Lessons Learned From Biking Up Hills

lessons learned from biking up hills

Lessons Learned From Biking Up Hills

My friend and I pedaled our bicycles around Lake Michigan ten years ago. We were young, wild, and free and had nowhere to be but the open road moving at a snail’s pace.

Before the trip, we barely knew each other but decided to make perfect travel companions, mainly because we had the same vision of traveling long distances by bicycle. So we scheduled a phone call, agreed on a date and direction, packed our bags, and hit the road.

We took about a month to travel the circumference of the Great Lake, even though many completed it faster. But like I said, we had nowhere to be, so we took our sweet time. We stopped when we wanted to stop, stayed in towns to meander when they called to us and took as many coffee breaks as humanly possible.

As you can imagine, I learned a lot while traveling this way, living in a tent, biking along cars and trucks carrying lumber, and watching the vegetation change at the slowest pace I’ve ever seen.

There are two lessons I repeatedly learned from this trip that speak to me regularly that I want to share here. Specifically, I continually learned these two lessons while biking up hills and while carrying 50 pounds of belongings. These lessons made their way into my daily life and served me for the past decade. 

Now, there aren’t massive mountains in Michigan and Wisconsin, not really. At least not compared to the Appalachian or Rocky Mountains, but we have some good-sized hills. And while they can be easy to miss while traveling by car, they’re impossible to miss on a bicycle. I promise you this. And they’re tough to miss while carrying your gear in two panniers on a rear bicycle rack in the heat of summer. 

My friend and I didn’t train for this trip though most bike touring blogs will tell you to do so. At the time, I lived in Chicago and commuted by bicycle, but that city has not one hill, and I only carried a purse as I made my way from work to home to a friend’s house to a bar. So while my legs knew pedaling, it was a much different story when hills entered the picture. 

So we trained as we traveled. We grew acclimated to the trip’s necessities by going on the trip and getting started.

We grew stronger every day. 

And sometimes (often), the hills kicked our asses, but it was a part of the journey.

I remember two big lessons from the hills we biked up (and down) because these lessons presented themselves every time we climbed, and I’ve continued to draw parallels between life and biking hills ever since this trip ten years ago. I’ll share these lessons here.

1.I couldn’t look too far ahead to successfully bike up the hill, carrying all my weight. I could glance up from time to time, but mostly, I needed to focus on every pump of the pedal and every breath I was participating in at that moment. 

If I got too far ahead of myself, praying for the gap between me and the top of the hill to shrink faster than it was, I would fall out of the present moment, lose steam and momentum, and could easily topple over. Quite literally. What was needed to reach the top with as much ease as possible was to remain focused on where I was in each given moment- whether halfway up the hill or just a quarter way up. To make it, I needed to be with my breath and each pump, and even with my burning muscles as I slowly but surely covered ground—pumping, carrying my weight and my belongings, inch by inch. I got there. I arrived at the top and not a second sooner than I should have, but I got there.

Lesson Learned: One step at a time, babe. One pump at a time. You’ll make it to the top one breath at a time. There’s no need to get ahead of yourself and pray the current moment away. You’ll get there. Stay focused and engaged, and be where you are. You’ll arrive at the perfect and right time.

2. The moment I thought I was at the top of the hill, I always had a little bit more to go. This one never failed, and it always surprised me. I’m not sure if the illusion of the hill or the anticipation of reaching the top caused me to get ahead of myself. Still, whenever I thought I had reached the top, I’d start to slow down and lose momentum, and I’d realize I still had a bit more to go, whether 100 meters or 100 feet.

And the thing about losing momentum when climbing up a hill carrying 50 extra pounds of weight, it takes a lot of work to gather the speed back up to keep going. This premature slowing down was another opportunity to topple over and have to push the heavy bike up the hill from behind. So why not keep going until I was sure I had reached the top?

Lesson Learned: You’ve reached the top when you’ve reached the top, and not a second sooner. Thinking you’re at the top is not the same as feeling you’re at the top. Keep going until you feel and live it and have evidence of being there. You’re there when you’re there. It’s yours when it’s yours. You’re in it when you’re in it and tipping over the top, shifting direction, and coasting down the other side. The anticipation of the thing is not the thing.

These two lessons seem quite similar though they are presented differently. However, they lead to similar wisdom: remain present and engaged in the moment. There’s no need to get ahead of yourself, worry, or anticipate. It’ll come. You’ll get there. It’ll arrive, and when it does, you’ll know. Be here now, babe. 

Isn’t it interesting the way movement and sports translate to life? Did I really have to bike around Lake Michigan up and down hills to learn these lessons? Probably not, but this is my path, honeys. What life lessons have you learned from sports/movement/art/travels that translate to your day-to-day life? Have you learned these hill lessons too?

Dear Readers,

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