A Chat with Portia Masterson, Author of Bicycling Bliss

Sometimes you just get lucky. Sometimes, the universe smiles, and you receive a piece of information exactly when you need it. That's what happened the day I read Portia Masterson's Bicycling Bliss. I had just come down with a stubborn case of bike love, and was long on enthusiasm, but short on information. What I took away from reading Bicycling Bliss helped to set the tone for my relationship with cycling.

In the late spring of last year, I decided to dust off my bike and use it to get groceries. But something strange happened on the way to the grocery store. Despite the fact that I was huffing and puffing from being out of shape, I felt a sense of resonance and a delirious joy which made me want to ride my bike endlessly. Deep in the throes of bike fever, and eager to learn everything I could about the subject, I hit the library in search of guidance. But I quickly discovered that when it came to cycling books, there were lots of authors seeking an ego massage, but few who offered information of value to a recreational rider.

From the very first time I sat down with Bicycling Bliss, I knew I was reading a different kind of cycling book. The first thing that struck me was that the illustrations depict "normal people," not just young male racers. That alone was enough to make me sit back and pay attention. Upon closer inspection, I found a book that offered not only tips about the physical aspects of cycling, but addressed the psychological side as well.

Although it's written in a friendly and accessible style, Bicycling Bliss isn't a book to breeze through and dismiss; it's a resource, packed with information. Between it's covers are tips on riding technique, fitting a bike frame, nutrition, clothing, and bike maintenance. By following advice in the book, I found that correcting my posture eliminated hand numbness; I haven't lost sensation in my fingers since.

But what makes Bicycling Bliss special is the way in which Portia calls attention to the importance whole-body health. In the book, she illustrates stretching and resistance exercises to encourage balanced conditioning and well-rounded strength. She also highlights integrated wellness techniques such as meditation and journaling, and places special emphasis on the importance of diaphragmatic breathing.

My uncle, who is an experienced cyclist, particularly enjoys the techie gear-head chapter, as well as the section explaining the physiology of aches and pains. What I find most intriguing, and keeps me returning to the book, is the fact that Bicycling Bliss touches deeply on the subject of mind-body wellness. When I took up riding my bike, I expected it to benefit my body. But in no way did I anticipated the way in which it would color my world, and make every aspect of my life richer. So when, by few degrees of separation, I got a chance to talk to Portia Masterson, I most wanted to address the ways in which the mind and soul are integral to one's cycling experience.

Butterpoweredbike asks: When I first started riding last year, I had some fears that I think were pretty typical. I was afraid of being an obstacle (for other people) on the trail, I was afraid of looking foolish, and more than anything, I was afraid my lack of bicycle handling skills would make riding a miserable experience. But I found that defining my style of riding helped to me to relax into the experience. Also, once I had defined those boundaries, I was able to push against them and grow. I decided that I was going to be a recreational trail rider, that I'd be the type of rider to stop and look at a fantastic view, or wildlife, and enjoy picnic lunches. How much do you think perception affects expectations and thereby performance?

Portia’s thoughts: I would reverse your sequence – Expectations strongly affect perceptions. Setting priorities or “boundaries,” as you call it, is key to enjoyment. Too often novice riders observe local riders or bike magazines or other media coverage and then strive to mimic what they think is the norm. That usually results in dissatisfaction. The media and cycling groups love sensation and tell in vivid detail all the horrors they experience. Who would want to follow these examples?

You are so wise to have sorted through your personal feelings and needs and selected a recreational style that would be appropriate for you. Cycling is extremely revealing. Popular cycle wear reveal too many details of one’s body. Furthermore, people usually ride at their fastest sustainable pace and it is assumed that their current speed is as fast as they can go. Then observers assign a fitness level or other judgments accordingly. My Yoga teacher says, “Contentment comes when we cease to compare.” That has surely been my experience.

I sponsored a women’s riding group in Golden. Evening meetings were well attended but the turnout for riding events was very poor. I concluded it was because these women were afraid they would appear inadequate/foolish at rides and didn’t come.

I encourage riders to get off and push their bikes anytime they needed a break or the flowers or scenery deserve greater attention.. That change in activity is so healthful and the body loves the change in posture and use of different muscles. My son says, “Pushing a bike is good exercise too.” I think people resist pushing because they are afraid of looking weak. I remind them that it is absurd to care about what people think who are whizzing by in motor vehicles. If they were worth their salt they would be out riding too.

Basically the key to joyful riding is to ride for your own enjoyment and forget what others think about your style. We can never really know what other people think and they can never know what our personal challenges are at the moment.

