The other day I thought: I am not a typical cyclist. There are others out there like me, but I don't think I'm typical. Why do I like to ride? What motivates me? I have reasons, of course: fitness and stuff like that, but why do I like to ride?
I think the number one reason is exploration. On a bicycle I can explore my city. There are a lot of cool things to see, and a lot of areas are far more accessible than I realized. On foot, I have no range. In a car, I go by things too fast. On a bike, it's just right. I can spend a day and ride 40 or 50 miles and see a bunch of cool stuff.
I've lived here for nearly 20 years, but it's only the last 3 or 4 that I've started to actually learn about the city- the terrain, the river, the train tracks and yards, the way it evolved and grew. You get a feel for the neighborhoods; that's probably my biggest surprise. On a gut feel level, I can tell one neighborhood from another. Some are rather pleasant. Others are stuck up. Or laid back. Or tense. Some of the most interesting are where residential areas butt up against industry.
If I were to drive through some of these neighborhoods, there would be no interaction. It's like watching TV. It's all passive. If I parked the car and walked, I wouldn't feel very safe in some areas. Or others wouldn't feel safe with a stranger walking around. When I ride through on a bike, there isn't an expectation of extended conversation. It's just a series of greetings. Any tension quickly passes.
My bell is a good ice breaker. I can ride through a neighborhood and even where I don't speak the predominant language, I can ring my bell and nod to the people. They smile back. They always smile when I ring my bell. Well, except for the teenaged girls. For some reason, girls laugh derisively- look at that dork on the bike.
Kids are fascinated; they think I'm the ice cream man since I have a bell, or it's just the novelty of seeing a grown-up riding a bike. Older boys can at least appreciate the effort involved, the motion, the freedom. Adults see someone on a bike and it takes them back to their childhood, or maybe their home country, when cycling was a normal part of life. I'm still not part of the neighborhood. I'm apart. But for a few seconds at a time here and there, I connect.
Some of my rides are group rides. I do Saturday morning rides with a club. Most of them are professionals- engineers, managers, etc.- and have the money to spend on a state of the art bike. I ride cheap bikes in comparison. It's a good group though; they look forward to seeing what I'm riding that week. What's normal to me, a fixed gear bike, an old road bike or even older English roadster, is unusual to them. We ride to breakfast and enjoy each other's company, both on the ride and while eating. Luckily for me, it is a very inclusive club with different riding levels.
I also do social rides with another group, more loosely organized. I like the come-as-you are nature of the second group. I have many conversations along the way and have made good friends among both groups. And sometimes the groups overlap. But even when I ride with others, I almost always ride home by myself. Just me. And the bike.
Then there are the bikes themselves. Most of them are used, some throw-aways. I adopt them. Just like most of my rides are not about the destination, but the journey, so are my bikes not about the bike itself, but the seeking, the transformation. Unlike people, if there is something about a bike I don't like, I can change it.
Working on the bikes is a whole hobby unto itself. Someday I will own a brand new, state of the art bike and I will love riding it. But even with the warts my current bikes have, they are mine. It's more of a baseball card collection than a stable of bikes. I search, I acquire, I trade. I add pieces to my collections of parts, and put them on a bike that needs it. Even once a bike is "done," chances are I will still make further changes down the road.
The result is a continual massaging of steel and aluminum to produce a bike that is mine and no one else's. When I ride it I get the pleasure of having at least some part in the configuration of the bike- a seat added, a wheel built. If a bike falls short of expectations, I will do what I can to help it make the grade.
So why do I ride bikes? It has nothing to do with speed really. It as a bit to do with distance, but that's not main motivation. It's about people and places and how metal and rubber come together to form a heart and soul.