Grit, Courage, and Openness Versus Climate Change: Can Riding Gravel Help Save Us?

Grit, Courage, and Openness Versus Climate Change: Can Riding Gravel Help Save Us? – by John Ingham

The question is whether a threat of this magnitude [an increase of average world temperature by three degrees centigrade by 2050] will dishearten humankind or cause it to rally in a tremendous, generational struggle for survival and reconstruction.

                —David Spratt & Ian Dunlop, “The Third Degree

For it is through these cosmos and their dusty exit wounds

beyond the imagination of gods

  from the clearest air in our lungs and within the 

reddest chambers of our hearts

that we will remember to look up into this night with curiosity, imagination and fearlessness.

                                                                           —Ben Weaver, from “The DAMn

 Man and quote
Lee Nelson, cattle rancher in Gary, South Dakota
From “Delta of Spirit,” Nicholas Kapanke, filmmaker

The Covid pandemic is bad but climate change will be much worse unless we mount a more vigorous response to it.[1]  To be sure, economic trends and technological innovation offer hope.  Alternative energy is supplanting coal and oil. Regenerative farming and other practices for capturing and sequestering CO2 are ramping up.  Bikes, E-bikes, and electric cars are replacing gasoline and diesel-powered cars.  Al Gore contends there are grounds for optimism in the rapidly dropping price of alternative energy (Optimism). 

Even so, governmental actions and individual choices will determine whether these trends develop fast enough to avoid catastrophe.  Here, national politics and individual psychology are less encouraging.  Rural conservatives are skeptical about climate change and generally opposed to any attempt to regulate greenhouse gases or promote green technology.  The acrimony between Red and Blue America makes it difficult, moreover, to have any sort of reasonable political discussion about climate change.

It is not just conservatives who minimize or deny climate change or who have trouble making planet-friendly changes in their lives.  Global warming can be so scary that we would rather not think about it.  Or we rationalize that it is far off and might not be so bad.  The guilt we feel when contemplating the down the road effects of our behavior on our children and grandchildren can be another reason for climate change denial.  Attachment to lifestyle and materialistic possessions can take priority over hard-to-imagine future catastrophe.  When attachment to consumerism and materialism compete with concern about global warming the result can be buying a hybrid or electric car and then using that to justify traveling by air or owning gas-guzzling toys.  Some of us, sinking into despair, tell ourselves that it is already too late. 

In this post, I will address two questions that emerge from these observations.  What can we do to help ourselves recognize and deal with existential danger?  And what can we do to heal our political polarization?  These are complicated questions, and I will not pretend to have comprehensive answers, but I will suggest that gravel riding has something to offer in both respects, particularly if it continues to grow and if through film and other media, it inspires beyond the gravel riding community.  My approach begins with finding courage and openness in coming to grips with danger and then turns to connection and compassion in the work of healing division.  Of course, there is also the question of actually lowering carbon footprint.

Image of a race start at night
an ocean of sweat
a delta of spirit
a barn full of sparrows
about to explode into the night.”

  –from Ben Weaver, “The DAMn” Filmmaker Nicholas Kapanke- Image by Mary Grove

Grit, Courage, and Openness

In Buddhism, meditation is thought to lead to courage and openness/curiosity and, eventually, to awakening or enlightenment, a state that includes, among other things, diminished self-preoccupation, expanded awareness of nature or the cosmos, and reduced fear of death.   As I noted in an earlier post, there is reason to believe that focus and commitment in outdoor adventure sports and endurance sports can take us to the same place as meditation (To Cosmos).

Studies of the “default mode” and the “task-positive mode,” two different and opposing brain states, illuminate the common psychology and underlying neurobiology of adventure sports, meditation, and awakening.  In the default mode the mind wanders.  With random worries about the future and regrets about the past, it is preoccupied with the self and often unhappy.  In contrast, tasks pull us into the present moment and away from egocentric negative thinking about the past and the future.  Compassion for others and attention to nature increase while personal problems, pain, and suffering become less pressing. 

The best evidence that more time in the task positive mode leads to durable psychological change comes from research on mindfulness meditation.  Meditation results in more openness and less anxiety and neuroticism.  Brain scan studies find that meditation reduces default mode activation and activity in the amygdala, a nucleus in the emotional brain that mediates fear and anxiety.  The brain begins to change in these ways with just a few minutes of meditation a day and then changes permanently with years of regular meditation.

