“When man invented the bicycle he reached the peak of his attainments. Here was a machine of precision and balance for the convenience of man. And (unlike subsequent inventions for man’s convenience) the more he used it, the fitter his body became. Here, for once, was a product of man’s brain that was entirely beneficial to those who used it, and of no harm or irritation to others. Progress should have stopped when man invented the bicycle.” —Elizabeth West
I agree with Ms. West in spirit, though I have to admit I love my iPod Touch and my digital cameras. ;-) But when it comes to transportation, you have to wonder what the world would be like today if the internal combustion engine was never invented. It’s hard to imagine. One thing’s for certain; our love affair with the automobile and our continuing and overwhelming desire to “make thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels” as Kurt Vonnegut so wonderfully described it, has placed a major stress on our environment.
Most of us grew up in the age of the automobile (my Dad, who is in his mid-80s, is the only person I know who remembers getting around by horse and wagon), and consequently, the unnaturally high speeds made possible by the internal combustion engine seem natural to us. And as cars become safer and safer, we become more and more insulated from the dangers of driving at high speeds, hence the increasing number of people who multi-task behind the wheel, texting, plucking eyebrows, and trimming sideburns while driving with one knee (yup, seen ‘em all).
I believe we’re so accustomed to traveling at high speeds that we sometimes ride our bicycles as fast as we can without realizing what we’re doing. Let’s face it, bicycles seem impossibly slow when compared to almost any automobile, and if we’re not careful, this dramatic discrepancy in speed may compel us to race from light to light in a vain attempt to mimic a car. This is neither a pleasant, nor an efficient way to ride a bicycle (unless you’re training for a race or you enjoy sweating in your street clothes).
Instead of focusing on how slow I am compared to automobiles, I try to concentrate on how fast I am compared to pedestrians. Even at a comfortable pace, the bicycle multiplies a pedestrian’s speed and reach by a factor of four (this is an amazing feat if you consider the fact that no fossil fuels are burned in the process, but I digress). When I focus on where I’d be if I were walking, instead focusing on where I’d be if I were driving a car, I find myself relaxing and slowing down to a more leisurely pace, basking in the knowledge that I’m getting there much faster than I would be otherwise.
The point of all this is to point out that speed, like so many things, is relative, and how we think about it makes a tremendous difference in how we feel about it. So the next time you find yourself feeling a little slow and tired on your bike, just remember that you’re actually flying along at over four times the speed Mother Nature intended you to travel.