When I was about five I was given a small, blue bicycle, internal hub, kickback brake and three whole gears. It came with training wheels attached. I do not remember who gave it to me. I think it might have been my grandmother.
For the next year and half I kept riding around my area on that little bike and I got my first sense of freedom. But, eventually I wanted to really ride the bike and pestered my parents to teach me. They didn’t though. Mostly because neither of them knew how to ride a bike, but my mother also because she was afraid and my dad couldn’t because he had an artificial leg, so even walking fast next to me at that young age was not really an option.
So, one afternoon while my parents were at work and I was done with school I went into my dad’s toolbox and took the training wheels off. I then walked the bike a block to an empty parking lot and after falling over three times in quick succession, I was off. I promptly set off to the neighbouring town, on the sidewalk at first, then through a pedestrian zone and into a park that, through overpasses, took me to the neighbouring town. The roundtrip was around 20km. I felt ecstatic when I got back home. Even on this very first ride I was angry with myself when I didn’t manage to ride up the overpass and instead had to push it up the incline… Guess I was a cyclist from day one.
I kept the bike way longer than it fit me. I remember riding with a friend who had a "real bike" with a whole seven gears up a hill near my house, the "Hasenbergsteige". I was riding behind him and we made it roughly halfway up when he veered to the left and came to a stop. Forcing me to stop as well and I still remember how angry I was that I was now relegated, once again, to push the bike up the hill to the destination instead of grinding my way up. As I said, I started early.
I am starting with this story because I wanted to illustrate on how integral bicycles have been for me to explore the world. Whenever I moved somewhere else, be it a new city, country or continent, if I didn’t bring a bicycle with me, it was one of the first things I bought.
For me a bicycle means the ability to explore the world as a human, to go to places that it would be hard to get to otherwise.
I am not the only one. I recently came across this short movie that echos my own feelings towards the bicycle:
A part of this appeal is that a bicycle is cheap and simple. Even 30 years ago most people could not do maintenance on their own car, these days even less so and that's before we talk electric cars. But a bicycle? Almost anybody can maintain their own bicycle. Replacing a tube needs some elbow grease, and you need a handful of special, but not very expensive, tools like a tire lever (though other "substitutes" exist) or a chain tool. But in exchange, the bicycle opens up the world to you.
I always admired the mechanical simplicity of the bicycle. The simplest is the fixed gear bicycle (aka "fixie"), a bicycle with two pedals and a chain that permanently connects your front sprocket to your rear wheel. It is almost maintenance free, you will eventually have to replace the sprockets and chain, but with some maintenance it will serve you years.
But even more advanced bicycles with gears, although a bit more complicated, can mostly be maintained by an individual. If your shifter cable breaks? You can still cycle, you may just have to get your fingers a bit greasy if you need a different gear. The parts also tend to last for years as long as you do some basic upkeep, like cleaning the chain and lubing the moving parts. A small bottle of grease / oil will get you a very long way. Try doing that with a car, how much was your last oil change?
But now I have bought myself the anti-bicycle.
What does it make the anti-bicycle? For one, there is the price, let’s just say five figures are involved. Then there is the technology itself. No simple wire to change gears, it is now bluetooth and the brakes are hydraulic. The frame is made of carbon and weights less than the box it shipped in. It is the furthest you can probably come from a single speed bicycle and still be on something that looks and rides like a bicycle.
Certainly, there are still things I can fix myself, but by and large this is a high-tech machine not much different from an entry level car, with the matching price tag.
So, in a way I have betrayed myself. I gave in, I bought into the technology hype and…. I actually do enjoy it.
I am still torn between this new, technology marvel that has not a whole lot in common with the bicycles I fell in love with decades ago, but likewise, it is also incredible fun to ride and I guess at the end that is what matters the most?
I am curious to see how over the next year or so my bike usage changes, from my “sturdy metal steed” to the great grand child?
Oh, and as is tradition for me, the bicycle has a name: Spaceship