Sunday, November 18, 2012

The everyday machine

As we rode out to Lake Berryessa, Ann asked how I started riding. Everyone has a story.

Ann is a new-ish randonneur whose enthusiasm is inspiring. From the sound of it she's been spending every spare moment on a bike, exploring roads and gaining skills. There's hardly a nook or cranny around here she's not familiar with.

With all day stretching in front of us it was possible to really think about the question.

Some of the motivation for riding comes from inside. Who you are. I've always felt more at home outdoors than in (except reading books). Independent, sometimes to a fault. Love exploring places, getting to know fellow travellers. Feeling connected.

If my parents had been farmers, a farm would have been a good setting for these problem-solving skills and long attention span. An uncle raised his family on a walnut orchard not far from from Pope Valley. But we lived in the suburbs and these are the wrong traits for life inside the box. Displaced, they had to go somewhere.

Riding longer distances or even commuting regularly becomes a kind of meditation. This is the ultimate goal and my favorite type of experience on a bike. It's hard to draw a clear line between what the rider brings to the experience and the experience itself. By its very nature meditation blurs the line between them. So the question becomes unanswerable, a mystery. Or a different answer every time.

The ability to ride with reasonable safety comes from infrastructure. I started out as a bike commuter. It was not in my nature to drive to and from work on the freeway, trapped in a car. Danny built up a bike out of spare parts, which I began riding to work. 24 flat miles, 3 days a week. It was a small step up to a metric century ride. Then things kind of snowballed. That bike and its feeble headlight and the cotton riding clothes, all are long gone. But the process began with the people who made it possible to commute to work.

Among these people, Ellen Fletcher stands out. Ellen was a local bicycle advocate and lifelong cyclist. Over forty years she worked to improve cycling infrastructure here in Silicon Valley. She was relentless, a formidable long-term thinker. I met her a couple of times; she was not a warm and fuzzy person. But she did not rant either. With the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition she kept the faith and found ways to get things done. Allowing bicycles on Central and Foothill Expressways. Organized bike parking at major events (like Stanford football games). A bicycle boulevard in Palo Alto that was  one of my commute routes.

I joined SVBC in 1996 after finding a flyer draped on my bike. Ellen had left it there. At that time their motto was 'promoting the bicycle as an everyday machine'. For me that has meant more than I could have imagined. Exploring everywhere in California. Riding double centuries and brevets and Paris-Brest-Paris. Healing from a brain injury. Having a quality life.

Ellen died Wednesday after a long battle with lung cancer. Her memorial service is going on right now at the Palo Alto JCC. The invitation said "bike attire encouraged".

I'll honor her later by going for a ride.

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