I wrote about this a while back, but here's a video I made about how riding a bike can improve your memory. I hope you enjoy it.
If you're young and British and ready to get out and see the world on a bicycle, the Janapar Grant is probably one of the best things that could happen to you.
I'll fill you in on the details below, but if you can't wait, then here's the link: http://janapar-grant.org.uk/
The Janapar Grant was started by Tom Allen, after his own multi-year bike tour around the world (you can watch the film by the same name here
The applications are being accepted "In early 2016," but as of today all they have is a form where you can leave your email if you're interested.
All I can say is, if you are between the ages of 18 and 25, live in the UK, and don't have any work-related conflicts, you should be interested.
If you are accepted, you'll get all the equipment you need: bike, tools, panniers, tent, sleeping gear, and cook set. Better yet, you'll be mentored by some of the best-known names in bike touring, including Emily Chappell, Tom Allen, and several others.
If I qualified, I would jump on this. Just the application itself will get you thinking about your trip, planning, and sorting out both your route and your motivation.
Alas, I'm not British, and I'm nearly double the maximum eligible age. Still, old geezer that I am, whenever I set off on another journey I feel the same excitement and joy that I felt in my twenties--maybe more. Bike touring is a lifelong passion. But if you're reading this you probably already knew that.
Once again here's the link to the Janapar Grant:
By the way, what would happen if you didn't see this blog post and missed out on your chance to apply for the Janaper Grant?
Lucky for you, whenever I have a really important post, especially one that's going to improve the quality of your life, I email it to everyone on my tips list. If you're not on that list, you could have already missed out! Be sure to sign up below, or in the box to your right.
You might get lost the first time you try a new a bike route. But chances are you’ll never get lost in the same place a second time.
On the second bike ride, you’ll remember where to go, what the route looks like, and definitely how steep the hills are. Certain landmarks will look familiar. Even if you don’t go back there again for a week, you’ll remember where to go.
Compare this to reading an article or a chapter in a book. How much do you remember a week after you read it?
Reading and memorizing facts are difficult tasks for your brain. But your visual memory is extraordinary.
For tens of thousands of years, human beings had to find their way around without maps or GPS. To this day, we’re still pretty good at learning our way around in one sitting. Your brain is hard-wired to detect visual cues and physical locations.
One of the great secrets to a better memory is to harness that visual memory to perform the more difficult tasks.
The story goes that the Greek poet Simonides once did a recitation in front of a room full of dinner guests. When he finished, he thanked his audience and left the building.
Moments later, an earthquake struck, and the building was reduced to rubble. Simonides was incredibly fortunate to survive, but an even greater fortune was the discovery he made about the human mind that day.
The Greek building was made of heavy stone and marble. Not only were the guests instantly killed, but it was virtually impossible to identify their remains.
This is where Simonides came in to help. He remembered what everything looked like as he stood before his audience. He could visually recall where each guest was seated, and he could lead their loved ones directly to the spot.
This event led to the development of the "memory palace" technique. You substitute visual data that's easy to recall with difficult information that you want to remember.
We'll illustrate this with a bike ride.
Let’s say you have to learn a list of Italian verbs. You can associate them with different places on your route, and you’ll be able to remember them about as easily as you can remember the route itself.
Let’s say I start by riding out of my driveway into the street. My first Italian word is calciare, which means “to kick.” So I picture my neighbor’s SUV parked in the street, and I stop and give the tire a big kick.
Next I ride down to the main street, where there’s a bike trail that goes along the railroad tracks. The second word is “attraversare” which means “to cross,” so I imagine crossing the tracks.
I leave the bike trail and take a road that winds up into the mountains. Pretty soon I’ve worked up a sweat, so I add the word “sudore” which means to sweat. The next word is “stappare” to “unstop.” It’s like the motion of uncorking a wine bottle, so I “stappare” my water bottle and pour half of it over my sweaty shiny bald head. Then I drink the rest, remembering the word “bere” which means to drink.
