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A Love Affair Evolves
Dana Williams
I learned to ride a bike when I was six. My parents had weaned me on bicycling years before that with child seats on their bikes. I guess you could say that bicycling has been one of the longest obsessions in my life. During my junior high and high school years it was my escape from home, where I'd go biking to the mall, or just around the mall and back. It was my chance to see places I hadn't seen before and scout them out. I loved going further and faster than the time before. I took short bike trails that had jumps in them. I learned to bike with no hands. I figured out the best ways to survive biking on busy streets. But, then, for some reason I forgot all this.

I started to view bikes are simply a means of transportation, which they are. But, I stopped considering them as anything but tools that got me from place A to place B, as fast as I could. I began to use utilitarian arguments to justify it: it was cheaper than a car, it was more environmentally-conscious and used zero gasoline, it was healthier than a car, and I could park it anywhere I damn well pleased. I still think these are perfectly lucid reasons to ride a bike. But, I think that considering bicycles only for transportation, I forgot all the other reasons to ride them, the fun reasons.

When I would go as fast as possible, I never really got in shape, and it only leaves me out of breath and sweating furiously. I would get incredibly intense upon where I was going, and didn't really see any of the scenery. In essence, I was treating my bicycle as most people treat their cars.

I think reading a book editing by Chris Carlsson about Critical Mass (called “Critical Mass”) helped me begin to shift my thinking. Until then, I knew about CM, but thought it was only a bicycle protest-- a tactic to shutdown city streets to protest against car culture. My assumption was wrong, per se, but it was limited. I learned that everyone who rode in Critical Mass brought their own reasons for being there. Since it was an “unorganized coincidence”, people didn't all agree-- nor did they have to-- for why Critical Mass was important. I discovered other reasons for it: to have fun with others, meet new people, be a visual display for the public about bicycles, be safe (for a change!) on the roads, offer alternative ideas about transportation, to exchange ideas with others, and to cross-pollinate within a city's radical activism scene.

Then, I read Andy Singer's collection of “CARtoons” and thoroughly enjoyed his humorous take on our car culture. I think his cartoons really loosened up my seriousness about bicycling and made me realize it was okay to laugh about biking. Finally, I got a copy of Alon K. Raab's “Under the Sign of the Bicycle”. The pamphlet is a series of short vignettes and dedications to his life's interaction with bicycles. From as a young kid to an old man, Raab details his experiences and shows that it rooted him in reality and in joy. The pamphlet is also full of festive drawings and classic clip-art of bicycles.

I've ridden on the last three (and only) Critical Mass bike rides in Akron. They've really challenged me to think differently about biking and my relationship with the road. When surrounded by a group of other cyclists, you have this feeling of safety and reflection that doesn't exist when cars are zooming by you at 40 miles per hour and the only thing on my mind is survival.

So, encouraged by my Critical Mass experiences, I've been riding my bike solo around the neighborhoods where I live, during the last few weeks. I've been biking real slow, with no clear destination or purpose. I just sort of let Akron's very non-geometric roads take me where they may. After zigging and zagging a few streets, I've found myself in completely unexpected places that are so far from my perception of what Akron is “supposed to” look like. Then, a few more twists and turns, and I pop back out somewhere that I'm familiar with, but usually from a totally unexpected direction.

I'm fascinated by the gorgeous red brick roads the city has-- once you get off the main roads. I'm in love with how the vegetation and houses seem to rise up out of no where on some streets and take over the road, as if trapping the block in a biosphere all its own. The sound that my bike makes as it rides over the brick is something you cannot get the same enjoyment out of when in a car. The sound is so relaxing and the gentle ride over the sometimes uneven bricks is both calming and exciting.

To be honest, when going to work or running errands on my bike, I still frequently haul ass, intent and focused on getting where I need to be. But, I think I have emotionally and intellectually developed in the last few months, and I'm appreciated countless new things about my biking experiences that I didn't before. The form of the bike, it's weight, how it handles curves, how I sit on it, my freedom to move around while up on it. I see it more as a multi-terrain vehicle than a linear shuttle. I'm exploring different streets, understanding the city better and appreciating its beautiful complexity, and slowing things down to realize that getting there is half the fun.

06/23/03