Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance

Hi blog, it's been a while. This is going to be a long one.

Let's start at the end. Two days ago I stood with my bicycle on the bridge connecting Kitakyushu airport with the mainland, on my way to catch a flight back to Tokyo, and later back to the UK. Despite all the troubles I've experienced on this trip, which I'll talk about more later, I realized that I did not want it to end. Every single cycling trip I do starts with deadening preparation and a start so tough that it makes me think "Yup, this will definitely be the last one". Then the end nears and I just don't want to stop, and I know there's going to be another one after this. It's become what I do and who I am.

Cycling trips are my way of staying sane. I recently read The Martian by Andy Weir. A brilliant book. Spoilers following: the book has a great contrast between the main character being stranded on his own and taking care of everything himself, versus him being in contact with NASA and them doing all the complicated stuff for him. I love cycling trips because they force me into a situation where I cannot rely on anyone else to do things for me. I'm the one who needs to plan, who needs to fix the bike when it's broken, who needs to deal with route changes, bad weather and everything else that could possibly happen. It's a good feeling, that of doing everything yourself. And unlike in The Martian there's less risk of death. So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

There's so many things I want to write about now that I'm in the mood for writing. I really want to write about the trip but I need to get something out of the way first: why did I not blog for the past few months? I could come up with many reasons here, but the main reason is that I have been a braindead coward. I'll elaborate.

First, the braindead bit: I have been utterly fulfilled in my daily life for the past few months. Our apartment purchase finalized without issue and I have been living happily together with my girlfriend. We've done all the critical housy things needed to make the place our own and are now no longer in such a hurry for further improvements. Things are good. Not much happens in my life. And when stuff does happen I have the opportunity to fire off a real-life status update to my girlfriend immediately, so it goes out of my system before I have a chance to even consider blogging about it. Which is probably a good thing, because most of the stuff that's happening to me is just boring, personal, house life stuff, like comparing various types of blinds, discussing best methods of hanging up shelves or figuring out where to put the exercise bike. It's all stuff that has been occupying my mind, but I never once thought it would be worth sharing with the outside world.

That sounds happy, right? It absolutely is, but a lack of variation in experience does dull the brain. I have only myself to blame for this: in addition to the 'normal' housy things, I have also been pretty enveloped by Minecraft. Whenever I feel sleepy or absent or otherwise reluctant to focus my full attention on something, I play Minecraft. I create massive worlds with elaborate backstories, and there's always something more to do. It's the most gratifying 'game' I have ever played, especially in the long term.

But I digress. The point was to illustrate how a lack of variety in experience dulls the brain. I pretend it doesn't. I tell myself "Sure, I play Minecraft, I don't have a social life any more, I don't have much other hobbies, but that's ok because I can change my life any time and mold my brain into something else whenever I want to". I tend to use planned holidays as an excuse because I know that exactly what is happening now, will happen: here I am sitting in a cafe in Japan typing this up, a clear achievement of a brain that is once again creative and out of the Minecraft trap. I know trips have this effect on me so I let myself indulge in mind-numbing activities before the trip. Then after the trip finishes I tell myself it won't happen again and I'll stay in that creative first-person real-world mode this time for sure. I don't think that's ever worked, but there's always a next trip to reset me.

So that's the braindead part of the 'braindead coward', what's the coward bit? A braver me of the past explains it better than I could.

The internet has changed. In 2005 you could write whatever the fuck you want, in my post of 2011 I mention the possibility of potential employers stumbling upon something they might not like. In 2015 writing on the internet is downright toxic for your career no matter what you write. It's a given that people will find out everything about you before they consider you for an interview, and it's foolish and naive to assume that they'll take the time to consider your full background and context of whichever remark you wrote that caused them to scratch you off the list. I've made the mistake in the past of writing stuff in the heat of the moment that could really only have negative consequences for me. When I was confronted with that I deleted my blog for a while, thinking it's better to have nothing at all than something that could be used against me. But, against my better judgment and what I think is rational, it just doesn't feel right to censor myself on the internet. I'm having trouble constructing a useful train of thought for my wanting to keep my blog online, which is probably proof that it's not rational. But my gut feeling tells me I should keep it, so I'll listen to my gut. It hasn't betrayed me yet. I can't promise that there will be frequent future updates, but I will try.

