The purple Raleigh is the fifth bicycle I've owned in New Orleans. It almost feels unfair to say that I own it, actually: my sister bought it when she moved here two years ago (it was the second bicycle she owned in New Orleans -- the first got stolen off her front porch in the middle of the day because she didn't lock it up). The purple Raleigh once belonged to a "wild hippie chick" named Mary, according to the owner of City Cycle Works, where my sister bought the bike. The owner's name is Neil. Neil is not a far cry from a "wild hippie chick" himself. He's got the "wild" and the "hippie" parts down, at least.
Neil specializes in bicycle monster-making: splicing different bygone bicycles together to create brand new fully-functional bicycles. On a weekday afternoon you can find him in the City Cycle Works garage alongside a hodgepodge of other misfit bike enthusiasts and their ilk, taking the pedals off rusty Huffys and throwing them onto '80s-era Mongooses. He will fix a flat on your bike cheaper than anyone else in town, but you have to be willing to sit in the garage and listen to him talk -- usually about politics, travel, or bike parts. Sometimes his female friend (not his wife -- don't make that mistake) will be in the back of the garage building bird houses, and she'll offer you a piece of ginger bread or a weird healing tea she swears by.
Hanging out at City Cycle Works, you can get swept away with the mish-mashing timelines of the myriad bicycles there. Used bikes have a particular way of begging to be listened to. They invite you to imagine where they've been; what they've done; who has loved them; who has left them, and why. Bicycles have extraordinary personality. The purple Raleigh has four sticker shadows -- gray places on the frame where someone once put decorative, personality-declaring decals. People's attachments to their bikes can run deep. Bicycles offer the glimmering promise of transport: the possibility taking you away from whatever it is you want to be taken from.
People have always wanted to move faster -- hence the invention of the wheel, which is said to have come into vogue around the same time as other central human fixtures like fire and monogamy. Bicycles, unlike cars, require nothing extra to start moving. While a car needs fuel and complicated electronic whatsits and doodads (the scientific terms), a bicycle requires nothing but a person with legs and some sense of balance.
That said, the history of the bicycle is murky. Last summer, Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing published the most comprehensive bicycle history book to date, which acknowledges that the invention of the bicycle was not a single accomplishment (sorry, Leonardo da Vinci), but a series of design efforts springing up all around the same time (the early 1800s, for the most part). This article in Slate breaks down ten of the biggest design advances in bicycle history, complete with beautiful, vintage-y illustrations. My favorite is the tension-spoked wheel, which is as gorgeous as it is terrifying.
I learned to ride a bike when I was seven, like pretty much all other children who grew up in Portland, Oregon. I was not particularly into it. My dad bought me a pink bike with tassels, like I was the protagonist in some movie where the kid cared more about her bike than I did in my actual life. We lived in an extremely hilly part of Portland, so riding bikes was an activity reserved for hypothetical Sundays, when we would all pile the bikes onto the car rack, and go on a bike ride somewhere in the country where it was safe to ride a bike. I say "hypothetical Sundays" because we always talked about how we were going to do this, but we didn't ever really do it. We did it once. (I don't remember much about that trip, except that afterwards we went to Wendy's and I learned about how you can dip French fries in the Frosties; my life changed forever.)
Research says that the onslaught of television and video games has bike-riding on the decline. A 2011 study found that one in 11 kids had never learned how. The study blamed this biking deficit on disinterest: who wants to ride a bike when there's extended cable? Maybe the study should have also taken into consideration how riding a bike is TERRIFYING.
I did not grow up to be a bike-rider. I hated bikes. I could see no reason why, in the 21st century, you should get on or in anything that did not have a seatbelt. It seemed so obvious that people who rode bikes everywhere were just INVITING death upon themselves. Not only did you have to balance and move your legs and look around all at once, you had to do all of this without any walls or doors around you for protection. AND you were supposed to do while you were on the road with CARS? Cars that were so much bigger and stronger than bicycles that a car hitting a bicycle would affect the driver of the car about as much as hitting a large insect? NO THANK YOU.
In college, I visited my friend Jessica in Eugene, and she had just refurbished a bunch of old bicycles. She thought it would be "fun" if we rode the bicycles "a few blocks" to the coffee shop to get a muffin.
I said, "I am sure I'm going to crash. I'd rather not."
Jessica said, "You won't crash!"
