On biking

It’s been three days since I made it back from the first multi-day biking trip I’ve ever been on. The first night when I got back, I couldn’t stop seeing things in terms of biking. While walking down the street, I automatically assessed the traffic at a stop light to figure out how to leave enough room between us and the cars parked nearby. When we got to our usual restaurant, I noticed the bandannas the kitchen workers were wearing, because we wore bandannas to keep the sweat out of our eyes on the road too. But less than twenty-four hours later, normal life started to close over my head, in the form of meals with family, walking the dog, and going to work. My legs are still pretty sore, though. Before I forget everything, now’s the time to write down what I learned from this experience that’s been important to me.

The purely practical

I learned some purely practical things on this trip, including bike signals. These seem to vary from country to country, but when you have about 50 people in a long train that can take five minutes to fifteen minutes to pass, it’s useful to have some way of signaling to each other, as long as you have the time/ space to take your hands off the brakes. An open-palmed hand above your head means to slow down, and a closed fist means we’re coming to a stop. Waving your right hand up and down below waist height means to slow down as well. Placing your right hand behind your back and pointing to your left also means there’s an obstacle on the right that you need to go out in to the next lane to avoid. Adopting these made me feel like a biker more than anything else! Also something that made me feel like a biker: applying Vaseline. I don’t need to go into detail on this, but when you push down with one leg and then another, your thighs rub against your bike seat every time. When you go out for an hour-long bike ride, you repeat that motion a few thousand times. When you go out for a day-long bike ride, you repeat that motion hundreds of thousands of times. After less than two days on the road, you probably need Vaseline. Friends who run marathons and other events have testified to the same use. So yes, Vaseline is a must!

Another practical thing I learned was that nice bikes are important. I’ve ridden all over Taipei on a YouBike, a fairly heavy-duty cruiser with a wide seat. I’ve had a single fixed-gear bike that I commuted in Chicago with, and a three-gear bike that I also rode around Durham with. This 27-gear Giant Rapid was the first touring road bike I’d ever really spent time with, and it is a featherlight beauty that is so streamlined that riding it felt like floating on air. People regularly posed for photos on the trip while holding their bike over their heads, because it was so easy to lift. The bike must have weighed only 5-7 kg (10- 15 pounds) in total, which made it so easy to go fast and go up steep hills. We just went to the lowest gear, and it cost next to nothing to push and go up those 10% grade hills. It makes me want to get a serious bike here, and spend time going out into the mountains on the weekends and riding with friends. That peace, that feeling of meditation while you’re focused on riding your bike was so amazing on this trip. I’m looking forward to that again at some point.

The frame of mind

Steve and I spent a while talking about all my habits on the road. There was such a simple, predictable structure that I missed to those nine days. Every morning, I got up at 6 am, give or take 10 minutes. For clothes, I could only switch between two sets of biking bibs and two jerseys. It simplified life a lot to have so few choices for clothing! Then I’d go down to breakfast, stretch, and prepare to wheel our bikes out. Every day, we had the simple, clear goal of just biking to our next destination, whether the weather was beautiful or miserable. When we got there, I handwashed all my worn clothing before I could go down to dinner, and then afterwards, I uploaded photos to social media and wrote an entry before bed around 10 pm. Having this very productive, simple routine was amazing, when we applied ourselves to it. In our daily life, Steve and I are going to try to keep some of those habits that give your life more structure and take off some stress of choice. We hope to eat better, get up earlier, and exercise more reliably. For now, we have the flexibility to determine that for ourselves and keep to it, so we’ll do our best.

Three days later, it feels a little bit like I haven’t gone on this trip at all. It’s easy to forget while riding cars and trains that last week, I spent hours going only as fast as my legs could move me. Sitting in a cab again felt like black magic. I want to hold on to these truths and feelings I learned on the road. Chief among those is probably perseverance. At work and in my daily life, I psych myself out all the time thinking about the insurmountable tasks that lie ahead. 910 km can seem like one too, but together, we whittled away at that 10-15 km at a time and took breaks in between to recharge and encourage each other every day. What mattered was a steady pace, not tiring ourselves out, and keeping going no matter what weather the world threw at us. I stand by what I said earlier on this trip: you don’t need superhuman strength to bike around the island. Beyond a basic standard of fitness, you need to believe in yourself and keep going.

It was also a great reminder that I am responsible for only myself. I have been operating as one-half of a couple for a long time now, and I also do a lot of work that enables other people in my professional life. Doing this one thing for myself felt empowering and reminded me that I am strong. I had wished very hard that Steve could come on this trip too, but ultimately, I was glad I took this time for myself. I’ve been taught to be modest, but I did a really incredible thing, and I’m really proud of myself. It feels freeing to even say that.

The people are A+++

Because I decided to go on this bike trip by myself, I was hoping I’d make new friends. I didn’t expect just how many people would speak English, and how easy it would be to fall in with a whole table of fun friends, many of whom also came by themselves. We took selfies with each other when we stopped at lights, followed each other on the trail to keep pace, and made sure to put rice in each other’s bowls at lunch and dinner. It made all the difference having a bike family on the road. A Singaporean friend told me one day that it’s always like this: you go on these trips which are exhausting and hard on the body, but each time you do, it’s different, and you meet fun people, and doing it together is what keeps you coming back. Now not only do I hope to do another one around the island, I want to visit my new bike friends in California and the UK and maybe do more trips with them in the future. As Debi said, “Those who ride in rain and grime together are forever friends!” This one’s for you, new bike family. I would say yes to another trip because of people like you.

We are all bikers; you just don’t know it yet

Finally, one of the weirdest things I’ve learned now is that I’m a biker. No, really. Apparently, I’m a biker because I own multiple jerseys and multiple pairs of funny bike shorts that are all padded around the bottom. I went on a multiple-day bike trip and started using Vaseline. I got really into the habit of switching gears at the sighting of the smallest hill. I don’t think of myself as a biker, but no one I ever talk to again about this trip will believe that I’m not a biker, given everything I’ve done and been through.

But can a nine-day trip really make you a biker? If I wasn’t sure I was a biker, other riders weren’t either. I met someone who told me he’d just started biking three years ago – as in, got on a bicycle and learned how to ride it. I also met people who had started training a few weeks before the ride just like me, and had never done any “serious biking”. Maybe there aren’t any real “bikers”, and maybe we’re all bikers. This started out as a funny identity label that I didn’t think I could claim, and now I think is maybe some elaborate form of imposter syndrome. If it looks like a biker and bikes like a biker… maybe I really am a biker.

Maybe we’re all bikers inside. After all, I’m still the same person I was before – I just applied my ability to persevere somewhere else and bought some fancy clothes. If it means that I’m a biker, does that mean anyone could be a biker? In conclusion, I choose to believe that we are all bikers. Some of us just don’t know it yet.

I should close by saying that I unequivocally loved this trip, appreciated everything I learned, enjoyed the excellent service provided by Giant Bicycles, and recommend it to everyone for the exercise but also the personal journey. After all our biking, it was funny to end up arriving at Songshan Station from the east, and face the same place we started. To me, it felt like a little microcosm of the journey of going around the island. In doing so, we realize that we’re capable of going so far and coming back to ourselves. And for the first time, this quote made some sense to me.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T. S. Eliot

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