What I Think About When I Am Riding

After being sick for a couple of weeks in the middle of the month (which set in the day I pushed myself to ride up Tam in the morning, and then went to Allison’s shuso ceremony in the afternoon), it was nice to have some time to get out during Christmas week and get some miles on the bike. The weather has remained alarmingly dry, and just a touch chilly; on one of my outings I was chatting on the way out of the city with someone who was visiting from DC, and on the way back, with someone who was visiting from Minnesota, and both of them were very happy to be back in California (I also heard from a friend who went running in Maine in 12 degree weather).

I had suspected that the hardest part of riding three times in the space of a week would be the slight tedium of following the same route out of the city, over the bridge (though tedium is not the word for that on any level), through Sausalito and along the bike path to Mill Valley – which is basically the first and last hour of a ride into Marin. On Boxing Day I took a right turn at the end of that and headed down to Tiburon under bright blue skies. On the Thursday I took a left and climbed over to Four Corners, down past Green Gulch and Muir Beach, and then back up the Muir Woods road, which I pushed myself hard enough on to really wear myself out. On New Year’s Eve I was heading for Terra Linda and Sleepy Hollow, which makes for a fairly easy four-hour ride without many hills.

What I had not reckoned on was the tides. I knew that there was a full moon coming round, but when I got to the beginning of the bike trail, it was under water. This is not a new thing, but I hadn’t experienced it for a while, and the level was worse than anything I remember for the last few years. On the first little stretch you can duck behind the shops and cafe, but after that, the only alternative would be riding on the freeway shoulder (and I have seriously contemplated that before). There were at least five submerged sections, some of which just covered my rims, but a couple of them were deep and long enough that I had to keep pedalling, and water seeped into my shoes… Apart from that discomfort, it is quite beautiful in a way, with Mount Tam reflected in the almost endless water across Richardson Bay and the marshes (this is a picture that represents the scene well), and egrets and wading birds making merry all around.
I got to thinking how optimistic so much of the infrastructure in California is; the trail is the old railway line, which presumably was raised a little higher, and probably was rarely stopped by the high tides. Further along highway 1, there is the constant entropy of landslides and slippages, which have meant some sections I like to ride are still closed after last winter’s rains. Much of the New Year’s ride was on the course of old rail tracks – once over Camino Alto, I took the path towards Larkspur, and then the tunnel to San Rafael, and then the cutting north to Terra Linda, where the restored rail line tunnels under, and the 101 gouges out the slopes.
On the return leg, the water had receded enough that there was mostly jetsam, though I did misjudge the depth of a pool as I came off the curb at a side road, and had a real jolt. Crossing the bridge with a nice tail wind, for once I was not wondering about what would happen if a large earthquake struck while I was mid-way across.

I thought about earthquakes again on New Year’s Day. Last year I had woken early and gone for a ride downtown before there was any traffic, taking roads I would normally avoid – Mission into the city, California out towards the ocean, Geary back. This year I went up Masonic, in on California, looped back via Columbus, over Mason and back home on Market. It was a misty morning as I made my way from Corona Heights to Laurel Heights, Russian Hill and Nob Hill – plenty of climbing to get my heart pumping. I had a chance to get views that I do not normally see, and imagined, as I passed the old mansions at the top of Nob Hill before the rapid descent to the Financial District, what it must have been like for the citizens in 1906 to stand at the top and look down on the devastation. I had the feeling, as I often do in this country that the city is just a thin skin on a long deep natural history.

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The Weather Changes, The Clocks Change

It was ninety degrees the day I left San Francisco at the end of September, and ninety degrees the day I after I returned a couple of  weeks ago. My body had already navigated from the pleasant weather of Portugal to the storm-force winds of my last weekend in England, and then across eight time zones, but I could not have asked for better conditions to come back to.

As part of cranking myself back to fitness, the day after I got back I took myself off for a gentle ride down to Ocean Beach, just to remind my legs about pedalling, and to enjoy sweltering; on the Friday morning I took a spin around the Headlands, and found the bridge sitting on a bed of iridescent fog in the low-angled sun. Photographers were having a field day, and I enjoyed the contrasts between the warm slopes and the fresh valley bottoms, where the mist lingered before the sun rose high enough to burn it off.

And since typical weather systems in San Francisco tend to last five days, it was not a surprise when temperatures dropped at the end of that week, something else for my body to adapt to. On the Saturday I ran up to Mount Sutro, and found the usual divide between sun on the lee side of the hills, and dense fog in the woods on the ocean side. On the Sunday morning I intended to ride around the city, but the fog was so damp and pervasive I couldn’t bring myself to do it – remembering that it was exactly a week since I had put off running due to the challenging wind – and instead spent the morning finishing the editing of the thousand or so pictures from Europe. I made up for it last Monday morning, though navigating the rush hour is never completely stress-free, and I had a terse interaction with a driver about speeding through Golden Gate Park, when I would rather have been watching a coyote disappearing into the bushes with a raccoon in its mouth.

