Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance

by Jeff Whitfield on | 0 Comments

Commentary Journal

Finding Your Soul with Breakdown Rides
Finding Your Soul with Breakdown Rides

An Inquiry Into Soulful Endeavors

I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship I have with my bicycle. More specifically, about how it makes me feel and how doing my own maintenance has created an even stronger connection with it. All of this led me to a place where I realized just how much of my own philosophy has tied into my cycling endeavors.

Last year, I attended a meetup in the design community here in Dallas and watched a presentation given by Cassini Nazir, a highly talented designer and professor at UTD. He gave a presentation on trust that made me think a bit about the connection I have with my bicycle.

The part that really caught my attention was when he talked about how certain things become extensions of ourselves. For instance, if you’re driving your car and you get hit, your response might be, “You hit me!”, which is technically wrong. You didn’t get hit, your car did. But, as Cassini explains, we tend to see our car as something that’s a part of us when we’re driving.

This is especially true with cyclists. We definitely see our bikes as a direct extension of ourselves, not just as a form of transportation but also as a reflection of who we are as a person. It’s almost like a pair of pants with wheels.

So if your bicycle is an extension of yourself, what can you do to get more in touch with your bike? What can you do to heighten the feelings you have while riding it? And how does philosophy tie into all of this? The answer:

Learn to do your own bicycle maintenance and repair!

Nothing will give you a closer feeling with your bike than knowing how to fix it when something goes wrong, upgrade it when you want to improve performance, or tearing it completely down to clean and maintain it. It’s hard work and will take time to learn. But, in the end, you’ll know every nook and cranny of your bike and how it all works. As such, the joy you feel when riding will be elevated. You’ll take what is a soulful experience and turn it into one that is even more enlightening.

Philosophy and Bicycle Maintenance

The philosophical link between the joy of riding and maintenance is nothing new. Motorcycle riders have been talking about this for years. I look at the custom bike market with brands like Harley Davidson, Triumph, Indian, and others and I see riders looking to create a unique experience for themselves. They want to personalize their bikes for a specific kind of ride. They’re looking for an experience they can’t get from just buying a bike on a lot. In other words, they’re looking to create a personal connection with their bike.

In fact, a rather infamous book written in 1974 by Robert M. Pirsig called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance helped solidify this connection. The book talks about a cross-country trip Pirsig made with his son across the United States on motorcycles. The funny thing about this book is that it’s not really a book about motorcycles. They’re just part of the framework of the story and a vehicle towards a more philosophical discussion. Nor is the book about Zen Buddhism either. While certain Zen philosophies are part of it, it’s not the core of the book. Instead, the writer takes various philosophical principles and ties them into the experience riding motorcycles in a way that illustrates the connection between self and something like a motorcycle.

This influenced a slew of other writers including Matthew B. Crawford who wrote a book called Shop Class as Soulcraft, which takes the concept of philosophy and motorcycle maintenance and applies it to the trade of motorcycle repair. The book started as an essay on The New Atlantis and later got expanded into a book. Crawford expands on Pirsig’s book and applies it to what you do with your hands and tools. His point is that there is a sense of craftsmanship in what trade jobs offer and that they can give one a stronger connection to work. So while Pirsig’s message might apply to one’s life, Crawford’s applies to one’s work. I see this, to some degree, as an advocation for taking a hobby and turning it into a full blown trade.

Another book, Mind is the Ride by Jet McDonald, is a more recent one that takes the same premise as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and applies it to the bicycle. However, instead of going cross-country in the United States on a motorcycle, McDonald does it on a bicycle across India. He uses each component of a bicycle as a metaphor and writes a chapter around it. I haven’t finished it yet but so far it’s quite intriguing. Will likely write a review later.

All of these books can help you understand the mindset I’m talking about. But how do you actually apply it? How do you get started?

The Path Towards Bicycle Maintenance

I talk a lot about my bike on this blog, everything from the rides I take to the upgrades I make. In fact, it was this bike that truly helped in the creation of this blog. The very first post of this blog tells the story of my very first bike upgrade.

I talk about how I tried to upgrade my stem, only to strip the top bolt out to the point where I couldn’t get it off. I was immediately upset. Because of my Crohn’s disease, this bike meant something to me. It was a vehicle towards greater health. So, yeah, messing it up just days after purchasing stung a little.

I got pretty emotional and, upon arriving at the bike shop, the gentleman that helped me could tell right away that I was pretty upset about it. But he helped me and even educated me on what I did wrong. It was a big lesson learned. While I was hard on myself, I could still learn how to do things on my own. Plus, if I needed help I can always ask for it.

