Interdisciplinary Learning and Returning to the Bike

I believe character is not built during moments of triumph but during lonely moments of failure – its inception is born of self-doubt and forged by challenge.  What we hope to make, resilience.

Nothing has reminded me of this more than cycling.

I am my mother’s daughter.

I am my mother’s daughter, and I have the hands of my grandmother and the spirit of my aunt.  My mother was born one of seven in the rural, impoverished countryside of Henan province, China in 1958 during the “Great Chinese Famine” (1958-1961), one of the single largest tragedies in modern China’s history.  The three years that killed over 15 million people through hunger was a result of the failure of politicians and a series of natural disasters[1].   It revealed the inefficiency of government, the costly tolls of pride, and brutality of the human condition.  When a politician makes a mistake, it is the poor who suffer.

I remember where I come from.  My father has never let me forget.  I grew up with his stories of feeling hungry, of his mother who fed him warmed water when they ran out of food so that he could sleep at night.  I remember his stories about the brutal beatings, lynching and torturing of families who stole food during that period, people who were killed publicly for stealing sweet potatoes for their family during famines.  If there is a true form of evil, I believe it reveals itself through hunger.

But as cruel and unfair as life can be, providence can bless.  The Chinese government made it possible in the 1970’s for anyone to attend university if they qualified through national examinations.  Both my parents, educated in dust and asbestos, soon found themselves overwhelmed in the big city, attending university and seeing for the first time opportunities that they had known existed.  When I talk to my mother about that period in her life, she only remembers being worried that she looked ragged compared to the sophisticated city kids (that people would laugh at her for her one pair of trousers and shirt).  She forgets the challenges she overcame in studying for the national examinations, the cold nights in the stone underground hole (her “yao dong”) that she studied in, and the strength she must have shown to have been able to do so well that by 1986, we were living in Beijing.

In 1990, my mother was on academic scholarship for a phD program at Clarkson University in upstate New York.  Eight years later, she bought her first house in Cheshire, Connecticut, an upper middle-class surburban town filled with professionals who wanted to start a family.  Six years later, her daughter began attending one of the elite Ivy League universities in the country.  Because of her, I had been accepted to every single college I had applied for, and the only tipping point that led me to choose Yale over Harvard was that I would miss her, and my then 4-year-old little sister, Sophia, too much to move to Boston.

But I cannot take credit for my past accomplishments as I find that my entire life, I have been standing on the shoulders of giants, of women who have held me up and reminded me of where I come from.

Returning to the Bike

Athleticism is an attitude.

When I ran my first marathon in 2006, I learned that the race began at mile 22.  It began during the moments when your legs start to crumble under lactic acid and fatigue, when you pray for uphills instead of downhills so that your knees don’t give out for under you, when your insides are begging you to stop.  The race begins at the moment when you lose your dignity.  I cried after my first marathon, it was so painful.  But when I think back to mile 22 and why I want to do it again, it’s always because that’s when you learn the most about yourself.

Cycling has taught me a lot about introspection and boundaries.  It has often been the races where I’ve struggled the most that I learn my hardest lessons about racing and about my own personality.  It is during those critical seconds when you decide to hold onto the wheel in front of you or let it go, when you decide to sprint, or when you decide to sit up.  Those moments change the entire race.  It is in retrospect of those moments when you realize who you allowed yourself to be, what you are ashamed of, and what you are proud of.  Those are the best moments of a race.


Sometimes, a good race feels like an art form, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re winning, losing, or in the middle of the pack; as long as it’s your own race, it’s your own story.  And many times, the best stories are written by the racers who are in the back of the pack, who finish a race last but have something to say about it.  I didn’t understand this fully until I coached a collegiate team in the US.  As a coach, you know a lot of the personal struggles that each athlete goes through, and so a race is no longer just a result but the cover of a story.  Some of my most inspiring athletes were the ones who struggled to finish a race, but it is their strength in adversity that I find myself drawing towards during my own moments of weakness.

Just as cycling has always been my greatest teacher, it has also been my best disguise.  For the past three years, I have used endurance sports as a cover to bide time from facing my own personal guilt.  I have heard the phrase that every endurance athlete is running away from something, and in the past year, it was true for me: I had scheduled my life around a sport not because I could inspire people through my racing or because I loved it so much that it was the thing I wanted to spend my life doing, but because it kept me from facing the real issues that ate away at me.  I am my mother’s child.  I have my grandmother’s hands and my aunt’s spirit.  I don’t forget where I come from, even though I’ve tried.  At thirteen and spoiled in surburban Connecticut, I cried because of a bad race.  At eighteen, I cried over a boy.  At twenty-five, I cried over Syria.  It is maturity and self-introspection that helps you realize these things about yourself, but it is strength that pushes you to do something about it.  That is how I found myself studying economics at the London School of Economics, when I had never studied the subject before.