The forecast for this past weekend was not promising enough to schedule a roam, much to my disappointment; in the end, there was not so much rain about. I took a run over the southern folds of the city to Diamond Heights and back through the bare slopes of Glen Canyon on Saturday, and headed south on my bike to San Bruno Mountain on Sunday morning, under clear skies both times, the low sun warm, the autumnal breezes fresh.

When I went to join Zachary for the lunch-time sitting last Monday, I found the shadows under the olive tree had got much longer, and for the first time, rather wished I had been sitting in the sun, as the wind was a little fresh (not enough to actually move to a different cushion though). The shadows will be an hour further along when we are sitting today, and hopefully the sun will feel pleasant. If you are local, you are welcome to come and join us, and every dry Monday over the winter.

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What I think about when I am riding

As it happens, during the weeks leading up to my second trip to England this year, some of my focus was on the same things as prior to the first trip in April. I rode straight up Tam the day after the Genzo-e finished in August, and, as in the spring, it felt okay. I wrote to a friend that the ride reminded me of the days after sesshin at Tassajara, when I would run up to the top of the road, just to get out of the valley, and to give myself a physical challenge of a different order to sitting on a cushion incessantly for however many days it had been.

And so I thought about trying to ride up Mount Diablo before I left. Since my weekends these are often filled with things that don’t involve riding a bike – albeit lovely things like going to Wilbur, and leading roams – I realised that even from a relatively decent base of fitness, it was going to be hard to get enough meaningful rides in over the remaining few weeks to be able to get up Diablo without hurting too much.
I repeated the rides I had done in the spring, the typical rides I do when I want to get some climbing in my legs. There was a bonus in that the Bolinas-Fairfax road had opened again, after eighteen months of shoring up various parts of the hillside, so I had to opportunity to approach the seven sisters from both sides.
One thing I did not have to worry about, unlike last time, was the weather. There were rare thunderstorms and unseasonal rain a couple of weeks ago, but the weekend was warm and very clear once that faint autumnal chill had worn off.

It is one thing to contemplate riding up a mountain, and of course another thing to do it. It was only riding along the arroyo between the North Gate and the State Park boundary sign, where the climbing starts, that I felt fully on board with what was happening. And then there was an hour and more of continuous uphill to remind me of how real it was.
Overall, I felt better and stronger than than I might have expected. Knowing the climb well enough, I took care to manage my legs, and my intake of food and water, trying to stay relaxed as possible. There was an occasional twinge in my left knee that is new, and that I did not want to exacerbate. I did not expect the breeze to cool down quite so radically in the top half of the climb – I was almost tempted to put on my extra layer which I had brought for the descent, but conditions were pretty good, and the mountain felt quiet – which made for an unfettered descent down the more exhilarating South Gate Road.

And what was I thinking about? Actually, the Brahamviharas popped into my head as I passed someone around the 1000′ i also think it’s worth saying…elevation marker, where the road rears up a little. I feel a great kinship with anyone who is on a bike on the mountain, however much of it they are riding, so lots of loving-kindness, along with the nods, the little waves, and the encouraging words; compassion for those who seem to be struggling more than I am; sympathetic joy for those many riders who look strong on the uphill, and fluid on the descent; equanimity to endure all the differing gradients on the road up, and the giddiness of the long road down.

