The thing that shapes my life almost ended it. My world revolves around bicycles and cycling. I work in a bike store spreading the gospel of self propelled two wheeled wonder, instructing people on effective cycling to keep them safer and to encourage more harmonious interactions between we the exposed and those that fling about in abandon, encased in their metallic behemoths. I also spend a great amount of time repairing and maintaining bikes that range from luxury toys that cost more than my first new car to cycles so sad and neglected, whose owners either have no money or refuse to spend it on their bikes, that I feel a great weight of sadness as if I were a doctor and am putting band aids on the triage patient most in need.
But my cycling began with freedom and in my soaring I quickly learned what Icarus felt as he fell to earth flying from his imprisonment, basking in the delight of liberty and the pleasure of flight. Whether we hit the ocean or a car hits us it stings a bit.
I began cycling as a lifestyle the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. I was 19 years old, living with my parents and feeling repressed. I was not a wild child. I did not drink alcohol until I was of legal age, and then mostly in moderation, have never partaken in illegal drugs nor abused prescriptions, nor any of the myriad self destructive behaviors adolescents seem so drawn to. I was drawn to girls and later to women.
Still, my parents were controlling, upwardly mobile, depression era survivors who pushed me in directions I did not wish to go. I have always been a slow starter. I intend to live until I am 140, aging slowly and well, so the frenetic rush that those of you feel who expect to live half as long is not as powerful to me. At 53 I figure I am at the stage where most people are at 26. I have great zest for living now as I did then but my pace of financial acquisition is based on a different model than the majority of people’s. I work hard to take care of myself physically and fiscally but do not feel the irresistible magnetic pull that money has on so many.
I wanted freedom, mobility, adventure. I was expected to work, study, strive: Earn, learn, yearn. A clash of expectations. When contents in a container are under pressure things are likely to escape or explode, I chose escape, and the bicycle was my get away vehicle.
My friend and future best-man Jack R. loaned me his brother’s bike. I’d had it for a short time, taken a few rides, when I decided to visit Andrea G., the lovely girl one year my junior to whom I had been introduced by family friends and escorted to her senior prom at The Academy of Holy Names. She was cute, I was searching for companionship of the curvy type and figured that I would surprise her by cycling the 12 miles/20 K from my house to her place of work. I must have surprised her because when she saw me her face fell!
Cycling home in the dark on suburban streets leading northward away from Washington D.C. and into the Maryland suburbs I was struck by a car. It stung. The driver upon seeing me lying in the gutter began to cry. I instructed the young man that we might both feel better if he were to walk the 100 yards/meters or so to the fire station that was easily visible from where he stood and I lay. He screwed up his courage and managed to trot for help. Stout lad!
If you think this an inauspicious beginning I am inclined to agree with you but it did little to dampen my enthusiasm. I compensated my friend for the loss of his mangled machine, purchased a new bicycle, one that would be prove to be the start of a large collection, and began cycling in earnest. I began to study bikes; their history, how they function, how they are manufactured. The more I rode the greater my obsession became. I began working in a bicycle shop after graduating from college as a way to earn money while looking for a professional position. After securing a teaching job I soon returned to the bike worId where I have been employed since. I would actually be struck by another motorist four years later and again in 1987. July will mark 26 years since my last close encounter of the hood type. This might beg the question, “Are you an idiot? Why do you continue to cycle and why do you encourage others to do the same?!”
My answer is that I truly think cycling saved my life. I think it can save the planet. It is a joyful experience that can be enjoyed by most anyone. There are electric assist tricycles out there making movement possible to those who have neither good balance nor strength. We can experience our world the way we are meant to, the way we have since we first appeared here and have done for all but the last 90 years or so, up front and personal and conquering, cajoling and wooing it with our own strength, talent and determination. If bikes aren’t the answer then I must have missed the question.
We created the world that makes sane, safe cycling more difficult. It is the same irrational world where we value little but covet all. I am a hard core enthusiast and believer in free enterprise, not a touchy feely, advocate of top down new world orders. We made the streets what they are, we need to make them sane and fit for human consumption.
This is not a call to radical action. I implore all of us to look at our lives and see what makes us happy, healthy and excited. I wake up in the morning and my world is beckoning me to come out and play, come out and work, sing, write, live and love. How about yours? We have the power to change it, cycling is the vehicle.