November 14, 2013

So I’ve got this bike. Actually, there are a few bikes in our family, most of which rotate in cohorts from our shed to our porch for ease of use and diversity of ride. But I’ve got this particular bike, my daily driver, The One. It is a mountain bike 1.0, a 1983 Stumpjumper built in Japan by Specialized, the first production-line attempt at a beefy, do-everything, post-apocalyptic moonscape-machine.

The era was a sweet spot for engineering and quality. Most everything was steel back then, still connected by lugs into functional geometry good for touring or grocery store runs. This is before the myopic industry focus on lightness began, when aluminum and titanium and recycled Coke bottle frames became the stiff new norm.

To be fair, my Stumpjumper makes a terrible mountain bike. Maybe not terrible, but its long, laid-back geometry is much better for loaded touring than cranking up hairpin single track turns, or keeping up with anyone on fancy full-suspension.

But it is so beautiful and strong, and I know there are only three or maybe two Ruminate readers who will actually care, but it has this biplane fork crown that is really a work of art, but functional, too, as in it absorbs the unending abuse of a 160-pound bearded dude who is late for everything and frequently hops curbs and sometimes crashes.

I started riding a bicycle for more than just pleasure when I was in college. It was never worth navigating the parking lots for a few mile drive, so I pedaled. And it was great. The slowing down. Bungeeing books to a rack. Not combusting a fossil fuel for weeks at a time. With each crank I fell deeper and deeper down a spoke-rimmed rabbit hole.

I started out with an aluminum bike three sizes too small, so it was hunched over and racy, incredibly uncomfortable, but it came with these cool little Shrek-like green tires, so I kept it around.

Then I moved on to graduate school and my two mile commute became ten, so I started to reevaluate my approach to pedaling and quickly realized that comfort and utility trumps speed. I decided I wasn’t trying to win any races but, wow, my back kind of hurts.

So my skinny Shrek tires turned into wide pillowy tires, and I swapped out the aluminum frame for a steel one in my size, which meant that the entire apparatus, the whole diamond-shaped wonder, flexed and absorbed and smoothed out the bumps without any suspension.

Then came the leather saddle, upright bars, more racks and a little bell.

By the time I arrived for work in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in a town whose annual snowfall hovers around 150 inches, I decided I needed the bike version of a Tauntaun, one of those Empire Strikes Back mammals from the snowy plains of Hoth who, according to the people who make this stuff up on Wookeepidia, were tridactyl-footed and warm-blooded and possessed a “unique blood mixture that was resistant to the tundra winds and kept their organs from freezing.”

That’s when I swapped my old bike for the Stumpy. There are fancier do-everything-bikes, some with tires thicker than my neck, but for under $150, you take what you can get. I threw a basket on the front and the widest, knobbiest tires the frame would accept and I have no plans of looking back, or going much faster than, say, a domestic pig at a dead run (11 mph).

I offer this history because I’m endlessly fixated on two binaries: what might ultimately save the world and what might ultimately destroy it. Contenders for the destruction club are many strong, sharp-edged, teaming up. The saving club, though, has always been a pretty short list. It goes something like this:

1. Jesus (and when my faith in him wanes, at least the manifest fruits of his spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness. . .especially kindness. . .)

2. World Cup Soccer

3. Art

4. Bikes

Sometimes I feel the tug of my parents’ old premillennial dispensationalism, imagine all this working and investing and trying to fix the planet as ephemeral hippie talk. I feel the temptation to hook into an extra-planetary sunset, somewhere on the horizon where it’s all okay, even if everything burns, because we’ve got a new kingdom emerging somewhere somehow—out there.

But then I feel that other tug, the one that started when I was seven and Mrs. Ellis left the room for a few minutes too long, and in her absence the second-graders went crazy monkey army on the classroom, throwing things and hitting each other and gnashing their teeth. I sat in the back of the room and wanted to fix it, to restore order, and then actually cried out: Stop! You can’t do this! She’s coming back!

It’s the tug that says God’s kingdom is actually emerging right here, among us, based on the decisions we make (mostly small) on a daily basis. I’ve never been able to shake it.

Bikes, of course, won’t save the world. But when used collectively for more than just pleasure, they make a certain hopeful hum. At least to me. There is potential there, in the collectivity, to reverse some of the more gridlocked and destructive aspects of our human societies.

It just took me a while to realize that the wider the tire, the louder the hum.

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