By Joe “Metal Cowboy” Kurmaskie — All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be, I learned by climbing into the saddle of a bicycle and riding it as far as it would take me.
Thought I was going to pull the mother of all acts of plagiarism and say kindergarten? No disrespect to Robert Fulghum who inspired this little ode to the bicycle as a guide to better global citizenship, but I was too busy eating paste and running away from cooties dispensed by Diane “Future Miss Pennsylvania” Gilespe, to pick up much useful knowledge from the six and under set. Now colds, I picked up plenty of those,
Alas, wisdom was not waiting for me in the sandbox, only a nasty piece of work named Bobby Hicks and his Tonka Truck wielding acts of violence. (Ritalin was years away) Nor, as an adult, did I drive towards nirvana behind the wheel of a Chevy, Ford or even rickshaw (though we drove a long way to see Nirvana in a Toyota Corolla during the summer of 1992).
All I really need to know about how to navigate life starts and ends with the soothing meditations of a perfectly timed cadence.
Here's what I've learned at the University of Brooks and a few field courses at the College of Campy:
• Share everything:
The road, the draft you've been sucking off your ride partner for the past ten miles, those extra Clif bars (not just the flavors you can barely choke down, but the ones that taste like scooby snacks to a bonking cyclist). Share the best route home (for sunsets, wide shoulders, animal sightings, a car only every few minutes, the one that gives you a descent AND a straightaway on the final push to your doorstep). Share that extra tube you lug along on every ride (just remember to replace it before your next shot out the gate because that's the second your path will be laced with glass and goat-heads and you'll no doubt curse your generosity and my name). Share what you see on the road ahead with others behind you, figuratively and literally (I once called out “glass on your left” followed by “Why Canada will always feel superior to us on your right”. We were cycling by a 120-ft long hockey stick and 2000 pound puck statue outside the Hall of Fame in Minnesota. I think it was Minnesota. It looked like a Coen Brother's film set).
But most of all, share your love of cycling – not only for the beautiful lines, curves, simple design elegance and earth friendly features of a device once called a bone-shaker, but what it does for your physical health and mental state, where it can take you in terms of possibilities, and at a tempo that, while it might not actually stop time, is the closest thing to a fountain of youth on this planet or any other. Hey, there's a reason both you an Einstein look some much alike on a bicycle. It's called wonder… and Helmet Hair.
• Don't hit:
A curb if you want true wheels and round rims, railroad tracks at anything but an angle if you want to stay upright, or car doors as they are being opened by a distracted driver if you want to stay out of the hospital. Bicycles offer object lessons in momentum (it's your friend all of the time) velocity (it's your out of control lover who, at some point will rocket you to a place where you are frightened and thrilled and calling out for your mommy simultaneously) and gravity (it has no friends and should not to be trusted, respected but not trusted, especially in the curves, around black ice or whenever you've forgotten those gloves with the good padding in them). Bicycles show us how important it is to avoid life's collisions.
• Hydrate or die:
There's no deeper meaning with this one, no social context or larger vision, just drink up or die, more… go ahead and tip back the waterbottle as often as you can. Sure, they had juice in kindergarten and showed us all where the water fountain was, but it took a long bike ride in July, cramps and doing the cockroach complete with kicking leg muscle spasms on my back, all while licking the last hint of moisture from the inside of a waterbottle lid to bring this message home.
• Play fair:
Forget the constitution or the United Nations, the bicycle is the most democratic device in the world. It levels the field, any field. Anyone can learn to ride, you don't have to be Tour De France fast to enjoy it, in fact, it's more fun if you have something to lose (weight, seconds off your best time, a cubicle job you've just ridden away from). When you get onto a bicycle, no matter who you are, race and class peel away, possessions boil down to what you can carry in a few bags and you turn back into a ten year old giving everyone around you the benefit of the doubt.
• The World Is Not Flat:
It's all about circles in this life – the ones you make with friends, with your choices and your cadence. Which is not to say there won't be bumps distorting these love grand, geometric patterns. True story: Galileo was placed under house arrest by the Catholic church in the 1600's for claiming the world was round and it revolved around the sun. It wasn't until 1992 that the church admitted it had that one wrong. So try to remember that the bike and its circles will always bring you back around…if you give it long enough. (a footnote; The Pope was brought over to Galileo's side, not by science, but an exceptional episode of 90210 in which a fetching Jason Priestley masterfully juggles some fruit before creating a smoothy with reciting incomprehensible dialogue to Tori Spelling's character down at the Peach Pit. The combination of that round fruit being manipulated in cascading circles by someone with his last name? The church knew it could stonewall no longer).