Right around this time, I learned that the same bike shop I got help from, the one I also bought my bike at, was closing down. Between that and the emotional experience I had trying to upgrade my own bike, I quickly made the decision that if I’m going to ride this bike then I need to learn how to maintain it. I was also damn determined to make my own upgrades and repairs. Thus, with the store closing, I took advantage of the sales and purchased the tools I knew I would need to do my own bike repairs and upgrades.

I also purchased various books including one of the most famous books on bike maintenance, Zinn & the Art of Road Bike Maintenance. This one book has already proven itself in terms of use and has kept me from making a lot of mistakes. Virtually every upgrade and repair I’ve done to date was aided with this book. I knew it would probably see a lot of use so I had it spiral bound so that I could keep it open while working in my garage.

The Mindset of Bicycle Maintenance

All that work to learn how to maintain and upgrade my bike hasn’t gone to waste. As a web designer and developer, I tend to float between two different mindsets. We talk a lot within the design community about how experiences can be measured in two ways: quantitative and qualitative.

The interesting thing is that Robert M. Pirsig talked about this very thing in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Which makes total sense in that the act of riding a bicycle is just that: an experience that can be measured but only if you take into account all sides of the total experience.

The Quantitative Mindset

The quantitative mindset comes in when I’m analyzing my bike, looking at the various components, seeing what needs to be fixed, maintained, and/or upgraded. I see all the various systems of the bike: the drivetrain, brake system, wheelset, cockpit, and such. And how each of these systems work together to give me the ride I’m looking for. It’s a combination of things like stem angle and length, gear ratios, tire size and width; things that add up to a lot of overly analytical parts of a whole.

Bike nuts geek out hard over all the different parts of a bike. We get giddy with delight when we hear an announcement about something that can enhance our rides in new and interesting ways. We obsess over the specs because, until you get it installed on your bike, you have no idea on how well a component will work. It is, in many ways, a purely quantitative thing. Only by looking at the numbers can we imagine how this component will change the experience.

We go beyond just the bike by recording our rides and analyzing the numbers. We hookup our bike with speed and cadence sensors, power meters, and bike computers so that we can capture all the data associated with our rides. We upload that data to services like Strava, TrainingPeaks, and others to analyze and obsess over the numbers associated with our rides.

We also carefully construct training programs, looking at ways to boost our numbers in hopes of improving our performance out on the road. Do I concentrate on sweet spot work to improve my endurance? Do I add some short burst high FTP intervals to improve my climbs?

All of this is all highly quantitative things we look at as cyclists. It’s the analysis of things, the way things work, and how we hope it will all improve not just the way we ride but the ride itself.

The Qualitative Mindset

The qualitative mindset on the other hand is all about the experience. It’s about how we feel when we’re riding, which is by far one of the most important aspects to riding a bike. What is your body telling you while you’re riding? What’s going on around you? Hey, check out the view! Are you in your happy place? Or did that flat tire just totally ruin your day?

The mindfulness we have of our riding experience is what makes up the bulk of a qualitative mindset. And it doesn’t just apply to the experience of the ride or the feelings we have. It applies to other more nuanced areas as well.

Remember when I talked about geeking over the hardware of a bike? That too has a qualitative experience around it. Whenever I look at something like a new handlebar, the moment I get it, I hold it in my hands and get a feel for it. Same applies to just about anything related to the hardware of a bike. You want to feel your drivetrain, how the gears feel and sound as the chain goes around the cogs. When you get on your bike, you feel the handlebar, how the pedals feel when you clip in, how the brakes feel when you squeeze them. Everything about your bike has a symbiotic relationship between you and the various parts and systems.

When something goes wrong you feel it. A flat tire isn’t something you usually hear but it’s certainly something you feel first. You might hear the chain going off a chainring but you feel the effect it has on your bike more so. A finicky rear derailleur that doesn’t shift well is also something that you feel. Since you can’t always see what’s going on you have to rely on what it is you feel when things go wrong.

Combining the Qualitative and Quantitative

All of the qualitative aspects of your riding experience work hand in hand with the quantitative. You can probably look at the numbers associated with a ride and know why your power went down at a particular part of the ride. You were there and you know what you were feeling when it happened. Maybe you forgot to eat and your energy level dropped. Numbers alone can tell you that something went wrong but without the qualitative part no one will know what the numbers really mean. It really takes both to have a full understanding of the total ride experience.

Knowing all of it helps you shape your experience. For instance, I know how various routes felt on certain tires. Knowing the terrain and the resulting feel it had on the tires gave me the information I needed to improve the ride. I can look at the specs for various new tires and know which ones are likely to improve the experience I had on a given terrain. But without actually riding on that route, without getting a feel for the terrain, how would I know what the hell to even look for with tires? That’s why the qualitative is just as important as the quantitative.

