Saturday, October 1, 2011

Unexpected Elegance

I was reminded the other night of one of my favorite things about cycling compared to other sports. I was driving to the store and came up behind a guy on a bike. Initially, I was kind of annoyed -- he was a classic cycle ninja, riding after dark in dark clothes with no lights, his spinning pedal reflectors the only obvious indication that he was there. 

I was about to make a right turn, so I slowed down -- didn't want the bad karma of "pass followed by immediate right." And, being a bike nerd, I watched him while I waited. He was a college kid (sheesh, old man, people in college are now "kids"?) on an old ten-speed, sneakers without socks, long baggy basketball shorts, t-shirt, backpack. Built kind of like my dad... heavy-set, stumpy little legs, long torso. Nothing about this guy screamed "athlete" at me, let alone "cyclist."

But here's the thing: This guy had the smoothest, most elegant, most effortless looking pedal stroke I'd seen in a long time. He wasn't moving all that fast, but talk about making circles. I think the French word for it is "souplesse." It was a master class in turning pedals. 

That, to me, is what makes cycling great. So many other sports have terribly high barriers to elegant entry. When I go running, it looks like I'm having a seizure in (very) slow motion. Swimming for me is a frantic exercise in not drowning. Combine me with pretty much any sport involving a ball or a stick and you'll get a laughable demonstration of just how uncoordinated the human body can be. I was quasi-decent in football as an offensive lineman when I just had to take a couple steps and  run into someone, but if I had to pull and deliver a lead block on a sweep? Forget about it.

On a bike, however, just about anyone can give the impression that they know what they're doing. My dad -- whose genes are primarily responsible for the comedy of errors described above -- could do a cowboy-mount into clipless pedals that was like fat-man bicycle ballet. When I sprint through downtown and catch a glimpse of my reflection in the plate glass windows, I think, "geez, THAT guy looks good on a bike." My grandparents could handle a two-ton Schwinn tandem like they were of one mind. None of us were "taught" by experienced cyclists. We just rode a lot, and -- I suspect -- some of the elegance of the machine rubbed off.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In an era where we spend so much of our work time sitting on our backsides and working on computers, bikes offer some of us a chance to engage in a real activity. A chance to sweat, strain, breath deeply, and even challenge our reflexes by balancing a bike while dodging potholes and cars. If you do this enough, these activities become subconscious and refined and reward the cyclist with some sense of grace and achievement.

I just returned from about 7 hours of grace and achievement (sort of). A nice long ride with friends on a sunny, crisp early October day... does life get any better??*

Steve in Peoria

*only if the ride doesn't end in a flat tire like today. :-P