UPDATED : Bicycling Is All About Balance – Both On The Bike and Off


Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.

— Thomas Jefferson

From Early Bicycles by Philip Sumner. Published by Hugh Evelyn Limited

Learning To Ride

Riding a bicycle began for me with training wheels. Today of course bikes that allow you to stride are proving a successful in training young children. Early bicycles were designed to work this way. I suppose that riding such a bike would have been easiest on relatively flat terrain. This might just be considered an early urban cycling vehicle.

The training wheels bikes were nice because they meant that from the very start you could pedal around the block where you lived (usually on the sidewalk) with your feet moving and the wind flowing across your skin and in your hair.

But this sort of bike only delayed the inevitable moment when you had to learn to balance the bike while pedaling. And that meant having the training wheels raised a bit off the ground so that you could ride with a severe lean until such time as you gained a sense of balance that was good enough to allow you to ride upright.

Strider bike at Fat Tire Festival in Logan Square 2012

The Strider bike shown in the video clip below is relatively new. It has gained acceptance both her in the United States and in Europe. I saw one (in action) this summer at the Fat Tire Festival in Logan Square. It was a pretty neat bike.

When you are young you learn (by riding a bicycle) that having fun on a bicycle means a constant struggle to keep those short chubby legs pumping and your grip on the handlebars firm but not too tight, otherwise steering becomes difficult if not impossible.

You could say that there are several kinds of balance needed to ride a bicycle. It is complicated and difficult to keep your body relaxed enough to be able to pedal while steering. But the reward is this wonderful feeling of gliding through the air. Of course you stall out at the first incline you reach but before long your legs are strong enough that your parent running along behind you decides to let you struggle just a bit before coming to your assistance.

Albert Einstein Riding His Bicycle

And then one day the training wheels are removed. It is both a glorious moment and terrifying at the same time. You have mastered to some degree the balance issues related to cycling. But suddenly you find that when you tire or the pavement kicks up a bit and your slow to a perilously dangerous speed you fall over. Artie Johnson is memorialized every time a toddler becomes a cyclist.

Even the notables of history have found cycling to be delightful. And some have spoken of it as a metaphor for life itself. I would agree.

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.

— Albert Einstein

Long after we have learned to ride a bicycle we become as adults students of the sport. We learn all manner of nifty things about the history of the development of bicycles. We develop a riding style that suits our purposes and we eventually decide to commit to the purchase of a special bike that has the features we have learned are important to us.

When you ride to and from work on your bike or do your errands aboard a bicycle it becomes not just a favorite sport but a mode of transportation. Your bike takes on a special place in your life because it has to be solid and sound in those areas which are vital to its being reliable but rugged and perhaps less fussy in others.

You learn these things when you are stranded on a cold winter night and your hands are frozen from fumbling with your bike chain as you prepare to remove your rear wheel in service of fixing a puncture. It is on that fateful night that you decide that you need thicker tires with a wider cross section. And at the same time you decide to invest in a handheld flashlight reserved for just the sort of in the dark work you are trying vainly to complete just now.

For me it was also a glimpse into the mind of the fellow who invented the two-legged kickstand. I could understand why you would want to lug that heavy thing around when it meant that in an emergency you could remove the rear wheel without having to turn the bike upside down on muddy pavement. It is moments like these when you become more concerned with functionality than mere beauty.

You will take both, but if only one can be had, you settle on functionality.

A well run club will have people who have become experts in specific areas. There will be people who stay current on the best lights available and may have even compiled a listing of their favorites or can direct you to one done by someone else. You will find folks who are students of endurance cycling who make their own nutritional foods to consume (e.g. energy bars, cookies or other snacks) and are happy to share their recipes.

You may also become a person with a fair amount of expertise in a given area who can also lend to the expanded knowledge base so vital to a club experience. I learned everything from general cycle maintenance to wheel building and in-the-field repairs out of necessity. So over time I was eager to compare notes with other cyclists and always on the lookout for websites maintained by cycling organizations that have formalized training tips and information.


