Sunday, July 13, 2008

Fixin' to Ride

Lao-tzu said "Limiting is what results in clarity; minimizing is what results in attainment. Therefore when the external is controlled by the center, nothing is neglected. If you can attain the center, then you can govern the external." ***

I think if Lao-tzu rode a bicycle, it would be a fixed gear. Over the years I've ridden many bicycles and logged many miles on fixies. Now things run ahead, now things run behind and bicycles ebb and flow through my life. "Ownership", like this life itself, is only some sort of temporary condition.

Here and now, the government has decided to task me with stimulating the economy. Who am I to disagree? Something in my sense of propriety is offended by the fact that this Fuji League has languished on the sales floor of Bike Works for weeks. I decide to spend locally and bring this bike home.

Lao-tzu famously advises “To gain knowledge, add something everyday. To gain wisdom, remove something everyday.” Having just gained a bike, I set to the work of regaining wisdom.

The drop bars, the derailleurs, the multi-cog freewheel, the big chainring and the excess chain all go into a satisfyingly heavy bag, destined for some other machine on some other day. My hands, feet and butt know how this bike should fit me. Flat bars with bar ends, BMX platform pedals and a WTB saddle all find their proper place.

My friend Mark Vande Kamp has observed that overall, I'm fastest on a fixed gear bike and while being fast is not the point, it is an interesting phenomena. My friend Jan has also rightly noted that when derailleurs were introduced into the Tour de France, average speeds went up quite a bit. I have a theory that reconciles these two facts and it goes like this:
  • Racers use gears to go faster
  • I am not a racer
  • I am lazy
  • I use gears to go slower (shifting into an easier gear to climb)
  • Fixed gears don't shift (or coast)
  • The fixed gear forces me to be strong on the climbs and to spin quickly on the descents.
  • Because the bike is less, I have to be more.
I don't train, I just ride. For riding, sometimes a fixed gear is just right.

The bike is silent except for the sounds of tires on the road and breath in my lungs. Pedals turn, wheels turn, the earth turns beneath us. The road goes from here to there, up and down. Geography instructs my legs, reminding me of the true shape of the land. We have negotiated a mathematical bargain, 42:16 with 170 mm cranks and 700c wheels. I no longer trade time for comfort, but today's efforts become tomorrow's strengths.

There is something light and strong and right about this bike. It gets me to work a bit faster than my other machines and after just a few days the effort is becoming effortless. I do not to tell my heart to beat, my lungs to breathe, my legs to turn. I grab this machine and riding is automatic, like a heartbeat.

*** This quote is from Further Teachings of Lao-tzu translated by Thomas Cleary, page 6.
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