I’m just getting warmed up at the beginning of the bike ride, and already I’ve memorized half of my list.
Why am I writing about Jedi mind tricks in a bicycling post?
The bicycle is one of those things that can liberate you from what I call the soft perils of 21st century life. Already you're probably healthier than a lot of your peers, because you often travel on your own physical power. Why not give your mind the same freedom?
One of these days, a dead battery or a weak signal will turn your smart phone into a mere decoration for the inside of your pocket. Then it’s time for you to take control and use the resources you have. That means your bike, your body, and your brain.
Limits of the Memory Palace
I showed you how to memorize a bunch of verbs. But that's a far cry from being able to speak a foreign language. The truth is that memory is just a foundation. There's a lot more to learning.
But riding your bike will help you with other thinking processes such as fluency, synthesis, and creativity. We'll get to that in another post.
In trying to publish a book about the via Appia bike tour, I'm following James Altucher's Ultimate Guide to Self-Publishing.* He has a checklist of 20 items meant to get you through the whole process, from the idea to the finished product.
I'm hung up on step 2.
The first item on the checklist is, "Write every day." Over the past six months, I've been close. Now I have a calendar in front of my computer where I get to put a yellow slash each day I write, and the number of days in a row.
It's heartbreaking to get to 30 or 40 days, then skip a day and have to start over again at zero. This keeps me motivated. This might be a good training tip, come to think of it. If you're getting ready for a bike tour, and you want to exercise every day, you could use this same process to stay on track.
But that second item on the list is a killer, at least for me: "Decide what the book is about."
There's an easy answer, or at least an obvious one. It's about a bike tour of the ancient Roman road, the Appian Way. But I want the book to be about more than just this.
The book is about pursuing your dreams. Pyrrhus shows up a lot in my story, because he had a dream of becoming rich and powerful by conquering sections of Italy. He was essentially stopped by Appius Claudius, the builder of the via Appia who famously said, "Every man is the architect of his own fortune."
Appius Claudius had a dream of building aqueducts and roads that would make his name immortal. He achieved all this relatively early in his career.
Claudius and Pyrrhus were notorious for their ability to "just do it." When they had a dream, they would go for it.
I'm not a Pyrrhus or a Claudius. I first stumbled onto via Appia while trying to walk off a hangover after a night of partying in Rome. That very day I fell in love with the road and the idea of taking a bike tour along her entire length.
It was seven years before I did anything about it.
But it turns out it truly is better late than never. I did follow my dream, however belatedly, and I made that first bike tour seven years after I first got the idea.
Now the new dream is to write a book. Or rather, to publish it. I've been writing for years. A lot of the manuscript came directly out of a journal that I kept during the bike tour, a bunch of papers held together (ironically) with rubber strips taken from old inner tubes.
I think I've got a decent manuscript for the book now, but what is the book really about? I want it to be meaningful for someone who never plans to do a bike tour in Italy.
It's about following through on your dreams, no matter how late and slow you are, and no matter how foolish the dream. That must be it. Be the architect of your own fortune, better late than never.
Step 3 in Altucher's Checklist is simply this: "Write it well." Fair enough. I think the first draft is decent, and I've generally gotten good reviews along with a lot of constructive criticism from people who've read the manuscript.
But can I really write it well if I'm not clear on what the book is about?
It feels like I'm at the beginning of a steep hill at the start of a long bike tour. I'm in the lowest gear standing in the saddle, just to get past steps 2 and 3 on the checklist.
There are 20 items I need to check off in total. Maybe in another seven years I'll be able to tick them off and be a self-published author.
Here's the good news. Becoming the architect of your own fortune is just like pushing yourself forward on a difficult ride. You'll get there.
I can almost guarantee you'll get there faster than I will.
This was a rant about my new book on biking down the Appian Way. If you would like to read the entire book, or even join me on a future bike tour of via Appia, subscribe below and I'll keep you up-to-date. Your email will not be published, and I will never share it with anyone.