• Take a nap every afternoon:
Preferably outside, beside your bike. And if you can swing it, by a stream, under a willow tree, or in a cornfield with the breeze making the stalks hum ever so slightly, Perhaps in a pasture outside a vineyard after you've sampled a bit of the grape, or on a bench under the shade of a country store porch. Maybe under a small town post office awning. These are power naps, these are naps you'll savor and search for and call out to at 2 am on a sleepless Wednesday back home.
• Clean up your own mess:
Dead men tell no tales, but greasy hands from chain repairs and bike maintenance leave a trail of stains Hansel could follow in a snow storm…and a look of divorce in your mates eyes. The proper care of a bicycle and keeping track of all its little parts that will roll under a desk or into a heating vent can make even the most pigpen among us into a part time neat freak. Being anal even 10 percent of the time has saved more than one marriage.
• Wash your hands before you eat.
(see the one about grease and what not)
• Warm Milk and Cold Cookies are good for you:
Or in our case, warm Gatorade, cold pasta out of a ziplok hanging over your handlebar bag while riding, and ice cream are good for you:
Cycling dispels the notion that everything in life has to be the perfect temperature, completely dry, always easy and without pain… as long as there's a bit of ice cream waiting for us cyclists will abide.
• When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together:
I don't know how well the holding hands part translates to cycling (though I have seen the Dutch accomplish this in transit without much trouble, those dexterous bastards of Windmill country). I do know from traffic and cycling teaches that in life we must presume we are invisible and make a show of our days. It's the only way to have sleepwalkers snap out of it for a second and spot lives being pedaled a little less ordinarily. It's the only way our ideas will see the light of day and we won't get crushed by every other one of us locked in rolling steel cages bombarded by shock jock rhetoric vaguely angered by how we ended up in this place and space to begin with.
Cycling has taught me this: Inside Every Car… is a person who really needs a bike ride. It's made me want to light up the world while I'm here. Bright colored clothing, creative thoughts, spot lights on the handlebars shining on unpopular ideas that you know in your gut to be right. And reflective tape lots of reflective tape, that and changing things in your own life before asking others to do the same, Flashing lights too, those ones are even better than flashy jerseys and of course crash tested head gear if you want to stick around for the rest of the party. About sticking together – what's a pace line or a party without friends? I'll answer my own question; it's a two wheeled cross country angst filled vision quest by a college sophomore taking a “break”, complete with dog eared copy of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire. When this cat has had enough to think, the bike ride will sweat out much of the angst, leaving a few ounces of clarity to question and act on his future. (Note: autobiographical resemblance to the author purely coincidental)
• Live a balanced life:
Too far to the left or right and you fall over – though in my case, you'll notice that I do favor my left side. It's probably what's kept me from Cat 2 status AND society's version of the victory lap (cash, prizes, public confessions and rehab) but I just can't help myself. I can't seem to give up on clean air, polar bears, poor people, stuff like that. But don't lean too far or you end up chasing your tail and looking at the same things all the time.
• Look: Look around. (that goes double for cyclists – too many times we put our heads down and just work the little circles with our pedals all the way home – resist this temptation if you want to enjoy the ride on and off the bike. Look for an escape clause when things get too much for you, open it up and ride like the devil is on your heels… it will feel good, no it will feel better than that, it will feel like sleeping outside for the first time and waking up alive at first light, like a mother's embrace, a promise kept between tomorrow and the creative powers of the universe. In the end there's just the myth of escape anyway. Only an exchange of one set of difficulties for another. No one races their own imperfections but it's a lot of fun to give them a good race. Know that no matter how far you ride, eventually you will need to find something to ride to or the bicycle, just like any obsession, will swallow you whole.
• Everything crashes and dies.
Everyone and everything falls down eventually; Twin Towers, The Roman Empire (most of it anyway, except for the ruins still on the official tour), Kurt Vonnegut, rest in peace my hopeful cynic. Truth is the more you worry about crashing the more likely it is you will. Riding and living tentatively is the kiss of… well, you know. Worse still, if you try to eliminate the chance of crashing, it's the kiss of mediocrity. Over time you'll go brittle while barely noticing, and your bike will grow cobwebs from hanging in the garage or hiding in the basement. Try this, act as if today is the last day you'll own a set of legs… it might be. No, I haven't heard anything, but if I had, I'd want what you would want… one more ride.