Right, back to the cycling trip.

London had been grey and terrible for weeks when I left for Japan, bike in bag, driven to the airport by my lovely girlfriend. Well before the trip started I had cycled a few times a week on our exercise bike, but lost motivation about 2-3 weeks before the trip. I was incredibly overweight, and unfit. This, like letting the mental fog take me over, is another thing I thought I could get away with because I had a trip coming up that would 'fix' it. Because I only had a little under two weeks available for this trip, and very fixed inbound and outbound flights, I decided the only useful way to plan the trip would be to pre-book flights and hotels, which meant fixing my route and the minimum amount I would have to cycle each day. But, given the location of start and end airport, that there might be rainy days and that I would have to allocate myself some extra daylight time to fix potential mechanical mishaps, the distance cycled each day was not actually that much: anywhere between 40 and 80 kilometers per day. Quite manageable. In fact, for the first few days, I arrived at each hotel very early in the afternoon, giving me plenty of time to think, which is usually a bad sign. And because I already had accommodation and didn't  to cycle more, I didn't bother to take a longer scenic route or cycle to somewhere else after checking in.

I need to elaborate on that, because it wasn't just a lack of motivation, it actually involved a fair amount of physical pain. Partly because I am overweight, but mainly because of a bad saddle angle, being on the bike for longer than 30kms caused me to have incredible saddle pain, which also carried over to the next day. It made cycling utterly unenjoyable because all I could focus on was the saddle pain. The worst thing was that I didn't realize at the time that it was because of the saddle. I just assumed that I was hopelessly unfit and just really fat; I couldn't get any power down on the pedals because every time I did I would feel the pain in my behind. Because of this I would take it easy, go slower and coast a little more, but even when coasting I'm sitting on the saddle, and it's actually only making it worse because I'm not spreading the load between my legs, arms and butt: it's just my butt that's supporting my weight.

The worst day happened early on in the trip: it was a beautiful blue sky day. I was cycling along some perfectly flat coastal roads; not much traffic, with some nice scenery on the side. I didn't have to go too far that day so I took it easy. It should have been the perfect cycling moment, and I recognized that as well, but somehow I could not make myself enjoy it. My mind was in a fog from spending too much time in hotel rooms and not on a bicycle, and my body was just hurting from the saddle pain which at the time I had not identified as being worse than it should have been. I just could not get my brain to reset and appreciate the moment, which led to frustration, which led to more frustration at being frustrated even though it was a prefectly beautiful day. I felt clueless and helpless.

It took me a long time to realize that my saddle angle was wrong because a) I had a plausible explanation in the fact that I was overweight and unfit, b) I had taken the time at the start of the trip to finetune every bit of my bike (gears, saddle height, brakes, fenders, chain), so my mental image of the bike was that it was perfect. And finally, c) the saddle angle actually slipped back more as I cycled along because the bolt was not tight enough. Later, much later, during the second-to-last day of the trip, I finally learned of all these things. The day before, after reaching my destination, it occurred to me that maybe my saddle could be angled a bit more forward. I thought it would make a minor difference, but when I made the adjustment it immediately solved all my saddle pain issues! It was an incredibly liberating moment because I could suddenly put all my power on the pedals again and go much faster than before. I was not as unfit as I previously thought after all. It was the best feeling of the entire trip, and I'm sure that one single moment of adjusting the saddle triggered the mental reset that I so desperately needed.

It's not a magic solution of course: I'm still overweight, so adjusting the saddle angle just put a lot more stress on my arms, but they had nothing to do for the entire trip and could use the extra work. I can tell that I'm not nearly as fit as I was for last year's trip, but I'm definitely not as unfit as I thought during the beginning of the trip either. After making the adjustment I was finally able to cardio-exhaust myself, no longer being limited by the saddle pain. It felt great.

