What I think about when I am riding

One of the notions I tend to rabbit on about when I am teaching is to let go of goals – it was one of the messages that struck me when I first read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mindand I think it is a useful way to steer people away from their usual tendencies and have them pay more attention to what is going on in the moment. As Blanche articulated, in an appropriate analogy for this story, if you are driving to a mountain, do you keep your eyes on the road, or on the mountain?
Nevertheless, when it was warm a few weeks ago, and I rode up Mount Tam for the first time in six months (I thought I wrote about this, but I can’t find it) with less effort and pain than I thought it was going to take, I formulated the goal of riding up Mount Diablo before I left for England.
I probably could have just tried to do it without setting a goal, but it would have hurt; planning my next few rides gave me a good chance of being in better shape to tackle the long ascent. So first I went up Mount Tam again – this time with a colder north wind that made the last few miles of the climb less fun, but helped push me along the road home. Then I tried coming up the mountain from the far side – a long steady climb on the Bolinas – Fairfax Road I enjoy greatly, followed by the ‘seven sisters’, which are always gruelling because of the climbing you have had to do to get to the bottom of that stretch. That was another gorgeous spring day, and I don’t remember ever seeing so many people on the mountain – on foot, on two wheels, or in cars. Luckily I had left very early and was on my way back as many of them were heading out. I also made a point of doing a couple of Monday morning ‘commutes‘ to the Headlands, trying to notch up the intensity a little on the familiar slopes.
The weekend before this one I set off for Highway 1, which is currently closed above Green Gulch and north of Slide Ranch. As in other winters when nature has got the better of engineering, the closures mean roads without cars, which to me these days means real relaxation. My main aim was to tackle the climb north of Muir Beach, another favourite. It was so quiet that all I could hear were songbirds; I saw hawks settling in the roadside trees. On one section very close to Slide Ranch, the downhill edge of road had sunk away; there was grass growing out of the cracks (which reminded me of this song), and a snail crossing the road. I figured it had a pretty good chance of making it to the other side without being squashed.
My final preparatory ride was going to be helping people pedal over to Green Gulch as part of the zen-a-thon. The weather was perfect, unlike last year, fairly warm and with no wind, and I took my fixed gear again for the stately procession, with the added detour around Muir Woods – which allowed us to ride up along the farm road from the beach end, something I realised I had never done. When it came time to leave, it was clear we could not get past the crews we could hear working on the road above the temple entrance, and most of us did not fancy battling both the harder climb from Muir Woods and the heavy traffic. One of our number suggested we take the back way out – up the Middle Green Gulch trail (which we mostly walked except the flattest parts, as none of us had appropriate bikes for off-roading), and then down a fire road to Tam Junction, which was a revelation for most of us, offered wonderful views across Mill Valley, and definitely avoided having to deal with traffic.
The downside of spending Saturday doing that was that it was the best weather of the weekend. It rained for most of Sunday, so I went out for a long and slow run in the morning; I had Monday in reserve as plan B for heading over to Walnut Creek (hoping to get to BART in the early part of rush hour) and up the mountain, but I woke up to a steady drizzle, which continued even when my weather app insisted it was merely overcast.
So I ended up letting go of the goal anyway – I could have pushed myself to go out in the rain, but I am pretty soft these days and would not have enjoyed myself. Besides, it was always going to be a fairly fruitless goal, since today is the day I leave for a month in England, and I won’t most likely get on a bike again until I am back. The trick is not to hold onto these things.

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Assembled zen-a-thon riders before we set off for Green Gulch. 

