Why bikes?

“What topic can you not shut up about?” The question was posed to me while I was filling out a profile for a dating site the other day. “Something you can’t shut up about”—when I hear this, I think of the things you obsess about that no one else around really cares about; when you bring it up there are groans because you see something there that they don’t see. Ask anyone; for me that topics is bicycles. Where I live—Cincinnati—where the steep and frequent hills do not make biking particularly inviting, and in fact, make it prohibitively difficult and intimidating for most, there are not nearly so many who have learned to come to depend on and find joy in riding bikes as in the other places I’ve lived. But for me biking has become a passion and a way of life, such that my dating site response is quite literally true; I really cannot shut up about them. But why bicycles?

Hudepohl historic brewery Cincinnati
Cincinnati’s Urban Basin Bicycle Club taking one last look at a condemned historic brewery

I could go on and on about how biking is better for the environment and bicycle infrastructure is better for urban design. Or how much money you can save on gas, car payments, parking, insurance, and car maintenance (my total yearly transportation costs—including travel—are approximately $800). Or how in shape you’ll get both in terms of lower body muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance, increasing both fitness and life expectancy. I could talk about how cities become more livable and people happier when more people bike to work rather than drive for their commute. I could even talk about how much fun bikes are. Or about how good riding is for your mental health. These all are true, and there are many hundreds of articles to be found extolling these and the various other virtues and benefits of cycling. Most of these you could probably figure out for yourself anyway.

What can a body do? (Here I am channeling two philosophical heroes of mine—Spinoza and Deleuze). We don’t have even the slightest glimmer of an idea what a body can do. And before the invention of the bicycle, we had even less of an idea. The bicycle gives the already mobile human body an even greater range of motion, speed, and distance than it had before. Hiking 20 miles in a day is a good pace when covering long distances day after day, fully packed with gear for the journey. Running 26.2 miles in an afternoon pushes most bodies to or past their limit, but the ability to ride a bike with 60 pounds of gear 60 miles each day for weeks on end across entire continents is attainable for many fairly easily, and those miles are all powered by nothing but the human body.

Yes, cars can cover 60 miles in an hour as opposed to 60 miles in a day, and so for rapid transportation over long distances the car, train, plane, and motorcycle are all more convenient at making those distances small. But the speed of motorized transit is not a human speed. It is not a bodily speed. Yes, you can sightsee while riding in motorized transport; you can see the scenery blur past and make note of it. You can even stop along the route for photo ops at scenic overlooks, tourist destinations, and points of interest. You can be a tourist in a car or train, but you can’t explore. Only human speeds, speeds determined by what a body can do, allow for one to explore a space rather than only pass through and play the tourist. Bikes allow something different.

Consider speed. 15 miles per hour is a good but sustainable clip for an all-day bike ride. At that speed in favorable conditions you see a high degree of detail in your surroundings as you peddle past. Architecture. Animals and plants. Flowers and trees. Bridges, sunsets, rivers, and streams. The layout of cities and urban space. People watching from the saddle of a bike is exquisite. Stopping distance at that speed on a normal bike is about 9 feet. Something catches your attention out of the corner of your eye. Maybe it’s a baby turtle in your path or an arched bridge over your route. Maybe you notice a rose bush in full bloom or an abandoned brewery about to be torn down—its 100 year old brick facade more beautiful than any occupied building for miles—a little way off the street. On a bike, almost nothing along your route escapes your attention and there is always room to stop, observe, photograph, meditate, and explore from more angles.

Bikes take you along routes you would never experience by car. Cincinnati, for example, has hundreds of brick, flagstone, and cobblestone alleys interspersed through historic neighborhoods that are completely inaccessible by car, but by bike you can do 100 historic alleyways in a day. Or take the American rails to trails program which turns old, unused railroad beds that used to take freight across the country and turns them into dedicated bike paths that can take your human powered two wheels through some of the most fantastic scenery in the United States while covering the miles between cities. Eventually the rails to trails program will have created a route entirely of bike paths across the entire United States, highways built for human speeds and bodily freedom!

I hate using the word “freedom;” too loaded with mystification and too devoid of meaning in our present hegemonic ideological structure to be of much use for anything but an empty placeholder for liberatory values, but freedom is the first and last word that comes to mind as I wish to extol the virtue of the humble bicycle. Yes, one can bike for fitness or fashion or just for pleasure—and these are all fine reasons to ride a bike—but when you make a city or the countryside between cities a terrain to be explored by bike you learn to depend on your body, the very locus of an individual’s freedom, for the very act of moving from place to place. The bodily autonomy of every individual is sacred, and whatever expands the capacity of the body to do its own will is itself sacred as well. It is a shame that bicycles were invented in the modern era because for all their holy value in enhancing bodily autonomy there is no god of the bike (though cyclists do have their patron saint), and so I claim bikes and the freedom they give for the Olympian goddess Artemis, the virgin hunter who killed anyone who tried to rape her and is therefore one of the patrons of bodily autonomy in the ancient pantheon of the gods. Go forth with a bike between your legs and pedals beneath your feet! We do not even know yet what a body can do! All hail Artemis! All hail the patroness of bikes!

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