I’m feeling a little introspective today – probably has something to do with the fall weather – and thought it might be a good experiment to try and write down why I do indeed ride. After all, the bicycle is a big reason I’m in France, and nearly every vacation I take is on top of a bike. I have a blog and a website devoted to the subject, and if I ever have a kid I’ll probably name it Eddie, Jacques or Lance (poor girl!).
Like everybody reading this, I started riding when I was a kid. I’d love to say it all started there, and it could very well be true, but because of an intensely bad memory, I don’t actually know. I certainly had a healthy sense of adventure when I was a kid, so there’s every chance that the bike fused itself to my subconscious when I was 5.
I always had a bike, I think, but I only used it to knock around. I wasn’t interested in anything technical, like how exactly it ran. I never suddenly took a left turn and rode out into the Canadian countryside to fly through the hills (I had mom’s car for that!). In short, the bike and me, we just co-existed, emotionally unattached, for a long time.
All this changed over a period of 30 days in 1996, when I decided to ride an as-yet-un-bought bicycle across Australia. This long, hot, wonderful trip cross-checked my life into another direction. I had been travelling before this trip but always felt that travel meant being in a place, then another place, then another. I now saw that travel was movement, and, like has been said in many better ways than here, it’s about the process, not the goal.
On a bike you travel at a human speed. It’s possible to smell the roses. You can also travel by foot (and I have a bit of experience with that way as well), but it simply takes forever. If you want to see the world outside (and keep your day job!), you need to get up past 10 kph. A bicycle is also a work horse, if you make the right choice at the store. There are travelers out there who have 5o kg slapped on their two wheels. But even with half or less, you can travel with everything you need to live (tent, cooking stove, selected Apple products!), and if you stay at hotels you can really go light.
On a bike you get lost a lot, which makes you talk to strangers – often a rewarding thing when travelling. It’s also still a little unusual in most countries, so the bike becomes a conversation starter for the curious. Travelling by bike is a social activity. Of course, being ON your vehicle, instead on IN it, means you are exposed to the elements, good and bad. When it rains you know it. If the sun is harsh, you feel it. But it also means that when you coast down the back end of Ventoux, nearing Sault, you get the full assault from the smell of the lavender that fills the valley. Cycling is in your face, for better or for worse.
I haven’t really put too much thought into this one, but there could very well be something ancient inside us that gives us the urge to move, to explore, and to do it under our own steam. Perhaps trains, planes and automobiles are good substitutes these days, and most people can feel some accomplishment from this sort of travel (you feel you are moving, but you are actually sitting still), but in my experience, there’s something primal about doing it self-propelled. I’m not even sure if ‘accomplishment’ is the right word to use back there, since it might very well be something hardwired into us from thousands of years ago. Or, I could be insane. Either way, there are lots of other good reasons to ride a bike.
I’m not old, but I’m not 20 anymore or 30 or even 40 for that matter, and I feel things tightening up and slowing down a tad here and there, except when I’m on my bike. The bicycle can take decades off your life for a few hours a day. I don’t know why because I haven’t thought about it much, but maybe it’s the fact that, to transfer power from the legs to the drive train requires a very small effort and minimal movement. It’s easier than walking…and you go a hell of a lot faster, which feels good when you’re old, I’ll bet. I once watched an old man at a campsite in Germany packing up his tent and gear. It was painfully slow and I wondered how he could possibly get any pleasure out of this type of travel. When his bike was packed, he put his leg over the top tube in slow-mo, strapped himself into his peddles and…rode off like a young man. He had found his fountain of youth.
Even if I’m not travelling, when I’m on the bike on the open road near home it is like a mini vacation. The sense of freedom is instant. To feel the wind in your hair (or what’s left of it), the heat in your quads as they warm up to that first hill, the kilometers disappearing under your wheels on a wind-assisted flat, is really something – trust me. It’s also healthy, environmentally friendly, and cheap once you’ve got a decent bike.
I’ve probably got a lot more to say about this, but it’s a start. At least I now have a better answer than ‘I look good in lycra’…