I bought a bicycle two weeks ago. I feel like I’ve joined a cult. All I want to do is ride. Cycling has eaten my brain.
“I have almost forgotten that there is such a pursuit as literature in the arduous study of – bicycling!”
My first real ride out, I thought I might die. My heart felt like it was going to explode. I dismounted and almost fell down. Legs like jelly.
I’ve been fortunate to come under the guidance of a retired neighbor who has plenty of patience and time to ride. (It turns out another neighbor down the street rode in the Tour de France, but that’s a story for another day.)
On Sunday I biked 22 miles. My ass hurts. My knees hurt. I feel great.
My favorite thing about biking so far, other than the high from the endorphins after a long ride, is that I have to devote 100% of my attention to it. I can’t be distracted. I have to be completely in my body using all of my senses (including the sixth one) to pull it off.
I’m not the first to note this: in a roundup of artists who really, really love their bicycles, artist Julia Chiang put it well: “You get to just focus on your senses — try to see things before they happen, hear things before it’s too late — so everything else kind of disappears.”
There’s something about the zeal of the convert, the way it scares and thrills you a bit, the all-consuming nature of your new hobby…
One of my favorite bands, Kraftwerk, became downright maniacal cyclists in the late 70s after the release of their record, The Man Machine. In fact, members Wolfgang and Karl point to cycling as one of the reasons the band stopped producing so much in the 80s. (Their last real album was an album of Tour de France soundtracks.)
Lead man Ralf Hutter waxes philsophical about the deep connections between cycling and their music: “It is always forward. It is free, it is outside, it is the weather, it is the planet, it is energy.”
Hutter explained more in a great interview with Geeta Dayal:
We were inspired by recording breath and heartbeat and other sounds from bikes. The other thing with cycling is that when it’s really going well, it’s really silence. You just hear the wind. That’s what gave the music its flow on this album. We know that from cyclists, when they listen to our music, they understand; they listen, and they understand how the music is composed. It’s important when you move with your bicycle to listen to the environment, the surroundings, the wind and your own breath.
And cycling becomes a metaphor for a career:
The German word is vorwärts, forward — that’s what you do with your bicycle. You move forward. I know some top cyclists who can do standstill; they do it on the track. I cannot do that, but I don’t need to do that — we go forward. When you go too slowly with your bicycle or nearly stop then you fall off, so it’s better to go forward. That’s what we’ve tried to do.
Good timing: My friend Clive Thompson just published a piece called “Cycling Repairs Your Mental Health.” I like how he compares cycling to my religion of walking:
Most people find that when they go for a walk, they absorb the street-scene better than when they race by in a car. Obviously! But cycling is, for me, the perfect sensual midpoint between the two. You get the visual banquet of walking, but because you’re going faster you get a bigger, longer feast — miles and miles of busy streets, in technicolor close-up.
He finished the piece with a quote from Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes) written in 1885:
“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without a thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”
Cycling was a huge craze at the turn of the 20th century, so there’s actually a bunch of writers who wrote about their love of the new machine. (Everything old gets new again.)
H.G. Wells, who wrote a comic cycling novel called The Wheels of Chance, said:
“When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.”
There’s just something about bicycles, man. Especially in times like these.
I want to ride so much I spend a good deal of time just coming up with rides to take, like pedaling over to Black Pearl Books, my local bookshop, to sign the first copies of the new edition of Steal Like an Artist. I have a fantasy of biking to all the nearby bookstores until I work my way up to riding downtown to sign books at Bookpeople.
If you’ve been thinking about getting a bike, I’ll leave you with the words of the great Mark Twain in his essay, “Taming The Bicycle”:
“Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.”
Okay, now tell me: Do you bike? Tips for me? Favorite gear? Do you have favorite essays or books (or art or music or movies) about biking? Tell me in the comments:
Thanks for reading. See you Friday.
PS. The new edition of Steal comes out in exactly one week. Still time to pre-order and get a signed, personalized copy or a free, autographed bookplate. Thanks!
Great post! I haven't been riding my bike. I'm almost 80 (did I just write that?), and I must get back on my bike. I feel fear slipping around the edges of too many activities, so onward--to check the air in my tires (literally and metaphorically.)
I think you have the spirit of cycling well in hand. It’s easy to get wrapped up in speed, distance, the right clothes, the right weather, and ACHIEVEMENT. But in the end, the best thing is to just get out and ride.