Thursday, May 15, 2008

I Want to Ride My Bicycle

The bicycle is a marvel of human engineering and efficiency. A human on a bicycle can go farther on a unit of energy than any train or truck, car or canoe. A person on a bike, per calorie of food, can outlast a horse running, a fish swimming, and a bird flying.

Worldwide, there are more bicycles than cars, almost two to one. Bicycles do not pollute or alter the climate. They require only a hearty serving of carbohydrates, not fossil fuels, but they do not require that we increase the amount of pavement in our landscapes.

But there are things a bicycle cannot do: it cannot protect you from the elements, for example, nor can it protect you from cars. This fact hit home recently in the community of Radford when one of our most committed and recognizable cyclists, Forest “Fess” Green, was struck by a car entering Bisset Park. Fess enjoyed bicycling so much he wrote a book about riding the Wilderness Road and biked to Radford University, where he taught, every day he could.

Friday, May 16 is bike-to-work day, and only in the U.S. is the bicycle treated as a plaything and not a serious mode of transport. See Holland. Or China. But it is also a plaything.

There are many reasons to ride to work. Cycling is good exercise, and pushing pedals is easier on the knees than pounding pavement. And a blessing for the wallet. A bicycle costs very little to maintain, even less to fuel. But the best reason to bike to work, or anywhere, as any bicyclist will tell you, is that it’s more fun. It’s simply a joy to sit on top of a bike and ride, to lean into corners and hop over bumps, to watch the sights and hear the sounds. True, it doesn’t hurt that I’ll pull into the best parking place on the Radford University campus. But not eco-smugness, health-nutness, or even parking euphoria keeps me riding. Maybe I refuse to grow up.

Hollywood knows this. In the movie the 40-year-old virgin, the main character collects figurines and rides to work, at least three signs that he’s a little goofy, socially inept. He starts out riding a Pee Wee Herman cruiser with mirrors (another Hollywood image of biking). He even uses a hand signal, further evidence of his backwardness and pedantry. And towards the end of the movie, when he finally has a love interest and is "growing up," the character says, "I've got to get a car!"

That someone died robs the innocence from everyday bicycling. On my ride to work I double-check now before crossing side streets, think twice before pulling out or taking risks. But I can’t give it up.

After Fess’s death, many of us wondered how to pay tribute to him. A bicycle procession? Many feared getting hurt, an understandable concern in light of the circumstances. A “ghost bike” at the site of the crash, like those makeshift memorials by the roadside? On Wednesday, May 21, Pathways for Radford, the citizens volunteer group Fess help start, will participate in an international ride of silence in honor of Fess and other cyclists who have been killed on public roadways. They will wear goofy helmets but ride in somber silence. And they may keep riding, even after that ride is over. They may even bike-to-work. Because they’re grown ups, doing the right thing: getting back up on that bicycle and having fun.

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