Saturday, January 12, 2013


        As the surprising result of a back operation at the age of 50, road bicycling became the recreational passion of my later adult life.  For 30 years I ran for exercise.   For 45 minutes, three or four times a week, usually at dawn.  Running kept me in decent shape.  I ran frequently along the C and O Canal a block from my home near Wash D. C, and once ran past then vice president Bush on the canal, preceded and followed by secret service agents on mountain bikes.  I encountered the vice president again, this time at Ft. McNair in l983 as Bush ran around the campus with Alberto Salazar. I was then a student at the National Defense University.
          I could run anywhere, an important feature of my Foreign Service life. All I needed in my suitcase was a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, and good running shoes.  In the l960s I ran as I watched the sun rise in Madagascar and Mali. I ran in sun and rain in Paris and Strasbourg and Bordeaux in the l970s and in snow in Stuttgart, and more rain and sun in Munich, and Vienna in l983.  I could run anywhere.  I couldn’t cycle anywhere.  Certainly not in congested Singapore.  So I continued to run, usually at first light, on the asphalt lanes near the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia until a disc in my back ruptured and had to be removed.  Following the operation a State Department doctor told me my running days were over. I immediately thought about cycling.  I had lived on a bicycle as a boy in Athens, Ohio, so many years ago.   

“How about cycling?” I asked. 

“And no cycling.  You can swim.”

“But I don’t like to swim.”


I worked at swimming in the embassy pool in Malaysia but swimming did not seem to be helping and I was miserable without a physical activity I truly enjoyed.

                                        Down Under
          My next tour took me and my family from Malaysia to Canberra, Australia.  More than a year after the disc removal my back was not healing and continued to hurt.  I went to a primary care physician in Canberra.  I told him about the continuing pain in my back and he asked,

“Have you tried cycling?” 

“I was told I couldn’t cycle.”

“That’s odd,” he said. “You see,” and he cupped his hand, palm down, to simulate the rounded back of a rider on a road bike with dropped handlebars, “That opens up the discs and should be good for your back.” 
          The following morning I climbed on the green Gitane I had bought at La Samaritaine, the famous department store in Paris, but had not much used. I coasted from my house in Garran down the street to an entry to Canberra’s network of 450 miles of independent paved bike paths, rode 15 miles, and for the first time in ten months, my back felt good.  When I did not ride for two days, the pain returned.  So I set a goal of riding every other day and began to lengthen the distance from 15 to 20 to 25 miles.  For about two months.  Then came an extremely busy time at the embassy and I missed four days of riding and the pain did not return.  After two months of regular riding I had no more pain and have never looked back.  By then I so enjoyed the wonderful sense of health and well being that long rides produced in my body that I was addicted to riding my Green Gypsy (Gitane is French for gypsy), and did so two and three times each week.  Unlike running, which I made myself do because it was good for me, I enjoyed every minute on my bike.

                               A Cyclist’s Paradise

          Canberra, Australia,  is a capital created out of sleep pastures near the Brindabella Mountains in New South Wales, three hours from Sydney by car and not much further from the Snowy Mountains.  Neither Sydney nor Melbourne, Australia’s largest cities, was willing to cede the honor of being the national capital to the other.  The compromise worked out at the beginning of the 20th Century was to build an entirely new capital at a location between the two cities and, for reasons of national security, far enough inland to be beyond the range of the largest guns of the world’s most modern battleships at that time. 
          The award for the best design for the new city went to Burley Griffin, a landscape architect from Chicago, who was ably assisted by his talented wife.  The centerpiece of the Griffins’ plan was a large lake -- created by damming the Murrumbidgee River -- around which the city’s commercial and government centers were developed.  The Griffin plan left large tracts of pasture land and native eucalyptus groves to separate a network of satellite suburbs.  So extensive was the natural area left free of any development that it was often said that living in Canberra was like living in a national park.  There are abundant kangaroos near central Canberra to prove that.
          In time a 400 mile paved cycle network totally free of motor vehicles was built centered on the lake, now named for Burley Griffin.  The network passed through the city center, wove around the handsome new one billion dollar Parliament House and other government buildings and then spread out through pastures and woods to the edge of the city in all directions.  As the city grew, so did the bicycle network.  Imagine over 400 miles of independent pave cycle trail, often eight feet wide!  I know of no such bicyclist’s paradise anywhere else in the world.

                                        Physical Changes

          Beyond the healing of my back, I could see other changes in my body as I rode week by week in Canberra.  I had more energy.  I was more relaxed.  I found that cycling quickly dissipated the stresses accumulated at work.  My immune system was stronger.  I no longer succumbed to winter colds. The sustained effort at a moderate to high aerobic level gave me what felt like a total body tune-up.  I even found regular cycling a means of weight control.  Running didn’t do that for me.  In those days I was somewhat heavier than I wanted to be but I soon found that when I cycled 75-100 miles each week, I could eat as much of anything as I wanted and not gain an ounce.   

