A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."
- Stephen Crane
On December 30th, I passed a milestone. On that day, my odometer tripped 3,000 miles of commuting for the year 2010. This was satisfying to me on the scale of a personal record, not on the larger scale of Great Commuters. After all, I work with a couple guys who’d doubled that number months ago. I could spend some time reflecting on what it means to work someplace where 3,000 miles of commuting is not special…but not today.
Much has been written about the benefits of commuting by bike, and I won’t repeat all of it. No, what continually astounds me about cycling in general, and commuting in particular, is how it transforms an act (travelling from point A to point B) that for most is tedious, stressful, maybe even dreaded, and turns it into an act that is healthy, rewarding, and allows a meaningful interaction with one’s environment. I’ll elaborate on the latter.
A couple weeks ago, we got in the ballpark (pun intended) of 20 inches of snow and not a week later, we got another 8 inches. I happened to have ridden to work on the 8-inch day. As that afternoon passed, I watched the evolution of my coworkers’ e-mails from, “leaving early to avoid the weather” to, “on the road, pretty bad, leave now if you can” to, “have moved a quarter mile in the last hour.” While my car-bound coworkers could only sit, their dread growing, wondering which podcasts they’d remembered to download, I was, if you’ll permit me a gratuitous cliché, giddy with excitement. I’d never ridden in those conditions.
As I rolled out of the parking lot, I noticed how still the world was. There weren’t cars on the road, so I took the path of least resistance, right down the center of the lane. My tires squirmed between patches of packed snow and powder and I remembered how to handle a bike with my hips rather than my hands. There was a point at which I was forced onto an unplowed sidewalk to make way for a snowplow in the road (is that irony?...I’m never sure about irony), and as I broke through the packed ridge of snow on the roadside, I had that sensation of empowerment, when you’re pushing your legs to their limit, but you’re kind of surprised when they’re up to the task, and when I was back on the road without anything slowing me down, it was effortless, and bam, into a taller gear, back on the gas, nipped the yellow light at the next intersection, a smile of satisfaction on my face as I considered the astonishment I might’ve caused in the drivers waiting for their red light to change, because they were pretty sure before tonight that four wheels were preferable to two in those conditions, but I made it home in the same amount of time as I would’ve without the snow while they were waiting in their cars wondering if they had another episode of This American Life on their iPod.
Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t begrudge drivers. I own a car and more often enjoy driving than feel bad about it, and I don’t pretend that every time I throw my leg over a toptube it’s a spiritual experience. The day I rolled 3,000, my knees hurt, I’d been coughing up lungers for a week, and I was tired. The ride home that night was a long way from spiritual.
But, every once in a while, I’ll have an experience while riding that connects me to my world and affirms many things, most importantly that I am alive and creating meaningful experiences. Some cyclists don’t get that from commuting, but get it from downhill racing, or epic solo rides, or hurling after a 'cross race. Some cyclists don’t get it while riding at all, but get it from skiing, or painting, or playing guitar. These moments are our clever retort to the universe that feels toward us no obligation. The medium’s not so important, as long as you get it. Do you?
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I?ve been playing with bikes my whole life, professionally for more than half of it. When I discovered the role the bike could and should play in addressing so many issues with which we?re faced, I decided to accept that bikes are my life. Be the change you wish to see in the world.