Relativity

“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).

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.

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.

20 Responses to “Relativity”

  • Sam says:

    hmm, that is a very good point indeed – in the mornings I am rather too concerned with getting to work to look around me, but on the way home it is a different matter as long as I am not in fear of my life!!

    But then Mum and I are off for a week cycling around Suffolk in August, so that will definitely be a slower trip!!

  • Thom says:

    Alan, I couldn’t agree more, and I wrote virtually the same post at The World Awheel:

    http://worldawheel.blogspot.com/2009/06/view-from-sidewalk.html

  • Thom says:

    P.S.: great minds blog alike.

  • Alan says:

    @Thom

    Love your article. Thanks…

  • Andrew says:

    …but going fast is fun!

  • Ian says:

    Interesting thought exercise, stopping before invention of the ICE…

    Anyway, one thing I’ve noticed is that riding for general use, not just for weekend training/racing, has greatly affected the way I drive. Mostly that I drive slower. Your thoughts regarding progress while riding…

    “When I focus on where’d I’d be if I was walking, instead focusing on where I’d be if I was 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.

    …I have a similar thought process when I’m driving. Why should I hurry so much, think about how fast this already is compared to riding my bike! Yes, I still drive, quite a bit. But I feel as the small minority in the cars. Especially with the realization that its a speed _limit_; not a minimum speed, nor even a recommended speed.

    Anyway, nice rambling thoughts…

  • Bill Lambert says:

    Another benefit is that time on the bike also is time to contemplate.

  • Patricia says:

    THANK YOU for that wonderful post. I’m glad you put into words what I am thinking about every time I have to bike around in more crowded streets (where it’s not fun to speed anyway; because speeding is actually fun, but not always).

  • Alan says:

    @Andrew

    “…but going fast is fun!”

    Can’t argue with that, but only when done consciously.

  • charles says:

    I drive slower now that I have bicycle commuted for several years. When the model T was first introduced I don’t think it did much over 30-35 mph flat out. Of course the roads were much worse then.
    I find it interesting that in the city I can “stay with” the traffic from light to light with relative ease. I’m sure this has frustrated many a auto driver stuck in their hot car while idling in traffic. Meanwhile, I pedal by only to have them pass me and then they are forced to slam on their brakes at the next light while I slowly catch up and pass the same car again. This cycle goes on for blocks to my delight. Its got to make people think how pointless it is to drive in the city especially if you live in the city. I mean really………a fifty year old fat guy whizzes past without breaking a sweat, time after time for less than five miles, until they turn onto their street and park while I continue on for 15 more miles.

  • donald stewart says:

    Yes there are places where you can get away with it but you’ve got to be very careful contemplating while riding in modern traffic. just love this blog and it’s participants. donald

  • Iain says:

    Very thought provoking, but the relative speeds on my commute which is on country roads for more than 90% is if I really push it it takes me 40 – 45 minutes by bike and regardless of how I drive it takes me 20 minutes! Alll whilst getting fitter and having time to think about the problems and issues of the day or just pondering whatever. Iain

  • Hercule says:

    A very good point, well put. Unfortunately I find the hurry sickness affects my cycling from time to time as well. I’ve fretted over the fact that my recumbent trike is a couple of mph slower than an upright, but really need to keep reminding myself it doesn’t matter. A couple of mph is only a few minutes, and it’s more time spent riding, which must be good!

  • Jon Grinder says:

    Some days I set myself a speed limit, on the way home from work. “Today, nothing over 12 mph,” I think to myself. I tootle along for 9 miles, and get home in about 43 or 44 minutes (ride time, not counting stops at lights, etc.).

    Other days, I decide to push the air as hard as I can, and I hammer all the way. I arrive home, sweaty and tired…in about 38 or 40 minutes.

    That’s a lot of effort for 5 minutes of time.

    Jon Grinder

  • It’s a Theory « The Green Rabbinical Student says:

    [...] Biking allows us to either slow down, or speed up, depending on our starting point. [...]

  • Nipper says:

    Great post Alan!
    I am all for not racing around, and often think how much quicker the bike is than walking. During my 20s I didn’t travel by car at all, for about 8 years (I was a hard core cyclist and train user). When I finally took a ride in a car again I was really scared, the speed was like being on a roller-coaster. The journey was with my very slow driving mother, but it still felt like we were doing some kind of police chase!

    BTW I have been trying to keep up the Ecovelo positive cycling vibes! Keep up the good work.

    Best
    Nipper

  • Matthew Allen says:

    “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”

    A matter of taste I guess, because I do like riding this way, and in city traffic the bicycle usually wins.

    Matthew

  • Aaron says:

    Great post Alan,

    I want to reiterate Nippers point. My first ride in a car after a 109 day bike tour last year was incredibly disorienting. I was overwhelmed by the lack of effort or thought required to travel at such high speeds even though I understood why I was going so fast. Even today it is still a little shocking to ride in a motorized vehicle because of how rarely I do it.

    Speed really is relative to what each of us is used to. A cyclist’s perspective of speed can change in as little as a week of time away from motorized transport.

    Aaron

  • John in Roseburg says:

    I may drive once every other week or so. When I do drive I find I have to force myself to even drive the posted speed limit. Suprisingly, I still get where I need to be on time. Funny how that works !!

  • John Burgato says:

    The way I think of it, is that alot of those poor people in cars will go and sit in a souless gym for an hour, whereas I’ll do alot more excersise and and only spend an extra 30 min getting home.

    And if there’s bad traffic, I’ll get home first!

 
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