Coming and Going

It has been almost a year now that I have been commuting across the bay three days a week; it takes the best part of an hour each way, with five minutes or so on the bike at each end, and thirty minutes riding on BART. I have made a point of looking at it as a practice, and as in so many areas of life, even living at Tassajara during a practice period, much of this practice is about navigating space with other people in a way that I hope causes a minimum of inconvenience all round.
Before long I had learned the tricks of where to stand on the platform to be able to get my bike best situated. In the mornings I am getting onto already crowded carriages, so the best place is usually right at the back of the train. Coming home, I know which door will give me a bike space on the side that will open on my home platform, so I do not have to push past people to get out.
Only one half of the journey is crowded as a rule. At Montgomery in the morning, the carriages empty out, and once we are past Embarcadero and crossing under the bay, there is always a place to sit. On the way back, I sometimes get into an empty carriage, and watch it fill progressively until I get off. What I have found though is that arriving at the station in the evening I am often confronted with a wave of people who have got off their train and are intent on getting home, often paying very little attention to anyone coming the other way. One evening I watched as people flowed through the bi-directional wider gate that was the most convenient one for them, ignoring a woman with a stroller who needed to use that one to get through to get to her train; while it is easier for me to use those to roll my bike through, rather than get exasperated with the unseeing flow, I just shoulder my bike and go through the thinner one-way gates, and down the escalator, even if it is against regulations, rather than trying to go against everyone on the narrow stairs.
On these journeys I have done a huge amount of reading; many blog posts have come from ploughing through books and noting sections that seem like they would be good to use. Sometimes, if I am tired, or feeling a little travel sick, which does happen with all the rattling and stopping and starting, I will just sit quietly and pay attention to what is going on.
There are a few people I have recognised from previous journeys, though not one of those seems to have noticed the fact themselves. Unsurprisingly almost everyone has their head bowed to their phones; some have headphones in, some are both looking and listening. Occasionally people have books or magazines; in the evening there might be a conversation – class-mates getting on at Berkeley, or work colleagues traveling together. Mostly there is just the din of the wheels on the track.
The journey starts underground in both directions, and comes up for air on either side of Oakland. In the course of these months, I have seen every kind of weather. It is always worth looking up when we arrive in the east bay to see what the sky is doing over the docks. Many days have been blue all the way; others the clouds are so dense the Berkeley hills are hidden. Rain lashes at the windows on one side; I have seen golden sunsets glowing in every direction. Apart from the urban scenes close at hand, there is San Francisco laid out under the hills, with the Sutro Tower uppermost; there is Mount Tam reclining at ease; the Golden Gate Bridge at full stretch; the Bay Bridge curving up and away. The door opens and I feel the warmth of the sun on my neck; the plume of a container ship in the docks merges into the heavy low clouds; streetlights arc through the darkness in varying patterns.
Often enough there are delays. I rarely have to be somewhere exactly on time, so I don’t have to be stressed about it; my fellow passengers seem mostly quite phlegmatic, perhaps because of the commonness of the hold-ups. I look out at the frequently stationary cars on the adjacent freeways and know that I would always prefer to be in a train, even one that is stuck, so that I can read and relax even in the unwanted stillness.

The east side of Oakland through the windows of a BART train – they are never very clean

The other day I was heading home early enough to catch the sun going down with my iPad – San Francisco in the distance, with the Salesforce building making its presence felt as it does from seemingly every angle these days.

Bicycle Roaming Zen 

A high pressure system has settled over the city, and we have an unusual simultaneity of getting used to the dark early evenings, and basking in warm, windless conditions. Seems like a perfect time for a bike ride.
There are a few times when I have been out in the city when there have been no cars around. Some have been indelibly memorable: London on Millennium eve as I left the thronged central streets on my bike to head home a few hours before midnight; the day the Tour de France took over swathes of the same city for the prologue in 2007, where the huge crowds were just as joyous. Also the weekend the Golden Gate Bridge was closed last year, a time of quiet and wonder; and the times when I have been able to participate in Sunday Streets, especially the one along the Embarcadero. There is a spaciousness, a slowing-down, and, if not a quiet, then a realm of human sound rather than mechanical. (And then, in ways that I could not have conceived when I drafted the bulk of this post the other day, last night I was at another such occasion: the anti-Trump protest was taking place right outside my window after I got home, and after standing and watching for a while, I simply put on my shoes and joined the thousands walking and chanting, just to be a part of that mass, and for my voice to join the other voices, warm and defiant).