What I think about when I am riding

Holidays are a good time to go riding. I had a lovely time early on New Year’s Day taking streets in the city I would never normally think to ride on (I wondered if I had written about it at the time, but looking through the archive of the month drew a blank – though I enjoyed reading a couple of other pieces I had forgotten about). Since I was awake at first light on the 4th, it seemed a good time to repeat the exercise.
It had seemed pretty quiet in town when I got back on Monday, and it was even more so on Tuesday. I went up to Twin Peaks via Market Street, which I have not done since my earliest days in the city when I did not know the quieter side roads (Corbett or Roosevelt in this case), down to the zoo, and then around the coastal edge of the city all the way to Mission Bay and Cesar Chavez (which is okay to ride on now it has a bike lane, though the lights are poorly timed to make it enjoyable). The volume of traffic was very low – in both meanings of the word: I rolled down Potrero (another road I would usually avoid) able to hear birds, conversations of people getting of buses, and the click of my gears. Those drivers who were out seemed to be less stressed and in less of a hurry than on a regular day, and I could not help but wish it were always like this. The only crowds were around Fisherman’s Wharf, where the tourists were already out and about at eight.
The following morning I went over the bridge, through Mill Valley and tested my meagre climbing legs on the roads up to Four Corners, and after descending to Muir Woods, back up past Green Gulch where the highway is now open again, having been closed all year so far (the other stretch north of Muir Beach is still closed, so the traffic was all local, and there were fewer cars than usual). There were two places where the new embankment work could be seen, and others where cracks in the road showed that previous shoring up jobs looked like they already needed repair. On the way down to Tam Junction, there was work on one of the lower hairpins, which meant I didn’t get the clear fast descent I had hoped for – though I did have that going down to Muir Woods. Returning through Sausalito, I fell in with a guy commuting into the city, who turned out to have grown up less than fifty miles from where I did in the Home Counties, and we had a nice natter until I decided not to push too hard to keep up with him on the way up to the bridge.
The highlight of both outings was when I was rolling along the top of Twin Peaks, enjoying the new road surface (I could write at length about how much of a difference this can make to a cyclist on skinny tyres), and I saw two coyotes standing close to the road. I started to wonder how this compared to seeing a bobcat at Wilbur on Sunday, before dismissing the idea of needing to compare. Anytime you see a bobcat is auspicious; I have seen a number of coyotes in the city, but never two together like that. And even if I was in the city rather than a glorious remote valley, I still got to ride alongside the Pacific Ocean and pass both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge in the course of less than an hour. I think my compatriot would agree – it is pretty amazing that I get to live here, and sometimes I do pinch myself to remember that it is real.

What I think about when I am riding

There is a well-known zen story I was reminded of this weekend. Here is one version – other versions have the same narrative but a different number of horses…

It is warm enough in San Francisco at the moment that I am having trouble sleeping – trying to balance staying cool with being exposed to the mosquitos who make themselves heard and felt overnight. The day after the solstice roam, I was awake around 4 am; that didn’t bother me too much as I wanted to get out and ride early. I set off around 6:15, and the sun was already shining and starting to heat up the city; it was beautifully quiet, perfect conditions for a ride.
The roam had been wonderful – well-attended, and apart from managing to make it to Land’s End in time to sit and watch the sun melt into the tranquil ocean, we had seen a large pod of whales breaching and blowing as they passed under the bridge, a memorable spectacle at any time. The only downside for me was that I had inadvertently left the house with my glasses in my pocket, and having put them in my bag, they had dropped out, and I guessed it was when I put another layer on after the sunset.
Starting out on my bike, still feeling a little tired from the walking and getting to bed a little late by my current standards, I decided that since the ride was just a general leg-stretching effort,  I might as well head down to the place where we had sat just in case they were still there, so I rode through the park to 23rd, then took Geary west, marveling that not a single car passed me in the twenty-five blocks to Seal Rock Road. When I got to the spot we had been, they were indeed sitting in the dust. I shared my good fortune with a couple of passers-by, who were enjoying the early morning sun streaming through the trees, and was thinking of heading back to the bridge for my intended loop of Paradise Drive. Putting my glasses in the back pocket of my cycling jersey with a feeling of satisfaction, I had a horrible realisation – my wallet was no longer where I had stuffed it on the way out of the house.
As I had rolled along JFK in the park, closed to traffic as always on a Sunday, I had been cleaning my glasses with my base layer, and had heard a slight noise, as if I had run over a flattened paper cup, and didn’t think to look round or check, but now I assumed it was my wallet dropping out of my pocket. The only time I can remember this happening before was in my first couple of years in San Francisco: I had ridden up Mount Tam, and in those days there was a pay phone at the summit (we are talking almost two decades ago now…) I had made a call and then descended towards Fairfax on the Bolinas – Fairfax Road, a lovely quiet stretch with some great descents and climbs. In Fairfax I thought I should stop for a coffee to help get me home; reaching for my wallet, I discovered it was not there, and with a heavy heart and equally heavy legs I set off back up the mountain, where I found it, most of the way up the climb from Alpine Dam to the Ridgecrest, sitting squarely on the double yellow lines in the middle of the road.
With a little more urgency in my pedaling than I had managed thus far, I rode back to the park to scan the road between 23rd and the deYoung, which is where I remembered hearing the sound. Nothing. Some park workers were already cleaning up yesterday’s rubbish, so I asked them for help, and they directed me to the park ranger station on the edge of the park. I stopped in there, and the adjacent police station, where I was also directed to the Richmond police station.
Having ridden around and made three reports, I didn’t want to continue with my original route – mainly thinking I should get back and cancel the two cards that were in the wallet – but I also felt compelled to ride back to Geary and Land’s End just in case it had actually fallen out later.
My mood was not desperate or even that despondent; mostly a little fatalistic in that I was expecting to have lost all the cash that was in the wallet (including all the dana from the roam, I had about $150 in there, much more than I generally carry, but because of the late arrival home and early start I had not thought to take most of it out), and that I would to deal with the calls to the card companies – and then I also thought about the DMV…
In any case, there was nothing to be seen anywhere I had been, so I rode down past the Cliff House and came back through the park – once again scanning the surface in that stretch of road, still to no avail. It was warming up, but still early, so I took the fast spin down Oak to catch the string of lights from Stanyan to Webster, and then, since I had a little energy left, I took my once-regular climb of Liberty Hill from 20th, over the top on Sanchez, then along 22nd to the top of Collingwood.
Once back at home, checking online that nothing had been done with the cards at least, I called my credit union and my English bank, told the story to my room-mate, and reflected on how I could use the experience as part of my teaching on equanimity this week – if I was not entirely equanimous, I would say that I had tipped more towards joy in finding the cheap glasses than towards despair at losing a sum of money I could have done with to make this month a little more comfortable than recent ones have been.

