The trouble with a
bicycle is that its two primary benefits are at odds with each other.
Bicycles are a
technical marvel. The more one learns about bicycle mechanics the more
impressive it seems. Or, perhaps the reality is that bicycles present various
aspects of mechanics in ways that laymen like myself can easily understand. At
any rate, the story of the development of the modern bicycle is a story of the
development of the industrial revolution. We go from wooden frames propelled by
legs on the ground, like a toddler's "balance bike" (they were called
"dandy horses" at the time) to tubular frames and spoked wheels, to
rear-drive "safety bicycles" with chain-driven hubs, to
interchangeable parts and pneumatic tires… and so on. Every new development in
the world of mass-production and industry has a corresponding development in
the world of bicycles, to the point that even today the world's leaders in
electric cars are also manufacturing futuristic electric bicycles.
In short, the
bicycle is the ultimate case study in applied mechanics, and this plays
directly into the first of the bicycle's two primary benefits: It is an
extremely energy-efficient machine. This accounts for its popularity as a pure
utilitarian means of transportation. Some estimates state that a bicycle
traveling somewhere between 14 and 25 miles per hour requires the same amount
of energy from the rider as the rider would spend walking.
I don't know about you, but I certainly can't walk 14-25 miles per hour.
The bicycle's other
primary benefit is, for the most part, totally unrelated to the first. Bicycles
are extremely fun.
For those who do not
ride, it's impossible to understand. No description can give it justice. Is it
the act of balancing, or the ability to achieve high speeds in a short period
of time, with minimal effort? Is it the wind in your face, or the gravity working
with you as you lean into a turn? Is it the communion with nature, or the
connection to the road? Perhaps it's all of those things. It is a multi-sensory
experience that is continually satisfying, from beginning to end. Oh, sure,
there are times when one must ascend a steep hill at great effort, or ride mile
after mile into a strong and unforgiving headwind. That isn't always fun.
Still, it isn't exactly miserable,
magical about it. The same stretch of road looks and feels different from a
bicycle than it does from a car. When you have a tactile connection to the
slope of the hills and you can hear the birds, you find appreciation in a place
that, from a car window, might look otherwise boring. You certainly won't
discover a blue-jay's nest while speeding by an empty lot in a sedan at 45
miles per hour. On a bicycle, though, you might hear the jay's song, which will
cause you to turn your head and catch it flying by; you follow it with your
eyes until it lands in a tree up ahead, and then you take a look as you ride
past, spotting the nest, the bird's mate, and possibly even hearing the chicks
peep as they cry for food. All that in an empty lot, a potentially dirty lot,
on an ugly side of town that makes you frown when you see it from your car.
Bicycles give you access to the hidden lives of the city.
But that's romance.
Bicycles also offer us thrills. Is there
any better word than "thrilling" to describe the feeling of speeding
down a long, steep, empty hill at speeds well exceeding 30 miles per hour, with
nothing keeping you from scraping your face across the pavement than your own
sense of balance and your ability to control your vehicle? There are many
cyclists who make the trek miles and miles up a steep mountain road, solely so
that they can have the experience of coasting back down it. We do this because
we cannot help ourselves. It's dopamine, pure dopamine, pumping through our
brains as we descend. To hell with the station wagons honking at us to move.
They don't know what it's like, because they can't feel the wind on their
It's almost worth
the inevitably inhaled insect, although I could do without the coughing fit.
A bicycle's two
primary benefits are its mechanical advantage and the fact that it is
unbelievably fun to ride. These two features combine to present an experience
that a rational person capable of riding will want to take advantage of at
every available moment. In doing so, however, the rider must make a sacrifice.
Riding a bicycle can be physically strenuous, but it's
designed not to be. The whole point of bicyclical transportation is to
avoid energy loss. That's why, in many countries, even old ladies ride
bicycles. Bicycling itself won't make you a sweaty mess, not like a ten-mile
run will. When you finally dismount, you'll feel a little wobbly, as if you've
just been on a long boat ride; but it's not wobbly from physical expenditure,
it's wobbly from having spent a long time atop a fast-moving gyroscope.
For some, lengthy
bike rides might be a good form of fitness. It would certainly be better than nothing at all. But for someone who enjoys
dedicating a lot of his free time to physical fitness, bike riding is a
decadence I can seldom afford. I enjoy my "cross training days," when
I can get out on a bicycle and just enjoy a ride. I don't have to worry about
the workout I'm missing, because the point of the day is to rest my muscles and
to give them a change of pace. But on an "on" day, who can afford to
do something that's equivalent to walking?
Even a very long walk can't give your muscles, heart, and lungs the same kind
of workout that a run will. So, much to my chagrin, I must leave the bicycle
Still, I am a
middle-aged man. I know that life is short, and virility even shorter. One day,
I won't be able to run like I do, and on that day, I'll be glad to have my
bicycle. It's a wonderful machine.