Returning to the Bicycle
I think I was five when I got my first bicycle, a beautiful blue thing with training wheels. I couldn’t wait to get the training wheels off, but it took me a couple of crashes to get that whole “pedal and balance” thing down, but I got it. Once I got going, I must have ridden a million miles on the dusty streets of Texas as I was growing up.
In 1960, my dad saved up 45 silver dollars and bought me a “Western Flyer” 24” bike. It was a beautiful thing with a red and white frame and a battery operated head light. It had chrome fenders. It was a great bike, if a bit heavy, but I wish I had those 45 silver dollars today – they would buy a lot of bicycles. I rode that bike for about eight years. Back in the day, we rode our bikes to school when the weather wasn’t too bad. I wish I knew how many miles I put on that bike. It went through a lot of changes. It lost the basket, fenders and headlight. It acquired a “banana seat” and high rise handle bars which were all the rage when I was in the eighth grade.
In my freshman year of high school, my folks bought me a Schwinn 5-speed. It was blue and chrome, heavy like all the Schwinns of that era, but it was a lovely bike. I ended up leaving it in Tennessee when I left Maryville College after a difficult first year there. My dad was pissed off about that. The biggest problem with that bike was not the weight, but that I had gotten a drivers’ license and cars were just a whole lot more interesting. I was without a bicycle for the next eight years.
In 1980, I bought a matched set of Nishiki Olympic 12 bicycles, one for me and one for my bride. These were very high quality Japanese road bikes assembled of the best components which were designed to compete with the Raleighs, Schwinns, Bianchis and Peugeots. They had light chrome molybdenum frames, 12-speed SunTour derailleurs and other quality components. These bikes were so good that in 2013, I am still riding mine and it has never needed repair.
Back in the day, we called this style of bike an “English racer.” Today, they are simply called “road bikes” or “touring bikes.” We rode them to train for high altitude backpacking trips in the Rockies. When we taught our kids how to ride bikes, these were the ones that we rode, leading the kids like ducklings on their little training bikes. Then the kids got drivers’ licenses and we got dogs that needed to be walked, so the bikes began to gather dust in the garage. Sadly, the dogs passed their time in our lives and are gone. In the meantime, I developed glucose intolerance, and my doctor told me that I needed to get a minimum of thirty minutes a day of aerobic exercise if I want to stay off diabetes medication. At first, I just walked my thirty minutes, but I kept walking past those dusty bikes in the garage. Finally, one day in the late summer, I hauled the Nishiki out into the backyard and washed it off with a garden hose. The old sparkle emerged from beneath the dusty patina. I found an ancient bottle of bike lube and oiled the chain and derailleur sprockets. The last step to make the faithful steed roadworthy was to bring the tires up to 90 PSI. My lower back wasn’t wild about that job.
My first tentative test ride after the long layoff was simply to ride the bike up the alley behind my house. The alley has a slight incline and my calves and thighs immediately reminded me that I was no longer fourteen. This was going to take some work, but already the sensation of gliding through the air silently was casting its spell. It would take some work, but it would be worth it.
I returned to my bicycle purely for health reasons – to lower blood sugar, reduce blood pressure, and improve heart and lung function. To be honest, I expected it to be a chore, mentally interesting perhaps, but physically uncomfortable and difficult. I don’t think of myself as any kind of natural athlete. Yes, I have backpacked the Rockies and the Appalachian mountains, played football in high school, am an expert swimmer and rode bikes from my childhood, but I was never in any danger of being drafted by the Yankees or the Patriots. As a child I had asthma and it seemed like I was sick a lot. The physical things I did, I did by strength of will because I wanted to do them. I have never been one of those who found great joy in physical exertion for its own sake.
The part I didn’t count on was how good the bicycle riding would make me feel. A bike ride of three miles or more – not very far – will give me a warm glowy feeling. I suppose it results from the increased oxygen levels and the release of endorphins. Endorphins are described as “endogenous morphine” which is “released during exercise, excitement, pain, spicy food consumption, love, and orgasm.” After a good ride, I feel like I have taken some wonderful, perfect tranquilizer, but without any drug overhead. I have the proverbial “sense of well-being” while being acutely aware of my muscles and body. I have lost so much weight that I had to have my suits taken in. That’s great for the self image. The bike is good for the body and the mind.
The streets have changed. There are a lot more cars on the street, and many people drive them way too fast. With the smart phone craze, there are a lot of distracted drivers, and I am sure that there are many more who are under the influence of substances. It’s easy to see why so many cyclists are drawn to off-road and cross country riding. It’s nice when you don’t have to worry about being run down by a car. I like to ride the streets and run errands on my bike when I can. A lot of my mental work in cycling surrounds the charting of routes that avoid the crush of automobile traffic. I have added lights to my bikes to increase my visibility to drivers and I use them even during the daytime. I buy riding clothes in bright, electric colors – yellow, chartreuse, and orange – to further enhance my visibility. Even with these precautions, I do not assume that drivers will see me. Most do, and they treat me well on the road, but it only takes one distracted or impaired driver to ruin your day, and perhaps your life. I take nothing for granted.
My hiatus from the bike caused me to miss much of the political movement that has developed around cycling. More people than ever are using bicycles for primary transportation, and cycling sports have reached a high level of development. BMX, cycle cross, mountain biking and triathlon have really come into their own during the past couple of decades, these taking their place alongside traditional bicycle racing. All of these sport and utility riders have formed advocacy groups that have pushed for greater access to the roads, more bike lanes, bike parking and similar accommodations for bicycles. It’s a different world for cycling these days.
I’m sympathetic with the issues which have grown up around the new bicycle movement. Driving a car used to be fun; now it’s an exercise in Darwinian selection. I have driven a car long enough to have a sense of the increasing automobile congestion on our streets and highways. Unless something changes, our cities are quickly approaching the point of daily gridlock in which streets will become impassable due to the volume of motor vehicles. Obesity has become an epidemic in our culture. Heart disease is a top killer. Diabetes is also becoming epidemic. Regular bicycle riding reduces blood sugar, strengthens the heart, reduces weight and increases blood oxygen levels. All of this contributes to overall health and reduces health care costs. Bicycles don’t burn fuel, saving money and improving the environment. Since 1899, almost 3.5 million Americans have died in automobile crashes. That’s more than all the fatalities we have suffered in all of our wars. There are many good reasons to reduce our use of automobiles. The political and ecological arguments for the bicycle have nothing to do with my choice to return to it.
My rediscovered love for the bicycle, that lovely device which lay dormant in my garage for a decade, is rooted in the way the bike makes me feel, what it does for my body, and the way it opens up my mind. It is a purely sensual sort of thing.