Confessions of a cyclist

Abstract:

Bicycling attracts free spirits, and has a long history of literary fans, including Tolstoy, Hemingway, Huxley, and Saroyan. Three new or reissued volumes from Breakaway Books celebrate the freedom of cycling, including H.G. Wells’s 1896 romance, ‘The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll’.

Full Text:

If you want to know what the wind sounds like to an eagle when it dives at thirty miles per hour, get on a bicycle at the top of a steep country road and wheel to the bottom. And if you’d like to pump your blood into capillaries long closed by supine living, pedal back up.

You can also use a bicycle as a commuter vehicle, easing through the daily crawl and stall of car-addicted and traffic-jammed America. Your bike lane is the fast lane.

“Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish,” wrote Iris Murdoch in The Red and the Green. “Only the bicycle remains pure in the heart.”

I’ve been head over wheels in love with my Raleigh three-speed since the early 1970s. As a ten-mile-a-day commuter for more than twenty-five years, my self-propulsion has allowed me to cover more than 60,000 miles. Physically and metaphysically, it’s been a joyride.

There’s the pedaling past Exxon and Amoco gas stations while feeling the thrill of denying Big Oil its highway-robbery profits. Or the delight of never worrying about finding street parking or paying parking-lot thieves $8 a day for a space, $7 on Saturdays–aren’t they generous? Or never being told that I need a new alternator, or that the muffler isn’t muffling, or the fan belt isn’t fanning, or the pistons aren’t firing, or the engine isn’t revving–and that’ll be $3,840, not counting the oil change.

Most bicyclists–whether our legwork is for racing, recreation, commuting, thigh-thinning, or coronary-preventing–are born-agains, returning to the faith as prodigals who were seduced by cars in high school. A bicycle is the first machine we master as children and the one we are quickest to stash in the garage when duped into thinking that car keys are the keys to the kingdom of adulthood.

I needed a decade or so to see the light through the carbon-monoxide fog and backpedal to the Schwinning ways of childhood. At thirty-five, I finally understood in my head what I had learned in my heart at age five: On the bicycle machine, I’m the engine.

Young or old, we roadies don’t travel alone. Our freewheeling companions are the novelists, poets, and essayists who have created a vast literature of bicycling: Reed Whittemore, Leo Tolstoy, Henry Miller, Frances Willard, Iris Murdoch, Marge Piercy, Mary Lavin, Kenneth Rexroth, Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, Eugene McCarthy, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, William Saroyan (“the bicycle is the noblest invention of mankind”), Marcia Lowe, Edward Abbey, Sean O’Faolain, Alan Sillitoe, and Flann O’Brien.

Some books have ascended to the ranks of classics. In 1991, Fair Oaks Publishing reissued How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, the 1895 memoir of Frances Willard, who took to two-wheeling at age fifty-three. The original title was Rebel Within a Wheel, a reference to Willard’s fight against the sexism of the day that decreed women should stick to walking, not riding. From 1879 until her death in 1898, Willard served as president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the largest women’s organization of the nineteenth century. In addition to its well-known battles against the alcohol industry, the Union also worked for prison reform, public education, and child care.

“Seeking new worlds to conquer,” Willard wrote, “I determined that I would learn the bicycle.” Once astride, “I found a whole philosophy of life in the wooing and winning of my bicycle.”

For some, the machine was a salvational force. Both Tolstoy and Henry Adams became riders to overcome grief In his 1918 book, The Education of Henry Adams, the writer tells of being lost in mourning for his wife. He “solemnly and painfully learned to ride the bicycle . . . as a means of new life. Nothing else offered itself.”

Tolstoy was sixty-seven in 1895 when he lost his seven-year-old son, Vanichka. In Tolstoy, Henri Troyat’s biography, the Russian is described taking his first bicycle lesson: “His brand-new machine was a present from the Moscow Society of Velocipede-Lovers. An instructor came to teach him, free of charge, how to keep his balance. What could Sonya be thinking, on March 28, 1895, as she watched her husband pedaling awkwardly along the snow-edged garden paths? She was probably shocked to see him enjoying a new sport so soon after their bereavement. Was it callousness, selfishness, or the reaction of a prodigiously vital organism against the creeping fear of doom? She envied and hated him for being so strong.”

Earlier this year, Breakaway Books (336 West 84th Street, #4, New York, NY 10024) reissued two masterpieces: The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll, the 1896 whimsical romance by H.G. Wells, and The Literary Cyclist: Great Bicycling Scenes in Literature, edited by James E. Starrs and first published in 1981 as The Noiseless Tenor.

Starrs, a professor at George Washington University law school, is something more than a collector of tales. He has cycled across America some half-dozen times and survived about the same number of crashes in his decades of year-round commuting from a Virginia suburb to downtown Washington. “The bicyclist’s mantra,” he chants, “is non-conformity. Simply opting for the bicycle as the preferred means of transport qualifies a person, without more, as willing to live on the edge, as distancing oneself from the pack, in short, as chancing a joyous moment of non-conformity.”

A third volume from Breakaway Books this year is The Quotable Cyclist: Great Moments of Bicycling Wisdom, Imagination, and Humor, edited by Bill Strickland, a mountain biker. From more than 900 quotes, a highway of voices invites us to put on our yellow jerseys. “I’m not so sure I want bicycles to change the world,” Strickland writes. “One of the reasons I love riding is because it’s a little weird. We cyclists are a fringe group, buzzing along within sight but just outside the reach of the mainstream.”

Not to put the brakes on any of this high-rolling, but many of the world’s 1.1 billion bicycles have jerks or fools atop them. A few have nearly killed me. I fear them at intersections, on thin bikepaths, and anyplace else where they abandon safety and civility. As much as cyclists like to believe they are forever imperiled by sideswiping motorists, there is this little nail of a statistic in the road: The majority of collisions between cars and bikes are caused by cyclists. A few bicyclists believe that because they are on the moral high ground they can take all the ground.

What’s needed is enlightened anarchy, not me-first anarchy. On bicycles, enlightened anarchists will go through red lights the way they go through green: If it’s safe for you and for others, considerately proceed. A traffic light is no more than the government telling us how to be safe at intersections. Same for stop signs, one-way signs. I’ve ignored them for twenty-five years, on the Thoreauvian notion that these are unjust laws–the government saying that even if there are no cars anywhere in sight, halt at the red light or stop sign anyway. Enlightened anarchy–Gandhi believed it to be the noblest philosophy.

On bicycles, which let us put our feet on the pedals and our heads in the clouds, we can have it both ways: the motion of poetry and the poetry of motion. One of my favorite poems is “Bicycle Rider,” Eugene McCarthy’s expression of fatherly confidence in his daughter Mary:

Teeth bare to the wind

Knuckle-white grip on the handlebars

You push the pedals of no return,

Let loose new motion and speed.

The earth turns with the multiplied

Force of your wheels.

Do not look back.

Feet light on the brake

Ride the bicycle of your will

Down the spine of the world,

Ahead of your time, into life