are things I can’t change in life to which I just have to accommodate.  If I want to ride in January in the Northeast, I will have to adapt to the winter elements.  I went out on my bike to a party the other night and it started to snow before I left.  When I got on the road there was a thin coat of icy snow crystals that shimmered under the streetlights.  I rode very, very slowly home.    Had there been more snow, I would have walked.  Winter riding also teaches me that I have limitations and sometimes it is best to turn back or walk.  I respect Mother Nature for her powers and her beauty.


And beauty is easily found when riding in the winter.  Personally, I love the stark snow covered trees and the frozen ponds.  Even the bike trail is quiet – unlike in the summer months when people and nature are busy and active.  There is a peacefulness and stillness that gives me pause.  Winter riding teaches me to see the beauty in bareness and reflect on my place, as small as it is, in the cycle of things. 


Cycles of Life and Seasons on the Minuteman Trail

To get from my home out to better places to cycle I often ride the Minuteman Bike Trail.  This trail runs from Somerville to Bedford.  There has been a lot of commentary about trail use –  pointing fingers at cyclists for going too fast, rollerbladers for talking up too much room, and walkers for not paying attention – seems like everyone has a beef about the trail.  However, this piece is neither about trail use nor a forum for whining about trail etiquette. 


Riding the trail allows me to experience the cycles of the seasons.   There are stretches of woodlands and meadows.  There are wild herbs that grow along the sides.  There is wild life that inhabits the surrounding area.  Given that the trail runs through cities and suburbs, it is quite a microcosm of nature. 


Right now the last few leaves have fallen off the trees.  The winter is perhaps the only season where you can clearly see the sky from the trail, as the trees create a thick canopy during the rest of the year.  The colors are various shades of grey and white, almost as if you were looking at a black and white photo.  It is cold, but quieter than the bustling summer.  The light is weak and by 4:30 PM it is pitch dark on the trail. When the snow flies, much of the trail will be impassable on a road bicycle.  (They don’t plow the whole thing which is really too bad.)


I find the spring most exciting on the trail.  My favorite pagan holiday is Imbolc which celebrates the new growth under the snow.  When that new growth starts peaking through and the energy of spring is in the air, I feel newly alive.  The first few times in the spring when I ride the trail, I enjoy the efforts of the plants coming up through the last of the snow.  It is a messy time – wet and muddy, but it is a harbinger of the beginning of biking season and the promise of warmer biker friendly weather to come.  The buds start to form on the trees creating a sense of expectation.  There is a new life on the trail.


The summer is the most active time on the trail.  The leaves of the trees create a canopy which provides welcomed shade to users.  There are squirrels and chipmunks that scamper across the trail trying to avoid being run over by the cyclists.  I once saw a doe and two fawns on the trail.  In parts of the trail there are berries that people pick and herbs that they collect.  It is a time of fullness and abundance.


A sadness comes over me when autumn starts to set in.  The leaves change from green to bright orange, yellow and red.  The colors are brilliant and sometimes you can look out and see a landscape on fire with color.  The leaves fall onto the trail creating a difficult and dangerous surface for cyclists.  The landscape changes again and winter returns, only to yield to spring in a few months, and thus the cycle continues.


Riding the trail through the seasons reminds me that we live in cycles.  There are the cycles of the seasons, but also the cycles of our lives.  I am in the autumn of my life.  I am forty-seven years old and I am noticing changes that come with age.  I am also aware of benefits of my experience and tend to appreciate the wisdom of it.  My father is in the winter of his life and although I grieve his decline, I also know that the cycle of life is unavoidable.  There are also smaller cycles in our lives, such as the cycling season.


The cycling season, has its cycle, that in this New England area, reflects the cycles of the seasons.  Winter for base  miles, spring starts more intense training, summer for racing and then fall ends the season with a return to base miles in preparation for the next round.  There is something comforting to this predictable progression, and for me there is hope.  Last summer I was teaching bicycle riding and was too busy to train well.  So, I abandoned my racing goals and had a full summer of teaching (which also runs in cycles!).  Now that we are back at the beginning of the cycle, I get to reassess and reconsider my goals and start over if I want. 