There were many other mechanical mishaps during the trip. Fresh off the plane, when I first set up the bike, I noticed I couldn't get the rear wheel into position at all: the two rear bits of the frame were bent inwards even further than they ever were in the past. I had to use brute force to bend the frame open again, which was probably a very bad thing to do, but I didn't really have a choice at the time, since I didn't want to abandon the trip. When I finally bent the frame back enough for the rear wheel to fit in, I noticed that one of the rear brakes was pressed against the wheel, preventing it from turning. Looks like my bending wasn't exactly even and now the rear wheel was not quite in the center any more. I didn't want to take it out again after all the effort and brute force I'd gone through just to get it in, so I took out all the spacers from the side that was hitting against the wheel, and put them on the other side. It actually resulted in a very usable rear brake.

Then I found out that the rear luggage rack didn't quite fit any more, probably because of the bending. Lacking the tools to adjust it, I asked the taxi driver to help me out as I used yet more brute force to push the rack into a position where the screws would fit onto the holes in the frame.

There were some more minor mishaps as well during the trip: two of the bolts connecting the fender spokes to the actual fender fell off because I didn't tighten them enough when building the fenders back home. With the bolts gone I just duct-taped them into place and it's worked fine since. The gears have been surprisingly fine considering the amount of stress that the rear derailleur has surely been through during transport. The front derailleur needed a minor adjustment to prevent the chain from running into it at high gears, but it worked fine without the adjustment as well. Lastly, for some reason my handlebar-mounted gear lever came loose near the end of the trip. I haven't quite figured out why this has happened, but rotating it 90 degrees tightens it again, so I've settled on that for now. I can fix it properly when I get home.

I could talk about many travel-y things here: how the skies were so blue and nice, how the roads were beautiful and quiet and devoid of traffic, how chilly it is in the morning. Or about the random guy who gave me a drink while I was having my morning conbini break. But the main focus for me during this trip was the mental fog and my struggles with the saddle and my unfitness. It may sound petty, but that stuff affects me a lot. In the beginning of the trip I was mentally sheltered and avoided social interaction. As the trip progressed I gained confidence again and began to sort-of return to my old self. Everything just came naturally again. An odd example of this: when the trip started and I first unpacked my bike at the airport, I took a long time to set everything up and eventually had to enlist the help of a nearby taxi driver. I hesitated for a long time before initiating the interaction. At the end of the trip when I had to unpack my bicycle, once again at an airport with nearby taxi drivers, I was swift, efficient and was not phased at all by a nearby taxi driver who seemed to scrutinize my every move. As soon as I first assembled the bike and returned from a test lap I crossed eyes with the driver, smiled and lifted my thumb up. I would never have been able to do that at the beginning of the trip. I can do many things when I am confident.

So here I am. Once again in Atsugi, the inevitable final destination of every Japan cycling trip I do. Yesterday I cycled from Haneda airport to Atsugi, via Enoshima. It was tougher than I thought; the damage done to my butt from the bad saddle angle isn't quite healed yet, and the adjusted saddle angle did get painful near the end, but the feeling of returning 'home' quite compensated for that. I say 'home', but I've been back so many times and have settled into the UK life so thoroughly that Atsugi really does not feel like home any more. Nor any of Japan, for that matter. Japan is no longer mine, but I am content with occasionally returning to check up on it. It's looking good so far. I've changed far, far more than it has.

I think it was on that worst day of the trip, the day that I just couldn't get myself to enjoy, that I started a re-read of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Barely a chapter in the mental fog lifted from me and a lot of things made sense. I have been paying way too much attention to the classical aspects of everything and not at all on the romantic. I'm getting all the technical details right, planning everything in advance with just the right safety margins, etc., but I never once thought about the romantic aspect of the trip - how to enjoy it - until I was on the bus to Haneda. The moment was brief, but amazing. I remembered what I was here for and it filled me with giddy excitement. It's only now, near the end, that I feel like I've connected with the romantic aspect of the trip. I can see the bigger picture again.

Today I've booked a bus and a taxi so I can get home again on Saturday. I've still got two days left. I'm planning to cycle to my favorite lake, over a mountain pass and then back down again to the sea. On the second day I might climb the big mountain, but perhaps not. It's not important what I do, as long as I enjoy it.

Every time I go on a cycling trip I find out what I truly need.

Posted in Cycling , Thoughts