On a bike trip in Colorado, I got my butt handed to me on a Frisbee by guys who were 15 years older than me.
I blamed it on the altitude. And it's true that after a few days I could almost keep up with them. At least close enough that they mostly stopped making fun of me.
This was my introduction to middle age. I thought I was in great shape, but really I've been turning into a bike potato.
For years I scorned people who deliberately trained. "Just get on your bike and ride," I thought.
I also avoided any talk about racing. I'm all about bike touring, not racing.
Now I've done a bit of reading, and I learned the shocking truth: Bike touring can be an emasculating, power-sapping habit. It can turn your strong, youthful body into a flaccid meat suit.
A physical therapist told me I should never do another bike tour again after the age of 40. I will not be following his advice.
If you're a stubborn fanatic like me, and you insist on bike touring, here are the dangers and how to reverse them.
Danger #1: Repetitive Stress Syndrome
If you take a short bike ride that lasts a few hours, you're going to gain a lot of physical benefits. Bike touring is different.
On a bike tour, you're in the saddle for hours on end. Probably six hours or more. Maybe 10 or 12 if you're a fanatic. I've done this on bike tours of Italy.
During that time, your back and shoulder muscles are straining to hold up your head. Your arms are locked on to the handlebars. Your knees are grinding along, over and over, with continuous pressure on the exact same spot.
In a more natural activity, you would be moving around a lot, using different muscles in different ways, shifting your weight around onto different joints, and generally stimulating and using most of your body.
On a bike tour, you're concentrating all the effort and all the strain. Many muscles are cramped far inside their normal range of motion. Other muscles aren't used at all.
Danger #2: Depletion of Your Reserves
You have a limited amount of glycogen stored in your muscles and your liver. On an extended bike tour, you may not have time for your muscles to recover. Your glycogen may be used up without sufficient time to replace it.
When this happens, you might start burning protein instead. Keep this up for too long, and you can end up with a loss of muscle mass.
You may have noticed the skinny leg syndrome that some people have on a bike tour. Over time, you'll lose power and stamina because of the loss of muscle.
Danger #3: Inertia
If you're on a bike tour, you're probably trying to cover a lot of ground each day, and you'll likely have an interest in conserving your energy.
You're probably also thinking of the bike tour as a vacation, which means you'll be more relaxed.
These two factors have a tendency to make you ride more slowly. The problem is, you're essentially training yourself to ride slowly. A slow rider tends to get slower.
One of the most useful and practical bits of advice I've found is from Roy M. Wallack in his book, Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100--and Beyond. (see below) He suggests taking shorter tours.
This is great advice for many reasons. First, it minimizes the damage of the three dangers. If you're only touring for 3 days, a lot of the problems with bike touring simply won't have time to develop. It's also useful against the mental and psychological damage that bike touring can inflict.
Short tours are also more practical. You can fit them into a busy life. Do a weekend bike tour, and you won't have to miss work.
Better yet, you can turn a long tour into several short ones. For example, when I bike the via Appia next time, my plan is to ride for a day or two, then stop in one place and take a few days to really explore, talk to the locals, and have a learning/cultural experience while my body recovers.
One of my dreams is to tour around the entire Mediterranean sea. Realistically, my wallet and the geopolitical situation won't allow it. But maybe I'll reach my goal over several years, one country at a time. Turns out this will be good for my health, too.
Another way to defend yourself from the ravages of bike touring is to tour the way you train. Alternate long tours with short tours. Have days when you ride as fact as you can, or at least include sprints into part of your journey. Make a conscious decision whether to attack a hill all-out or to merely endure it.
Finally, add some cross training into the tour. Stop for a day and go hiking. If you're strapped for time, just do a bunch of push-ups in the morning, or take a 20-minute yoga break when you find a good spot along the route.
A bit of thoughtfulness will let you reap all the benefits of bike touring while avoiding the dangers. You may even finish the tour feeling fresh and invigorated.
