School has started up again, which means I’m seeing more kids on bikes during my morning commute through Newton. One in particular I’ve seen several times pedaling hell-for-leather on the long slope down Parker St. towards Route 9. He’s got that look on his face, the one that says he’ll be on a bike for life: he just can’t believe he can go this fast. About half of his attention is on his madly pumping legs, so it’s clear he’s taken up with the joy of the body in motion. Such single-minded delight! In spite of his lack of attention for the road, which I admit worries me a little, his joy is infectious. I smile as I continue steadily up the hill he flies down.
Later in the ride I catch up to another biker. It’s on the long climb up Beacon from Centre to BC. That’s the part of my ride where either I’m passed by someone who doesn’t seem to notice the slope, or I catch up to someone who hasn’t labored up this hill every day for a few years. So, I catch up to this middle-aged man (like me), but only very slowly – slowly enough that I’m not going to pass him. I’m behind him all the way up the steep, narrow section near
Elizabeth Cady Stanton Mary Baker Eddy’s house*, observing his style.
He’s looking down at his legs and feet a lot, straining against the high ratio he hasn’t shifted out of. And he’s swerving, partly to avoid obstacles like that divot next to the storm drain right where the bike lane reachest its narrowest point, but partly to make corrections in his path as his attention refocuses on the road ahead. Maybe, too, his body is telling him to take switchbacks to make the climb easier. So I can tell he hasn’t been at this all that long. I’m happy to see someone coming back to biking, the way I did a few years ago.
Over the crest of the hill, I’d have expected him to coast, but he pedals like mad, just like that kid flying down Parker. But that’s not a wise choice here: cars are stacked up to the light at Hammond St. an arm’s length to his left, and there’s green light ahead, and he’ll reach the end of the bike lane, where the cars are about a foot from the curb, in seconds, just when those cars start moving. But that’s when he surprises me, and no doubt a few drivers, by swerving left into an opening and swerving again to follow the double-yellow down the middle, next to the wide-open turn lane. Is he turning left? If he is, he’ll have to slow and wait for a gap, because the oncoming line of cars is already moving. But no: he swerves to the right into another gap between cars. At this point, I’m reaching the squeeze of traffic right before the gamut of potholes at Hammond St., so I have to mind my own business.
When I look up again, he’s straight ahead of me in the bike lane, pedaling like mad downhill. This is where I’m nearing the end of my ride–a left into the BC campus–, so aside from being mindful of traffic, I can relax. Coasting, it’s easy to reach 30+ mph. I ride the brakes a bit, eyeing traffic behind me in my mirror. I look back and confirm a nice wide gap, signal, and move into the traffic lane for a left turn. Thankfully, there’s a nice wide gap in oncoming traffic, too, right after a white Toyota. And there’s my biking colleague, swerving from the bike lane into an uncomfortably small gap, and then darting to the left of the mid-road crosswalk sign to take the left into BC before the oncoming Toyota.
Were he 20 years younger, it would be easy to ascribe his recklessness to his age: 20-somethings are self-absorbed immortals, right? But he’s in the vicinity of my own age, which is good, because it makes me stop and reflect. Did I do crazy things like that a few years ago? I hope not. But maybe.
More than resembling a 20-something risk-taker, he resembles the kid flying down Parker, at once absorbed in his embodied joy and totally unmindful of his potentially lethal surroundings. And it’s not just a lack of mindfulness of risks. There’s a lack of mindfulness about the entire road situation, as if he’s alone in a wilderness dodging inanimate objects, among which he, an interloper, has no place.
That’s my moment of insight. Recklessness isn’t necessarily the behavior of someone who owns the road: it can also be the behavior of someone with no place. Having no place, he invents places willy-nilly. He dodges through, in a solo sport. A street is not a place to be: it’s a place to get through, to survive, an obstacle course. But if you see it that way, you become an obstacle yourself. You don’t attune to the rhythms of traffic, you don’t see the drivers on their way to work with plenty of their own troubles, you don’t see the whole environment or the constant dialogue that goes on between people with a place on the road. You see moments, gaps, and opportunities, and press them spontaneously and suddenly.
For all his mad downhill pedaling, and for all his darting and weaving through gaps, he reaches the BC campus only about a second ahead of me. No doubt his heart is racing with exertion and adrenaline, and maybe that’s part of what he seeks. But that’s all part of the same picture: biking like a child, bounded by one’s own needs and senses, unable to see the bigger picture and balance your own needs with others’ needs.
It comes with experience. I’ve been at this biking-in-traffic thing for a while now. I’m no expert, but I don’t think I bike like a kid, either. At some point, I recognized both my vulnerability and my capability to do harm, and I became a different biker: stolid, predictable, aware of everything around me, and every year a little more lit up by blinking lights and safety yellow.
So it’s a tricky balance. We want more people of all ages to take up biking. And one of the joys of biking that keeps people on bikes is some combination of maneuverability, freedom, and taking joy in the body’s capabilities. In short, the joy of biking like a kid. But we want people to be safe, too, and to be safe, we have to trade some of that joy for the less visceral pleasure of having a rightful place on road and with the traffic.
But only some of that joy. Because what can beat the joy of riding home down Chestnut Hill at the end of the day? I just don’t get that experience in a car.
*Now you know my terrible secret: I’m so bad with names that I confused the founder of Christian Science with one of the earliest leaders of women’s suffrage.