Sunday, December 12, 2010

Balancing Act

Riding a bicycle is so simple a child can do it, but there is an initial skill that must be mastered, the act of balancing on two wheels. While we can try to explain the mechanism, ultimately each person who learns to ride has to learn by doing. There is a combination of forward speed, of leaning left and right, of guiding the bike under the direction which it seems to be's all too complicated to calculate and impossible to do until the moment when we wobble to the place we need to be and, knowing we can't stay there, wobble just a bit further and then, somehow, we are not falling, we are flying. Flying on two wheels, balanced above the ground, rolling over a world where our fear has been replaced by wonder.

For many of us, that moment is a clear memory, something that defines not just what we do but who we are. We are not just a person with a bike or a person on a bike. We bond with our machines and we call ourselves cyclists or bikers or something like that. As years go by many put away their bicycles once they learn to drive, but some of us persist. We band together. We form clubs. We wave at each other. Sometimes we dress alike.

But the thing I think we should remember is the thing that's often to easy to forget. We are not all alike and we are not all different. We instinctively object when we're lumped in a group we don't feel we've joined, or a group that does seem to represent us.

I've been stopped at a light, seen a cyclist blast past through the red light and then I get lectured by the driver next to me, "You cyclists have no respect for the law." "Yep," I reply, "that guy doesn't. But you'll notice I'm stopped here. There are jerks using every mode of transport and there are folks like you and me, stopping at lights and still managing to get to work on time. You have a nice day, OK?" At that moment I'm relating much more to my fellow commuter in his car than the fellow on the bike.

There are certainly people for whom riding a bike is a political act or an expression of their philosophy but there are probably as many reasons for riding as there are riders. My son Peter explained it to me this way, "I don't ride my bike because I'm a damn hippie like you, Dad. I ride because I'm fiscally conservative."

I live in what is called a blue state these days but last I checked it's actually green and grey on the west side of the mountains, with more blue skies and brown earth in the eastern parts. The politics of the place are similarly diverse. As near as I can tell I'm more liberal than some of my friends and more conservative than others. As Willie Nelson says, "there is no normal, there's only you and me." But I think some folks make a mistake when they say that those folks who ride a bike must be blue or green or even pinko.

My friend Eric posted his analysis of the turmoil within the Cascade Bicycle Club, contrasting a top-down model with a grassroots model. I think it's a good observation but I found myself taking issue with a follow-up comment that stated:
“I think I can say with a fair amount of certainty, that most of us in the cycling community are pretty much anti-corporate business (greed) and pro-homegrown, grassroots organizations.”
My response was as follows:
That depends a lot on how you define the cycling community. I know many lefty, arnacho, dumpster diving cyclists and I know cyclists who are CEOs. I know democratic cyclists, libertarian cyclists, republican cyclists, vegan cyclists, carnivorous cyclists. I know cyclists who have fixies they built from scrap & I know cyclists with $12,000 carbon bikes. I know cyclists in the armed forces, cyclists who work for non-profits, cyclists who give to Greenpeace and cyclists who work for Weyerhauser. George W. Bush rides a bike, as does Barack Obama.

Starbucks is a major sponsor of Bike to Work day and has an entire room with a workbench dedicated to bike commuters. And they are a corporation that does all kinds of corporation-y things.

There are some very political cyclists across the spectrum of political opinion and a whole lot of people whose riding has nothing to do with their politics.

So I guess I’m not as certain as you that “the cycling community” has an encompassing anti-corporate, pro-grass roots vibe.

There is a great scene in one of Joe Kurmaski's books where he's helped not by the person whose bumper-sticker he happens to agree with but by someone whose politics is pretty far from his own.

Over at Commute by Bike Tom Bowden wrote a great article called How to Talk About Cycling to a Conservative. Now you don't need WikiLeaks to uncover evidence that I may be a bit to the left of Tom in my politics but that didn't keep me from nodding my head in agreement as I read his article. Biking isn't red or blue and it isn't even necessarily green.

We learned to ride our bikes by learning to balance. I've rolled down many roads. Sometimes I turn left, sometimes right. It's a wonderful balancing act and there are lots of ways to keep 'em rolling.

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


Unknown said...

A smart and balanced post. Once again hitting the nail on the head with a cycling hammer.
Happy and merry,
John in CO

Anonymous said...

Bicycles are beyond politics. Val

Marcy said...

Very succinct.

Tim said...

Great post! I like both the intro and how it reminded me of learning to ride, and the latter part where you delved into the politics.

Unknown said...


bikemn350 said...

Great post! Bikes rock; I organize long distance bike treks here in Minnesota and do graphic design promoting bike riding/culture. To see some of my bike design stuff, check out

kfg said...

I tried to produce bikes by grass roots methods, but I either planted 'em too deep or too far apart.

So I went to Wal-Mart and bought a Pacific, now I'm stickin' it to da man!

Janet said...

I like this post a lot. I am a "little old lady cycling to Mass" cyclist here in Ballard Washington. Well, maybe that's the image I feel in my head but there's a lot more to it than that. After many years abroad I love my return to cycling after too many years without a bicycle. Nothing to do with politics.

Ed said...

A very good post this. I often get stuck next to drivers who fancy having a cheap pop at Cyclists through the window. In return, if I'm endangered by one I'm pretty ready to fly off the rails at them, so I guess it balances out in the end.

Hope you have a great Christmas - here's a little something bike & Christmas related to enjoy!