Mountain Bike Meditation

Written with love by Birgit Mohrmann

I participated in the Cape Argus in 2010, for which I trained most of 2009. When you train for a big endurance event, it becomes an all-consuming obsession that takes over your life. I devoted every free moment, even weekends, to clocking in the miles, training lungs, heart, legs, and my long suffering butt.

And then the big day arrived! I managed to sit 5+ hours on the bike and I finished with a pretty average time. But I didn’t have the euphoria or sense of accomplishment I thought I would have once I rode through the finishing line. I was fed up and tired. I slept for 12 hours afterward and didn’t feel like celebrating. I dedicated so many hours of my life to prepare for this event, and I have to admit, I was a bit underwhelmed with it all. Yes, it’s a nice honor to claim I finished an Argus race, but so did hundreds of thousands of other cyclists.

It wasn’t all gloom on that ride, however; when the route traversed along the fynbos in the Cape Point, I felt elated and energized. Surrounded by nature, I relished the ocean views and the cool breeze coming from the lush mountains. There was no traffic, few spectators and only some baboons showing mild interest at these humans on their bikes. And then the route took me back to the city and there among the concrete I felt my exhaustion overwhelm me.

I have since then discontinued tar road cycling. The monotony of riding on the gray highways, trying to push for one more mile, didn’t appeal to me anymore. But when I am riding my bike in the wilderness, on rough jeep tracks, old game trails, and sandy farm paths, that’s when I come alive. Here it’s not so much about how many miles I ride, but how brave I am. I never know what I may encounter around the next bend; a huge boulder ready to dislodge me from my seat, a wild animal scampering across my path or a thorny bush tearing into my arms?

It’s dirty, muddy, dusty and usually very hot and yet I am completely comfortable. I discover how much courage I can muster before I tap the brakes on a winding downhill; and how much pain my lungs can take as I push my bike up a steep, slippery uphill. And I am surrounded by spectacular scenery.

One of my favorite experiences was in the Damaraland recently, when a colleague and I stayed in a remote camp to explore bike trails. Up at sunrise, my ride companion left a couple of minutes before me as I pumped my tires. He knew the place, but it was the first time for me venturing out into this area. Yet I didn’t mind riding alone through the wilderness, as I could follow his tracks and assumed I would catch up to him. I contemplated how even a free-spirited, independent person like myself still follows the breadcrumbs of others.

But then I lost his tracks! I should have stopped and turned around until I would find them again, but instead I kept on going. It was about time I created my own tracks. I was riding for a while and considered returning to camp soon when I spotted a road that went up a distant mountain. I was curious, so I pushed on. It was a rough road and a precipitous uphill — the loose gravel made me lose traction, so I had to push my bike the last bit. My lungs were burning and my rational mind told me I should turn back, I am running late getting back to camp and it’s getting hot.

And this is how I discovered the most amazing mountain views. Once the pounding of my exhausted heart softened to a calmer beat, I took in the magnificent vistas. My only company was a herd of mountain zebra in the distance. It was absolutely worth the effort. The wind was howling, but it was refreshing on my sweaty, hot face.

Every mountain view should be earned with a difficult climb. Ancient humans believed that only the immortal deserve to live on top of mountains. I can understand why they thought that. From the grand vantage point, looking down onto the world below, I got a magical perspective of how small everything looks. I felt omnipotent. Two days later we drove back to the view point, but this time in a 4x4, and the vistas didn’t inspire me as much. I didn’t earn them this time as we looked out from the comfort of our car, from where the openness of being on top of the world was lost.

Mountain biking has taught me a lot about how to perceive my world around me, both on and off the saddle. It forces me to present in the Now, an exercise of mindfulness, of being in the moment.

On a road bike it’s a repetitive motion of circular movement of my legs, over and over again, as I counted the miles. I just had to be aware of the traffic, which caused me a lot of anxiety as I had some terrifying near-misses with careless cars. But on a mountain bike, I had to pay attention with all my senses. I engage my entire body; my arms often working as hard as my legs; my core tightens as I try to keep my balance, hands gripping for control.

When I rode that morning in the Damaraland, my mind was noisy with the usual “blah blah” of a hectic past week. I didn’t focus on a particularly rocky path, and a gentle tumble, resulting in a scratch and bruise, brought me back to the present! Bye bye mind chatter, right now this here is all that matters.

I don’t worry about what is too far ahead, and where I have cycled from. I look ahead and never right in front of my bike, so that I may notice obstacles early enough. Steering my bike is often an intuitive movement of my body, as it does small corrections to stay on track. I have to trust in the balance of my bike, and before I know it, I was gliding over a boulder which at a distance looked so intimidating. A metaphor for how we should to deal with problems in life, perhaps? We should take note of the impeding boulders, but not fear them nor focus all our attention on them. Instead, we should trust in our equipment, our intuition, our skills and our experience to glide over them, always on the look out for the next obstacle.

My Happy Place

For me, mountain biking is not about how far I go. Sometimes I may have been out for 3 hours and barely covered 10 miles. I stop a lot and take in the scenery. I don’t have a fitness regime, no eating plan, no heart rate monitor. I always seem to return home with some sort of scrape and always later than I thought as I discover a new route to get lost on. I have fun like I am 9 again! I am out in nature, where I am blissful.

It’s a test of my resolve as well. There is no opportunity to say “ok, I had enough, pick up me, I want to go home”, as access is often impassible for any back-up vehicle. And who will I call anyway, when there’s no connectivity in the bush. I have to commit to the journey, to the ride and finish it.

Sometimes, riding alone can be a spiritually uplifting experience. At other times, I needed the company of another to help push myself beyond my limits and discover what I was made of. I was braver when cycling with my colleague Tarry; pushing a little harder, ride a bit faster, use the brakes less and attempt trails I may not have been gutsy enough to do before. Was my competitive side trying to keep up with a very fit Tarry? Or did I fear that if I risk more on my solo rides out in the wilderness, rescue will be far away?

Do we do this in life?

Does the lone adventurer need the company of others to put themselves truly to the test?

Does everybody need a back-up team?

Do we achieve our greatest accomplishments when accompanied by the right person?

There were many aspects of the Argus race that I did enjoy — the camaraderie of our training group was one of them. Our merry troupe of amateur cyclists would encourage each other to get up early, stick to the training routine and push you to ride one more mile. Yet, it was also easy to latch onto the least motivated person; if they didn’t cycle, I’d reason I didn’t have to either. Some cycle companions in their caring nature would caution that if it hurts rather stop than risk more injury. Others in their competitive eagerness would push each other to win, or break bones.

Somewhere in the middle, there is that perfect training partner.

So choose your cycle buddy as careful as you would your friends. Select those kindred spirits that encourage you to become the best version of yourself. Surround yourself with friends that will sign up to join you on even the craziest adventures. And avoid those that dampen your enthusiasm with excuses of why you don’t have to train, that you should stop dreaming and that you shouldn’t aim too high.

Because life is a grand adventure, and there are many views waiting to be discovered.