Virtuosity comes in many forms. My friend found his by coming to work each morning on the train, having first walked from his house about a mile away, across a heavily traveled intersection. He always lugged the same ugly dirty green canvas satchel, inside of which were his daily distractions from an otherwise boring job. A librarian, he had failed to live up to the fact or the stereotype of his chosen profession. Tim was the mirror image of most librarians whom we usually think to be bookish, organized and bordering on being ‘anal-retentive’; he was anal explosive. His desk could easily feature on episodes of Hoarders. Surely, rats lived under the calamity of books and papers thrown together with no more planning than “whatever.”
On one rainy morning visit to his office his freshly blacken eye surprised me. A nice, big shiner, a few flecks of blood included. He looked as if he had been punched by a very large fist. Upon closer examination his eye was not the only damaged part. His trousers were more disheveled and wrinkled than normal, if that was possible. Smiling, he explained that some “asshole” had run him over at the Metro station, “then took off.” Stunned, I blathered something about calling the police, lousy drivers, traffic, idiots who don’t watch where they were going, forget to signal, then switch lanes without so much as a turn indicator.
“It was a bike.”
“What?” I asked.
“It was a bike.” As he neared the escalators into the Metro a bike had run him over from behind, knocking him down. As Tim got up the bike rider, who had stopped to see his handy work and satisfied that he had bloodied a pedestrian, rode off. A day’s work well done.
I cannot get over the brazenness of a bike rider who would run somebody over, then when faced with an opportunity to help the victim, simply rides off. It was a hit and run in Lycra spandex.
Happily, my life has not been cursed by the need to wear Lycra spandex. My bulges and bumps are kept private, secreted away by cotton that refuses to lie down and play right. I can happily report that I have not run over a librarian nor do I wear Lycra. In my early teens, like many kids, I rode a bike everywhere. That I didn’t get run over is a testament to the good sense of adult drivers, more than any comment on my good biking behavior. I don’t think I stopped at intersections, traffic lights, or railroad crossings. I did stop, once, for a bush. Or, rather the bush stopped me, after I ran my bike headlong into it. The bush did a credible imitation of an immovable object and flipped me over the handlebars, depositing me on my head. In recounting this story I must hasten to add that seatbelts had only recently become required equipment in cars. Needless to say the idea of a bicycle helmet was, at the time, a distant dream for the likes of Ralph Nader.
In those days there was no real awareness of bikes as moving vehicles. They were mere devices to get from A to B. There was little in the way of style consciousness. Sure, banana seats were the rage, but only amongst the tragically and emotionally needy. Adults had yet to take to bicycles as status statements. As teenage bike riders my friends and I rode totally unaware of cars, pedestrians, and neighborhood pets.
Today, things are different. Cyclists and motorists have become today’s road warriors. Much has been written about the assault by motorists on bicyclists. There is another point of view, however. Some think cyclists travel with a sense of entitlement, glowering at motorists and pedestrians alike. They conveniently choose road rules that suit their current needs. Situational ethics and sophistry are their watchwords as they move from roadway to sidewalk with total abandon. Where once the pedestrian, or train or car was king today the bike rider assumes a new and privileged status. Grown men and women today boast about their $10,000 bicycles, with carbon fiber construction and uni-body molding. Where once the neighbors might invite you over for drinks in order that they show you their new designer furniture, today they arrive on your doorstep, drenched in sweat atop their $10,000 Felt AR1 Dura-Ace Di2 Road Bike. It sounds impressive, doesn’t it? I don’t know what it means, but who cares? It sounds expensive and my neighbors can lord their specialness over me.