So this Sunday there will be another Sunday Streets, and I will be leading the second Bicycle Roaming Zen, starting from the Embarcadero – the Fog City Diner at the top of Battery Street, to be exact, at 11am – to join the relaxed crowds on wheels of various kinds and on foot, enjoying the relaxation of not being surrounded by cars. From the ballpark, we will continue south on quiet roads to Mission Bay, where vestiges of the old city lie side by side with the newest developments.

There will be places to sit, time to eat, time to discuss, and hopefully time to enjoy the city in this way. The riding will be unhurried and the route is as flat as San Francisco gets, so don’t feel you need to be especially fit to participate.

A view of Mission Bay when I was exploring last week. I am still confined to my iPad, so I don’t have my usual options…

Taking to the Mountains 

There has been more rain since I have been back from England than I would have expected this early in the winter, as several systems have passed through. On the downside, I have been out on my bike less that I would otherwise have been, and during the trips I have taken, I have had two tyres punctured by shards of glass, which tend to linger at the side of the road when it is wet. At the same time, the days have been incredible, colours washed by complex skies, such as I enjoyed in England, as the rain moves in and out, low-angled sun, the muted shine of the bay – and three rainbows, though I only had my camera with me for one of those. Coming down past the Cliff House the other morning, the view south over Ocean Beach was stunning, merging into damp indistinctness like a dramatic Turner maritime canvas.

Since my running form was good, I have been continuing to clock up miles, and in combination with the rides I have taken, and the Roaming Zen which was blessed with clearing skies and warmth last weekend, I feel like I have been looking out over the city from many interconnected views. I have been up Mount Davidson three times in the space of two weeks, and Mount Sutro, Bernal Heights, Tank Hill, Twin Peaks and Billy Goat Hill within the city, as well as rides to Hawk Hill over the bridge, and San Bruno Mountain to the south of the city. 

My ride over the bridge was on a rain-free day, but there was enough dampness for the morning mist to be clinging to the Golden Gate. I felt sorry for the early morning tourists who were unable to see the towers of the bridge from the vista points. As I rode around the towers and looked up, which I tend not to do for the vertigo it induces, I could see that the tops were glowing copper-coloured as they cleared the marine layer. Once on dry land on the Marin side, suddenly the view ahead was of blue skies, but as I did my loop of the Headlands, I found myself  going in and out of the fog, from cold hollows to warm hillsides.

Endurance has been my thing more than speed, a fact that was first remarked upon when I was in the running team at high school, and helping one of the teachers train for the New York marathon. He observed that I would probably do well at the marathon, though in practice I preferred to do half that distance. Anything under 10km always felt like a flat-out sprint to me, and I never enjoyed running on the track. The fastest I ever ran competitively was the summer I bought my road bike. I had just spent some days slogging up and down the endless succession of hills in Cornwall for the first time, and then came back to London to run a team relay race over a flat course of a mile and a half in Regent’s Park. I had not enjoyed this race in the past, but that summer I found myself totally in the zone, and flying around the paths. Conversely I have not found running, whether over hills or not, to have much beneficial impact on my riding, and thus it has been these past few weeks. I have some core power, for short efforts, but my legs do not have hours of riding in them right now, and the weather has not helped with this. It feels like I am back where I was a year ago, back from Tassajara and re-acquainting myself with the notion of hours in the saddle, but that is okay – I am enjoying the mountains and the jaw-droppingly beautiful views, and my continued practice of getting over the heights and running freely home.