The Cycling Community

The first thing is to love your sport. Never do it to please someone else. It has to be yours.

— Peggy Fleming

Somewhere around college age you begin to realize that humans have varied interests that for the basis for friendship and interactions. You may be a person who loves to work on cars. You find out how to change your oil and replace the filter and it is empowering. Eventually you learn to replace your spark plugs and adjust the points (these are no longer part of modern automobiles) and you discover that only a few of our work colleagues are interested in such things.

It is the same with bicycles. Some people like them and others not so much. Some people love baseball and others prefer football or soccer. And if you are lucky you discover that there are clubs around where you can join up and absorb the experiences of others who have been at this a lot longer than you.

Bicycle clubs are great places to learn what sorts of tips and tricks make winter riding possible. You learn perhaps how to change your inner tube or to adjust your saddle so that it is more comfortable. You will most surely learn how to ride alongside others in a group and to conquer distances that are far greater than you would have imagined you would ever ride in a single day.

Some folks learn to ride and camp on an extended basis and become avid touring cyclists. They acquire special shoes and clothing for dealing with long days in the saddle in a pouring rain. They learn how to pack a set of panniers so that their dry clothing stays dry and their dry food does not get waterlogged.

And eventually the notion of taking a class or two to learn how to ride effectively in traffic becomes a reality. You feel again as empowered as when you first learned to change your inner tube. Your internet surfing brings you to places where other cyclists around the world are discussing their thoughts on how best to tackle city streets.

And you learn that there are people who make a living designing streets so as to positively affect the safety of the people using that street. There are even folks who design streets for safe usage by both motorists and cyclists. Life is good.

Channeling Your Energies

It’s hard to argue against cynics – They always sound smarter than optimists because they have so much evidence on their side.

— Molly Ivins

If you should happen to stumble upon the ChainLink Forum during your time in Chicago you will learn that this can be a mixed blessing. It has a strangely surreal feeling as if you happened upon a Tea Party convention where Sarah Palin was speaking only the words coming out of her mouth sound like the mouthings of Left Wing Activists.

Activists from either the Right or Left Wing are essentially the same beast. They have far more tendency to act rather than think. The thinking part of their communities is often done by someone fairly distant from the center of the actually activity. Think for a moment of Senator Jim DeMint. He is a thoughtful Right Wing politician who is leaving the Senate where he is like a fish out of water to head up the Heritage Foundation for a cool $1,000,000 per annum. Nice work if you can get it.

Left Wing Activists who represent the Urban Cycling Movement have a different focal point. It is situated in a small European city Copenhagen and its guru of choice is Mikael Colville-Andersen. MCA is a likable fellow who like any good activist has a rather heightened dislike of all things related to motor vehicles. He comes by it honestly as does Jim DeMint of his Right Wing Activism.

Both of these gentlemen are classic cynics. The mistrust and even despise the current status quo and have made it their life’s work to bring the debate around to their viewpoints. What is interesting is that these two men while accomplished and likable would be pitted against one another over something as simple and straightforward as bicycle infrastructure.

DeMint would see the creation of such relatively expensive infrastructure as a waste of taxpayer money, which would be better spent providing increased infrastructure for automobiles. Colville-Andersen is waging a holy war against the current administration in Copenhagen over just this sort of thinking regarding automobiles.

Using Dirty Words

What is certain is that both sides are going to have to find a way to compromise. I know that I should not use profanity when writing but you will have to forgive me for writing once again the word “compromise“. Shrieks of horror are going up right now on the ChainLink as the membership their senses that somewhere in the Cosmos an idea that is foreign to them is being posited as necessary in order for their pretty green bike lanes to continue being created.

But as anyone who has watched the Tea Party shenanigans in Washington over the past four years knows this is a very dirty word and a show stopper as a strategy (from their point of view). President Obama did the GOP a favor by kicking the rump of their candidate because it sent a message that the “take no prisoners” attitude of the Tea Party was not appreciated. John Boehner has therefor taken the opportunity to oust some of the Tea Party members from various committees in an effort to find “team players” who also understand the value of “living to fight another day“.

