Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Lament for a Bicycle

A few months back, I spent the afternoon with some friends at a bar on the busy intersection of Duboce and Valencia in San Francisco. Perhaps it was a bit early for drinking, but I had the day off, it was 80 degrees outside, and Zeitgeist has a back patio where you can sit in the sun. In other words, it was the type of day in the City that practically requires you to do so. People have called out sick from work to take advantage of such a day only to run into their bosses who are doing the same. Seriously.

Anyhow, degeneracy is not the point of this story. As I was leaving the bar, I went to the rack where I had locked my bike to find that it was no longer there. In broad daylight on a busy street my lock was cut and my bike was gone. The thieves did leave my helmet though, so that was nice of them. It was then that I realized something: I loved, truly loved, that bicycle. It was a rusty busted up scrap heap of a thing, but I adored it.

Had my car been stolen, I would have been furious due to the monetary loss and commute nightmare that would cause. But I would not have been emotionally crushed. It is, after all, just a machine. But standing there on that gloriously beautiful day with my helmet in one hand and severed bike lock in the other, I was what could only be described as heartbroken. Over a machine. A different type of machine, but still "just a machine." Which left me wondering, why do people who ride bikes seem to care about bikes and bike riding so intensely?

The most obvious example of this is found in the "cyclist." These are the folks who have no shame in wearing full spandex outfits (in public no less!) while riding astronomically expensive bikes as if they were competing in the Tour de France. The components that make up their bikes were probably first tested by NASA. They ride for distances the average person would vomit just thinking about. For them, bicycling is about performance, endurance, and speed. In a perfect symbiosis, their bodies are machines as impressive as the bikes they ride. They are the Olympians (both in terms of athleticism and deity like status) of the bicyclists. And because of that, most other bike riders dislike them and find them intimidating.

On the other side of the spectrum are the "revolutionaries." (Get it? Because bike tires revolve? Oh, nevermind.) This is the populist enclave of riders who teach people how to repair bikes at "bike kitchens" and screw up automobile traffic in Critical Mass rides. Chances are they've lived in Portland at some point and have a tattoo of a penny farthing on their forearm or a piston on their calf. To them, the bicycle is the last knowable machine of the modern age. When everything else we own needs a technician to fix or a dumpster to be tossed into when it breaks, the bicycle's simplicity practically screams out to be worked on by its rider. They are D.I.Y. zealots and believe riding a bike is both a political statement and a way to change the world. And because of that, most other bike riders dislike them and find them intimidating.

The other 99% of people who ride fall somewhere in between. There are the commuters, the fitness folks, the pleasure riders, the "brakes are for the weak" crowd, the Subaru sportsmen, the purists, the circus performers, etc, etc, etc. It's a big tent and everyone's allowed assuming you come in rolling. The common denominator here is that most of those people have some sort of deep connection with whatever it is they are riding.

Here's why (or at least why I think it's the case). If you were taught how to ride a bike when you were younger, that very well may have been the first taste of freedom you had. Once you got past the wobblies (as in the physical sensation, not the Industrial Workers of the World) and the training wheels came off, you were on your own to explore. No parents, no supervision. Just you, a bike, and possibly a gang of other Dickensian-like feral youth moving quickly through the streets. The bike was a tool for adventure and a means towards joy. Even as an adult, the echo of that feeling grabs me every time I lift the kickstand and go. I always experience a sensation of childlike glee when riding around the city. It's the best feeling in the world.

Long story short- stealing a bike is like kicking a person's inner child in the stomach.
posted by jw
photo from PUBLIC Bikes