Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ode to the Bicycle


When I was in 8th grade, I was addicted to basketball. “Addicted” is the precise term to describe the sensation I had that until I had my hands on the bumpy surface of that spherical orb, until I could dribble it this way and that and loft it in the air and hear it swish through the metal chains of the net, I was restless and ill at ease. I needed it so badly that in the winter, I would walk three blocks to the local playground, ball in one hand, shovel in the other, and actual shovel the court myself just so I could dribble and shoot, snow and 25 degree weather be damned. That’s how bad it was.

And now I have a little of the same feeling about bicycles. Oh, I can get through the day without biking and not get the shakes—in fact, many days and sometimes whole weeks—but when I mount the saddle and start pumping the pedals, there is that same gratifying bodily sensation I felt back in my basketball days of being at home, of some deep physical need fulfilled. I felt it today as we rented bikes by the Grand Teton park entrance and rode for 25 glorious miles on the newly completed bike path under the gaze of the breathtaking mountains on one side and expansive sagebrush meadows on the other.

Since yesterday’s entry was an Ode to the Auto, it is only fitting to praise the bicycle. No sheet metal over your head, no floorboard under your feet, just you in the crisp mountain air inhaling the clouds and feeling the always-threatening, but never-delivering occasional rain drops and the wind on your face. Away from the toys that can either feed or distract—the radio, the in-car video system, the car phone—it’s a different kind of solitude. A good time to plan classes or review where you summered the past twenty years or just let your thoughts fly with the breeze.

The old adage “chopping wood heats you twice” has its bicycle parallel. Biking gets you somewhere while saving you the trip to the gym. It has that element of swiftness and speed that is the stuff of mythology, but also the chance to just drift and amble. And stop. Today, the most enormous elk I had ever seen peeked out down the road before crossing. The bike allowed me to silently creep up and see where he had gone. I also spotted and stopped for deer, a distant moose, several marmots and a host of inviting wildflowers— larkspur, spring beauties, an occasional lupine.

Like the car, the bicycle promises adventure. When I was 10 years old in suburban New Jersey, riding one-speed bikes without helmets, my friends and I decided to take off one day and cross the Goethals Bridge some 25 miles away. And cross it we did, all the way down the other side into Staten Island. For anyone who knows that area—and imagine this without bike paths—that was quite a remarkable feat and it is a statistical improbability that I’m here to tell you about it. I remember a few other daring rides like that and believe that our little club disbanded when Bruce Crookston’s handlebars fell off as he was careening down a hill in Watchung Reservation. Another amazing survival story, but I think that was our Icarus-warning to stay closer to home.

From those promising beginnings, the bicycle has re-entered my life big-time. It is at once my preferred vehicle for errands, exercise, pleasure and increasingly, commuting to work. And I am far from alone. The rise of bicycle-mania is a cultural explosion akin to the printing press and cell phone. It seems like every day a new bike lane opens in San Francisco and the number of folks riding alongside me are growing every day. I was disappointed when I went to China in 2007 and saw that the government’s campaign to push cars had worked (much to the detriment of air quality and traffic), but heartened visiting Amsterdam where bikes outnumbered cars and pleased to visit my daughter in Washington DC and pick out one of those community bikes sprouting up like wildflowers in every neighborhood. (And then ride on a bike path that goes right by Reagan Airport, a strange juxtaposition  of transport systems).

Of course, in typical American-style, being “into” biking often means the whole 9 yards of special clothes, subscribing to the bike magazines, talking shop about the latest bike shoes or bike-related gizmo. I refuse to wear Spandex and prefer the Salzburg model of elderly women in dresses with their wicker basket on front to carry the day’s groceries. But whatever. The bike is human ingenuity and technology on just the right scale, a blend of machine and muscle, a mix of speed and leisure, a combination of practicality and pleasure. Praise to the bicycle!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to ride to the basketball court and shoot some hoops.

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