The Bicycle Mind

I spent a little money at the bike shop last week to get my old bicycle in shape for the summer. In fact, I just got back from riding my bicycle to campus and back ' the first time I've done that in the twelve years I've worked there. It got me thinking because, when I was a student, I always biked to campus. After all, when I was a student, I didn't have either a car or a driver's license.

Most Americans get their license when they're in their teens. I was almost 38 when I got mine. By that time I had been a student at three colleges and an instructor at two; I'd gotten married, owned a business, been a landlord, and bought and sold property. And while it's true, of course, that I did have access to automobiles and could use them ' while it's true that I did indeed know how to drive and that I was quite often a passenger in other people's cars ' I did not get an official state license until a few months before my 38th birthday. Until that point in my life, I depended on my bicycle for local travel (for long distance, I depended, like Blanche Dubois, on 'the kindness of strangers' ' in other words, I hitchhiked. But that's a subject for another time, perhaps). In the last decade or so, though, I've been primarily an automobilist. Looking back at my twenty years of bicycling and my ten years of 'driving,' I wonder if the steady use of these very different vehicles doesn't create in people a very different kind of mind.

Interestingly, we use inappropriate verbs when we talk about bikes and cars. We say, for instance, that we 'ride' a bike, which implies passivity. 'To ride' means, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, 'to be carried or conveyed.' When you ride, you sit there but don't necessarily do anything. You might guide it, but you don't power it. When we ride a horse, for instance, we might guide it, but the horse is doing the work. A bicycle 'rider,' though, is anything but passive. It's his energy that drives the bike forward, making him in a very real sense its driver. At the same time, we say that we 'drive' a car. But the driver of a car is anything but actively 'driving' a car, certainly not in the same sense that a bicyclist drives his bicycle. The energy is not his at all but comes from the gasoline that powers the technology in which and on which he sits. The person behind the wheel rides in that car in the same way as a rider on a horse: he may guide it but the engine is doing the work. He is in no real or active sense a 'driver.' 'Riding' a bicycle, then, while it sounds passive, is actually quite active; 'driving' a car, while it sounds active, is actually quite passive.

Just as years of reading develops a very different mindset than does watching television, years of experience 'riding' a bicycle as a commuter through city traffic develops a very different mindset than 'driving' a car through that same traffic. For one thing, a bicyclist is out there on his own. No one sits next to him or in the back seat. He does not have windows or doors on either side or a roof over his head. He is not surrounded by glass and plastic and metal. He has no way of shutting out the outside world. He is totally exposed to the elements. He has no heater, no fan, no air conditioning, no massive sound system (although he may, if he's stupid, have a smaller one clamped to his ears, making it difficult if not impossible to hear those little things, those small nuanced sounds ' a soft rattling in the chain or the gears, a distant shouted warning, the hiss of a suddenly pierced tire ' that, on a bicycle, can be life-threatening). He does not have that isolation from others that an automobile provides. A bicyclist becomes very aware very quickly not only of his individuality but also of how immersed he is in the reality all around him.

He also becomes aware very quickly of his fragility. He learns how small things can have major effects. His pants could get caught in the chain and throw him off if he doesn't take precautions. A rock in the road, or a small hole, even loose gravel'things which an automobilist barely notices (he doesn't have to: his heavy, powerful car will roll right over them and, besides, he's going too fast to notice such unimportant things) ' could toss him to the pavement. A flat tire could leave him stranded miles from home. He has to pay more attention to detail and to his place in the larger world because, as a bicyclist in a world of cars, his life depends on it.

A bicyclist of necessity becomes both responsible and patient. He knows that, as the smallest, lightest, most maneuverable and most vulnerable vehicle on the road, he is, in the end, responsible for his own safety. He knows that, because he is so small, people in cars and trucks often look right past him and that many never see him at all, so he takes that into account as he moves through traffic. He has to look out for them and anticipate their actions in order to navigate safely. A good bicyclist knows that he'll only get hurt if he is stupid. His safety is his responsibility and his alone. He also knows it takes a certain amount of time to get somewhere. He learns as a bicycle commuter that there's little if anything gained in hurrying. It not only tires him out to no good purpose, but it endangers him as well. He can't be impulsive and impatient on a bicycle in traffic ' not if he wants to live. If a bus pulls over and stops to pick up passengers, for instance, cars will go around it because 'drivers' are impatient. But a bicyclist will just slow down or even stop. What, after all, is the problem with stopping? He'll soon be on his way again. He doesn't have to go out into traffic and endanger himself by getting in the way of those impatient drivers and their tons of metal traveling at 40, 45, 50 miles an hour. Personal responsibility, patience, silence, alertness, intelligence, awareness, conservation of energy: All these are virtues on a bicycle.

Because he's on the outside looking in, a bicyclist becomes much more aware than a automobilist of the sheer power and force of automobiles. He knows from personal experience how much effort and energy it takes to move him and a relatively light-weight piece of machinery up even a slight hillside, let alone a steep one: how much more must it take to move a ton of plastic and metal up that hill along with a person or two or three inside! He also sees how that power is taken for granted by those in the cars, and how curiously impatient they get. It seems the faster they go, the quicker they want to be there ' the more they have, the more they want.

I remember taking a relatively long bike trip from Oneonta to Cooperstown about 20 years ago. Like many old state roads upstate, this one was two lanes that twisted and turned through the rolling hills so much that it was difficult for automobilists to pass one another in their mutual hurry. At one point, though, it straightened out for a stretch and gave an opportunity for such passing.

Up ahead I saw one car (A) coming towards me. Two others (B and C) blazed past me on their way to Cooperstown. Both were easily doing more than 50 miles a hour ' that might not seem like much when you're inside a car, but when you're doing about 10 miles a hour on a bicycle, it seems incredibly fast. Just as they went by me, C pulled into the left lane and accelerated to pass B while A kept coming right at him. I watched in amazement as both C and A (in his great 1975 song 'Born to Run,' Bruce Springsteen aptly called cars 'suicide machines') sped toward one another in that left hand lane. Curiously (to me, at least), neither A nor B seemed to slow down at all. They just kept right on going. Finally C got past B and pulled back into the right lane just a split second before A would have run straight into him.

It struck me then and it strikes me still that this intense impatience stems from the driver's isolation from the world zipping by outside the car combined with the knowledge that the energy he's using costs him personally very little. If, rather than just pressing on his accelerator, he had to exert himself somehow to get by that other car ' if there was a specific and direct physical price to pay for that speed ' I doubt that he would have done it. I doubt that he would have risked eternity ' not only his but those in the other cars involved ' for the sake of a few seconds.

It also strikes me that American car culture, with its denial of reality, its use of inordinate power, its immense speed and efficiency coupled with a towering impatience, and its near-total personal isolation and self-absorption, has helped make people psychologically amenable to the technological totalitarian state. For them, cars are an absolute necessity, and so are, therefore, the roads on which these cars ride, the taxes that build and repair the road, the policemen who patrol the roads, and the politicians who control the police.

Perhaps we should think more about the benefits of the bicycle. Yes, a bicycle can be impractical, slow, cumbersome and tiring ' especially when you're used to an automobile. But to lessen your dependence upon the automobile is to lessen your dependence upon the State. And in doing so, you not only make your life simpler and less stressful, you also, at the very same time, help to weaken the State and its power. Remember: the passive, stupid, irresponsible, impatient, loud mind ' the automobile mind ' is the State's most powerful ally, but the active, intelligent, responsible, patient, quiet mind ' the bicycle mind ' is the State's most powerful enemy.

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Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.