Friday, April 9, 2010

Close Encounters of the Two-Wheeled Kind Friday

Amsterdam-like Crowd of Bicycles

Some evenings when I go out to the rack after work, mine is the only bike there; other times, there will only be one or two regulars. Tonight, though, I found this happy band of velocipedes waiting for their motors to return and ride them home. But beyond that, they appeared to me as a ragtag collection of powerful tools for changing minds, and therefore, lives: by altering the patterns of thinking of the riders, and also, of those around them. Allow me to explain.

He Thinks Differently from 99% of the People Around Him

I remember the first experiences I had hanging around with people who knew far more than I did about bicycles. These were friends who had raced, spent days in the wilderness bike-camping, worked in bike shops, and had multiple bikes in their stables. People who had finished RAGBRAI multiple times, who talked about next weekend's 100 mile ride with no doubts of finishing it. Sure, I had been on two wheels since kindergarten like most people, but I had never made a practice / study / lifestyle of bicycles like they had. I loved to ride, but I hadn't noticed it yet. People who make a practice of riding regularly, with enthusiasm, and of consciously studying aspects of that practice which interest them (stats, speeds, frames, parts, history, building, maintenance, science, brands, rider position, tires, chain link innovation, gear inches whatever) end up not only knowing things that most of the rest of us don't (and may not want to), but also end up thinking differently. I sensed this when I met them, but couldn't really explain it then. Talking with them about bikes, or riding, or truing a wheel, or bombing down a rocky single-track, was like trying to communicate with a space alien or something. I would make so many statements that were patently wrong, or out of whack, or far from what actually works, that they would end up nodding and smiling at me. I am intolerant of others nodding and smiling at me. I hate it. Yet in those situations, I knew I was talking nonsense, and that they knew sense, and that I deserved the nodding and smiling. So, JR, bring us home here, what's that got to do with....

  This Guy?

Today, about seven people noticed that I ride my bike to work. They made conversation, trying to grasp why the hell someone would do that, how it's even possible, and I could see them struggle with it a bit, either because it's the last thing they would think of doing, or because they kind of wanted to understand, but didn't have many handholds to grab onto to get started. So, the first question they always ask, and you know what it is already, is always, "How far do you ride?" Which sounds sensible, and to the subset of cyclists who find speed and distances and stats an important part of their practice, interesting, but it's not something I care about much any more, definitely not as the first thing I think of, when it comes to the specifics of a ride. Distance ranks around number ten, I think, of the parameters of a given ride that interest me, somewhere around the count of punctured inner tubes I had to patch. (none, usually) But, since I ride it most every day, I know how long the commute is, so I stated a number in the mid-single digits, which is not very far, say, compared to RAGBRAI or a century, on the one hand, but is much farther than most people will ever ride, on the other. As the number of miles cycled on my daily commute started to sink in, they looked like they were talking to a space alien.

 Close Encounters of the Two-Wheeled Kind

I have always preferred to be the agent of changes which affect me, rather than the passive recipient, whenever I have had the opportunity or choice. Every day when people get behind the wheel of the car they (we) make a choice, and in doing so, are active agents in the change that is happening or coming as a result of that choice. When I look at the $4 billion that is planning to be spent in a vain effort to relieve freeway congestion in Phoenix, or at the $12 billion that will be spent on the Keystone XL pipeline to feed the last clotted black drips of petroleum products that will be sucked out of the planet from the oil sands of Athabasca to the refineries in Texas, or at the other negatives of a worldwide car culture about to hit its historic peak, before the inevitable slide down the other side, I feel like I want to try to be an active agent in the changes that will happen. I don't know what those changes will be, and I don't think that me saving a few gallons of gas per week (and not generating a few tons of carbon dioxide) will make much of an impact. But, I do think that there is power and opportunity in changing the way people think. 

Each of those encounters that starts with "Oh, you ride your bike to work?" is actually a chance for me to go beyond the nodding smile of insider knowledge, to reach out and share a different way of looking at the world. A way of seeing that comes from spending a lot of time on two wheels, spinning through the city in the free and open air. A way to span the awkward silence. Not by preaching about cycling, but rather, talking about it openly, sharing the sights and stories. "Today on my ride in, just after dawn, I saw a hawk take a pigeon out of mid-air," is just not the type of experience you can have from inside a car. The feathers floating down, the hawk gliding in an arc to the top of a pole to tear into his squabby breakfast. Make a different reality with different thoughts, and share them with someone. Preferably on two wheels. Get up. Go ride.    


  1. "Close Encounters of the Two-Wheeled Kind" luv it!
    and that purple bike/basket is uber cute :D

  2. Well, think of the number of people driving in their cars and SUV's who see you riding your bike to work. I will bet many of those people think to themselves "I'm tired of this traffic, that guy has the right idea - I'm gonna try riding my bike". Or something like that.

    My point is your actions are probably as effective as your words. Keep riding!

  3. meli thanks! That purple bike makes me want to live closer to a beach though...

    Big Oak Hello! I bet you are right about the people driving and seeing us on bikes. "Keep riding" probably sums up this whole post in two words. There's one four-way stop that I visit every day where I know they see me, because I wait my turn, and look at the long line of idling, crawling cars and SUVs, and they're looking at me. I make it a point to ride a little slower there, and to be seen. Some of them probably still think I'm a space alien. But I also know you're right, that others are going "Damn, that guy is riding his bike to work on this beautiful sunny morning while I'm stuck inside this metal box paying three bucks a gallon to drive two miles." Keep riding indeed!

  4. Only a couple of bikes seen where I work.
    Not to worry though, at the intermediate school near my home, bikes fill the racks and line the fence every day.
    There is hope.

  5. limom seeing the racks at schools full is reason for hope. I should hand out "Athabasca is not the answer" stickers for them to put on their frames. Because most people have never even heard of it. And stickers are cool.


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