The Beginner's Mind of Bike Commuting

I’ve completed two weeks of bike commuting in Tucson. Since this isn’t a permanent move for me, I’m deliberately cultivating a transitory (i.e. non-permanent) lifestyle here in Old Pueblo, as the locals call it.

I’m couch surfing here — no real couches yet, but guest rooms and inflatable mattresses. My commute will change several times while I’m here — it already has. My bike has changed too. And I am trying to experience Tucson with the Beginners Mind, or Shoshin, which is the Zen habit of approaching a subject without preconceptions, regardless of your experience or expertise.

Quality of life, so they say, requires living with the beginners mind:  enthusiasm, creativity, zeal, and optimism. Consider the opposite of these qualities and what do you have? A bitter, jaded, know-it-all bike blogger. And who wants that?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all spiritual on you. I barely know anything about Zen Buddhism, and most of what I know I learned from a book called Zen Guitar. (If you’ve ever heard me play guitar, you’d have an idea of how little I absorbed from that book.)

The moment you think you know everything there is to know, you will have lost the way. The beginner’s mind is the mind of wisdom.

My own bike commuting skills and instincts are very specific to two cycling environments: Flagstaff, Arizona, and Washington, DC. These are the places I’ve lived since the bicycle became my primary mode of transportation.

And Tucson is like neither of those places. It’s a sprawling 227-square-mile desert city — bigger, hotter, and (mostly) flatter than what I’m used to. I’ve ridden at least six times more than I would have in Flagstaff over a comparable amount of time.

Here are some things I’ve learned:

I feel great

Seriously. I’ve never been one of those people who raves about how wonderful they feel after a bike commute. I’ve even speculated whether we cyclists are overselling the joy of bike commuting. But when I get to work after a 10- to 20-mile commute (20 miles is when I get lost), I’m full of energy. I get it now.

Caffe Luce
Could coffee be optional?

When I planned my route so I could go by Caffe Luce, a local coffee shop, on the way to work. I put my coffee into my travel coffee mug and stuck it in my bottle cage. At the end of the day, when I picked up the mug from my desk, I realized I’d hardly consumed any of coffee. That would never have happened in the days of my 1.7-mile commute.

Even the thieves prioritize hydration

When I came out of Caffe Luce, my water bottle was gone. What the hell?

I asked a co-worker who the hell steals water bottles. “Thirsty thieves,” I was told. “You’re in the desert now.”

My butt hurts

After riding the Critical Cycles bike for the first week, my butt was really feeling sore. I may pull the Velo Orange saddle off of my bike back home and to use if my current review bike was as taint torturing.

Emergency Lycra
Preparation Ache

I like to assert that you can bike commute in your regular work clothes — without having to buy bike-specific clothing. It’s a matter of principle with me. So it pains me to confess that I’ve started keeping a pair of Lycra cycling shorts in my backpack — in case of emergency.

I haven’t used them yet.

Bike Lanes

In the interest of time, I can’t always take the pleasant, protected paths of “The Loop.” So I’m a beginner, learning the grid of streets and developing my preferences through trial and error, and listening to advice of locals.

In Washington DC, where the blocks are shorter, and the traffic is slower, mingling with motor vehicles was like dancing with elephants — safe when done with circumspection and respect. It was interactive, and fun once I got used to it.

But here in Tucson it’s more like rolling alongside an elephant stampede. I wonder whether those crazed beasts see me at all. The motorists here sprint 50 mph in a rush to get to the next red light — often a one-mile, straight shot away. Bike commuting is probably as safe here as it is in DC (and Flagstaff), but it’s less interactive, which makes it seem less safe and less fun. It’s hard to put out of my Beginner’s Mind the consequences of a distracted driver weaving into the bike lane.

A bike lane is the worst part of the road; dirtier, crumblier, and broken-glassier. The asphalt radiates heat — which will only get worse as summer moves in. It’s easy to imagine a beginner bike commuter taking the shortest route possible by bike, and concluding that bike commuting sucks.