However, just because cycles repeat themselves, does not mean they are the same for us.  The good news is that we are human and that we grow and learn.  Each year brings new growth and change,  and although the season may look the same we are not.  Change is the only constant.  It is more like a spiral.  We are at the same x coordinate, but have moved on the y.  (If you didn’t get that don’t worry.)  In other words, we are starting a cycle over but with all the experience we have gained from the previous ones.  So, as I ride the Minuteman I am aware of the fact that I am not the same cyclist I was last year and I will not be the same next year as well.  I have the potential to grow and hopefully become a stronger rider.  Each season has its joys and difficulties, but if we wait we can be assured that these will change, as cycles do.    





Reflection on the Meanings of Kits

I am a roadie and almost always ride in a kit.  The most important reason for this is that cycling clothes are comfortable and utilitarian.  I need the back pockets in my jersey to put my pump, inflator, snacks, and asthma inhaler.  I store the clothing I end up shedding mid-ride there as well.  The tights or shorts have a chamois which helps with saddle soreness and wick sweat away.  Although I did want to point out that wearing a kit is sensible, this piece is not meant to be an advertisement for cycling duds.  Instead, I wanted to reflect on what wearing a kit means.


I started out curious about why it is called a “kit.”  I found out that the terms us mainly used in the UK for “the particular clothing worn by a sports team.”  I couldn’t find the etymology of that specific meaning although kit as referred to that of “outfit of tools for a workman” is from 1851.  Before I was a cyclist I had never heard the word kit used in that way.


When I wear a kit, regardless of which one, I am saying, I belong to the clan of cyclists.  When I am in my kit other cyclists (also in kits) nod or say hello.  If I am stopped for some reason, inevitably another cyclist will stop to find out if I need help.  There is a sense that cyclist will look out for each other.  I have helped many other cyclists mostly with changing flats and providing extra tubes.  There is a sense of community among road cyclist and the kit is the uniform.


Now specific kits convey certain information about me and my associations.  For instance, I belong to two clubs and obviously each club has a kit.  This can be awkward at times for me.  I was wearing the kit of one club and a member of the other saw me and was aghast.   Now there are good reasons why I belong to two.  The club I started with is like a family to me however, that club doesn’t have a developed woman’s program.  When I decided to try to race, I wanted a club with a well established women’s program, so I joined the second one.  But wearing the kit is saying I belong to this one and eyebrows are raised when you have two.  However, I am used to this, being mixed-heritage Asian American.  I have always felt I travelled in two worlds (at least).


I also have a kit from Stanford where I got my MA, as well as kits from rides I have done.  These kits also elicit reactions from other cyclists.  I was wearing my Stanford kit when another alumnae came up to me and started asking about my experiences there.  There is a way that the kit creates connection among cyclists and communicates belonging not only to the sport but to specific organizations.


I want my kit to express me.  It is, in part, a “fashion” statement.  I like my Japanese cherry blossom kit because it reflects my Japanese heritage.  I also like my “Wild Things” kit with the monsters on it from the Shel Silverstein book The Wild Things.  It reflects my playful side and the fact that I read that book a zillion times when my daughter was young. 


However, the kit is not unproblematic as an outfit.  It is spandex and tight.  I don’t usually mind this, however I can feel like I am being objectified, especially by those outside the cycling community.  I have had guys in a truck suck their teeth at me while I was on my bike and men whistle or come up and try to talk with me.  It is an issue I will explore more in another piece, but it makes me uncomfortable at times and scared at others.  In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to worry about this, but in this one I do. 


Overall, however the kit is not only utilitarian but also a communication – about belonging, about association, about connection, and about personality

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