Knowing what your tire pressure should be is another good example. Do you set your pressure to 95 psi or 110? Sure, plenty of people can tell you what the best pressure is based on various tests and such. But the real measure is how the tires feel when you’re riding. Do they absorb the bumps in the road or do they feel stiff? How about rolling resistance? Does a lower pressure feel faster or slower? All of this depends on the wheel and tire as well as the kind of riding you’re doing. Only you can really answer it based on how it feels when you’re riding.

All of this adds up to being more capable in maintaining a bike. Ask any good bike mechanic and they will tell you that there is certainly a feel factor with many aspects to maintaining and repairing a bike. Knowing this will help you when you get in a situation that requires it...especially if you’re out in the middle of nowhere!

Gaining a Reputation as a Bike Nut

Having the mindset of someone who is in tune and connected to one’s bike doesn’t go unnoticed. When I’m talking with other bike riders, talking shop as it were, it’s clear that I sometimes have a tendency to perhaps know a bit more than they do. Many riders don’t go as deep as I do. They just get on their bike and ride without giving it much thought.

I noticed this very thing on a group ride. One of the riders had a back wheel hub that made a pretty horrible noise when freewheeling. It was the equivalent of a car having a loose belt under the hood. When I pointed it out to the rider, her answer was pretty much that she would have someone look into it. It didn’t seem like it bothered her much nor did she seem inclined to take care of it herself. Me on the other hand, it would bother the crap out of me. If that were my bike I would likely take care of it right away.

The ones that identify with my mindset the most though are the ones at my local bike shop. They know me pretty well there and not just because I buy a lot of stuff either. When I walk through the door they know me as someone who is pretty crazy about my bike. I think the reason for this is that they see me as “one of them”, a “bike nut” if you will just like the guy at the other bike shop did. I talk a lot of shop with them and, as with anything, we educate each other in the end. I learn something from them and they learn a few things from me. That reciprocal relationship is what makes the cycling community strong. And it’s also a good reason why you should support your local bike shop.

How Do You Feel When You Ride?

A little over a year ago, I read a story on CyclingTips about what the writer called breakdown rides which he described as “rides that take me deep enough into myself that something breaks or heals, or sometimes both”.

Now, this is similar to what some might call a breakthrough workout, which is one where you already feel broken down but somehow “breakthrough” and end up in a good place anyways. I think I read somewhere about how Matthew McConaughey considers these some of his favorite workouts. Something to the effect of doing a workout with a hangover after drinking the night before. I’ve had a few of these myself so I can definitely relate (not the drinking, but definitely the breakthrough).

To me though a breakdown ride is different. It’s less physical and more spiritual in nature. Sure, there is the part of you that is constantly feeling your body as you ride. Along with that, you’re also in tune with what’s going on within your mind as well as the world around you as you ride. It’s in this awareness of things where the breakdown occurs. It’s a body-mind connection that meets the spirit head-on.

The breakdown ride can take many forms. Like a breakthrough workout, maybe it’s a moment when you suddenly feel your body and mind breaking down but find the energy to push on through. Or maybe it’s a moment when you find a part of yourself that was already there but only found while riding your bike.

Regardless of what it is, it’s these moments on the bike that make the ride worthwhile. How we feel when we ride, that spiritual side of us that pokes out while on the bike, is probably the most important part of the experience.

Jet McDonald talks about this in Mind is the Ride. Philosophically speaking, his take is that the act of riding a bike isn’t the ride itself. Rather it’s the experience we have in our mind that is the ride. Everything we do on the bike as well as the environment we’re riding in acts as stimulation to that experience. If we’re not in the present moment, if we’re not being aware of the experience, then we’re not really riding. In that case, we’re just a human on a bike that happens to be moving. It’s the awareness of the experience that creates the ride.

Conclusion

Some of you might think that the only way to truly get great experiences on the bike is to become fully adept at bicycle maintenance and mechanics. While I agree that having a certain level of skill in maintaining a bike can have a profound effect on the experience of riding a bike, you don’t have to be a bike mechanic to get there. At the very least, get a good understanding of how your bike works and how to maintain and repair fundamental things like a flat tire, brake adjustments, derailleur adjustments, and chain replacements. Learning the fundamentals will help you out in the wild when your bike decides to breakdown on you. After all, you’re not the only one that can breakdown. Your bike will fail you now and then. Best to be prepared when it does.

Now, I know this is a lot to unpack and, for some of you, probably comes off as a bunch of philosophical nonsense. All I would ask is that, on your next ride, be completely in the moment and bring full awareness to your ride. When you do, ask yourself, “How do I feel?” Did your ride change after that? Did the experience all of a sudden get better? That’s what we’re getting at here. Ride in the present moment with full awareness of everything that’s going on. Doing so will elevate the experience to the next level.



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