Monday, June 17, 2019

Transportation is cycling's highest purpose

The first two-wheeled vehicles were made for transportation. They did not inspire a direct and continuous line of evolution to the bicycle of today, but the first pedal-powered two-wheeled machines were basically the old swift walkers with a set of pedals attached to the front wheel, like a kid's tricycle.

While all the attention gets paid to the great races, these were proofs of concept. They were demonstrations of what a human can do with the assistance of the simple machine. Just as musical audiences in the days before cheap and abundant recordings probably had taken some lessons and played an instrument, so did a great many more people in the peak of the bicycle era have personal experience riding their own bikes as part of the practical daily routine. It gave them a greater appreciation of the effort and skill involved in the extremes of competition. I suppose the same could be said of transportation motorists watching auto racing, but when you are both driver and engine you have a lot better idea how you would fare in a race.

The motorized world would bury us if it could. It might have limited patience with big races that are just show biz, because they are contained within a highly motorized caravan, and restricted to a specific place and time. Professional events featuring known stars and their teams manage to hold their place, while amateur competitions attract hostility and derision from the disinterested public inconvenienced by the event.

More than one motorist has described to me encountering a kitted-out cyclist while driving their car or truck. Even years after Lance Armstrong's fall from grace, he's still the insult of choice for contemptuous motorists. "Look at this asshole. Thinks he's Lance Armstrong or something." I was hearing it during the height of the Lance years, and I'm still hearing it, because he was the one racing bicyclist that Americans could identify, and every other cyclist was a pathetic wannabe who should smarten up and get out of the way.

Lance himself reported getting knocked down all the time by rednecks in his home state of Texas. They didn't give a shit who he was. He was just out there on a bike, making himself available to their criticism. What did they say? "Look at that guy, thinking he's Lance Armstrong!" Hey! I think that was Lance Armstrong! Hell sheeyoot! I bagged a celebrity!"

The image of the racer colors the view of non-cyclists looking at riders equipped to ride in a sporty manner. The simple annoyance of having to accommodate a slower road user colors their view of tourists, commuters, and anyone else slowing down traffic on the public street.

Every rider reaches a point where they have to overcome some discouraging factor to continue to ride. If competition is your motivation, you will face the hostile world in order to train. If you have decided to surrender the road and ride trails instead, you will have eliminated traffic hassles and accepted exile. Transportation cycling seems like the least ballsy and noble endeavor, and yet, as the fundamental form of riding it has the longest lineage and the most to offer to the individual and collective civilization. Ten thousand bike commuters will do more good than a hundred professional racers or a dozen fearless stunt riders gyrating through the air. Transportation cycling is much more accessible than sport and competition riding.

When I was attempting to race, commuting was part of my mileage. Whatever else happened on a given day, I knew I was going to ride to work. Since I didn't have a car during most of those years, I knew I was going to ride wherever I went, unless I walked. And I did walk a lot. The town was big enough to be interesting, but small enough to cover quite a bit of it on foot.

Fifty years ago, kids rode their bikes to go places. While transportation design is responsible for some of the decline in transportation cycling among the young, sheer numbers are as much to blame. Roads were not designed with bike riders in mind when I was a kid any more than they are now. You learned how to ride, and motorists almost universally treated you well enough. No one ever passed me uncomfortably closely, even when I was riding on some fairly busy roads. No one ever got ugly with me just for riding a bike until the 1970s. The ten speed boom may have overloaded the system, but so did the surge in motorist numbers as the bulk of the Baby Boomer bike riders got licenses and became drivers. It's only gotten more crowded from there.

One problem in the US is that transportation cycling from just before the mid Twentieth Century was only associated with childhood. It was one of the many things you were expected to outgrow. So when the Baby Boomers took up the ten-speed and pushed the average age into adulthood, the country had no collective memory of large numbers of adults riding on routine daily errands.

Maybe the ability to balance on two wheels is not as universal as I  -- and other cycling devotees -- believe. It seemed like every kid had a bike when I was a kid, but maybe that was because I was immersed in the minority that did. I wasn't observing statistically in those years. No one was. Maybe some group has sales figures or other statistics that might give a fuzzy picture, but bikes have tended to be ubiquitous and overlooked until an individual rider draws attention in some specific way, like needing an ambulance. That might explain the deep hostility a lot of people seem to feel toward riders and bike accommodations.

You don't have to give up the automobile, or some other form of easier transportation, to embrace transportation cycling. Just start fitting it in where you can. You will notice immediate improvement in your sleep, your appetite, how you feel, and how much money you spend on fuel. I enjoyed my car-free years, but during them I borrowed cars from time to time, to make trips that I couldn't have done efficiently on a bike. When I moved to rural New England, being car-free was not an option. But I still save a noticeable amount of money by using the bike as much as I can. If I still lived down south, I might have been able to avoid getting a car at all. It's a decision you have to make for yourself.

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