Mentioned in this post:
Bike touring can mean a lot of different things.
For months I agonized over what I really wanted to say in this book. I wondered whether it was even worth putting out there.
I know I didn't want to write another travelogue. I hope if you'll read it you'll set out on many glorious journeys of your own, but I can't expect you to care very much about mine. I tried to serve up nuggets of history, tips, and suggestions seasoned with a sprinkling of local color and personal experience.
What finally came out was a big surprise.
The rest of this post is about how I did it. If you've ever thought about writing a book of your own, the rest of this post might be useful. If not, then you can skip it. Save your time, and go for a bike ride instead.
How to Select a Best-Selling Title for Your Book
I had a lot of things I wanted to say in this book, so it was easy to come up with over a dozen titles. The first step was to narrow it down a bit, so I talked to a lot of people and threw out the titles they thought were the worst.
I finally pared it down to these three, which are pretty straightforward:
Biking the Appian Way
Biking via Appia
Biking Rome to Brindisi
I paired each one of these with a subtitle, and repeated them without the word "biking."
Next I created a google adwords campaign.
If you've never done this, it's pretty simple. You start by picking a batch of keywords. I used things like "bike touring Italy" "ancient Roman roads," and the names of various cities and towns along via Appia.
Once you have your keywords, you create your ads, which have a main headline and two subheadings. I simply used my titles and subtitles, and I was good to go.
When people search for your keywords, a lot of them will see one or more of your ads (Google shows them at random). You get data showing how many times an ad was seen, how many clicks it got, plus a lot of other useful information.
One title and subtitle of mine got nearly twice the clicks of any of the others. Within days, I had a winner:
Biking Rome to Brindisi: How traveling the ancient via Appia saved me from a life of quiet desperation
If you want to read the pre-publication edition, contact me by leaving a comment below.
Ask almost anyone to find Italy on a map of Europe and they can do it.
It's shaped like a boot.
Last night that venerable Italian boot gave me a solid kick in the head. "Use this, you fool!" it said to me. Here's a great way to boost your memory, using the shape and layout of different places.
Let's say you're taking a biochemistry exam, and you have to memorize the different groups. That's a hard task, so let's turn it into something easy.
Let's say you have to walk to your friend's house. Your friend only lives a few blocks away, and you've walked there once already. You know the way. After just one try.
Your brain is very good at finding its way around. Your ancestors were walking back from the lake to the cave 10,000 years ago, and you've inherited their skill.
Now let's apply that skill to learn biochemistry. Here's how it works.
Imagine that walk to your friends house. There are certain landmarks you'll see along the way. All you have to do is attach each biochemistry group to one of those landmarks.
For instance, one of the houses you pass has a big cardboard box on the porch. You imagine a car speeding around the corner, crashing into the box. The car-box. The carboxyl group. You could even imagine the car spews carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and a boxer comes along and punches the driver in the face.
The more personal, vivid, and strange your images, the more likely you'll remember them. Let's move on.
As you're walking, you pass a chain link fence. You could imagine it is a long chain of smaller molecules, a polymer. I like to picture it as DNA. Then a guy (or a girl) comes along and chains his/her bike to the fence. The cyclist uses a very strange method to lock up the bike, involving a whole group of locks. Method, methyl. The methyl group is attaching to the DNA molecule.
You get the idea, I hope. I'm using this to memorize all the Roman emperors. For me, that's tougher than biochemistry. How can you use this?
- As a checklist before your bike tour, to make sure you don't leave anything behind
- As a reminder of crossroads and important sites on your bike route
- To remember names of people you meet on a bike tour
- If you can't get to a journal or blog, this could help you remember the highlights of your trip so you can share them later on
I'm memorizing the Roman emperors because I want to be an expert on via Appia, the ancient Roman road that ran from Rome to Brindisi. I biked the entire route, and I'm planning another trip in a year or so. I'm also publishing a book about via Appia this year.
