Thoughts on the bike

by Raymond Parker on March 25, 2013

in Cycling, Touring

“Melancholy is incompatible with bicycling.” ~James E. Starrs

Second Thoughts

(click to enlarge)

The sky was dark at noon, hidden by roiling charcoal clouds. Thunder rumbled, it seemed, from the depths of the shadowy forest. I battled an angry headwind, laced with stinging rain.

Nineteen years ago now, on a solo 2-month tour, I found myself, or rather had ridden myself onto, a winding, unpaved section of the Alaska Highway, between Teslin and Swift Current.

The current I fought was a river of orange sludge, which caused the bike to fishtail in a terrifying manner downhill, while gripping my tires like viscous glue on flats and climbs.

I pondered the esoteric ideas of P.D. Ouspenski and G. I. Gurdjieff, who theorized that we–those of us yet stumbling in the murk of illusion–are a jumble of undifferentiated personalities, each struggling for dominance.

As an example, “we” might say: “I am going to quit drinking.” The next day, a different I might deny the pledge was made, or rationalize it away.

Out on the desolate road, my ego fragments were dancing a bedraggled waltz, or was it the masochism tango? While one of my Is thrilled at the adventure, the one in charge of physical labour wanted to quit, while another part of my addled consciousness indignantly answered the complainer with an accusatory: “You wanted to do this!”

Yet another observer found the whole performance thoroughly amusing. Evidently, I had some way to go, not only to the day’s destination, but in my journey towards unification.

Last winter, I poked my virtual nose into a social media debate on cycling and its mental effects. A mountain biking practitioner asserted that they didn’t have time to think about anything other than dodging rocks and trees–a kind of survival satori.

I appreciated the zen-on-a-bike affectation–what cyclist hasn’t pedaled themselves to a happy place in the here-and-now?–but I’m not sure the master of single-track achieves long-term transcendence any more than the acid-head finds a shortcut to Lamahood.

Yesterday, as I rode alongside sun-dappled hedgerows, bursting with buds forced by Dylan Thomas’s “green fuse” of spring, I found myself no nearer to escaping the inner debate. Nor do I (which I? You may ask.) expect to escape the chatter any time soon.

I celebrate the bicycle as a wonderful thought made whole. It represents the best of our inventiveness. There is a certain gentleness in its conception. But, as I’ve said here before, I’m no bicycle fetishist, notwithstanding VeloWeb’s examination of bicycle minutia.

I reject the opening quote. It’s a facile assertion ignoring our frailties. While the chirp of courting birds in hedgerows and welcome splendor of unfolding leaves on grey twigs lightens the burden of opposing worry, the bicycle is simply a conveyance. While it demands neural and muscular input to return benefit, it’s no miracle cure for the human condition.

Perhaps it is enough to observe the flow of the conversation, whether on a bike, on foot, or sitting in meditation. It’s all practice on a road leading, one day through sunlit meadows, the next into storm and uncertainty.

“Man is a machine, but a very peculiar machine. He is a machine which, in right circumstances, and with right treatment, can know that he is a machine, and having fully realized this, he may find the ways to cease to be a machine.
First of all, what man must know is that he is not one; he is many. He has not one permanent and unchangeable “I” or Ego. He is always different. One moment he is one, another moment he is another, the third moment he is a third, and so on, almost without end.” ~P.D. Ouspensky

{ 10 comments… read them below or add your spin! }

Conor Ahern March 26, 2013 at 1:08 pm

19 years to the day of the start of my litttle odysey through Canada and the USA. People ask why did you do it, here I am so many years later and I still don’t know how, let alone why. The closest thing that springs to mind is Forrest Gump, I went for a bike ride one day and just kept going.

Here we have the great singing mathematician Tom Lehrer performing the aforementioned Masochism Tango


Raymond Parker March 27, 2013 at 12:47 pm

I considered linking Lehrer’s ditty, now you’ve linked it here. It was a childhood favourite. I also liked his irreverent “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.”


Conor Ahern March 29, 2013 at 4:12 pm

I must confess that I am very familiar with Mr. Lehrer’s works, since I was about 14, but saddest of all I can sing most of his songs. I am proud to say I performed a number of them, such as “I hold your hand in Mine”, at the local theatre, as fill in between acts, I did four nights in a row to full houses, I haven’t been asked back since.


ofoab March 29, 2013 at 11:17 am

The Social History of the Bicycle credits the bicycle with reducing the number of mentally challenged in English villages by expanding the gene pool, The Cyclists Union doing their bit for King and country. Sounds like a job for Bicycle Repairman !


Conor Ahern March 29, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Back before such methods of transport became available most people didn’t go more than 10 miles from their place birth.


Conor Ahern April 1, 2013 at 1:14 pm

This article has given me pause for thought. I think we were very lucky to have gone on our adventures in 1994 and experience the muddy gravel roads of the Alaska Highway and the Cassiar Highway before they were gone and became fully paved modern roads with massive amounts of traffic.
On my return trip to the Alaska Highway in 2004 I did about 50 miles and turned back. The amount of traffic was frightening and it was constant all day due to the road being fully paved by then. I got a hint of things to come when I did the Bighorn Highway in Alberta, in 1994 it was half paved and half gravel and very few cars. In 2004 it was fully paved, heavily trafficked and had flare stacks from gas and oil rigs. All in the name of “Progress”.


ofoab April 2, 2013 at 9:13 am

As a result of 1979 California cycling trip, 1980, I had the 1st MTB in Kamloops. I explored the Kettle Valley Railway prior to the ATV abuse that exists in our province. I feel the same disdain for progress. Ah, muddy knees and memories, yours in cycling !


Raymond Parker April 3, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Indeed, it may be argued that cycling with knowledge of the slow, never mind rapid, degradation of Canada’s wild places is to guarantee no small case of melancholia.

Canada’s transformation into a fascist petro-state, at the hands of PM Stephen Harper, under whose direction environmental protections are gutted and scientists gagged, guarantees continued destruction, while the despair of the “eco-terrorists” no doubt brings cheer to the Chairman.


Conor Ahern April 4, 2013 at 2:00 pm

The best way to see a country is from a bicycle!


Raymond Parker April 4, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Agreed, though some parts are seen even better on foot … even with just one that works well.


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