walking around in tap shoes and pyjamas since 2010 - my cycling log (opens in new window)

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Evolution of My Cycling Ethos

While part of my cringes at the mere idea of even imagining such a thing as a 'cycling ethos,' I believe everyone who rides with any regularity has one.

For some of us, it's about independence and practicality (both great points). For some of us, it's about getting or staying fit (also an entirely valid pursuit). For some of us, it's about getting faster so we can beat the pants of that thinks-he's-big fellow in the sponsored leotards (also, also an entirely valid pursuit, pun intended). I suspect, however, that most of us who love our bikes and find excuses to ride more (and to buy more bikes, and more kinds of bikes) subscribe, at least in part, to my own central cycling ethos, which can be fully expressed in a single word:


When I was a little kid just learning to ride a bike, I didn't really care what kind of bike I rode, at first. I did recognize that my sister's bike — a classic Schwinn convertible — was a much sweeter ride than my humble, aged banana-seat special, which for all I know was probably the only bike the shop had in my size and which was soon (unceremoniously) dubbed 'the Frog.' That didn't really matter, though — what mattered was that first taste of unbridled speed, sailing down the long hill where we lived; that first good, fast turn-without-wiping-out.

The epic wrecks also mattered; I was one of those kids who took pride in his scrapes and bruises. My parents' choice — anchor-heavy and bomb-proof — was rather a wise one, I think. At the time I felt kind of shafted, since my sister's sleek, muscular bike had a slick blue metal-flake paint job, while mine was chalk white and always looked slightly apologetic, as if it meant to dress for dinner but forgot to pick up its dry-cleaning on the way. However, it would've been silly to pay more for a bike with pretty paint job which I would've quickly destroyed in my early efforts to break the land speed record.

Once I learned to ride, I didn't wipe out often, but when I did, I was usually dive-bombing down our hill fast enough to have reached that point at which pedaling becomes useless. I was also known to crash my bike entirely on purpose from time to time. Sometimes into my friends' bikes. This is what happens when you don't allow your children to play with explosives or firearms: they crash their bikes instead, then grow up to be cycling junkies and spend all their extra money on bikes and bike-related accessories. Nonetheless, parents, take a lesson from me: if your kids say, 'Let's play Tour De France!' they're probably talking about re-enacting some or another epic dogpile of a crash, not putting together a 3-week stage race around your neighborhood.

A lesser machine would not have survived my early childhood; the Frog is, as far as I know, still alive and kicking, and if I ever happen to find myself in charge of some of those curious and interesting small people known as 'kids,' I hope to be able to pass him along. Assuming my Mom hasn't long since given him away, which would also be fine.

After a couple of years, I outgrew the Frog and graduated to a larger kids' bike with a better paint job but not necessarily better everything else. By that time, however, I had figured out that my Mom's bike had these nifty things called gears, and I was convinced that they were the best thing since sliced bread (in fact, better, because I really wasn't that fond of sliced bread: toast, on the other hand...).

Thus, my bike was ridden as often by my next-door neighbor, a year and change younger than I was, as it was by me. I was busy mastering my Mom's bike, which was much, much too big for me. I couldn't actually reach the pedals at the bottom of their range, which resulted in some interesting pedaling techniques. I also could just barely reach the bars, which resulted in my turning a couple of leashes into reins for the bike: one for the brakes, one for steering. Suffice it to say that actually making effective use of the downtube-mounted gear levers was a little beyond me, but danged if I wasn't going to try.

In fourth grade I first experienced the feel of a decent road bike — an appropriately-sized Panasonic that belonged to the brother of a friend of mine from school. Since the brother in question wasn't terribly into riding, I borrowed his bike whenever I was at their house, and my friend and I rode all over the hills of West Hartford. The bike in question was light, stiff, fast, and perhaps most importantly well-maintained, and probably continues to influence my taste in bikes to this day. It was a heck of a lot of fun to ride up hills, and even more fun to ride down them ;)

I had a reasonably decent road bike that carried me through middle school and part of high school — not great, but serviceable (and red, which is always a plus in my book). That was the bike from which I learned, quite without instruction, that you can, in fact, overfill a bicycle inner tube o.O

Some time in the last two years of high school, I decided that mountain bikes were much cooler than road bikes (even though I didn't really ride off-road that much). I acquired a mountain bike which I later traded to my step-Dad for a futon. When I moved to Syracuse, it was replaced with another that I rode less frequently than I care to admit. It was pretty, but heavy, and Syracuse is very, very hilly — hillier, in fact, than the hilly part of Louisville where I currently make my home.

Bizarrely, around that time, I was operating under the impression that I didn't like road bikes. I thought I didn't like them because the road bikes I had ridden recently weren't sized right for me, but I didn't know that. I thought having to practically lie down flat to reach the drops was just kind of how it was done. Um ... oops?

Thus, I decided I was never going to own a road bike. Ever*.

Not long after that, I moved to Lexington and my first good GT hybrid practically fell into my lap (I think I still owe the guy who sold it to me $100, if I can ever find him). That was the bike on which I learned that I enjoyed long rides. That was also the bike on which I learned that if you're going to fly down a hill at 40 MPH on a night in late fall with a dynamo-powered light, you should invest in a good one ._. Also, gloves.

During the same period, I also believed that lycra was dumb (even though, if I do say so myself, I would've looked pretty awesome in lycra back then, what with riding 30 miles a day and working on a horse farm). Though I secretely admired Real Cyclists, I solemnly swore I would never be one of Those Guys. I may be a champion oddball, but even I have been known to succumb to peer pressure, and my friends all thought most Real Cyclists were total d-bags.

Since then, I have learned that what I really enjoy doing on bikes is going far and/or fast: the farther and/or faster, the better. And while mountain bikes definitely have their place (riding a sturdy mountain bike is much better than blistering down some singletrack in the woods and bending your skinny little road wheels, for example), and hybrids are a lot of fun to ride and great commuters, road bikes are the best bikes for doing what I like to do.

Likewise, I'm slowly coming to terms with my Inner Real Cyclist's willingness to dress up like a super hero (my Inner Cyclist, I suspect, is one-and-the-same as That Little Voice). Admittedly, that process has been aided and abetted by my Inner Pragmatist's grudging acknowledgement that, yes, purpose-designed cycling shorts have their advantages when you want to ride 15 miles or more in heat of a Kentucky summer afternoon. IP hasn't quite accepted TLV's suggestion that the handy pockets in the back would make a real cycling jersey totally worthwhile. IP believes that's why God made bar bags.

TLV retorts that bar bags are fine on brevets or commutes, but what if we just want to go out for a fast ride? You know, a really fast ride. The kind where you go out with a bunch of other idiots lunatics fanatics cyclists, also dressed in the ritual finery of the tribe, and see who can climb the biggest hill in town fastest.

The kind of ride where you then get to fly down the other side of the biggest hill in town while the wind whips through your helmet, and if you are bold enough, if you are brave enough, if you are forthright and true and you cherish your bicycle more than your friends' belief that you are in fact a sane, sound-minded adult, you click into your biggest gear and pedal like a locomotive with no brakes and descend like the Land of Milk and Honey awaits you below, shouting wildly into the whistling wind:


*I have since learned that the best way to guarantee I will eventually do something is to say that I will never do it, and that those things about which I feel emphatically enough to bother including the word 'never' are often those things — for example, owning a road bike — which I secretly long to do.

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