If you want to hear more about these things, including where to find the book or how to join me on the next tour, all you have to do is sign up for my email list below. I'll never share your email with anyone.
If you've done much bike touring, you're probably able to travel great distances on your own power. Very few people would consider this normal. You've changed the rules, and you're in good company. This is the secret to many great accomplishments.
But we still know his name today. And he set the stage for game-changers like Julius Caesar.
In fact, all of the extravagant debauchery of the later Roman emperors was made possible because each emperor went beyond what was considered "normal."
How to Change Your Life in 5 Seconds
You can upgrade yourself and your situation by simply deciding on a new "normal." Your brain is an incredibly powerful problem-solving machine.
There are probably things you're not happy about, but you've been silently accepting them for a long time. They've become normal. What happens if you choose a new "normal?"
Right away, you start thinking about how to make improvements. Things you took for granted are no longer acceptable. All kinds of clever ideas pop into your mind. And you feel a surge of energy to start implementing some of those ideas.
Here are three steps to help you get started:
Step 1: Define your new Normal
About a year ago, I asked myself, "Is it normal to sleep less than 6 hours a night and try to keep functioning by constant caffeine infusions?"
I had been reading about the bad effects that sleep deprivation can have on your brain, your memory, reflexes, the immune system, muscle growth, speed, and even hormone levels.
At the time, sleep deprivation was my Normal, and a good-night's sleep was the exception. I had to reverse this.
Step 2: Enforce the new Normal
For a month I made sure I slept for 7-8 hours every night. Some chores went unfinished. Some friends and family members may have felt neglected. But I was creating a new Normal.
When you enforce the new normal, you won't have to be a fanatic about it forever. Just get it established at the beginning.
Step 3: Don't stress the exceptions
Now I can go without sleep once in a while if I need to get things done. It's the exception, not the rule. The next day I'll feel tired and weak, irritable and confused, sometimes even nauseated. But then I remind myself that I used to feel that way all the time. It was normal. Now it's just weird.
Let's say you decide to bike a century twice a week, or study Spanish for 2 hours every evening. Once it becomes part of your routine, you don't have to worry if you miss out every once in a while. It will be easy to get back into the swing of things, because you've made it the 'normal' thing to do.
Challenge the Normal
What do you consider normal that you should re-examine?
Is it "normal" to have a job that keeps you from spending time with people and activities you care about? Shouldn't it be normal to give yourself a full month every now and then to go on an extended long bike tour? Is it normal to have back pain, to eat junk food, to watch TV shows that don't really entertain you?
Are you hurting yourself by what you think is normal? Is your Normal holding you back? Who told you this was normal? Are you required to spend your life according to someone else's Normal?
I challenge you to redefine your Normal. It's a beautiful and terrifying power, and it's yours. You can do anything.
I'm almost finished with a book about bike touring on the Appian Way. If you would like to read the entire book, or even join me on a future bike tour of via Appia, subscribe below and I'll keep you up-to-date. Your email will not be published, and I will never share it with anyone.
A heavy block of lead was dumped on me this week. My first response was to take the concept of "temper tantrum" to a whole new level. But my wife convinced me to take a hike with her, talk things through, and look at new possibilities.
About two hours later I had turned the lead into gold. Here's what happened.
My latest quest is to finish the via Appia book, get a cover designed, record the audio version and upload everything to Amazon. I was all set to do this over a small vacation later this month. But my employer had other ideas.
I was offered an "opportunity" this week. Terrible things will happen to a lot of people if I don't accept the new responsibility.
Now the vacation has been postponed to December, but that's not all. Over the last few months I've managed to set aside an hour or two to write each day. Now I'll have to use that time to plan and prepare for my new job "opportunity."
However, I'm not complaining anymore. I'll get the book finished a little bit later than planned. More importantly, I've figured out some ways that my new job responsibilities (which don't come with any additional money by the way) can actually help me finish and promote the book. This may even help me get more time for bike touring in the future.
The lesson here is not "buck up." The lesson is "transform."