Such impressiveness cannot long be left unorganized in America. CycleMAYnia is a month long celebration of all things bicycle in Santa Barbara, California. A month’s worth of bicycle activities including fashion, equipment and attitude, described by the organizers as “good clean fun” attracting people from all walks of life. The local newspaper announces a “professional model, actress, dancer, reporter and contestant from America’s Next Top Model and model in NBC’s new TV show, Fashion Star” will be present. I can’t wait, can you? And if that’s not enough there’s even a costume theme, “The Bicycle Wears Prada,” which means something to somebody somewhere. Pious cyclists can join the Bike to Worship interfaith ride, bringing together bicyclists who can peddle their faith together.
Still, there’s nothing like getting out on the road and riding for all you’re worth. The physicality of bike riding cannot be denied. Imagine the gaggle of cyclists racing down the road on a Sunday morning, each outdoing the next in a race to get to the end. Or the lone cyclist out on the long stretch of highway, testing their mettle against the elements, it cuts a noble image. Man, woman, machine, road. A combination that cannot be beat
Except by a large multi-ton vehicle.
My brother-in-law discovered this. Bob’s a great guy, a man’s man. He’s the sort of guy who doesn’t do anything by half. Once, years ago, I watched him beat a piece of wood in two, using the axe more as a club than a cutting tool. He’s worked in an abattoir, been a truck driver, security guard, bar bouncer and more. Today, he runs logistics for a major national grocery store chain. Take that energy and pig headed drive wrap it in spandex and put it atop a $12,000 bike and that was my brother-in-law. He took to biking like a mad man. Up at 4AM and out on the road. He rode hundreds of miles every week. Day after day, regardless of weather, he was one with the road. Then one weekend morning he swept down a hill at 25 mph. Without warning a truck pulled halfway out in the road, then stopped. Too late to hit his brakes he slammed into the side of the behemoth. When he awoke in the hospital he discovered several cracked neck vertebrae, a broken ankle, punctured lung and a concussion. (The cuts and bruises that covered his body were trivial by comparison.) His bike was no more, and his helmet only a vague ill remembered object. He’s since given up bike riding. Perhaps memory of the accident was too much to bear. Or perhaps his injuries made it too painful to ride. He hasn’t given up his love of machine and road; he’s taken up the motorcycle. And not doing anything by half, he drove the Harley across Australia.
Of course, not everybody has Bob’s luck at beating death. My doctor recently lost a lot of weight. He put it down to his newly adopted passion of riding bike trails. Metropolitan Washington is filthy with bike trails. Some simply sit on the right hand side of the road, others are grander affairs, such as the Washington and Old Dominion trail, also known as the WO&D bike trail. It runs from urbanized Arlington through Fairfax County and into the country’s fastest growing county, Loudon. My doctor, who was prior to biking rather heavy set and still decidedly odd explained that while riding along the WO&D he came upon a small group standing around a man lying on the ground. Blood oozed from under the helmet. It seemed that the biker, out for a pleasant ride on the trail, and a pedestrian bumped. I say bumped because that’s what it was apparently. The pedestrian hadn’t rammed into the rider or visa versa, rather the rider and walker barely touched, but it was enough to send the rider reeling and he slammed into the ground.
The distraught pedestrian waited anxiously nearby clearly upset at what had happened. When it became obvious that the rider had died of a head injury the guilt-ridden pedestrian quietly slipped away unnoticed, never seen again.
Some might insist that I am too critical of bike riders; after all, drivers of cars do far greater damage than any biker. I wouldn’t disagree, people driving trucks and cars are dangerous. Of the 30,000 or more annual fatalities involving cars or trucks very few involved people who were saving the environment, trying to lose weight by driving, or getting in touch with nature. Most of them died trying to get from A to B, and some did so while fiddling the radio, texting, or stoned off their face.
Riding bicycles has taken on the form of virtue, but perhaps not the essence. For some, the specialness of riding has overwhelmed cycling’s utility. Virtue does not reside in the two-wheeled machine, but is found in the actions of the cyclist. The spandex-clad, helmeted patina of virtue lays bloodied and bruised on the roadside, while the essence of the life well lived remains elusive. Just as one swallow does not a spring make, neither does one bicycle make a virtuous person.