The Unaffordable Decadence Of Cycling

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, either.

There's something 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 faces.

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 home.

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.

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