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Reflections on the myriad meanings of the bicycle



By Matthew Metcalf


Riding a bicycle: it means so many different things to so many
different people. Whether positive, negative, or otherwise, I think most folks
in the world have some association with riding a bike. To see how many
associations there might be, try this simple thought exercise: imagine asking a
7-year-old, a doctor, and a farm owner each to complete this sentence: “riding
a bike is __________.” Maybe you would illicit responses such as “awesome”,
“therapeutic”, and “a waste of time”, respectively; obviously the possibilities
are endless. Whatever you imagined, it’s easy to see the vast spectrum of
meaning that the bike can have. 

For me, a cycling-obsessed amateur racer, life-long commuter,
safe-cycling educator and mechanic, the bicycle has a ton of points of significance.
Today, as I reflect on (and in) the recent snowfall here on beautiful San Juan
Island, I want to focus on one specific association: the bicycle as freedom.
I know a lot of cyclists, especially blossoming ones, can attest to the
liberating potential of the bike – here are a couple of my favorite freedoms
the bicycle helps me find.

 Freedom of movement

 Bicycles are capable of travelling in a unique number of ways.

This has been fresh on my mind since yesterday, when I rode my mountain bike a
couple miles through the eight inches of snow we were hit, err, blessed with.
This would have been a much more difficult, and probably more dangerous
undertaking in my partner’s rear-wheel drive car. Okay, the easy way around
that is to drive a 4×4, one might say. But even if my family had a more
snow-worth motor vehicle, driving two miles to buy a carton of milk would not
have included any trails, side paths, or stairs, all of which I enjoyed
traversing yesterday on my bike. Actually, if I account for walking the narrow
path around a closed gate, parking 10 feet from the store’s front door, and
rolling down a steep rocky bank, I can’t think of any other type of
transportation that could have done what the bike allowed me to do on that one

 Freedom of expression

This one might not ring true for all, or even most cyclists, but

for me a bike-y lifestyle offers a number of ways to express myself. I’m not
just talking about picking the perfect color hubs or the correctly shaped stem
(though I do love a stylish frame-up build), nor am I simply referring to the
way we choose to dress as cyclists. There’s something beneath the surface that
the bike helps me discover, and that’s my ‘self’ and all it’s peculiarities.

 Riding a bike is, let’s face it, going against the cultural grain

in this country. Even as environmental awareness is on the rise, and with it an
increasing public opinion of the bike, cycling as anything but a strange sport
for wiry white men is hardly normalized. Embracing a cycling lifestyle helped me
realize that a lot of the myths in our world are misleading, sometimes plainly
untrue. Exploring the world on a bike has, in a sense, permitted me to believe
things I want to believe and do things, like riding a bike to work as a 30
year-old dad, that the world doesn’t necessarily encourage. And that all helps
me feel more like I’m expressing my true self. 

Since being on two wheels is such a huge part of my life, I could probably write endlessly on this subject. But what about you? Even if you never plan to ride a bike again, you probably have some opinions about this
century-old, two-wheeled contraption. What does the bicycle mean to you? Whatever your reply, I bet it is different than your neighbor’s. And that multiplicity, that diversity, is one of the machines biggest strengths.