Relaxation is indeed the key to skillful bike handling and conscious, diaphragmatic breathing is the key to relaxation and tranquility.

Butterpoweredbike asks: I have one overriding rule for my bike rides - if I'm not looking forward to my ride, or not enjoying my ride, then no excuses, no guilt, I don't ride. This has happened to me twice. One time I went out, and after ten minutes, realized that I was tired and out of breath, and went straight home (I came down with a cold the next day). The second time it happened was a little more ambiguous. It was in the winter, it was cold and gray and windy, conditions which I normally don't mind, but that day, it was all making me feel miserable. So, only five minutes out, I turned around and went home. I think this rule has played a large role in my continued enjoyment of cycling. Knowing that I will never force myself to ride has kept me looking forward to my time in the saddle. How important do you think pleasure is to the cycling experience?

Portia’s thoughts: Your rule of riding for the joy of it is so wise. One of my favorite teachers says that work done without love is meaningless. Too often riders persevere in spite of overtraining, fatigue, or even sickness. This is not self-nurture but work and then they become discouraged or dread the next ride. Tuning in to one’s physical and psychological condition supports wellness and prevents unnecessary illness and injury.

The old adage – “No pain, no gain.” is about self-abuse. If you don’t take care of yourself who will? If you want to build strength and stamina you need to gradually increase the challenges of each ride in small increments. Riding to exhaustion greatly increases the risk of injury and requires longer recovery time. Sore muscles are generally an indication of inadequate fueling, poor riding technique, or riding too hard too soon.

Of course there are many reasons for riding. Bicycle commuters often choose to stick with their riding routine and end up riding in inclement weather. Carefully selected equipment and clothing will lessen the impact of the weather. Carrying extra clothing to adapt to weather’s caprice is also wise.

Forcing oneself to ride reduces one’s awareness level and fosters a poor attitude. Both of these factors increase the likelihood of crashing. In any case these choices should be made consciously and in advance rather than succumbing to peer pressure or absent mindedness.

Butterpoweredbike asks: In your book, you talk about how it's perfectly ok to walk your bike up a steep hill, if need be. I found this to be very liberating in that it helped me to release any images of what my cycling experience should look like. Because of this advice, I learned early on to give myself permission to push my bike up difficult hills, if I needed. The thing that surprised me was that just telling myself that I had that option, I found that I rarely had to actually push. I think this really illustrates the power of taking a gentle attitude toward your body. How do you think cyclists can use positive attitudes and self-talk to improve their rides?

Portia’s thoughts: Many riding patterns are set in childhood and not re-evaluated in adulthood. You have carefully considered what you want from riding and consciously set priorities and parameters. This enables you to be positive about your riding style and catch yourself when you deviate from your principles.

We share riding to improve our wellness as our highest priority. That makes it easier to adapt each ride to the day’s circumstances. I have days when riding is laborious and others when I feel strong and carefree. Some times I discover this after I am riding with friends or I have travelled some distance by car to ride. Then it is not so easy to turn around and go home, but it is possible to ride slowly, shorten the distance, or take a hike instead. In cities where buses have bike racks I can hop a bus home.

Projecting a positive attitude is so important in heavy traffic. One Sunday morning I was setting out to ride to my meditation group and met a friend just returning from his training ride. We stopped to chat and he was highly agitated by all the aggressive drivers who had threatened him. I rode every Sunday morning on this route and had found drivers especially accommodating. Here was one rider who was pushing himself to train hard and perceived every demonstration of poor driving as a personal attack and another who was riding at peace and appreciated each gesture of awareness. Had we encountered different drivers or was it only a difference in expectations and interpretations of others actions? Which one of us benefited more from our morning ride?

I believe it is difficult to accurately assess my condition while I am riding. Powering the pedals is mesmerizing. So I learned to stop, stand astride my bike and scan my body for tension and fatigue, observe my breathing and my attitude – Am I having fun yet? Do I need to stretch and have a snack? With this more accurate information I would adapt my ride or take a break to meet my needs.

Yes, pushing your bike is also good physical activity. It uses different muscles, lets the blood flow more abundantly into the legs, perineum, and shoulders and relieves neck strain. Don’t let the judgment of passersby dictate how you care for yourself. Take a well earned break.

If you enjoy Portia's point of view, stayed tuned, because this is only the first half of our conversation. Meanwhile, please visit her website, http://www.bicyclingbliss.com/, where you can purchase the book.

It was approximately one year ago that I climbed into the saddle again, nearly 20 years after I was hit by a car while biking home from work. If you'd like to read about some of my cycling adventures, click here.

Popular Posts