American psychologist David Wechsler defines maturity as “the ability to respond to the environment in an appropriate manner”1. We tend to think of maturity as something learned through professional settings, relationships with other people, confrontations with death and illness and other difficult life lessons. The maturity one gains from riding a bike is rarely considered in this realm. Still, from flat tires to vehicle-related accidents to purposeful acts of aggression, cyclists’ ability to problem solve is constantly tested. I recently befriended a man, Juan David, who, while biking from Colombia to Argentina, was stopped in Peru; violently knocked off his bike and threatened. He responded by pulling out a machete, one of his “travel tools,” and threatening the men back. Intimidated by this behavior, the men drove off. Juan David’s knee was left injured, perhaps permanently, but he was in the middle of nowhere: he had no choice but to get back on his bike and continue riding. More often than not, these experiences go unseen and untold. Nevertheless, the character that these experiences build makes a lasting impression, providing tremendous problem-solving skills which, unfortunately—aside from bike messenger professions—will never be worth a damn on a job application.
(Self Portrait from a bike accident in 2011)
Since its invention, cycling has been considered in many different ways. For a youngster, it is one’s means to freedom before being of age to drive. After 16 or 17, it is often seen as an illustration of immaturity, of financial inadequacies which leave the user unable to purchase a vehicle. Many adults emphasize their riding as a way of life. They compete in competitions and spout two-wheeled mantras like “Cars are Coffins.” Then there are those who ride for transportation or hobby but don’t consider it as something that defines them. All of these people have one thing in common, however, which is the innate solitude that one finds on their bicycle and on the road. Even those who travel in collectives or clubs or small groups of friends must depend on their own strength—both mental and physical—and be greatly in tune with their bicycle.
The other day while I was out with a group of fellow cyclists, one asked me if my bike had a name. I couldn’t tell if I was only being asked this if I was a girl—my company was all male—so after I replied, I echoed the same question to all of them. Sure enough, they all had names for their trusty steeds. In a way it is a similar relationship to that which one has with his or her pet: they go on adventures and share experiences together but neither a pet nor a bicycle can ever share that which they have seen, that which they have shared with their owner: the embarrassing falls, the huffing and puffing on big hills and the near-death experiences will always be something engrained into the history of this personal relationship. Also, like a pet, the amount of love and consideration given to a bicycle almost always comes back two-fold: tighten the brakes and it will protect you from potential accidents; clean the chain on a regular basis and it will not rust, which aids in a smoother ride.
In Nanci J. Adler’s master thesis, The Bicycle in Western Literature: Transformations on Two Wheels, she writes, “In literary works the term [machine] illustrates the significance of the bicycle: as a machine it has power, not only to transport individuals, but to transform them”2. Physically speaking, one gets into better shape through corporal exertion and improves his or her sense of balance, particularly in terms of navigating city riding. Similarly, proximity to other cars and trucks improves one’s reflexes, by means of self-protection. Bridging the gap between the physical and mental realms, realizing the ability one has to travel long distances with nothing more than his or her body and dear “machine” renders the possibilities and rewards of exploration. It incites the rider to ask the question, “What if I went a little further? And if my body allows for this, what else am I capable of?”
When our bodies show us what they can do, when they surprise us, we have physical evidence that the limitations we thought existed actually do not. We hear time and again of stories of expectant parents who have serious doubts about their ability to raise a child until its birth: once we bear witness to the capabilities of the human body, our faith in that which cannot see is suddenly restored.
Regrettably, our modern culture does not go hand in hand(lebar) with a lifestyle that is reinforced through our bodies. Sure, it ardently praises a toned figure, yet undervalues those who work in physical labor. Meanwhile, technological advancements root an increasing amount of people at desks; in cubicles; restrained. We are taught that the most important things are those we can buy. People buy more and more cars and televisions and cell phones, which– despite the guise of connectivity—actually cut us off further from the world. Technology has constructed and continues to construct mental safe spaces which aid in distancing ourselves from coming in contact with difficult or uncomfortable situations. People break up with each other via text message, send “Get Well Soon” messages to friends on Facebook instead of bringing them soup, or watch movies about people traveling instead of doing so, themselves.
If maturity is defined as “the ability to respond to the environment in an appropriate manner,” what happens when you take people out of their environment? What happens when the concept of culturally appropriate is altered in such a way that limits or eliminates interaction between people and other people or between people and the world they live in?
Not all cyclists I know are what society would consider “mature”: many run red lights, go way too fast and take too many risks. Despite it all, these are the people who see the world the way many others don’t or can’t: they experience all the movements around them because their safety depends on it. They tend to be better equipped to change gears and go with the flow. They understand that pain from a potential accident is an outcome they would prefer over the pain of sitting still; over the idea of living without the thrill of the ride. Between a sore backside from sitting in a car and sore legs from biking a long distance to work, between calling a mechanic and being their own, between sitting in a metal box stuck in traffic and feeling the wind on their face, these are the people who, every day, make a choice to live fully. They have the scars, the stories and the hearts to prove it.