Let’s Listen In Over The Shrubbery To A ChainLink Conversation

By constant self-discipline and self-control you can develop greatness of character.

— Grenville Kleiser

The “Trained Seals” are being urged to speak up for their cause. The talking point of the day is “Bike Improvements“. I emphasize the use of the word improvement, because like anything that you are told by your betters in either the Right or Left Activist camps it is always about improvement. Whether it is about continuing tax breaks for the wealthiest 2% of the population so that they can create more jobs (notwithstanding the fact that despite having those breaks for the past six years job creation has been in a decline and is now creeping back towards normalcy, so much for the benefits of tax breaks on the creation of jobs) or pretty green bike lanes and continuing deaths and scofflaw cyclist behavior everything the gurus spout is in service of “improvement“.

The thread begins as follows:

Reply by Mike Keating 21 hours ago
If the Dearborn PBL has shown us anything, its that the City of Chicago is serious about expanding bicycling in the city. Politicians at the local, state and Federal level are no doubt watching. I sincerely believe this is a crucial “tipping point” in how ingrained cycling becomes in Chicago for years to come.

If politicians know that bicycling is important from their constituents, they will support bicycling by trying to earn appropriations and supporting legislation that is consistent with a pro-biking agenda. As Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” For this reason it is extremely important to make sure your Alderman, State Representative, State Senator, Congressman, and Senators Durbin and Kirk know how we feel. And that we’ll vote how we feel.

What follows however is the viewpoint that I find refreshing in that it is sobering:

Reply by jennifer james 19 hours ago
I think the success of the Dearborn lane depends far less on public relations and more on if the lane is designed in the most useful and useable fashion. Good lanes speak loudly for themselves.

This we won’t know how good the Dearborn lane is until we begin to use it but if it leaves vulnerable riders stranded mid ride we won’t see a rise in ridership no matter how many thank you notes we send. Essential to a growth in political capital for cycling is the real increase in riders in Chicago- not a sigh of support from the fringe. I am not inclined to cheerlead for bad or poor short term lanes– especially painted ones even with a deluxe double painted line perfect for putting my kid in the door zone– that have no long term impact.

Creating mediocre lanes isn’t political courage– it’s the opposite. I can’t wait to ride the Dearborn lane and hope it is well made. I do doubt who is watching this lane. Is it really that ground breaking? Isn’t moving the Kinzie lane a good indication that the nature of these lanes is temporary. I doubt sincerely if any lawmakers are paying attention to the Dearborn lane.

Politicians watch permanent infrastructure and real changes in ride share. Hopefully the Dearborn lane will bring at least half of the equation.

Jennifer has failed the test of a true “Trained Seal“. She is questioning the wisdom of the gurus. Good for her. She is in essence requesting that there be some “balance” to our efforts that act as a counterweight to the unbridled enthusiasm that is the hallmark of the “True Believer“. She will probably be excommunicated for having offered this observation but what the heck, you can survive the ChainLink Guillotine. Nothing works better to clear your thoughts than to have someone ask questions of the gurus. Why is the one word that strikes terror into the hearts of anyone who is a activist zombie or its controller. Are you sure is another phrase that can cause you to become suspect and eventually get booted from the forum.

But I say, ask away. It helps to provide some balance.

As If On Cue

More information rolls in about another cyclist killed while riding in a bike lane. This is yet another tragedy that means two things are true:

  • Bike lanes cannot prevent injuries nor provide safety beyond the ability of both the driver and the cyclist to avoid missteps.
  • On street bike lanes are a mere stop gap to a more permanent solution that will be expensive in terms of dollars but cheap in terms of lives saved.
  • Until we get the truly segregated bike lanes I will keep agitating against the giddy euphoria of those who are excited about a stop gap measure that continues to cost lives.