Pain can teach you a lot about when to respect your body.  Frustrated at a crash-related injury last season, I had wanted to come back this season reclaiming the type of racer I had trained myself into becoming.  With increasing pressure at school and trying to maintain 16-20 hours a week on the bike training, I was sent from doctor to doctor in April to try and figure out why my body was falling apart.  In the end, it came down to a choice:  focus on finishing the master’s program well or focus on cycling well.

So six weeks ago, I made a decision that cycling would no longer be a top priority.  In fact, I would forget about it for a while because there just wasn’t time to do both.  On the surface, it’s a trivial decision that so many people make all the time when they begin a family, start a job, or try to finish a degree.  But it was something I, and many athletes who attach identity to their sport, had struggled with for three years of my life.  Finally, I mustered up the strength to move away from the bike.  It wasn’t a decision I made alone.  I had been standing on the shoulders of giants, of women who have supported me and encouraged me: this time, my teammates.

“Sitting on the Shoulders of Giants”

Like the rest of my classmates, I was really struggling in school during the weeks of May.  We had all been working on campus from seven or eight in the morning until past eleven at night.  After 4 hours of sleep, I decided to enter in a National race at Hillingdon.  I struggled in the race – I couldn’t sprint in the final lap for the first time in my life because I was so exhausted, and finding myself wedged between the feeling of failure in one area of my life and a potential failure in the next, I felt very lost.  That afternoon, Charlotte called me, suggested that she pick me up in her car, and make me a hot chocolate at her house.  She doesn’t know this but it was her kindness that day which marked a turning  point for me, for character is not built during moments of triumph but during lonely moments of failure.

Over the past few weeks, every single person on this team helped support me and inspired me during a very personal time of my life.  For example, I only hope to be a fraction of the person that Elise is – she doesn’t know this, but I have never met someone with such pure athleticism before.  She is strong but gentle, kind but not patronizing; she is a quiet leader who sacrifices for others and inspires through example.  I admit now that it is through her example that I’ve tried to draw inspiration from over and over again.

So what is it that cycling has taught me?  I know how to work hard.  I know how to suffer all too well.  I know Louise’s smile, Jo’s laugh, Lydia’s enthusiasm.  I know Anna’s dedication, Helen’s humor, and Nik’s free spirit.  I know Sam’s quiet but unrelenting support.  Through and because of them, I know how to pick myself up over and over again.

It was my mother who inspired me during the final moments of finishing the degree.  She asked me if I had ever stopped during the middle of a race because of pain, sickness, or exhaustion.  In truth, I haven’t.  I’ve made myself sick, but I’ve never stopped.  She said to me one night after I had studied all day, “This is the same thing.  Why stop now?”  It’s true: I am not afraid of falling today, tomorrow, next year or ten years from now.  I’ve fallen so many times and gotten back up.

Hello, Bike.  It’s nice to meet you again.

Some may think the Nocturne may not have been the best choice of races to enter after 6 weeks off, 1 injury, and an average of 5 hours of sleep for that time (i.e. le coach).  But in a way, it was humorously poetic (like, a comedy, really).  I think I was triple lapped by the leaders in that race, and I found myself trying to stay with a small group in the back (we were so disorganized that I spent some of the race on their wheels, then some of the race pulling them around, all of us too shell-shocked to actually rotate or work with one another).  When Charlie lapped me, she whispered, “Honey Badger”, our team’s secret mascot.  I couldn’t help but smile.

We all have to begin again somewhere.   The Nocturne is somewhere.   A few races later, and this will have all been forgotten.  But it was an important race for me.  I have never performed so poorly, but yet the race was so personally successful.  The welcoming from my teammates for getting back on the race scene, seeing them around me on the course, hurting with them once again, it reminded me why I loved racing.  And here’s a secret: when you have nothing to lose, you have everything to gain.

And so to end: My life has been an integrated force of experience, hobbies, and thoughts.  Cycling has taught me as much as LSE has through the people I’ve met and the failures I’ve experienced: the sport has taught me to succeed with grace; to get back on the saddle over and over again; to know that you never have to suffer alone because you always have a group of 8 out on the fields with you.  In the end, it has also quietly reminded me to never forget where I come from, that I have my grandmother’s legs, and my mother’s free-spirit.  This silly little sport of riding around in circles has shown me that we are each far stronger than we think, and that whether the problems we face in the other parts of our lives revolve around solving problems of poverty, economics, engineering, education, law, literature, medicine or architecture, the same athleticism that we show on the bike can be transferred and reused.

So, with that, I will ride and race today, tomorrow, this summer not for pride or results or identity but to learn how to suffer harder and more gracefully.  I do it so that I can learn something to take away with me when I need those lessons again.

Hello, Bike.  It’s nice to meet you again.

[1] These figures run from 15 million to 45 million due to the lack of sources documenting the deaths of the people in the countryside.


2 thoughts on “Interdisciplinary Learning and Returning to the Bike

  1. As usual, your writing speaks to me. Glad you are back in the saddle; enjoy those miles and those hedgerows!!!

  2. “Pan Pan doesn’t know it, but she keeps our team together and we all fell in love with her back last winter.” I’m very proud that you are on the team xxx

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