Meditation teachers have observed how mindfulness increases connection with nature and supports managing fear, facing the truth, and being more compassionate in conversations.  Empirical psychological studies consistently find an association between openness and pro-environmental attitudes.  Studies have also found that fear motivates concern about global warming but this does not mean that environmentalists are more fearful in general.  If anything, just the opposite is the case.  General, chronic fear and anxiety, on the one hand and open-mindedly recognizing specific dangers, on the other, can be two very different things.  While the first is likely to be associated with denial and delusion, the second entails mental toughness and realism.  What we describe as “fearlessness” is not ordinarily the absence of fear.  Rather, it is better described as “courage,” that is, an ability to recognize real danger and then do something about it.  And this can be the effect of mindfulness practice, whether in the form of meditation per se or outdoor movement that demands focus and commitment.

During meditation, focus on the breath soon gives way to a wandering mind—to what Buddhists call “the monkey mind.”  As one notices this happening, one returns to the breath. Gradually, one trains the mind to spend more time in a detached open awareness and less time in the default mode.  Gravel riding along with endurance running, surfing, and rock climbing involves this same process.  When riding gravel and especially when racing, we focus intently on what we are doing, but then our minds wander and we are lost in thought.  “Shit!”  We have hit a pothole or loose gravel and are suddenly back in the real world, like when a dozing student of Zen meditation gets whacked with a bamboo stick and wakes up.

Occasionally, we enter into “flow” states, aspects of the task positive mode. In flow, mental and physical effort seems smooth and effortless.  The University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihali (pronounced chick-sent me-high) and his colleagues asked people around the world what made them happy.  Again, and again, they described experiences of intense focus, commitment, and engagement, where action and thought occurred easily, where the self was lost in absorption, where time seemed to stand still, and where the present moment was satisfying all by itself. The interviews showed that such experiences happen when challenge and risk demand all-out effort and full use of acquired skills; when there is moment to moment feedback that keeps one glued to the present moment; where body and mind become one; and where there is a sense of mastery.  Meditation and adventure sports like climbing and endurance cycling can take us to the same place.  In meditation one learns to encompass disturbing thoughts, even trauma, with calm, open awareness.  Similarly, in gravel racing, we stay focused and committed despite risk of crashing and despite being way out of our usual comfort zones.[2]

A pitfall in meditation and adventure sports is how they can become another form of self-absorption and another form of escape.  The personal achievement and happiness associated with transcending the self can become, paradoxically, an emotional refuge or just another form of feeling special and superior.  There is a place for refuge and feeling good about ourselves, but do we want them to get in the way of showing up?  Flow and awakening increase happiness but arguably better than happiness per se is calm awareness that copes with everyday life just as it is, hard and difficult as it can be or might become.  For the old bodhisattvas of ancient China, being on the path to enlightenment and helping others along the way were more important than nirvana.  The aim was not so much happiness as courage, openness, and compassion one moment at a time.

This, I think, is the mindset we need to cultivate for the struggle ahead.  In the second verse of his thirty-seven practices of a bodhisattva, Zongpo wrote:

Attraction to those close to you catches you in its currents;       Aversion to those who oppose you burns inside;                                  Indifference that ignores what needs to be done is a black hole.      
Leave your homeland—this is the practice of a bodhisattva.[3]

A black hole is a place where craving, aversion/fear, and ignorance prevent curiosity about how things actually are.  “Homeland” is a metaphor for how shared beliefs and prejudices can hinder coming to grips with what needs to be done.

Image of a farm
Abandoned farmhouse on the DAMn, from “Delta of Spirit,” Nicholas Kapanke, filmmaker

Healing Division

Rural opposition to environmental protection and the bitter division of America into Red and Blue states have until now made it nearly impossible to address climate change at the national level.  The Koch brothers in particular and the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries in general bear much of the blame for this toxic, sorry division of our body politic (Koch Brothers).  Since the 1970s they have spent many millions of dollars lobbying against environmental protection, and they have spent many millions more on advertising in an effort to cause us to distrust government, to convince us that climate change does not exist, and to persuade us that a healthy economy depends on fossil fuels.  This campaign has been especially effective in rural America where much of the fossil fuel industry is located, where industrialized agriculture depends on oil for fuel and chemical fertilizers, and where many people are economically insecure.[4]  The global economy has not been kind to rural America.  Various social and economic indicators leave no doubt that it is in trouble and that people are hurting.  In many places, rural towns are emptying out as young people leave for cities in hope of finding more economic security. Accordingly, rural people have been particularly vulnerable to claims that regulating fossil fuels will cost them jobs and make their lifestyles more expensive.

