The allure of cycling's relative weirdness.


When I landed in Portland last Monday, I saw the same thing that so many others have seen before. No, I'm not referring to the crazy guy with an Uncle Sam top hat who wears a wedding gown, or the endless number of teenage runaways, or the old lady on rollerblades who was wearing an SS helmet. Those things, within the context of Portland, are actually pretty common. The thing that I saw and photographed with my phone was far stranger...a Park Tool repair stand in the airport, right by the luggage carousels. Apparently, all the hype about Portland being a bike-friendly city was true, or at least they had installed that repair stand to make tourists feel that way.

I think anyone who rides a bike in the United States has probably heard tales about Portland, or other cities like it. They are mythological bike havens where you never get flats, where every street has a bike lane, and Chris King hubs grow on trees. You've heard the stories, you've read the articles, so I'll spare you the details. It's true, the city features a significant amount of bike lanes, bike-related businesses, and it's much easier to ride your bike there than most places I've ever been to. So all the stuff you've heard is true...although I do have to say that I only saw two of those trees where Chris King hubs grow...and they only had anodized hubs in crappy colors. But that aside, the hype is deserved. In a way, the city is almost a caricature of itself, and surely has its flaws, but as a bike-centric city, you can quickly see how all its accolades have come about.

During my trip to Portland, I communicated with a few friends who asked me what the city was like in terms of its bike-friendliness. I told them, and almost all of them responded in the same way:

They felt that Portland is for hippies

They said that they preferred to live in a city where cycling is still thought of as "weird"

They said they enjoyed having a slight cultural battle with their surroundings in terms of cycling

In short, they saw cycling through the lens of the difficulties it presents. The two (cycling and its inherent difficulties) have become so intertwined, that they are hard to separate. Is that part of the appeal that it has for me? I don't think it is, at least I hope it isn't. But do I get a bit of a thrill when I see the faces of people in cars when I ride next to them mid-winter? Do I enjoy telling those who don't ride about the distances or routes that I ride? I think I do. This doesn't necessarily translate into me craving hostility from drivers though, but I fear that many of us have started to confuse the joy of cycling, with the relative difficulties it presents. At the risk of making light of a very serious subject, I've started to believe that some cyclists are like battered spouses. They have grown accustomed to the horrible way that they are treated by those around them. These cyclists assume that the hardships they endure are part of the joy of riding a bike, and that you can't have one without the other. Although I doubt that I'm more advanced or smarter than anyone who thinks this way (and because I may feel this way myself), I have to say that I strongly disagree with such a notion. Still, their stance is not surprising, and within the context of cycling, it actually makes sense. Many cyclists already worship at the altar of "epic suffering" in the physical sense, why should the epic cultural struggles they endure while on the bike be any different? This brings me to once again having to ask some things that I've asked rhetorically before:

Is part of cycling's appeal to some of us based on the the fact that so few people engage in the activity? Is cycling a relatively safe way for those past their teens to still rebel? If cycling became more popular, would some still continue to ride their bike or watch the sport? Is the allure of cycling based on it's relative weirdness?

I'm pretty sure I know the answers to those questions when it comes to my reasons for wanting to ride. At least I'd like to think that I do. I feel that I spent roughly two decades of my life being at odds with the world around me simply by being heavily involved in punk rock and hardcore music (as well as being involved in the politics and behavior that came along with that music), so rebelling for the sake of it seems like an outdated concept now. As such, I believe I've purged any such desires (to be different or rebel) years ago. In my case, I think, cycling serves as a link to my youth in Colombia, and reminds me of home. At least I think this is part of it, but what do I know? I mean, my brain is a complicated else could you explain the fact that I like peanut butter and pickle sandwiches, or that I mostly like Rush songs that are over eight minutes long, or that I actually listen to Steely Dan? As such, I can't say for sure that I'm free of such feelings. I desperately want to be...but the whole Steely Dan thing throws off any assumptions I make about myself. But perhaps we all crave some adversity, since it makes us feel closer to the things and people we love. Speak to anyone who was involved in a certain movement, sub-culture or school of thought before you became interested in it. They will always tell you that your appreciation of that thing will never compare to theirs. Their relationship is more pure, largely due to the fact that they endured hardships that you will never know. "Back then", they'll tell you," things were different. You have it so easy now." When people speak this way, I tend to tune them out. I've heard it so many times, that the message becomes dull, and the delivery is overly premeditated. Still, there's truth in the fact that hardships (however small in the case of cyclists or other similar groups) can bring people together, and consequently make you feel closer to an activity. It's perhaps at that point that individuals start to feel as though they are part of a group. Next thing you know, they feel comfortable talking about "the cycling scene", or "cycling culture", while many around them (like me) dry-heave upon hearing such terms. This is not to say that those who live in places like Portland don't understand cycling like others do...but perhaps it explains the different ways in which we all relate to an activity we love.