With my Beginner’s Mind, I am relearning the importance of choosing a Tucson route that is a balance between how pleasurable it is, and how time-efficient you need to be. And sometimes an extra two miles is totally worth it.

Why would I do this?

Another beginner experience that I’m reliving is adjusting to people who are baffled by the mere fact that I would bike to work — and bike everywhere else too. I heard about this conversation between two old friends of mine who live in Tucson:

Friend One: “Why would someone his age ride a bike everywhere?”

Friend Two: “I think he likes it.”

Wow. Friend Two nailed it. I have my own long-winded answers that cover why I like it — it covers economics, the environment, health, safety, and politics. Friend Two understands the Beginner’s Mind, and broke it down to its essence — and he doesn’t even bike commute.

Flat tire prophylaxis

Stan's NoTubes Bicycle Tire Sealant
In the background is Barbie’s Jeep with flat-proof tires.

I had two flats in Tucson in less than two weeks. I was asking for both of them. The first flat was from riding on a tire that had the crap skidded out of it on one particular spot.

The second flat was also completely preventable. I received a Montague Boston 8 bike to review. I eagerly set it up, and rode it to work and back. The next morning, the front tire was flat from a pinhole leak so small I had to put the tube into a toilet tank to find it.

Fortunately I had recently restocked my patch kit. And fortunately, for about two years I’ve had two bottles of Stan’s NoTubes Bicycle Tire Sealant that I’ve been too lazy put into my own tubes. Having those bottles was luck, not preparation. It was the zeal of a beginner who had not bothered to learn that Tucson is likely the worst city in America for bike flat tires.

There are bike shops in town that stay in business solely on the sales of bike tubes, so I’m told.

Sonoran Hot Dogs

I choose my routes to work, in part, based on coffee shops. I may end up choosing my route home based on hot dogs.

Los Michoacanos Hot Dogs
The Sonoran Dog: Wrapped in bacon, fried, smothered in beans topped with cheese, chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapeno sauce, mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard. Served in a Mexican roll with a roasted chili on the side

I’m a fan of street food. Flagstaff has almost none. Washington DC has plenty, but without the canopy and seating.

Oh, and I sometimes plan my route home so I can hit a health food store — with my belly full of Sonoran Hot Dog.


My setup is evolving. I sought out a full-sized folding bike. Folding, because I anticipated times when I would grab a ride in a car from a friend or co-worker, and times when I would rent a car. Full-sized because I knew the distances would be long, and the need to fold would be infrequent — unlike my former multi-modal commute where I would fold and unfold the bike two or three times per day. This is not a quick-fold bike.

So far it’s been great, but I have discovered some downsides.

This is the Montague bike with the gear I’m using so far.

Beginner's Mind Setup

A: Backpack: An Ortlieb Vario backpack/pannier. I keep my Flexweave cable lock in one side pocket and my water bottle in the other. (In the morning I keep the coffee in the bottle cage, and on the way home they switch places.) I’m already wishing I had more carrying capacity on this bike, but most rear racks would conflict with the folding feature.

B: Saddlebag: A Vaude Race Light, with a Light and Motion Vis 180 Tail Light clipped on the back, with help from a rubber band. It’s too small for my mini-pump, so I keep that in the backpack.

C: Bottle Cage: The bottle cage bosses on The Montague are way down by the bottom bracket. So I use a Two Fish Quick Cage Adapter, which attaches with Velcroâ„¢. Fortunately I have just enough stand-over height to use the bottle in this location.

I’ll have a full review of this bike in a few weeks, but meanwhile I’m still learning.

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10 thoughts on “The Beginner's Mind of Bike Commuting”

  1. listenermark says:

    +1 Zen Guitar

    +10 “broken-glassier”

  2. Jonathan Redding says:

    As an experienced commuter/rider in the city of Tucson. I must be reminded the herd of elephants rushing at 50 miles an hour to the next stop light, that half have no respect for the road and safety. In my commute to work i like to stick to side streets as much as possible.