The country needs a serious bipartisan discussion about what can be done for rural America.  Meanwhile, it seems to me that there is value in any and everything that might help rebuild trust across our urban/rural divide.  I don’t want to exaggerate their importance in the overall scheme of things, but it seems to me that bicycles can help in this regard. There are now nearly 500 gravel races in the US and rosters are getting longer.  Nearly all gravel races begin and end in rural towns.  They bring business to rural America and some races make contributions to local charities and services.  At the same time, rural biking trails are multiplying, stimulating the growth of bike shops and cycling friendly restaurants and coffee shops.  Long an icon of environmentalism, the bicycle is becoming a friend of rural America and an antidote for America’s polarization.  We are reminded of how 130 years ago, the “safety bike” supported women’s liberation by allowing women to escape domesticity and how by promoting mobility it broke down barriers between social classes.  

For their part, rural people are apt to respect the grit of gravel riders. I recall the farm families that have cheered me on in gravel races and the ones that offered me water and food.  In a 100-plus-mile race in punishing heat with ten miles to go and feeling depleted, a group of us came upon a farmer standing by his pickup truck.  By himself in the blistering heat, he was offering water all on his own.  He even offered to take us to the finish line.  When I replied that we had too much invested in the race to quit, he understood and allowed as how his farm was a couple of miles up ahead.  There, he said, we would find his wife with cold drinks and home-baked cookies! Such common ground is not unusual. Along with highlighting the grit of the Education First and other riders, the Rapha films about the Leadville 100 and the former Dirty Kanza, (now Unbound Gravel) document how the races are supporting the two communities financially and promoting mutual appreciation between locals and participants (DK; Leadville). 

 Caleb Swanson 178 miles into the DAMn From Delta of Spirit, filmmaker Kapanke
Caleb Swanson, 178 miles into the DAMn
From “Delta of Spirit,” Nicholas Kapanke, filmmaker

Or consider Ben Weaver.  He is a strong rider who enjoys struggle and effort, but he values people and nature even more.  Loaded down with guitars and bike camping gear, he pedals from town to town, where he collects peoples’ stories, shares his poems and songs, and connects with the land.  He embodies care for the planet in a way that country people appreciate.  For Weaver, wilderness is not just special areas set aside for highly educated, affluent elites.  Rather, it is nearly everywhere, even in our backyards, and everywhere worth protecting.  And as Weaver also tells us, there is something wild in all of us, something that can form a deep bond with a landscape and its people, past and present (Weaver).  

Footprints And Tire Tracks

In How Cycling Can Save the World (Penguin, 2017), Peter Walker criticizes the cost of cars in life and limb and argues that replacing them with bikes would make cities safer and more livable.  He also calculates that if the whole world were to transition to Danish levels of bike use, we would achieve a 57 to 125 percent of the emission reductions currently necessary in the transportation sector for an effective response to global warming.  Achieving Danish levels will be difficult in many areas, however.  In the US, fewer than one percent of people commute to work on bikes and in our most bike friendly cities the percentages of bike commuters range from only six to 20%.  Surveys find that fear of getting hit by a car is the main reason more people do not try commuting to work by bike.  Long commutes in the US are another obstacle. In order to make the Danish pattern more appealing, Walker would have us downplay cycling’s associations with athleticism and risk by getting rid of helmets and brightly colored jerseys, that is, he believes we can increase support for bike lanes and trails by making cycling seem easier and safer. 

Good luck with that.  A more effective approach would promote mountain biking and gravel riding.  While we are waiting for more dedicated bike lanes and trails, mountain biking and gravel racing are increasing the numbers of people who can handle longer bike rides while also increasing the size of the bike lobby.   Gravel riding in particular is growing rapidly, in part because it carries much less risk of getting maimed or killed by a motor vehicle than road cycling. Whether it is expanding mostly at the expense of road biking remains to be seen but, in any case, it becomes part of the lobby for protected bike lanes and dedicated bike trails—bike lanes and trails designed for commuting and recreation also provide access from city and suburbs to gravel roads in the surrounding countryside. 