So while fawning over Portland can get rather old, craving the cultural friction that usually comes with riding a bike in most cities strikes me as foolish. It reminds me of the willful appetite for the kind of cultural friction that I experienced as a teenager...and no, "cultural friction" is not a sexual euphemism of any kind. I'm again referring to my time spent playing in a punk rock band, but also to the outsider status that I gained due to being a latino living in the United States. It was during those years that I quickly realized how strong my need to rebel was, and how (perhaps unknowingly) I craved the conflict and attention it garnered.

When we toured in Europe (a quick sidenote in the name of my audience's edification)
Even with all the pictures and video I have of those three months, the spring of 1996 is still just a blur to me. During that tour, the band I was in (along with my brother) played countless shows all over Europe, and somewhere around the twentieth one, I started to loose count. First was Spain, then France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Romania, Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland...or was it Switzerland and then Austria? I guess it doesn't really matter in the long run. We played in abandoned buildings, bars, squats, as well as both anarchist and communist youth centers. In Belgium, we slept on the sidewalk, in Poland we slept inside an apartment building that was still under construction, in Hamburg, I had to move numerous syringes to put my sleeping bag on the floor of an abandoned building. In Austria, we slept in a large room above the Communist party headquarters, which was badly infested by mice. The audiences at the shows varied, but were mostly made up of heavily dreadlocked, and tattooed punk rockers with a voracious thirst for beer, and a similarly strong fear of cleanliness and showering.

Venue and lodging in Berlin, a squat inhabited by hundreds which included a restaurant, bar, and a leftist library. Nearly half of the building was a pile or rubble, as a result of bombings during WWII. In a similar building where we played and slept in Vienna, we met an unusual resident who had been peeing in beer bottles for nearly ten years. He kept all the bottles in his room. The reason? He wanted to have them at arm's reach for the day that the police would come to kick all the residents out of the squat. He dreamed of showering them with his ten year old urine. I guess we all need to have a dream, regardless of what that dream is.

Our lodging in the outskirts of Barcelona, a squat which miraculously had a toilet (but no running water), and which was inhabited in great part by two gypsy families. The room in which we slept had thousands of fleas.

One night in Switzerland we played to a crowd of no one. In one small town in Poland, we played to nearly 600. I recently found some of the pictures from that show in Poland, and I had to laugh upon realizing the severe juxtaposition that they showed. The bands we toured with in Europe were largely made up of semi-functioning drunks who (in many cases) also did large amounts of methamphetamines. All bands were partially paid in beer, sometimes as much as a case per band member. The picture I recently found shows me, the only non-drinker in the band and in the tour, trading my case of beer for a case of orange juice. That image best exemplifies that entire trip for me. While our audiences were filled with individuals that looked absolutely insane, I'm dressed like I was a librarian or a regional sales manager for a shower curtain company. I distinctly remember setting up my drumset at two different shows in Germany, and being asked by the soundman to leave the stage, since that area was restricted to band members. I stuck out like sore thumb among the smelly crust punks whose entire skintone and clothing were so dingy that they were both equally olive green.

