The living bike: non-linear thinking through cough medicine and tequila

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Once upon a time, I wrote a column I about how we exist in opposition to our bite the more we ride, the better our fitness and the finer our skills, while our bikes degrade beneath us with use. Ride less and bikes don’t wear out as fast. Ride more, and everything but the human body falls to pieces. Extrapolate this line of thinking and it is pretty evident that bikes and people are not on the same axis in terms of wear and tear. I was thinking about this while sequestered in the man cave, surveying a row of bikes that were in remarkably good repair The bikes hung neatly from their hooks, every one of their tires pumped up, chains lube, brakes and shifting fully operational, screamed in concert to the passerby, “The dude who lives here is a loser who hasn’t ridden for a month and is going stir-crazy!”

I was looking at the bikes, taking a rest from a marathon of shuffling and organizing, and trimming my toenails with a pair of side cutters. The side cutters happened to be handy, and the toenails had become weapons-grade, and it wasn’t as if I was going to be riding anyway, so there we were. And I was thinking about how just that morning.

I’d shaved my face, buzzed my head, and trimmed the child-spooking horrors of eyebrow and nostril and ear hair that somehow nobody mentions to you when you are young as one of the things that happens along with middle age. Since there is no dress code at work, and since I have a tolerant partner, I can get away with a pretty high degree of hirsute unruliness, but I still find myself shaving the face several times a week, my head at least once a month, and the other horrors as often as people begin looking at me funny. And they always grow back I began to imagine what it would be like if we were ever revisited by all our cut hair and clipped nails, by all the dead skin we’ve plowed or scrubbed off. What would it weigh? How much space would it occupy?

And in one of those shifts in reason that can only occur with a good amount of medication cooking the synapses, I had this thought: How rad would it be if our bikes were living organisms?

For starters, that whole notion of living in opposition to our bikes would go right out the window. The more we ride, the fitter we would become and, at the same time, the fitter our bikes would become. They’d be adaptive. Spend a spring riding in Moab, and tires would get super flat-resistant and rims would get wider. A few months later, after a regular dose of long pavement commutes, both bike and rider would be 10 pounds lighter, tires now a svelte 23 millimeters wide and self-inflated to 100 psi. If we only rode super-burly trails with a lot of air and a huge amount of rough chunder, our bikes would grow thicker frame parts, beefier suspension pivots, and would get stouter and stronger alongside our progression into gnarlihood as riders. Symbiosis.

Disuse, meanwhile, would cause bikes to soften and grow frail. Taking them for long rides after a prolonged period of inactivity would be an exercise in frustration, all rubbery handling and sloppy steering and bad shifting and poor timing. There’d be overgrown tire knobs that would need to be trimmed down to a safe size before riding, and an abundance of self-lube that would need to be cleaned off the bike. The cables would have all grown slack during the downtime, bearings would be loose, and the paint may have thickened as well. But after a few rides, things would start to come back in line. A couple of months in, the bike would start behaving like the trusty steed it had once been. Bikes could get crashed and they could heal themselves.

Naturally, they’d need feeding. And some bikes would thrive more in certain environments than others. Desert bikes wouldn’t necessarily do too well in England. The lean, fast bikes would prove to be less adaptable to thick and burly terrain than bikes born into that realm, and vice versa. Instead of big bike companies and custom frame builders, the market would evolve along the lines of corporate, high-volume, agri-industrialists and specialty breeders. Bike shops would smell less like Tri-Row and more like hay. How they’d actually breed is an entirely different matter.

Just as I began to speculate on the mechanics and peculiarities surrounding breeding, crossbreeding, the thoroughbred-versus-mutt conundrums, and the desired level of sentient ability to be bred into or out of the bikes, I doubled over in a coughing fit that lasted a short eternity. What had started as a sore throat had morphed into some kind of sinus thing that seemed to sweep through the entire left half of the country at the same time, and, nestled after a month-long war in my lungs as a nice case of bronchitis. The doctor’s advice, upon handing me a prescription for some nice, banned-by-the-UCI inhalants, was, “Try not to breathe much for the next few weeks.”

Along with that coughing fit came a vision: a cluster of bikes grouped together in the early phase of a cross-country race. Without warning, one of the bikes derails its chain and the rear derailleur gets mangled into the spokes. The others ride on, but over the next week an epidemic of drivetrain failures occurs locally and then spreads to other regions. Bikes could get sick. Meanwhile, bikes that get ridden too much would lapse, right at the peak of their potential, into chronic fatigue syndrome, sometimes taking years to come right. They’d get depressed in winter months, and would only move at walking pace no matter how much effort their rider put into it They’d get old and eventually die.

At which point we might as well be riding horses. Screw that. Cue coughing fit.

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