Monday, July 29, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: The Emperor's New Clothes and other cycling tales

It's been awhile since I've talked about cycling. Many of you were probably enjoying the break and others are wondering if my bike is even still around. It is. I ride. I've just  been working too much to ride very much and too much to write at all. Or I'm incredibly lazy. This could also be very true.

So I'll catch you up on all the latest. Strange and wonderful things have been happening.

The biggest news is that I got a new used front wheel for my bike and didn't realize till I rode with it that my old wheel was practically immobile. Ok, I may be exaggerating a bit. It definitely didn't roll easily but it's hard to know that until you ride with something different. It's not a new new wheel, it's just one of Leif's old front wheels. He goes through rear wheels at an amazing rate and clever marketers that wheel manufacturers are they only sell them in sets. So we have more than one perfectly good front wheel knocking around in storage. (makes me wonder if there's something I can't invent that would cleverly reuse these wheels in some way)

I love this new wheel, even if it doesn't match my rear wheel and therefore breaks some kind of sacred bikers ethic regarding style and the need to match the wheels to each other and to the bike, and to the grip tape, and to the ....let's just say I break every rule proudly and with an indifference to peer pressure that's impressive. Of course I don't actually ride with anyone besides Leif now, but when I do have other riding companions you can be sure they will have to be comfortable with my hill billy hodge-podge of equipment and gear.

The real point of this story isn't my lack of style or my inability to match colors. I was explaining to a couple how exciting it was to ride with my new wheel. I described now I could roll forever without pedaling sometimes and that this was new.  I looked at the non-cycling woman, I'm sure a little madly, and said "And the best part is that the wheel sings to me!"

She gave me one of those half pitying-half fearful looks and asked "Your bike talks to you?" then looked at her Cycling husband who was grinning at me like I'd just given him the secret handshake. She looked back at me and shook her head. I tried explaining. "No!" I said. "It sings to me, it doesn't talk to me! Not with words, it kind of hums...." I wound down slowly then because she was looking at me like I had sprouted another head. I thought it best to drop the subject completely and moved on to more comfortable conversation.

But it does sing to other wheel made wheel noises and this one sings. Whether you understand it or not it's a beautiful thing to be riding along a sun-drenched road surrounded by the Italian countryside sights and smells and suddenly the wind catches the wheel just right and it starts to hum. If that makes me crazy so be it.

Yesterday Leif and I went for a ride early to avoid the worst of the summer heat. It was a beautiful day (naturally) and traffic was pretty light because it was Saturday. If you've never been to Italy before I have to explain how people drive here. Cars (usually) do as they should and stop behind the painted line at stoplights. All scooters and motorcycles weave their way to the head of the line and sit in front gunning their engines and anticipating the green light (which they are too far ahead to see anymore) by watching the pedestrian signal for the opposite traffic. Bicycles do the same weave forward and if all goes well manage to get ahead of the scooters and pretend to anticipate the green light while instead looking for a hole large enough for their bike to get through.

Sometimes, however, the cars and/or scooters are packed so tightly that even a bike can't get through, which happened to be the case at one light yesterday. Leif turned to me and with a completely serious expression said "I hate scooters, they ruin my strategy for running red lights." No smile, no wink, just utter seriousness. I thought to myself My helmet wearing, light carrying, law abiding husband has a red-light-running-strategy? Out loud all I could say was "How very un-Swedish of you, in fact how very Italian of you to say that," and laughed a bit. It took him a couple of seconds to see the humor in my statement, but once he got over the fact that he actually had to take his foot off the pedal for a second he laughed a bit too. Another bit of Cyclist etiquette seems to be that once clipped in only natural disaster or an act of God should compel one to disengage from the bike.

In fact they will go to great lengths to remain "at one with their bike" including but not limited to: weaving back and forth in front of the throttle-gunning scooters and cars till there is a break in traffic, riding slower and slower until they are basically defying every law of gravity by balancing on their bikes without moving a millimeter, and using any means available like lamp posts, sign posts or parked cars to hold themselves up till they can start pedaling again. I prefer solid ground and never pass up a chance to put one foot down and feel "at one with the earth" for just a few precious seconds.

Another Cyclist rule, apparently, is that once you have an outfit (every Cyclist is now cringing, they call it a kit. Must sound more manly) you keep it forever. You may add to your collection, but every stain and tear is a memory that must never be lost.

So you'll see young,middle aged and older men wearing shorts and jerseys that fit beautifully. A joy to watch riding by, in fact. Then there are those riders who either refuse to acknowledge that they have clearly outgrown their gear or are convinced that riding riding beyond their capabilities once a week will surely take of those extra pounds and buying new clothes would be a waste of money. They resemble colorful but poorly stuffed sausages. Then there are the quite elderly men riding in the park (we're talking close to or beyond their 80's) whose clothes suggest that at one time they were definitely a larger and more muscular version themselves, able to ride all day and still make the women swoon at night. Well worth wearing yards of fabric that catches every breeze (thereby creating unnecessary friction which slows them down) to be able to remember when.....

Then  there's the guy who never throws anything away just because. Because it still fits and when he faces the mirror he sees nothing wrong. Because he's never had to follow himself as he rides down the street.

We've all experienced the sadness of losing our favorite pair of jeans simply because they became too thin to wear anymore. Sometimes the very real danger of everything coming unglued along with the certain knowledge that all of you is on display for anyone who cares to or accidentally glances your way doesn't stop us from wearing them. They are like the Emperor's new clothes. The general public are forced to become voyeurs because you put on something you believed covered your nakedness.

And so it was with the rider I followed a week ago. Everything fit, but the shorts had taken on a gossamer thinness that had me worried the entire time.  And, it was impossible to look away. He was right in front of me. I couldn't spend the rest of the ride looking at the road directly in front of my tire. I had to watch traffic and his bike to be certain he wasn't making any quick stops and looking down all the time puts a crick in my neck. Plus there's the will the shorts hold till I can turn off the road? factor. I was transfixed waiting for something to happen and praying that it didn't.

Kilometer after kilometer I followed this man, wishing I could say something but knowing this was impossible. An American woman simply cannot go up to an Italian man and say "There should be more between me and your most intimate parts than my imagination. Buy a new pair of shorts." Not an Italian man who has spent kilometers riding harder than technically he should simply because she'd passed him once (a giant slap to his ego.) To regain some of his street cred he had stay ahead of her.

I suppose I could have asked the friend I was riding with to say something, but he's a Cyclist and there's probably some kind of Cyclist code of ethics that states one guy can't tell another guy he's no mystery to anyone on the road in those shorts. I also knew my Italian wasn't up to explaining my difficulty to Lorenzo. I doubt he would have understood my request to ride slower so I didn't have to exercise my admittedly fertile imagination; it is no safe barrier between me and a fellow cyclist. I was never so happy to see another bike turn off the road as I was to see this particular rider finally turning right with shorts intact.

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