A guest post from my compatriot, the Bard of Bicycling himself, Andrew Titus as we prepare to ride bikes across a rather large island.
My memory, clouded by time and coloured by the wishes and desires of a late 40 year old, tells the story of me learning to ride a bike at 5 years old, my Dad holding onto the seat as we wound round and round his office building parking lot until I yelled ‘ok, let go!’, only to discover he already had. It was evening, late summer, I wore shorts and freedom smelled like a spent afternoon and cooling pavement. It remains, to this day, one moment in just a handful where I knew that life would never be the same. It is so much a part of me, so unquestionably pure, that even in the worst days and months of the intervening years, I have kept riding my bike.
The NYC Bike Snob says he lucked out, that while most give up riding bikes as it becomes synonymous with being a kid (that is, when we start driving cars), he just kept on rolling, that cost and parking and all the rest just kind of conveniently got in the way and he kept cranking the pedals. Most don’t do that — most stop, if not forever, then at least until it becomes a vehicle for fitness or fills the need created by a midlife crisis. I have no problem with either of these options (and, without looking to offend anyone, deem this a far better solution to those problems than zumba or a gross little convertible), but fortunately enough I navigated my way, miraculously, through my teens and twenties still on the rig. As The Snob says, “cycling has always been part of my life not because it follows me around but because I follow cycling around. It’s my bliss. Knowing what you love is knowing yourself, and something that you love can serve as a guide.”
But the guide is not a chaperon; they leave sometimes, their voice becomes quiet, they test you to discover if you can do it on your own. You can lead a horse to water, as they say, but you can’t make it drink; likewise, you can point a bike’s a wheel, but you must make it move, your all-too-human power is its power, you are symbiotically connected. And even as we revel in quotes like the famous one from Einstein in a letter to his son where he says that “It is the same with people as it is with riding a bike; only when moving can one comfortably maintain one’s balance”, we also need to recall that before Baron Karl von Drais in 1817, no one in the history of the world knew that a person could balance themselves and move forward on two in-line wheels. The modern world, despite all of its failings, is still a world of wonder and this guide of ours, this machine that erupted from both a shamanic imagination and the necessity of survival, is still so fresh and new and we are still unsure and wobbly when it comes to learning what it can do for us, where it might guide us. It is not warhorse or synagogue, neither raft nor poetry nor fire pit; as a guide, it is still learning too.
Since that day in the parking lot, the bicycle has always meant freedom for me; it got me out of my house and then out of my hood. It got me out of tight places when my crowd veered in ways I didn’t want to go, and maybe most importantly it has always gotten me out of my own way, out of my own head. As Jens Voigt says, “when the legs are pumping, the brain is empty.” Longer rides over the past couple of years have now started to take me out of town (and even county); it’s a beautiful machine, emblem of liberation, and what creates poetic balance in my life. This weekend two friends of mine, along with a loyal and obsessive crew mate, are going to ride from one tip of Prince Edward Island to the other in one day-long push — a trip that will measure almost three times as long as my longest ride. It promises, in no uncertain terms, to take me directly into the unknown, into myself, into the realm of human consciousness where we come face to face with ourselves. I do this on purpose, with my eyes wide open, ready for the hurt, unsure and nervous and excited. Freedom is not necessarily a Sound of Music thing, but can also be the source of the greatest fear; as Sartre says, “Freedom is what you do with what has been done to you”; that is, set afloat in a world entirely not of your making, where you must create significance, against the industries of time’s rapid advancement and your own immanent demise. One must, as he also said, see this as fortune, and fashion oneself as a tough optimist, engaged in joyous battle to that end.
I’m ok with all of that. Last week my Dad got some bad medical news, the following weekend we went to his place and he made us dinner. He’s wise like that, always aware of what’s at stake and able to prioritize — family always come first. He teaches me a lot about life, but mostly about balance; and yeah, I pulled the same trick on all three of my kids when I taught them to ride their bikes, running behind and laughing as they told me to let go. We all know when it’s time to let go. We all know when you and the guide become one. We all know where the bliss is, but how many of us will go after it? Crusty old bugger HG Wells once said that “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race” and what more evidence could you ask for? Pessimists are often right; our job is to turn it to enterprise.
My bags are almost packed. In my head, I’m already there; our Facebook chat tells me the same of my friends, that we rush into the abyss, crazy eager. It’s a human thing, this longing to jump off cliffs and charge into the night, perhaps it is our greatest character, that which makes us forgive-able. For my part, I fill water bottles and recheck lists, imagine and hope and am filled with gratitude that I can do this thing. After all, it’s really just like it was on that hot summer’s eve, and it really does just come down to me and my bike and that feeling of ultimate freedom.
Andrew Titus is a running, cycling, wordsmith educator, who along with his sidekick superhero dog, Tuck, seeks to inspire and nurture the woods that live in all of us. Catch up with him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. You’ll be glad you did.