Although I’m usually an isolate cyclist, on one or two occasions, I’ve found myself randomly attached to passing cyclists. Due to my solitary tendencies, it amazes me to no end that I am a magnet for jovial cyclists. Maybe it’s the sheer joy of riding etched across my face or the vehemence with which I pedal to my destination — who knows? These chipper cyclists ride up alongside of me and strike up a conversation.
A few days ago, one such encounter occurred. I was chugging up a steep hill, hindered by extreme sleep deprivation, when a cheery voice called out behind me. Slowing a bit, I turned my head to get a glimpse of the voice’s owner.
He was not what I expected. I estimated his age to be somewhere between late 50’s and early 60’s. He sported a fully gray beard, scraggly attached to sunken cheeks resting below weather worn eyes.
I slowed down to make conversing easier. He pulled up next to me and proceeded to tell me that he thought my saddle should be a different height. He was comparing the height of a hybrid bike saddle to what he had been told about the “recommended” height of a racing bike saddle. I informed him that the two bike types were different and that I always adjusted my saddles with a preferred angle measurement at the knee.
More than one school of thought exists on how much bend should be in the knee at the bottom of a stroke, but at any rate, knee problems, type of bike and riding style need to be considered. I casually mentioned these things to him and thanked him for his concern. He appeared to be bestowing fatherly advice and I didn’t want to reject it outright even though I did not think his understanding of seat height adjustment was profound.
In the midst of this conversation, I suddenly realized that his bicycle, a classic road bike, was rather old. The paint was faded and the handlebar tape looked as if it was from another era. I couldn’t identify the components and wondered where he had gotten them. The only new items were the pedals and his shoes. He must have decided to upgrade them, but given the condition of the rest of the bike, it was hard to imagine why.
We came to an intersection where he was going straight and I was turning right. He wished me a good day filled with safe riding, and of course, cautioned me to be careful. I returned the good wishes and headed on my way.
As soon as he was gone, I started thinking about his old bike. It wasn’t really the bike I was thinking about, it was what the old bike symbolized. Just as the rider represented a previous era in his manner, dress and outdated bike, so too did the bike represent something that we commonly associate with times gone by.
A bicycle, as a vehicle without a motor, and no mechanical means beyond the strength of the rider to propel it, represents a simpler time in human existence. In my mind, the bicycle stood halfway between walking, which was our ancestors’ earliest mode of transportation, and driving, which is the most recent method of transporting ourselves.
In between, humans rode horses or tied them to wagons to harness the power of something other than themselves. But, even then, the means of propulsion was a living, breathing thing.
Somehow, the move away from biologically based transportation to mechanically based transportation was seen as a great advance. In many ways it was. Vehicles powered by engines can travel many times faster than a human or any other animal. And such vehicles are not subject to injury or disease, although they do occasionally break down.
Mechanical failure has never deterred humans. And the increasing sophistication of mechanical devices has become a source of pride for our species. This, in large measure, is why humans value cars so much. Not only are they a convenience and a sign of prestige, but they are also a sign of human achievement. They are the culmination of our ability to invent things and to use tools for our own benefit.
There is nothing wrong with using tools or inventing things to make our lives easier. But, there is a problem with building and inventing things without consideration for how they will affect us and our planet in the long run.
What appeared to be progress at the outset can easily turn into self-demise in the end. As it is, our machines are taking over a large portion of our planet. Air, water and soil have become polluted by their discharge.
Wildlife has been adversely affected either through mutations or extinction. And for all we know, we too are accumulating genetic mutations caused by the changes we have created in our own environment.
Many years will have to pass before we can know the true affect of our actions on ourselves and the planet. Still, in the short-term, we can change our perspective, with a view to doing what benefits us most, not what some people perceive as “progress.”
To that end, we might want to revisit the idea of bicycles as an antiquated form of transportation and cars as a sign of progress. Perhaps, as with many things, we have this backwards.
Cars are undoubtedly a sign of mechanical aptitude and inventiveness. Their parts have been machined and honed, invented and reinvented. Yet, these traits are not synonymous with progress because an invention, due to its newness and unproven long-term effects, can cause unknown harm.
So maybe progress really means gaining insight into the consequences of our inventions and looking for methods to counter those consequences. In this sense, returning to bicycles, a pre-mechanical form of transportation, may constitute conceptual progress. In other words, the concept of a human powered form of transportation may be an advance as a result of its simplicity.
A bicycle causes no harm to the environment. It does not physically alter our world in any perceptible way. It connotes a superior understanding of who we are as humans and how we might shape the world we live in.
What it boils down to is that cars represent an antiquated idea about how we can abuse our environment indefinitely without causing harm to ourselves. And bicycles represent an understanding of our limitations and the limitations of our environment. Such understanding is real progress — a progress that can only be perpetuated by reason, retrospection and forward thinking.