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The Tao of Biking

By: Vivian Powell

Bike against a rock in Maine near Acadia National Park
Mountain Bike in Acadia National Park

Biking is one of the most thrilling activities I have experienced. When bombing down hills, whether on campus at university or out in the wilderness, I can’t help but smile and feel a sense of pride over my ability to manipulate a small machine with just my body weight and balance. Aside from being the fastest, most sustainable transportation, a socially acceptable toy for adults, and a great workout, biking has influenced my mindset on navigating through life. There is so much more to life than originally meets the eye, like a trail. Although you can plan for the next 10 feet, you must face the uncertain terrain after the next turn with confidence and flexibility.

I learned to ride a bike young, enjoying cruising golf courses after hours and weekend rides with my family, but I first started really biking with my dad around quarantine 2020. His obsession had taken foot a couple years prior, and I noticed the more time he spent biking, the happier and more appreciative of life he seemed. Biking became a way to spend time outdoors with my dad during a period of isolation, grafting his new positive attitude about challenge and gratification the entire community seems to share.

Young girl on a bike with father following behind holding his hands up as it is her first time riding on her own. The bike has a basket in the front and the young girl is wearing a helmet
Learning to Ride

The sticker my dad placed central on my bike and shamelessly proclaims mid ride, “Shut up Legs,” exemplifies the mantra of bikers; no matter how tough the climb, sometimes you have to just push through. I noticed that in accepting the hills of biking and life, I could better focus my energy on things I can control, and fully enjoy the scenery along the way. One of the most satisfying moments during a ride comes at the transition of a climb to a drop, where I can pop my head over the engulfing scrub and appreciate, even for one fleeting second of zero gravity, the beauty and magnitude of the engulfing environment.

Biking requires flexible concentration; riders must constantly work on their toes to maneuver around obstacles and track the best line down the trail. Following an experienced rider, in my case my dad, is a great way to get a feel for the trail, but how each rider tackles the obstacles is up to themselves. Although you can plan your line for the next ten feet, Florida bike trails are tightly cut into scrub, masking upcoming drops, turns, and technical features; this challenges riders to develop a framework of how to handle the unexpected, rather than each obstacle as a discrete variable. I think biking in Florida resembles life itself- the climbs mixed with thrilling drops, and easy sections suddenly transform into sand traps, force the rider to stay alert and follow the ebb and flow of the natural world. As someone prone to “the planner”, this practice of balancing decision-making with trusting the trail has had immense impacts on my mindset.

Most significantly, biking revolutionized my perception of my surroundings. Staring at the ground looking for possible causes of casualties, I started to notice the different soil layers throughout the trail. The next trip, I loosely correlated elevations with these different soil layers, sparking a curiosity about these soil layers. After more trips and finally some Wikipedia searching, my vague hypothesis was confirmed; different soil layers correspond to thousands of years of separation in prehistoric coastlines, affecting the mineral deposition and thus color of the soils. In a couple short trips, an active mind on the trail led me to explore the history of Florida, expanding my understanding of the natural world past my own minute physical presence in the geologic timeline. I like to think biking has connected my passion for ecology with such delicate interactions with Florida’s fleeting wilderness, but I feel it's more true to say that anyone who spends time immersed in nature becomes themselves an ecologist. It’s such an amazing feeling, to connect distant bird songs to endemic species of the

Florida Scrub Jay, to then come up on a pair on the trail and connect the steps that made the viewing possible, that I feel anyone who experiences such satisfaction would call themselves an ecologist. These biking trips do not always lead to such revelations, but even the hope of gaining a deeper insight drives me to get out there and look.

Even on campus, every sidewalk shift and curb sparks my creativity, turning once imperfections into playgrounds. This attitude towards transportation has made drastic changes on how I view the daily mundanities, presenting opportunities to rethink running late as a workout, daily commutes into my perfected dance routine, and enabled exploration of my surroundings in every ride. I notice ospreys and red shouldered hawks nesting on campus from the similar calls I’ve heard on trails, meshing the wild with my commute. I love the feeling of flying through campus, wind in my hair, trying a new shortcut and being surprised with a cool new corner of my environment I haven’t encountered before. Sometimes, I even have time to stop and smell the flowers before a scheduled responsibility, truly encompassing the mantra itself. Viewing the commute like this, it's hard not to share the same positive mindset that every day is an opportunity for new adventure.

Now, three years into biking, I am transitioning my view of the sport from a hobby to a practice. Biking has become my Tao, or “the way” I connect my presence with the physical and spiritual world around me. I love being able to read the landscape, to anticipate elevation by sloping changes and the natural social scene by listening, practices I first appreciated through biking but remain mindful in every movement thereafter. I love choosing to trust the curves of Mother Earth, to mute fear of the what-ifs and turn to gratitude for the as-is.

Man on a mountain bike with a full face helmet on smiling looking at a gator on the edge of a swampy pond

Biking for me is like yoga for others; both imprint a certain perspective about the Earth, emphasizing a connection with the body and the ground as a way to release and open the mind for newness and love, yet my medicine has sicker air time. Any practice, whether it be freediving, sunbathing, hiking – activities involving the body, the mind, and the land – reaps incredible benefits to understanding and appreciating the world as it is; by seeing the natural world through the utmost intimacy, the eyes of danger, one reaches a deeper level of appreciation and understanding for their surroundings.

As incredible as biking has been for me, I am even more grateful for the insights it transcends to other pathways for outdoor exploration. I firmly believe that the metaphor is the best literary device for sound understanding; by comparing something to one already knows, a sibling-like relationship is fostered, ushering deep or quick understanding by the comfort of the known. If you talk to the climber, they will whisper a secret about the Earth known only through their lonely hours on the mountain face, as the same is for surfers, snowboarders, runners, and the martial artists.

Two people smiling with mountain bikes wearing a bike helmet and holding a cat

These lifelines, sports, develop intuitive skills that transpose as metaphors into professional, social, and spiritual gains, and even into other outdoor practices. Thus is my take on the secret to happiness. If you can find a practice or activity that excites and humbles you, that challenges and rewards you, that reveals a secret within yourself and surroundings, you can emulate a harmonic life with nature. Even if that activity is as simple as biking to class.

Group of six people standing with two mountain bikes in the parking lot outside of a mountain biking trail in Florida. One bike is a red Trek and the other is a blue pivol

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