And then, as I was in the process of typing this story out, I got an email from a woman saying she had found the wallet, intact, and could I call her. It turned out she was local but had been in a hurry to get her son to a baseball game in the East Bay, and apologised for not being in touch sooner (among the other items in the wallet were some of my business cards, of course). So it was, at the end of the hot afternoon, I was back on my bike riding up to a large Victorian just north of the Panhandle, where I was given back my wallet, in exchange for which I offered my last jar of Zen Center honey which I have had for a while as a potential gift, just waiting for the right occasion.

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As a kind of coda, last night I rode out to the Seacliff end of the Land’s End trail to take a photo of the beautiful views there, and saw plenty of whale blowing – here with Mount Tam as the backdrop.

What I think about when I am riding

The day after I returned to California, I officiated a very small wedding out in the redwoods north of San Francisco. I often say that while I appreciate the vastness of the redwoods – and standing at the foot of several majestic trunks in soft afternoon light last week took my breath away – I don’t have the same response to them as I do to English broad-leaf trees. In last week’s post I outlined some of my conclusions about my trip, but left out a part I had written about taking refuge in the landscape, the familiar locales, flora and fauna that help me feel rooted. I was lucky enough to be in a number of places where there was quiet and space, but where nothing felt too wild for comfort: Kit Hill and Cadsonbury in Cornwall, Heptonstall and Calder Water in Yorkshire, the Wye Valley in Hereford, Lagan Meadows and Malin Head in Ireland, Devil’s Dyke and the South Downs north of Brighton. Sheltered by oak, chestnut and beech; listening to robins, wood pigeons and gulls almost everywhere, skylarks, pheasants and buzzards in the more remote spots; savouring the flowers, ever-present bluebells, campion, blackthorn, gorse, cow parsley.
The weather has been up and down since my return, with some warm days, but others cooler with strong winds, and the traditional San Francisco rolling fog. Trying to find my cycling legs after a month off the bike – and with an eye to a future climb of Mount Diablo – I have been setting off on short rides not straying much past the city. On the first ride, perhaps because of the time of day, I felt like I had nothing in my legs, even after fifteen minutes; eating all my energy snacks helped get some strength back, so it may have been that I just wasn’t ready for that amount of exercise at that time.
Over the weekend I set off early to the Headlands. Through the Presidio, the gentle morning mist thickened until it was condensing on my arms – and more to the point, on my wheel rims, causing the brakes to be less efficient. There were, typically, pockets of sun as soon as I crossed the bridge, and photographers happily capturing the tips of the towers emerging from the white. A couple of days later I rode through an even low fog cloud down to the ocean, as we will on the next Roam, across the morning rush hour in Daly City (where I generally find the drivers to be very accommodating), and up San Bruno Mountain. Once you turn off the Guadeloupe Canyon Road, to the summit road which is closed to cars, there is a real sense of stillness, punctuated on this occasion by many rabbits and a few ravens. The fog persisted until a corner about two hundred yards short of the summit, where I suddenly came into clear blue. Parts of the airport and other bayside areas were visible; otherwise, just the other peaks, Diablo and Tam, and then the two tallest structures – the Sutro Tower and the cranes atop the Salesforce Tower. I zipped up my tops as I descended back into the much cooler fog, but at least my legs held out all the way home. After two weeks at Tassajara, I will be almost back to square one again.

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.