What I think about when I am riding

Consecutive weekends filled with activities meant I had not done a really long ride for a while. I had run, and ridden a certain amount, but I had also been eating more heartily, hosting a lunch for some other people who have left Zen Center in the past year, going out to dinner several times last week; I don’t remember feeling hunger all week, and I felt sluggish. I am also looking at three weeks off the bike while I am in England; I will be taking my running shoes, and hope to get out in various locations while I am there, so my energy has been moving in that direction. The other day I realised that since I am renting a car for this visit – I usually do my traveling by train – I could head out while I am in Cornwall and attempt to run the cliffs west of Fowey, through Polridmouth and Gribbin Head. This is something I used to do on family holidays when I was a teenager, and I often refer to this as my favourite running experience – just me, the sky, the sea, and the narrow path up and down some very steep hills.

This picture from a few years ago shows the hills around Polridmouth Cove, with the path visible going up the field.

Last Saturday, then, I could have taken a long ride to make up for the recent lack, something to leave me tired through and through and to burn up that heavy energy. I chose instead to return to Mount Diablo for perhaps the last time this year, to get some strength in my legs, and to enjoy some late summer heat. I chose the South Gate route again, to give myself a break in the middle of the climbing.
It was already warm by the time I was on the mountain, and there is only shade in a few gullies, but I loved every minute of it: the flash of woodpecker red among the oaks, a baby snake basking on the tarmac, the parched California colours under a deep blue sky. As usual, the camaraderie of everyone riding up was an extra boost – there were people faster than me, people slower than me, older riders, younger riders, but a shared sense that everyone who makes it to the top has done an amazing thing. As I set off on the long descent, looking out at the towns and the bay far below, I had that familiar mountain-top feeling: did I really just do all that?
I could not help but think of running the Tassajara Road. There is a certain similarity – the climb is around three thousand feet in each case, but at Tassajara the gradient is probably twice as harsh. I was counting off sections after the junction of the north and south roads on Diablo, just as I have done on the road between the bathtub and Ashes Corner (I call those the three Ls and the two Bs from the shape of the road going out and up) – the difference being that after the bathtub most of the elevation has been gained, and I always had the sense that I had done the hardest work and would make it the rest of the way. On Diablo, the hardest sections are not far below the summit, three curving Bs after the Juniper camp, where it is always just a question of seeing what is left in the legs (not to mention the lung-busting last few hundred yards at eighteen percent).
So I did not wear myself out in the way I would have on a longer ride, but I went home happy in the sense of accomplishment, and glad of the exertion. If I get to do the cliff run, I will report back on how that felt.

One time in 2012 I ran up to the top of the Tassajara Road with my camera, and took pictures on the way down. This is above Ashes Corner, looking south over the wilderness.

This is closer to Tassajara, looking down the bends from Lime Point

What I think about when I am riding

It is a commonplace these days that our attention is the most valuable thing we can offer. The internet is driven and monetised by the desire for the attention of an eyeball on an ad for just a moment. We talk about constant distraction, what it does to our brains and to our capacity for empathy and connection; we say we crave the relaxation of an offline experience, but unless we go somewhere where we have no choice, we seem to need to be given permission to actually carry this out.

When I was learning to drive, more than thirty years ago, my father, not known at the best of times for his great empathy towards fellow travellers, told me that the best course of action was that to assume that everyone else on the road is an idiot who is trying to kill you. He raced vintage cars for fun, and took driving very seriously, to the extent that we never listened to the radio when we were on the road as he found it too distracting. I took his advice to the best of my ability as a clueless and somewhat reckless teenager, but it became even more pertinent a few years later when I started riding my bike around London. Three decades later, my main tactic for survival in urban riding is to watch drivers very closely. I listen to cars behind me, have a sixth sense for guessing that someone just ahead of me is about to turn right or pull into a parking space and cut me off, but mostly I watch drivers’ heads. And more and more, what I see is drivers looking down at their laps. When I was riding one time, in one of the outer parts of the city, a driver was actually typing on a laptop as she drove by me, and she seemed surprised that I would be upset by this. I imagine that mostly people are checking maps, but regularly I see them scrolling at stops, and often enough, actually typing while rolling. Whatever they are doing, it means that they are paying less attention to the complex moving parts around them. Mostly I want to say to them, ‘Can’t you just put it down for a moment?’