  3. BluesCat says:

    I have a theory about the main thoroughfares in Tucson and Phoenix:

    For the most part, the traffic signals are almost exactly a quarter of a mile apart; therefore, promptly at 4:00 PM MST, they turn into Run What Ya Brung Drag Strips.

    All bicyclists should be aware of this fact.

  4. Bethany says:

    I have the same backpack pannier. I love it, it’s awesome.

    I just started bike commuting to work, partly because I wanted to and partly by necessity of my boyfriend needing to take the car to work in another state. It’s fantastic, so much fun, and I love it. It’s like I get my commute, my exercise, and my leisure time done all at once.

  5. Betty says:

    To help avoid flats here run kevlar tires and a puncture strip. I also have extra thick tubes installed.Glad to hear you’re settling in. Avoid Country Club if you can and 5th also. The cars there will hit you for sport, you’re worth 200 points. Good luck and have fun!

  6. Hurri47 says:

    +1 for Kevlar and looking ahead for glass. That combination has kept me from needing puncture strips. It might be significant that I think 300 miles between flats is doing pretty good, though.

    Anybody biking on Country Club or 5th/6th does have a death wish, but it’s a cheap joke to blame that on drivers. Those are both four-lane roads with four narrow lanes. And curbs. The only way to ride them is to take the entire lane, and that’s just not a good idea with the speed and volume of the traffic they carry. There are better places to ride that will get you to the same place.

  7. Joel says:

    As Clint Eastwood was famously quoted in one of his movies, “Well Punk, Do you feel lucky?”

    I now know that I have been VERY lucky in my twenty months of commuting and riding (about 7,000 miles being a conservative estimate), I have had two flats and one slow leak needing attention. I do not run special tires or strips, or tubes.

    I have very limited debris on my trip. Most of it is small bolts, some glass, and sand which can hide things in it.

    My slow speed is my best guess why I have no problems. At about thirteen miles-per-hour you can easily dodge anything without swerving or making unpredictable moves. I sometimes make a game out of how precisely I can ride my tire next to an object without hitting it. After a while, it becomes second nature. This technique will not work at all for the commuters trying to make speed which is necessary on longer commutes.

    Thank God my trip is on lower speed roads. We do have one four lane highway that is exactly as described in my town. I would think long and very hard (as well as checking my life and medical insurances) before venturing on that road. My back tire would be up on the front of a car similar to Ted’s recent Ridekick conversion when his rear wheel had problems.

    I too just like to ride my bike. It is the best and foremost reason I commute by bike.

  8. After 9 months in Phoenix, I think I have made the transition from small town cyclist to big city cyclist pretty well. I did a fair number of test rides before school started last August, barely surviving the triple digit heat on a few occasions but I’ve learned a few tricks – a bottle of frozen water, a sweat rag and waiting in the shade at traffic lights are essential for summer pedaling. I did miss Flagstaff’s extensive lanes and multiuse paths but it is much easier here to combine bikes with public transit to get to where you need to go.

  9. Joel says:


    During the heat of the summer months, I keep my sweat down by getting to my bus very early in the morning and purposely pace myself. This method keeps me from breaking a sweat to work. The air conditioned bus takes any extra heat away and by the time I arrive at work, I am none worse for the wear.

    Coming home is a different story. The air conditioned bus keeps me cool but the moment I step outside at about 5:00pm after a long hot sunny day, it is instant sweat. As long as I am moving at a paced speed, no problem, but like yourself, come to a stop in the sun, meltdown. The most wonderful thing is that the last three miles of my commute is sheltered by trees on a bike path and it is pure heaven to feel the natural air conditioning as I glide through it.

    I arrive at home somewhat damp but not soaked.

    How is that wonderful little dog doing? I enjoyed the article about the dog carrier.

    A bad day on a bike is just that: unheard of 8}!!

  10. Frank says:

    Great article.
    Mindset is so important. Having a beginner mindset to your new commute is awesome especially after your experiences in DC. Finding new routes and great food along the way keeps the ride fresh anc fun.

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