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On Biking

What a wonderful thing it is to get out for a bike ride after being cooped up all winter! Once I've got the tires inflated and the chain lubricated, I glide and soar around town effortlessly, in the closest thing to actual birdlike flight I've ever experienced. I feel the wind in my face and the sun on my skin; my hands and feet and arms and legs and shoulders are all fully engaged. I'm keenly aware of every sight and sound; I see the world flow around me, predict the future, and respond.

And, I'm not even a serious bicyclist. I'm not talking about riding a hundred miles a day, or competing in races, or dealing with the rocks and hills on a mountain-bike trail. I get all that enjoyment out of just riding around town on my rusty old bicycle. (It's a hybrid, maybe fifteen years old.) Most of the time, the riding isn't even the point. I ride my bike to visit my friends, to go out to lunch, and to run errands, little things like that, and every time it still makes me happy.

So, if you've forgotten how wonderful it is to ride a bike, I hereby remind you! Get yourself a cheap bike and a helmet, and go!

(If you somehow never learned to ride a bike, well, hmm … I'm not sure what to tell you. I have no idea what it's like to learn as an adult. As a kid, I got my share of scrapes and bruises, but then that tended to happen no matter what I did.)

I do have to admit I have an unfair advantage. As I mentioned in On Graffiti, Boulder has an amazing network of bike paths (and lanes), and of course that makes it more fun to ride around. Even so, unless you happen to live right in the middle of a large city, I imagine there should still be sufficient fun available to you.

Let me go back now and say a bit more about why I like biking.

I think a large part of the appeal is how primal it is. You probably already figured that out from what I said about the wind and the sun and so on, but let me point out two more things. One, the motion of pedaling is a lot like the motion of running. Two, the way biking engages the arms and hands makes it a lot like climbing trees or scrambling on rocks (both of which I also like). I figure I enjoy all those things because people are just hard-wired to enjoy them, but I guess it's also possible that they remind me of my childhood, when I used to do more of those sorts of things. Hard to know the difference!

There are lots of connections to physical awareness here—see points 4, 6, 9, and 12. There's also a kind of physical awareness that I associate with biking that didn't make it onto the list. When I maintain speed up a long hill or make some other sustained effort, I can feel the proverbial burn in my quads. I don't enjoy that in itself, but I do enjoy being able to recognize it.

Biking and walking have many nice features in common. In both cases, I experience some pleasing physical awareness, get to look around and see things, and can easily stop and look more if I want. There are differences too, of course. Biking is faster, which is both enjoyable and practical, but as a result it requires more attention and leaves less time for thinking about things.

Actually, depending on what you're looking for, that last bit might not be a disadvantage. Sometimes I do want to think about things, but sometimes I'd rather just turn my mind off and take a break, and biking is good for that. I think of it in terms of stimulation. Walking provides less stimulation than I need, and leaves me time to think; driving in dense traffic provides more, and gets me all worked up; biking, however, provides exactly the right amount.

There's probably a whole essay in there, but for now let me just add a few notes.

  • When I said “less stimulation than I need”, that wasn't quite correct. It's not that I need it, it's that I have some capacity for it (some variable capacity). That probably has something to do with attention.
  • I hardly know what flow is, but I think I get into that state sometimes when I'm biking, and I think having exactly the right amount of stimulation is part of the cause.
  • It's not true that walking always provides less stimulation than I need and driving always provides more. If I go walking in Manhattan, that gets me worked up, but if I go driving on the interstate in Kansas, that leaves me plenty of time to think. So, what I'm really saying is that in my particular circumstances here in Boulder, biking is the thing that happens to provide roughly the right amount of stimulation.

That's all I have to say about why I like biking, but not quite all I have to say about biking.

For completeness, I'd like to point out two other places where I've said things about biking. Although I explained the principle of cover in terms of walking and driving, I really do think about it a lot when I'm biking. And, in The Age of Transportation I suggested that we'll see more bicycles in the future.

Speaking of cover, I see that I mentioned car mode at the end of that essay without explaining what it is. Now is a good time to do that. The way I see it, as a bicyclist you get to choose whether you want to be a car or a pedestrian, but then you have to obey the applicable laws. If you're a car, you have to stay on the road and stop at stop signs and traffic lights. If you're a pedestrian, you have to interact politely with other pedestrians and cross intersections at pedestrian speeds. I think the actual laws for bicycles are more complicated than that, but that's how I behave, and it seems to be a pretty good approximation. Two related points:

  • There are some bicyclists who run stop signs without even slowing down. Wow, does that make me mad! That's really the only complaint I have with other people's behavior.
  • Here's a funny thing. As a genuine pedestrian, I'm pretty cavalier about jaywalking, but as a bicyclist pretending to be a pedestrian, I avoid it. For example, if it's late at night and there are no cars around, I'll happily jaywalk through a red light, but I'll hesitate to do the same thing on my bike.

Next, here's a bit of local trivia for you. Most of the bike paths in Boulder aren't really bike paths, they're multi-use paths, and in some places pedestrians are common. And, there's a fairly widespread (10%?) meme that says that when a bicyclist passes a pedestrian, the bicyclist should ring vis bell or say “on your left” to avoid startling ver. I disagree, though. As a pedestrian, I find it far more startling to have someone come up right behind me and ring a bell! I think the correct solution is that bicyclists should pay attention and pass at reasonable speeds, while pedestrians should be aware that bicyclists are around and look back before making any sudden changes of direction.

Finally, here's a little story about jumping. Many years ago, when I was still living in New Jersey, I came back to Boulder for a visit, and on one beautiful sunny day I went out for a short ride. For some reason I was thinking about jumping curbs. Maybe I'd been riding with a friend of mine the day before and he'd done it, or maybe there was some other reason. Anyway, I was thinking about it, and was feeling really good about the world in general, so when I crossed a parking lot and found there wasn't a convenient way up onto the sidewalk on the other side, I thought, hey, I'll just jump the curb! So, I went straight into it, yanked on the handlebars … and flew right over them onto my chin, reopening an old scar from a previous bicycle accident. That was the end of that happy day.

The non-obvious moral: that's how awesome biking is! I just felt so good that I thought I could do anything.

For the record, my current understanding of jumping is that you push off the pedals, hold on to the handlebars, and the bike follows. I'm no expert, though. I still worry about my feet coming off the pedals, so my jumping is limited to avoiding little bumps.


  See Also

  Disposing of Things
  Walking Barefoot

@ November (2008)