Within this there is a misguided hierarchy of what deserves our attention. Because so much of driving can be carried out automatically, we can assume it does not need our full ongoing attention. If something new pops up in our feed, or we are getting a test asking us how soon we will be somewhere, we are now attuned to paying attention to that instead. This instinct does not take into account the innumerable variables of moving through a city environment. Whenever I am in a car in the city, with less visibility and restricted sound cues, I find it so much harder to keep track of pedestrians and cyclists than I can do from my position on a bike. So I constantly work to stay focused, and I also make sure I am abiding by the posted speed limit, not just as an awareness practice, but also to work on my kindness and empathy for other more vulnerable people on and around the road.

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This graphic, from the SFMTA, is sobering.

What I think about when I am riding

About a month ago I felt like I had hit the sweet spot. After many months of trying to get to the place I consider my peak form, which I last experienced before I went to Tassajara last summer, it seemed like I was there. A couple of ascents of Tam in the warm weather we were having, and I felt strong enough to try the harder challenge of Mount Diablo.
There are two ways up Diablo – the north gate road and the south gate road. They both have their appeal, so I try to alternate, and I started with the south gate. It is steeper for the first few miles, but spectacular as you climb along the side of a deep valley, then it flattens off around Rock City, and then you have to pick up your rhythm for the last few miles.
Over the years I have realised that nothing really counts until you get to the junction of the two roads, about four miles below the summit. Then the road continues pretty steadily upwards, with a hard steeper section just below the corner where the view across towards Tam starts to include the city as well, at Junipero camp. Then, more relentless slopes, and a question of how much is left in the legs. On that first climb a few weeks ago, I had felt very strong to that point, and caught up with someone I had been closing slowly in on for a few miles. I regretted the extra effort that the catch took, though. It was really hard to keep my rhythm after that, and though he and I chatted for a while, he was still stronger and rode away over the last mile.
This past weekend I returned, worried that having skipped a good ride the previous weekend from being at Wilbur, my form might have tailed off from that high point. These peaks are always temporary, but I like to enjoy them when they do happen.
Climbing on the north road is much steadier, and though I didn’t feel so great at the end of the long arroyo valley and turning left onto the real slopes at the state park boundary, I know the climb well enough to pace myself over the harder sections – going up to the 1000′ elevation marker, before and after the series of switchbacks that unspool above the ranch house. My legs felt okay, so I was determined not to push too hard before the final couple of miles. It was also pretty warm; I was glad that I am now free to go out on Saturday mornings, when the BART runs much earlier than it does on Sunday, allowing me to be on the mountain before it really heats up.
There were fewer riders this time; the guy I had ridden with, and a few others at the top the previous time, had been talking about the Death Ride, which was the following weekend; I imagine a lot of them were fine-tuning their climbing form for that event. Few cars too, which made for very quiet moments on the upper slopes. One veered across the road near me to avoid a rattlesnake that was basking on the tarmac. Little by little I pushed up to the summit, and then cruised all the way back down on the south road, savouring the views.
Every time I go to Diablo I come away with a nagging feeling that I have not really seen the mountain. Even with the intimacy of the slow climb, seeing every fold, every hillock of golden grass, all the stately oaks, I don’t feel like I completely enter it – it always seems to come and go in a flash. I don’t feel that when I am on Tam, even though I am on a similarly small slice of the mountain spread; it is as if the magic of the mountain is speaking to me, but slightly out of reach.

Diablo North Gate Road
I have only been up Diablo in a car once. This is coming up to the 1000′ elevation marker.

From the plane Diablo
Diablo is often visible from a plane coming and going along the bay.