          Now in my late -70s, I continue to ride regularly, at least twice each week when the weather permits, and at least one 40 mile ride each week. I also do a three times each week senior’s fitness program at the Y that promises to exercise every muscle in my aging body.  It’s a great program  but only long cycle rides give my body what feels like a total tune-up and make me feel twenty years younger for two or three days.  I have just read in a health newsletter that regular vigorous physical exercise adds years to our lives. Healthy years.  That wasn’t an established fact when I began cycling but as I age, I will be glad to add it to all the other reasons I cycle.  

                              How to Solve Problems

          I found yet another benefit in cycling.  Problem solving.  I would often leave the office on Friday evenings with a problem I had wrestled with all week that seemed to have no solution.  Then, during long weekend rides, letting my mind wander to the sights and smells of the landscape (eucalyptus groves have a marvelous aroma), solutions that I immediately recognized as right popped into my mind. As if from nowhere.  As research uncovers more secrets of the brain we are learning that such insights come from intense attention to a problem or a creative work, and then parking the issue in the unconscious and letting the mind wander.  I suspect this is a process that creative artists have always understood intuitively.  Walking or simply sleeping on a problem may work for some, but for me, the rhythmic cadence of pedal strokes on a 40 mile bike ride is the best way to encourage new insights as well as relieve stress.   

                                        Other Joys in Cycling

          There’s yet another reason I ride.  I feel like a boy again when I’m on a bicycle.  Perhaps that’s because my brothers and I lived on our bikes in the small college town in which we were raised.  We could ride anywhere in daylight and for hours at a time and our parents need not worry.  Bikes were our means of freedom to temporarily escape adult supervision and go more or less as we wished. 
          When I began riding with groups in the Potomac Peddlers in Washington, D.C. (1992-95) I was amused to hear them brag that cyclists have the best sex.  Well, science is confirming that as well, but not just for cyclists.  “High levels of any sustained, vigorous nonsexual physical activity go hand-in-hand with sexual well-being, especially for men.”  (UC Berkley “Wellness Newsletter.”)
          I now live in Eugene, Oregon, near the center of the city because I want to be within walking distance of the University of Oregon and Eugene’s downtown.  But I love the country and cycling takes me out into the county where I can feel the wind on my body, breath pure air, smell the fields and woods, and enjoy the changing seasons.  The arrival of first swallows in late February, new born snow white lambs in the fields of March, horses frolicking on a warm spring day in April, freshly mowed hayfields in June, ripened grains in July, blackberries in August. There is something special about moving through rural scenery at 15 miles per hour that is very different from rushing through in an automobile.  I don’t have to own the farms and horse properties to enjoy them.  Someone else takes on that responsibility while I ride pleasant county roads along their borders.   

          Not all road riding is bucolically peaceful.  I remember well a near encounter with a black bear on an isolated road in Idaho and having to outrun a rogue boar in Southeastern Ohio.  Dogs are a menace in some states but loose dogs in Oregon are rare. Occasionally young men driving pickup trucks on lightly policed county roads or inexperienced RVers make cycling in Oregon more dangerous than it need be. And occasionally there is a sad sight, the road kill of our automobiles seen up close.  I have picked up a yellow warbler just struck by a car, its warm body in the palm of my hand and watched as its eyes close in death before I buried it.  Any road cyclist has seen countless birds, dead squirrels, raccoons, possum, and deer along the way.   

                              Meditation on a Bike

          I like the silence of country roads and solitude without the background noises of the city.   For me, cycling three or four hours in a prefect blend of human body and machine brings a depth of relaxation rarely experienced otherwise.  Cycling through natural beauty punctuated by the steady rhythm of pedal strokes (rather than counting breaths) can be a form of meditation that brings a deep sense of peace and joy.

          I don’t always ride alone.  I enjoy company and have ridden with half a dozen groups, large and small, since arriving in Eugene over 17 years ago.  There is a special camaraderie among cyclists, a sense of adventure shared and challenges (steep hills, strong headwinds, and blowing rains) successfully overcome. One group of three I rode with included a doctor in his mid 70s, born and raised in Eugene, and a road cyclist his entire adult life.  He added a special flavor to our touring by sharing his in-depth knowledge of the history and historic sites and geology of the south Willamette Valley.                        

                                        Still More Benefits

          I have not mentioned saving gasoline or kindness to mother earth as reasons to cycle because mostly I cycle because it’s fun.  My spirits rise after a long ride.  Cycling is a powerful mood lifter.  And cycle tours, whether a professionally organized like those of Cycle Oregon, or a low budget week of cycling and tenting with friends in the San Juan Islands make a wonderful, healthy, and relatively inexpensive vacation.     

          The sport is within the economic reach of all.  I figure my Green Gypsy and the  red Cannondale I bought to replace her when Gypsy’s down tube cracked have cost me about three cents per ride. I expect a similar return from the Specialized Roubaix carbon fiber bike I purchased five years ago, a sweet bike with frame geometry especially kind to aging bodies.  Is there a better bargain in sports equipment than a fine bicycle?  I don’t think so.