Lessons from Cycling—for Cyclists and Educators

My formal expertise and experience are in the field of education, but I have developed as well what I consider equal expertise and experience in two other areas, although the paths have been primarily by self-education: writing and cycling.

I have been serious, purposeful, and committed to teaching, writing, and cycling all for about thirty years each; however, as a writer and cyclist, I have basically no formal preparation. Cycling provides a great deal of pleasure (and pain) for me personally and socially; as well, I recognize more and more every day that cycling offers really important lessons—many of which inform teaching and learning in formal settings.

Lessons from Cycling—for Cyclists and Educators

One of the most compelling aspects of recreational cycling is the it is incredibly complex and challenging, especially as a group sport. As a complex human activity in a group dynamic, then, I think becoming and being a cyclist offers powerful lessons for becoming and being a teacher.

First, cycling has a significant learning curve for beginners to integrate with group rides. To be a group cyclist, you need fitness, a wide assortment of cycling-specific skills, and a knowledge base about group cycling (coming to understand the culture of group cycling).

Fitness requires time and commitment—not unlike learning anything. But embedded in that is the motivation to commit that time. Since cycling can be extremely painful, it offers a perfect example of how learning comes best through the choice of the individual. I cycle about 10,000 miles a years—many of those rides are exhausting, nearly unbearable. There is little likelihood I would either participate or improve in cycling if this were not my choice.

Related to this need for time and commitment to fitness is the necessity for cycling-specific skills. Cycling, teaching, and writing, for me, are parallel human behaviors that are best cultivated by actually doing the behavior, but also by doing the behavior with purposeful attention to the discrete skills that make up the activity.

A fit cyclist (often runners transitioning to cycling) without bike handling skills or group riding knowledge is extremely dangerous to her/himself and other cyclists. In fact, group cycling is so complicated that it baffles me that anyone succeeds in integrating into group riding (in the same way that staying committed to writing or education is very challenging).

Cycling well requires cycling-specific cardiovascular fitness, bike handling skills (maintaining a straight and stable line), proper bicycle fit (bike positioning is crucial, but somewhat technical), and maneuvering awareness and knowledge. In brief, cycling in a fast-paced group (peloton) is extremely complicated—like writing, like teaching: hundreds of concurrent automatic behaviors blended with dozens of split-second decisions.

For cyclists, this means simultaneously exerting often maximum physical efforts that tax your breathing and stress lower body muscle groups, maintaining upper body relaxation so that bicycle control remains your primary concern, and maintaining awareness and control of yourself as well as the surrounding cyclists.

Since each of these elements of group cycling impacts and depends on all the others, how does a cyclist gain the level of expertise needed to participate well and safely?

I think this is the greatest lesson of cycling as it informs teaching. Cycling at a high level in group events is best learned by cycling often—and participating with and observing closely elite and experienced cyclists.

Beginning cyclists perform at first in unskilled ways that require them to consciously focus on gradual and purposeful improvement. It takes baby steps. But it also requires that the cyclist is committed to learning through observation and has the self-awareness to recognize the nuanced differences among her/his novice behaviors and the more polished behaviors of experienced cyclists.

In cycling, beginners are best served (as is the group) if they participate at first in minimal ways—not taking pulls for example, focusing on riding at a high pace while insuring she/he learns group dynamics (not making drastic changes in pace or direction, bike handling). An aggressive paceline (an organized double-line of cyclists in which riders rotate so that one cyclist at a time is pushing the pace [1]) is the ultimate test of cycling expertise; a cyclist needs high fitness, strong bike handling skills, and a honed sense of the entire group and how each cyclist impacts that group’s pace and safety.

Pulling through in a paceline tests a cyclist sense of pace and space—because rotating through from the front into the receding line is a delicate balance of speed and smooth bike handling. Adding to this complex blend of skills and fitness is that cyclists drink and eat while participating in their events! Yet another range of skills that must be learned while doing.

Here is an ideal representation in cycling of the beauty found in balancing the needs of the individual with the good of the community. To be an elite or skilled group cyclist, each cyclist needs the group; thus, each cyclist benefits from conforming to the group norms and contributes to the group good—not because of arbitrary or blind allegiance but because those norms address that balance between individual and group.

At their highest levels, teaching, writing, and cycling are individual endeavors grounded in communities; all represent John Dewey’s complex (and often misunderstood) calls for honoring the individual and the community simultaneously—not as competing interests but as synergetic interests.

Each cyclist in a group ride can perform better than cycling alone by contributing to and competing with the other cyclists, but if any individual cyclist disrupts the essential dynamics of that group (poor bike handling, careless attention to the safety of the group) that cyclist and the entire group suffer, performing less well.

Self-interests and group-interests, then, are inseparable in cycling. I would argue the same about teaching and writing.

Serious recreational cycling offers dynamic lessons for cyclists and educators about the power of engaging by choice and over time with complex human behaviors that require a balance between individual and group needs, about the value of committing to those behaviors as a novice eager to observe and learn from elite and experienced experts/mentors, and about the reality that few human pursuits are ever finished, but always in a state of becoming.

There is a zen elements here—the giving up of the self to find the self. And as with cycling, teaching, and writing, you will not understand it until you do it—by allowing the becoming.

[1] See for example below:


2 thoughts on “Lessons from Cycling—for Cyclists and Educators”

  1. Thanks for sharing. I was wondering why cycling has so many problems with drugs and corruption ?
    Holland seems an interesting country to ride in – no uphills or down hills ?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s