Psychic Gasoline: Bikepacking and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

If you’ve ever been on a bike tour, you know that sometimes the most challenging part isn’t necessarily the actual riding. Emma Jones finds answers for overcoming obstacles of bikepacking in Robert M. Pirsig’s classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, while taking on a two month trans-Europe tour. Beware of the Gumption Traps!

It’s summer, and my partner Jack and I have just begun a two-month bikepacking trip that will take us from Slovenia into Italy, onto France and finally Spain. We’re in Ljubljana airport in the early afternoon and I am sat next to a nearly assembled bike and a nearly empty cardboard box. I want to get out on the trail, but my hands cannot seem to find the right angle to reattach my pedal correctly. Tired and frustrated, the excitement I’d felt on the airplane is beginning to lose its shine.

Bikepacking: Untethered Meets Tedium

We’d been to Slovenia before. Back in 2018, when I was a baby-bikepacker, Jack and I took on a western loop route published online. I’d always loved riding, had just purchased my first touring bike, an All-City Space Horse named Baby Blue, and was ready to experience the freedom of tackling incredible trails and some big climbs. I wanted to get away from the monotony and the grind of everyday life, and I was convinced that bikepacking was the answer. I rolled my bike into a huge plastic bag, picked out the books I wanted to read, and we were off.

Any first is a learning experience and this was no different for me. The books, inevitably, fell apart on the trail. But what was more of a shock was the discovery that I found some elements of bikepacking to be tedious. In my naiveté I hadn’t really considered everything else that happens off the bike that makes up the full experience. In between the riding there is the laying out of the tent in the afternoon to dry off the morning dew; the attempts to cook a decent meal from petrol station ingredients; the pleading with the lofty sleeping bag to pack down just a little smaller. Looking back, I realize I was frustrated by the maintenance that ensures the trip can happen. These elements felt like a distraction from the thing I wanted to do above all else, which was to ride.

Now though, I can wrestle any dry bag into submission and pick out a decent, flat-enough pitch from 50 yards away. I’ve learnt a lot since 2018, so it was a strange sensation to be transported back to those familiar feelings of frustration, sitting on the floor of Ljubljana airport with a different bike (Surly’s Karate Monkey) that I was still struggling to put back together. After all this time, why was I finding the mechanical aspects of bikepacking so tough? Clearly, I needed to change my approach. Back in the UK, I started to look for answers and found them in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974).

A Manual to Life

Robert M. Pirsig’s classic is a manual to life. Alongside discussions on long distance motorbiking, Zen, Kantian philosophy, metaphysics and the notion of Quality, Pirsig delineates between two different types of thinking, the Romantic and the Classical. Romantic thinkers, embodied by his riding partners, John and Sylvia Sutherland, see the world as it is and chase experience. The Classical thinker meanwhile is on a quest for the underlying form of the thing, how it works. ‘Although motorcycle riding is romantic’ Pirsig writes, ‘motorcycle maintenance is purely Classic’. I think the same can be said about bikepacking.

The Romantic Thinker

Riding a bike is romantic. How can it not be romantic to pour down singletrack in vaquero country, surrounded by moon rock mountains, or climb into the majesty of the Alps at sunrise, or criss-cross into and then out of bordering countries with that childish thrill of thinking I was there, now I am here. Riding is, inherently, about taking a place in, experiencing it while passing through, feeling it in your body, learning about and from cultures different to your own. It’s pure experience, being in the world at its most intuitive.

Gumption Traps

The problem with being a Romantic thinker, however, is that it means I can get frustrated and anxious when something happens that interrupts this flow state. The off-the-bike elements of bikepacking can mess with my ‘gumption’, what Pirsig defines as the ‘psychic gasoline’ that keeps us going. It’s the energy and enthusiasm we bring to any task and, when that energy wanes, we hit a ‘gumption trap’. It’s the perfect definition for the mental block that strikes when something takes the air out of our tires (whether metaphorically or in actuality).

While other readers may find their gumption traps hit them while riding a seemingly endless false flat, or an epic sandy trail, or pushing through a particularly long hike-a-bike, my gumption trap territory is the mechanical. I’ve always struggled with manual dexterity, so putting the bike together or taking it apart is a prime gumption trap moment. That’s what hit me in the airport. While I’ll always find bike maintenance difficult, the question is how to approach such situations in a way that can reignite my gumption when it is waning.

Having someone to talk through the problem with is a good solution to this gumption trap, and I am forever grateful to Jack for taking the time to be on hand to lessen my anxieties about over-tightening or threading. In practical terms, just as getting better at technical riding allows me to tackle more difficult trails, so does learning about bike maintenance allow for more remote offroad riding. It almost goes without saying that it makes me a better, more responsible, riding partner too.

Topping Off the Psychic Gasoline Means Slowing Down

One of the reasons I enjoy riding so much is because it fully places me within a specific moment. If I’m being honest though, perhaps this love of riding (and my reticence to stop) also complemented the lifestyle I had carved out for myself in London, one that prioritised being busy, moving quickly, working hard. One of Pirsig’s approaches to gumption traps is to slow right down, really look at what’s in front of you. It’s a mindset shift, and it takes time to foster.

My initial frustration with the necessary maintenance of bikepacking trips has lessened not just through practice, but also through giving these tasks my complete attention. Even if I get my bike part names mixed up, or still struggle with what size a certain part is, I am beginning to understand what goes where, how each part interacts. To be present in these moments, rather than yearning to ride, is a way of thinking that can have as much of an impact on life off the bike as much of the joy of riding echoes weeks, months, years later.

To be completely absorbed in a task, enjoying the way things work, how the pieces fit together to form the whole. This is the epitome of Classical thinking, understanding the nuts and bolts of the world we move through every day. That said, I’ll still enjoy the ride as a Romantic, bring a slim volume with me for wet nights in the tent, pack a thin black dress as my off the bike outfit. Life, afterall, is about finding balance. It’s probably not inconsequential that I’ve decided to name my Karate Monkey the Zen Master, in honour of the writer who changed my approach to bikepacking.