In The Slow Lane
by Richard Risemberg (August 1997)

Why do you ride? Do you ride because it's "green"? There's something to be said for that, of course, but it's still a negative reason: riding a bicycle so you won't be driving a car. Nevertheless, it's the most common justification for urban bicycling. We ride bicycles because they are not cars, because they don't use up large quantities of metal, rubber, and oil, because they don't take up much room on city streets, because they are not some plutocrat's justification for paving over yet more neighborhoods, yet more forest, yet more fields. And this is all true: bicycles are much gentler on the earth and the social fabric than are cars. But is that really why we ride? Just because of what bicycles don't do? A friend of mine who used to take the bus to work recently started riding a bike instead. Is this a step up, or a step down? In Beijing there are traffic jams of bicycles; a train could move all those people around the city more efficiently. Why should we ride?

I ride because a bicycle is slow.

The World in Detail
For several years I tried to find a middle ground between bikes and cars by using motorcycles. My motors used little gas, took up no more space on the roads than my pedal bikes, and could be parked almost anywhere. Yet there was something ultimately unsatisfying about them. The ride was thrilling, certainly; but it was always thrilling the same way: the rush of speed, the pull of gravity on the turns, the blur of the world passing by. The side of the road sped past too quickly to be processed effectively by a human brain. The scenery became no more than information to be applied mechanically by a vehicle operator. There was something missing: the world in detail. The only things you could see well were distant ones, the postcard scene on the horizon, same as you would see through an automobile's windshield. Your real attention was focused on driving the road, the same damn asphalt road that's slowly covering the whole earth for the convenience of vehicle operators. I realized that it was most important to go slow. Eventually I returned to the bicycle.

Recently I rode up the Santa Susana Pass. It was summer and hot, and the air was typically still in the west end of the San Fernando Valley. With luggage weighing down the bike, I soon put myself in the lowest of twenty-one gears. I found a cadence and slowly climbed the pass under a silent blue sky. Most other traffic was on the freeway a mile or so off. Zipping along a bleak concrete channel, staring at the bumper ahead of them. They'd paid so much for that freedom: the freedom to stare at the bumper ahead of them as they roared through the hours under an empty sky. I could hear them now and then from the old road where I climbed at a fast walking pace. I could also hear crows calling in the trees. I could hear water in the gully by the side of the road, water I could not see when I looked down into the tangle of toyon and laurel. Lizards scuffled in the roadside bushes, startled by the whisper of my chain. Worlds communicated to each other in voices you could barely hear: the small creatures of the shady scrub, the chirping birds that spiraled overhead, the buzzing of obstinate bees at little white flowers. Sometimes I stopped just to listen. Once in a while a car came by, its inmates locked up behind tinted glass. The sound of the tires alone was enough to obliterate the small speech of beasts and leaves. A fearful silence lingered after the car passed on. A moment of tense listening, and then a squirrel chipped, a swallow spun down the canyon. High in the air, a hawk watched us all.

I crested the pass and rolled freely down the steep back side, twenty, thirty, almost forty miles an hour along sweeping curves. I became a bicycle driver for ten minutes. The world was nothing but a road. When I came to the flats again I could slow down, and a new world resolved out of the tension like a resounding chord. The wind in the trees, the sun on the rough wood of a shed by the road. I was at home in my life again. I stopped at the water store and had a conversation with the owner. Car drivers came up, filled bottles, and left without a word. After a while, I pedaled onward to the coast. The ride was worth more than the gas I saved.

Four days a week I ride to work at a photo store in the heart of Hollywood. Twice a week, sometimes three times, I ride to the market for our groceries. Two miles here, nine miles there: little nothing rides. In winter it rains, and when I get to work and shed the poncho and Gore-tex, I still have little beads of water caught in my beard. The warehouse guys look at me and make the same comment every time: "Got wet this morning, didn't ya?" Yes, a little; and I have the smell of rain in my lungs, I have the moist air soft on my skin. The grass in the parkways drooped in green-gold curves over the rain-jeweled bottles. Hollywood's not paradise, but there is life of sorts there, and a poetry of contradictions. The cars stay on the boulevards, inching along in irritable humpbacked columns. Did anyone but me see the old man smiling under his umbrella as he hobbled past the ironwork grill on Lexington? Or the cat in the kitchen window, staring out at the crows that lounged carelessly round a puddle between two parkway trees? The warehouse guys drove in as usual, sitting in the same seats in the same cars, looking at the insides of the same windshields on the same old roads to work. Maybe cursing more than usual because the traffic's worse when it rains. I have bagels in my panniers, nice and dry. They're still warm from the oven five miles back. In the warehouse, the packing table's covered with little styrofoam coffins from the fast food joints. This is America, where you don't have to leave your car to eat. It would slow you down. I'd rather have a wet beard than such a desiccated life.

The Race is to the Finish
What's the hurry, anyway? Is it worth giving up your life to sleep twenty minutes later on a weekday morning? The time I could save by driving is wasted time, because hours spent in a car are taken out of my life. Time on the bicycle adds to my life. Even the rain and the heat are details to be savored, not obstacles to be overcome. What possible value is there to dullness for a creature with five senses? How can the formulaic redundancies of canned music substitute for the voices of a thousand different souls, speaking in subtle concert? When you drive somewhere, you're really staying in the same place: the inside of a car. When you go on the bike, you know where you've been, you know where you've come to. You may not know the map coordinates, but you know the places.

There is no hurry. We'll all reach the same finish line sooner or later. In this race, though, the slowest rider wins.

Richard Risemberg