Well before the music would start, a large percentage of the well-dressed audience was stumbling around mumbling incoherently. This young man's jacket was often used by local upholsterers to display fabric samples.

Then, just as today, I didn't drink alcohol, didn't do drugs, and didn't even drink caffeine. Amongst a large caravan of traveling rebels, I was still the odd man out. The rebel. This is how it had always been for me, but that trip through Europe made it more apparent. My decisions to live as I always have came naturally to me, but looking at pictures of that tour, I wonder if I also subconsciously enjoyed rebelling against the rebels. After all, when you're surrounded by people who by all societal standards look and act nuts...all you can do to remain rebellious is to be the squarest human being around. I certainly fit that role, and eventually realized that I was living my life on someone else's terms. Was I making decisions, however small, in a reactionary fashion? If following society's rules (to use the teenage rebel's parlance) is a sign of a weak mind, is simply rebelling against those rules any different? Is simply inverting the code the answer? Anton Lavey (founder of the Church Of Satan, who's beliefs were largely based on inverting Christian thought) certainly thought so. But what did he know? He was known to wear a leotard with devil horns sewn into he was probably going down the wrong path anyway.

I wonder if his leotard came with a chamois

So, at the risk of sounding even more like a self-absorbed idiot than I commonly do, allow me to quote myself. In an earlier post, I stated the following regarding the popularity of cycling:

It all gets back to cyclists wanting to be part of a secret society, like the Masons. You see, like the Masons, cyclists seem to want secret symbols, and would like their favorite sport to remain virtually unknown...while at the same time crying that there's not enough cycling coverage on TV, or places for them to safely ride their bike. Oh, they'll tell you that more people should ride bikes, but god forbid if the guy with a triple crank or 105 shifters gets close to them during a ride. Cyclists complain about the lack of safety on the roads, but still want to be seen like lawless oddballs, and enjoy being "weird" because they shave their legs. Well, you can't have it both ways...I'm sorry.

If cycling DID become way more popular, it it grew to be widely accepted (let's just pretend) would some cyclists lose interest? Is the relative oddball nature of cycling its appeal to some? If cycling became as popular as the NFL (or soccer/football in other countries), and your pick-up truck driving neighbor gave up his Packers sweatshirt and traded it in for some Rapha or Assos gear...if he even got himself a would you feel? Less special? Would your secret club feel less secret? Would you mock him because he wouldn't be worthy of his bike? Is owning a Colnago a secret club? Are you special because you own one? Nonsense. I for one, would be thrilled to live in such a world. I would love to see random people buy bikes for whatever reason. Is the ownership of certain goods limited to those with certain credentials? Should your commitment to cycling be at a certain level before you are allowed to buy certain goods? Should we legislate this by instilling further Category systems for retail? I understand that some may try to "buy" their way into cycling. That may be silly, but is it that bad? Is another person on a bike (even if they ride it very little) such a horrible thing?

Like great thinkers who have shared their wisdom with humanity, the text above asks more questions than it answers. This puts me in great company, as I now sit among giants like Plato when it comes to the value of my philosophical musings. I'm also happy to report, however, that unlike Plato, I'm not a creepy I guess we're not completely alike. Still, at the root of all this is one question: is part of cycling's allure for some its relative weirdness? If it is, this doesn't necessarily mean that those people are wrong...but I find it interesting. Next week, I'll be traveling to my beloved Bogota, a city that has done an astonishing amount of work recently in order to become one of the most bike-friendly places in the world. During my time there I will unknowingly compare Bogota to the cities I've ridden in throughout the United Sates and Europe. I'll look at the efforts that the city has made to make these things happen, and I'll ask myself yet another question:

How much of a chance do most cities in the United States stand when it comes to becoming more bike-friendly, when the very people who would benefit from such advancements eschew the changes that could come about as a result, all in the name of having some adversity, and thus feeling closer to cycling?

Because of my trip to Colombia (which starts this Thursday and goes through next week), I may not be posting in the next few days. I will be online, but time may be tight.