I got on the bicycle -- it was a road bike, the kind you have to lean over with your whole body to hold the handlebars -- with trepidation. I rode behind Jessica at a snail's pace, constantly shouting, "SLOW DOWN! WE'RE GOING TO FAST!" I gripped the handlebars until my knuckles turned white. On a residential street, quite suddenly, Jessica stopped in front of me to talk to a neighbor. (Let's acknowledge that this is a perfectly normal thing to do on bike, and that she stopped three hundred feet in front of me.) I failed to brake. I used the energy I should have been using to brake to scream at the top of my lungs. Then I crashed into Jessica, and vowed I would never ride a bike again.
But when I moved to New Orleans two years later, the engine in my car exploded on my second day at work. I was totally broke and basically friendless, so I had no choice but to buy a bicycle. That was the first bike I bought in New Orleans. It was a three-speed brown hybrid cruiser I named "Kim." I bought it for aesthetic reasons ONLY. I didn't know that bikes are supposed to "fit" your body. I saw this bike on Craigslist, and it looked like something Zooey Deschanel would ride, so I bought it. At the time, this was how I made most of my major life decisions.
Here's the thing about bikes that I knew in the back of my mind, but didn't really think about until I was actually riding one: they're kind of really important. The earth is heating. Global climate change is a fact. When I go on long hikes in beautiful places (cascading waterfalls; cliffsides choked with sparrows and magnificent scarves of ivy; agate-mouthed beaches with staggering sand dunes), there's a voice in the back of my head that says, "Enjoy this. This is not going to always be around." Our summers will get warmer, our winters will get colder, our children will suffer. Radiolab recently aired a podcast called "Galapagos" about preserving the delicate species on the Galapagos Islands. Scientists agree that it's no longer a matter of IF endangered species will go extinct in the next hundred years; it's a matter of when.
And yet, we keep driving. During its lifetime on the road, each car will release 1.3 billion (yeah: BILLION) cubic yards of polluted air into the atmosphere. And then there's the plastic in the seats and the petroleum in the tires and the pollutants from car manufacture and the drilling for oil, oil, oil. A single car will scatter 40 pounds of worn tire particles and brake debris into the world before it goes to sit in a lot. The impact of not driving when you don't have to drive is about as significant as it gets in this life.
Re-learning to ride a bike (as an adult, on the street, with the big mean cars) was scary. I crashed Kim basically immediately, when the tire got caught in a streetcar track. My second bike, which I named Charlie, got hit by a car that smashed into the back wheel and drove away without stopping. I was T-boned by a car turning right into a parking lot while in the bike lane on Broad Street. Just this summer, a bicyclist on St. Claude and Elysian Fields in New Orleans was killed by an 18-wheeler making a right turn. Hearing stuff like that can make you feel like never riding a bike, ever. I get that. Wear a helmet*. Be alert. Advocate for bicyclists' right. And then remember that life is dangerous no matter what you do; I want to always live my life trying to do the right thing, even in the face of what is scary. (I have read a lot of comic books in my life, if you can't tell.)
Yesterday I was riding the purple Raleigh to work in the evening through the French Quarter. I weaved in between cars stuck in traffic, thinking about how nice it was to feel the wind on my face, and to be moving effortlessly through tedious construction zones. I liked how I could hear shreds of peoples' conversations: "HONEY! A hand grenade. Isn't that fun?! The man is dressed like an ACTUAL GRENADE! Let's get one." There were passing threads of street jazz music being played around this corner or that one. I had a moment of total euphoria (which actually happens to me a lot on a bike), and I realized I never would have felt it had I not swallowed my fear and become a bicyclist.
When I ride my bike, I remember how powerful and rewarding it can be to PRACTICE. For most of my life, I did not think I was brave enough. But you just decide to do something, and before you know it, it becomes a part of your entire identity. The things that scared you most can become the homes you move inside of; they can make space inside your bones. I ride the purple Raleigh, but Kim is still on the front porch. The brakes don't work and the seat is falling apart. Neil from City Cycle Works would love to get his hands on that bike -- he's into the beautiful vintage frame and the chunky black pedals. "I'll give you more than you paid for it," he told me once, when I took it in to get a new front light put on. But of course I'll never sell Kim. She tells the story of my own transition. I look at her every day and she seems to whisper to me, "Look at me, Sophie. You'll never have to pay for parking again."
* I cannot emphasize this enough. When I got hit last year, I would have died if I hadn't had a helmet on. It just doesn't take that much to put one on your head. You just put it on there! That's all! You put it on there, and off you go, and if you get hit by a car, you walk away with scrapes and bruises and your life fully in tact.