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. 

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.

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

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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.