Political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic is awash with talk that is isolationist at best and full-on racist, xenophobic and hateful at worst. There is a dangerous philosophical undercurrent dividing the world into us and them: They are bad and troublesome; we are good. We only need to take care of us. I'd like to think bikes can help.
What the heck does isolationism have to do with bikes? Stay with me for a few more lines.
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Road cycling culture in the US and UK has a number of quirks, including the somewhat pretentious habit of using French or Italian words for mundane items. Yes, much of English comes from French, and often the best or only word in cycling is French, such as peloton, echelon, et cetera. But I’m talking about Brits or Americans telling each other ‘chapeau!’ or ‘allez!’ It’s an air we put on.
While straight-up monolingual cyclists parroting continental European TV announcers bugs me a little on days when I’m already a little grumpy, on a deeper level I love the fact that we can look at other cultures and find something to admire, something we want to emulate.
One of the greatest things about cycling has always been the travel, whether that transportation is physical or just mental. As cyclists, we appreciate seeing fresh things, places and people, whether that is watching the Tour de France or the Tour of Oman on television, or simply riding a new road or pedaling to a bakery in a new village. Different is good.
Another thing about being on a bike: you’re vulnerable. Pedaling down a road with nothing but a few millimeters of Lycra between you and the cars speeding past is a vote of confidence in your fellow man.
It’s a lot easier to treat others poorly when you feel safe within a car. Certainly, I’ve been a jerk on a bike, but we are a whole lot more accountable without a gas pedal and an encasement of metal and glass.
I find some of the defensive elements of the current isolationist tendencies to be similar to road rage — those outside my small, protected area are horribly at fault, and dangerous. And if I run them over, well, they had it coming.
How do we rid ourselves of the urge to write off entire groups of people? And how do we deal with people who are clearly bigots? I don’t know what the governmental solutions are for the serious issues we face. The world is a terrible mess in many ways. But I do know how cycling has positively influenced my worldview.
I also know that while I have seen bike rides organized for many reasons — charity rides for disease prevention, training rides for fun and fitness, remembrance rides for the deceased — I have never heard of a bike ride for a bigoted cause. How absurd would that be?
This coming year, let’s get more people on bikes. Let’s ride in new neighborhoods — maybe even new countries if we can — and make sure to stop for the local food and talk to the folks selling it. Let’s wave at people we don’t know.
The world is a mess, but it’s also a beautiful place to explore on a bike.
See you on the road.
Want to see specific examples of the good bicycles can do? Check out the great work World Bicycle Relief is doing with projects like this.