Cycling lowers carbon footprints in recreation as well as in commuting.  It is estimated that recreational vehicles account for up to 20% of gasoline consumption.  We can hope that at least some off-road vehicle users will find their way to low impact endurance and adventure sports.  Given gravel riding’s rugged persona, it might have the best chance of attracting them. The off roaders seem to share our affection for dirt and getting dirty. The many beards and tattoos in our gravel-riding community also suggest that the off roaders would fit in with us just fine. They would certainly have no problem with our whiskey pit stops and après-race beer and brats.

Final Thoughts

Low carbon footprint is not the only way riding gravel combats climate change.  Just as important if not more so is how it promotes courage and openness while reinforcing connection with people and nature.  We transform ourselves with gravel riding but we also influence people around us, and not just the ones who will decide to dust off their bikes and start riding again.  Our rides and races can be inspirational for all sorts of people.  They are demonstrating that urban-rural friendship is possible and our films are taking our grit, comradery, and affection for nature to audiences around the world.  Gravel riding is not going to save the planet, not by itself, but it is for sure a source of motivation and mindset for supporting each other and keeping our feet to the fire.

[1] David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (Tim Duggan Books, 2019); David Spratt and Ian Dunlop, “The Third Degree: Evidence and Implications for Australia of Existential Climate-Related Security Risk,” Breakthrough Discussion Paper, July 2019.

[2] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millenium (HarperCollins, 1993).

[3] Ken McLeod, Reflections on Silver River: Tokme Zongpo’s Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva (Unfettered Mind Media, 2014), p. 18.

[4] In a brilliant study of Cajon people in Louisiana, Alrlie Russell Hochschild shows how propaganda has persuaded people that their economic security depends on the petrochemical industry even though it is only part of the Louisiana economy (together, fishing and tourism industries are more important) and even though petrochemicals are causing massive environmental destruction to the Cajon people’s beloved swamplands and even though the petrochemicals are causing a cancer epidemic that is ripping through families and friends.  Hochschild shows that similar manipulation of economically stressed people occurs in other states with fossil fuel industries (Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, The New Press, 2016).


Author: John Ingham

About The Author: John Ingham is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He rode a hybrid bike on trails for years. When he retired in 2011, he renewed his earlier passions for rock climbing, mountaineering, and back packing and began doing longer rides. He has been gravel racing for seven years and has completed various races, including the Heck of the North, the Almanzo 100, and the Dirty Lemming 100. Now 80, he appears to be the oldest rider in Minnesota completing major gravel races.

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8 thoughts on “Grit, Courage, and Openness Versus Climate Change: Can Riding Gravel Help Save Us?

  1. Thanks for this, it’s important to begin this dialogue.
    By and large, try to cycle from home instead of traveling via ICE vehicles and then riding. If you need inspiration on doing events outside of your local area, look up stories about Lael Wilcox riding from Alaska to start the Tour Divide in Banff!

    1. @Steve Jones – Thank you for the comments. I have been amazed at the lowered cost of living in many aspects since becoming a commuter by bicycle and by using bicycles and walking instead of using motorized transportation for errands. In many ways, being disconnected from using motorized transportation as much as possible has been like putting money in the bank- both literally and figuratively.

  2. Wow, John… Thank you. I appreciate your perspective and find it particularly poignant right now. I too have seen firsthand the ability for gravel rides to bridge the red-blue divide in rural America. We have a lot of work to do, so anything we can do to enable us to come together and move forward with unity and purpose is valuable. Thanks again.

  3. Very interesting post:
    * flow states and mental health
    * community building and social cohesion
    * bicycles can save the world (a little bit)
    You’ve got me!

  4. John, I’ve enjoyed several of your writings and this one especially resonates with me. I don’t know a thing about meditation but the states of thought you wrote about I understood immediately. Have been riding since you were 34 and I would love to knock you off your spot as oldest rider, but you have quite a lead. Its been great seeing you at the DAMn twice, and chatting with you uphill (yes, folks, he can do that at 80). Keep it up!

  5. Really excellent piece, John. I do especially like your not minimizing the challenges, nor oversimplifying the solutions. You present it all with acumen and sympathy. So many fronts that have to be addressed, yet it does all come down to personal engagement, having the grit and heart to step up, get out, and face up to what has to be done—finishing that ride, figuratively and literally too. Many thanks for this.

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