Samurai Cycling

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Cycling is, for the vast majority, a hobby; and a way to breathe-in fresh air.

Of course, it’s also a way from A to B – and not necessarily just geographically (as per my previous post).

But although it can offer reflections on life – see this blog! – it rarely becomes a ‘way of life’ in itself: it is a pastime, not a religion (although I have seen (amusing!) cycling T-shirts proclaiming “I worship at the altar of the handlebars”; and “My only religion is cycling”).

That said, to fully embrace something – to dedicate energy to any pursuit or goal; or to work towards an aspiration or ambition – must encourage some reflections as to the meaning of life: how it can be best enjoyed; and whether or not your current choices are allowing that.  Thoughts expand beyond the activity itself – be it marathon training, or revising for an exam – to encompass what you eat and drink; how you plan and organise your time and commitments; and how and when you interact with others – indeed what others may think about your latest choices.

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You may be familiar with “David Brailsford”. As Performance Director of the Sky Cycling Team, he made his name, and the name of British Cycling, through an attention to detail that surpassed all others. Main keystone events are revered and worked around: his athletes are prepared physically, psychologically and emotionally through tweaks to their training, diets and minds; all leading up to a single moment in time when it would all come to fruition. But, behind the scenes, focus will not have been all about the velodrome arena itself, but will have encompassed everything from the type of polish on the floor to the grain of the floorboards:

Every detail has a purpose, demanding contemplation, appreciation and, then, understanding; and, it is through their study, that such details take on different forms, until even the grains of the floorboards can be described as having a personality and beauty of their own.

In this way, it is interesting, and paradoxical, that the greater the singularity of focus, the greater the need for a wider appreciate of everything else….

which brings me round to the Samurai.

From the moment they woke, they devote(d) themselves to the perfection of whatever it was that they pursued. But, although the Bushido (their code of conduct) stated that loyalty, courage, veracity, compassion, and honour were important above all else, an appreciation and respect of life were also considered imperative, as this added the necessary balance to a warrior’s character. Be it the making of tea, the application of make-up or their sword-craft, the samurai were encouraged to appreciate, understand and absorb the strength and beauty that exists all around – and to be disciplined in their approaches to nature and to life.

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In Julian Barnes “History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters”, there is a tale about heaven. A golfer there enjoys steady and continuous improvement at his game, until the point is reached when he can card a round of 18 shots. The kicker though (I paraphrase) is that he misses the strains of achievement from the real world. There is no (golfing equivalent) of winter miles in the hail; a punctured rear tyre in a heavy downpour; or (another) calorie-miscalculation as leg-power suddenly vaporizes with 30 miles still to go. The ambitions that are most satisfying are the ones that are hardest earned.

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When we lived in Australia a few years ago I dabbled at golf myself. To my embarrassment, upon entering a local match-play tournament, I came head-to-head with one of the most experienced luminaries of the WA Golfing scene.

With only two holes left of our game, solely because of my (very appropriately high!) handicap, I was faced with a short 4-foot putt directly up a steep hill which would win the hole… but also knew that two-putts would draw. Rather embarrassingly, but completely typically, despite having one of the safest shots the game can offer, I left my putt well short – but was satisfied when I sunk my 2nd attempt. But my opponent was genuinely upset at this performance. It took a me a while to understand such an apparently disproportionate reaction: he had happily tolerated my complete failure to adhere to the most inclusive of dress-codes(with hindsight, not something I’m proud of); he had appreciated, rather than depreciated, my use of cheap, second-hand clubs; and had not been offended by the wear and tear shown by my aged golf-balls. But this, I now realise, was seen as being a betrayal of the game he loved: a lack of attention to detail, and to one of the most basic fundamentals of the sport. Worse still, it implied that I could turn up to play against him with such disregard and lack of focus – he took it as a sign of disrespect to his own efforts, preparation and training that I could be so castaway with my own attempts.

He won the last hole, knocked me out of the tournament and went on to qualify for the state-wide final.

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It has been a while since I have actively ‘trained’ at cycling – “practise with the objective of enhancing performance”. MS has too frequently nullified events that I have been focussing on, so, instead, I cycle when I can, go fast when circumstance allows, and enjoy the scenery when it does not. One blessing of my diagnosis has been my re-evaluation (or re-reflections) of life which have enhanced both these experiences: MS has simplified my cycling ambitions, and offered a greater clarity (purity?) and perspective of purpose. Sometimes I’m fast; sometimes I’m slow – but I won’t beat myself up about it. However,to those that take the sport more seriously – be it through aero-clothing, indoor-training, or more blood, sweat and tears: chapeau to you, and respect to your efforts.

And as for Samurai Cycling? (I like my friend’s recent ride-title: “Lunch Ride with a pause for martial arts training session in the woods”), but, as perhaps a better example: I recently emailed a cyclist from BSCC who had apparently ‘found’ a new off-road route up one of Bristol’s more iconic climbs. He is a national-level rider, so I was half-expecting a response filled with cassette-gearing and HR zones (he had just set the fastest time ever ridden up that hill)… but he replied: “Watch out for the sequoia trees on the right, they’re just coming into yellow flower”. Samurai Cycling indeed.

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