Alchemy and bike touring
A long long ago, there were wizards who could turn lead into gold.
At least that's the old popular legend. The modern popular legend is something like Paolo Coelho's famous book, The Alchemist. The hero has a dream, and he goes out and pursues it. I won't spoil the story, but let's just say if you're interested in bike touring you'll find a lot in The Alchemist that will resonate.
If you're reading this, you're probably on a similar path, chasing down a dream. Or you're going to be there soon.
But sometimes heavy obstacles will come along and block you, or weigh you down. Just when you're close to the goal, annoying things like recessions, back injuries, and broken spokes get in your way. They'll trip you up every time. Which brings me back to alchemy.
The obstacles are the raw materials that refine you and shape your destiny. They are the painful chunks of lead that you will turn into gold.
You've probably run into a problem before. If nothing else, think about when your bike broke down in the middle of a ride or worse yet in the middle of a tour. You probably figured out how to fix it. You'll get amazingly creative on a bike tour.
Better still, whenever you sacrifice comfort and convenience, you are compensated with adventures and discoveries. This is what happened to me at work this week.
And this is what brings me to the real secret of alchemy.
You're always going to run into problems. Even when you're not trying to travel hundreds of miles balanced on this wheels and propelled by nothing but your own force of will.
Bike touring is a great way to train for all the rest of life, because you have to deal with whatever happens, and you'll usually come out better off. If nothing else, you'll have a good story to tell everyone over dinner.
If you remember this, you can develop superpowers. The next time you're dealing with petty, frustrating people, you can think back to that broken chain link on the mountain pass, or the wrong turn you didn't discover until two hours later.
The troubles and obstacles you encounter in life are the lead, the gross matter that you can transform. The unexpected rewards, maybe the act of transformation itself, are the gold.
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Note: There's a free prize at the end of this post!
Are you looking for a new bike ride?
Here's a way you can have a good ride anytime, anyplace, anywhere in the world. Try this technique and you'll never get bored. You'll get some good exercise, make new discoveries, and... well, I'll save the third thing, the big bonus prize, the absolute number one reason you should try this out, for the end of the post.
- Open up Google maps or some other mapping browser and look up your own address.
- Put it right in the center of your screen.
- Zoom out once or twice. The more ambitious you are, the more you'll zoom out
- Figure out a tour that takes you through the safest, most challenging, most scenic areas on your screen. If you don't know what they are, go out and find them!
It's up to you what you'll include in step 4, but here are few things that come to mind: Coffee shops, parks, museums, places you're not supposed to ride but you'll do it anyway, steep hills, your favorite place.
I just made this up. As far as I know, nobody else has talked about it. Maybe there's a reason for that.
Try it out, and tell me what you think. I'll share mine in a future post.
Now for your free prize:
I'm reading a book called The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler. It's about how to achieve "flow," a very powerful state of mind where you can do things that are normally out of human reach.
Think riding your mountain bike off the roof of a skyscraper, landing on a slanted roof farther down, which you use as a ramp to propel yourself into the air where you do a double backflip before opening your parachute and gliding to a perfect landing on the front lawn of the Embassy.
Kotler writes about the conditions that can put you in that state of mind in a "normal" day-to-day world. If you get there, you can move beyond your limits as a musician, photographer, dancer, or stock trader. You can take something you're good at and become extraordinary in a short amount of time.
One of the key conditions is novelty. There's a reason the best athletes, artists, and professionals are always pushing the envelope. Whenever you stimulate your mind with something new, it creates physical, chemical, and electrical changes in your brain and in your entire nervous system.
These changes don't just enable you to do the impossible once. They help you learn faster, so that you can redefine what is possible and what is impossible.
If you start seeking out new bike routes in your old neighborhood, you might discover that you have more energy, or you're communicating with people more easily. You'll think more clearly, even when you're dealing with issues that have nothing to do with bike rides.
When you bike a new route, you're on your way to developing superhuman powers.