Questions for the reader awheel

When you look at a bicycle, what catches your attention? The orange frame, the shiny cold-forged cranks, or the red panniers just slightly smaller than Rhode Island?

When you ride a bicycle, are you more interested in the twisty gray road, the blue morning landscape, or the cloud that looks like Tevye playing the tuba on the roof of a small-town bank in Indiana?

Do you imagine pedaling? Do you peddle imagination? Is there a difference beyond word choice?

How wide are your eyes?

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Waving between eyeglass prescriptions

Details. I miss more of them the older I get.

It’s not a matter of inattention—not for the most part—it’s the eyes or the glasses, or most likely, both. It seems progressive vision means progressively worse.

Clap if you can read this.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not making excuses; it’s more to explain why I always try to wave when I see people pedaling by, even though I rarely know who they are.

It’s because I don’t know who they are.

Years ago I waved to cheer the passage of friends. I knew Don by the angle of his arms as he reached for the bars, Jean because she sat well forward on the saddle, and Doug because I didn’t know anyone smaller and few who were faster.

Today I wave to everyone under human power to make sure I continue to wave at my friends.

As a result, I have moved from intermittent waving to relatively constant gesticulation.

I have become a virtual drinking bird of welcome.

Let’s say it’s you on a bike.

If I knew who you were for sure, I’d know I like you and wave. But since I don’t know who you are, I have to assume I like you.

And act like it.

In other words, I am pleasant to all riders, even though, statistically, it means I’m nice to some stinkers, too.

(My apologies if you self-identify as a stinker. It must be confusing when someone is nice to you for no reason.)

Anyway, back to today’s ride.

I stop just over halfway through a 20-mile ride at the intersection of Singing Woods and Cedar Hills Drive to take a picture of my bike.

You know, for the Instagram.

I see someone approaching from the east, maybe commuting from Caterpillar Mossville.

I turn to wish the rider good morning and take pictures of the passing scene.

The person waves and continues toward the big climb leading to Route 40.

What do I see by eye from 30 feet away? A white helmet and the motion of an arm.

Someone waving back at me.

Given the helmet’s height above the ground, I know I’m not looking at someone on a recumbent or a tall bike. But that’s about it: somebody waving at me from a predictable point in space.

What did the camera capture of the same scene?

Gray socks. A taller rider than me, but similarly equipped with tights, jacket, jersey and a small rear-view mirror attached either to helmet or glasses. A bike with fenders and a large seat bag. Brake cables arcing above the handlebars. Downtube shifters. Three chainrings. A generator hub. A full-length pump under the green top tube.

As it turns out, even with the aid of 21st-century recording technology, I don’t know the rider. But I recognize the equipment choices, which suggests I might also like the person who made those choices.

Even though, officially, I already did.

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Why to shift gears without electricity

The way I understand it, pushing a button to initiate a wireless gear change is like squirting ketchup out of a plastic bottle: the signal travels between shifter and derailleur in a straight line.

My understanding, of course, is based less on electronic engineering and more on a healthy regard for the care and handling of processed tomato products.

Nonetheless, moving a lever to shift gears is an entirely different matter: the force is transmitted through a twisted-strand cable constrained within a multi-curved space defined by frame builder, component maker, mechanic, and finally, when distorted by the application of human power, rider.

This cooperative space, inclusive and complex, mechanical and maddening, remains worthy of exploration.

For one thing, it can be explored.

Mechanical systems exist outside the binary, go/no-go world of the electronic.

They’re all hardware—no firmware updates, no batteries—and immune from electromagnetic pulse weapons, for those keeping score at home.

If you’re on a budget, mechanical drivetrains remain the value play. So keep your bike in cables and pop an extra Keith Haring into the pain cave.

If you like options, mechanical’s your jam. You can grease a cable so it slides more predictably inside a housing. You can run a cable without a housing and increase shifting accuracy in that way. You can connect a lever directly to a derailleur and shift gears without a cable at all.

You can fight friction and win. Or if you prefer friction shifting over the indexed variety, embrace it.

If you’re predisposed toward design, you can work to make mechanical drivetrains easier to assemble, maintain and service.

Someone needs to.

Most of all, you can learn to fix your stuff and engage with the physical universe. You can push and pull. You can witness cause and effect out in the open, well beyond the closed realm of the electron.

Don’t get me wrong: wireless shifting is amazing, moving the derailleur the same precise amount, time after time. And if you’re more about riding and less about tinkering, wireless is downright fantastic.

But the mechanical still exists; still has its benefits, its pleasures.

So while we’re floating around this particular bend in the river of time, we might contemplate the virtues of the mechanical drivetrain a bit longer before channeling all that came before—all that brought us to this moment—into a battery-powered squirt gun.

Ed. note: This is an expansion of a 16incheswestofpeoria Instagram post.

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What’s your line?

Ride around the block and you soon find yourself retracing your journey.

Not exactly, of course: a single-track vehicle cannot help but make two tracks in the snow, the track of the rear tire crossing and recrossing the track of the front as the bicycle leans slightly to the left and then to the right.

As you circle, two tracks become four, become six, become eight.

Become more.

And the road you pedal alone grows crowded with previous selves.

You’re reminded that Whitman contained multitudes. And here you are, alone, generating multitudes of your own, just like Whitman: without fear of contradiction.

The same as you did last winter and the winters before that.

Let it snow? Maybe not. But if snow there be, you might as well make the most of it.

All together now.

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This essay has way too many exclamation points. Go ride your bike!

People on television put a lot of effort into selling prescription drugs—and their side effects. Go ride your bike!

In the United States, some believe there are two sides to any issue. Others disagree. Go ride your bike!

Serious people know there is no alternative to car dependency. Go ride your bike! (Seriously.)

One hundred years ago, in 1922, A Short History of the World by H.G. Wells was published. One reason for the book’s brevity? It included precious little information on events that transpired decades after its release. Despite that rather obvious shortcoming, it’s worth celebrating the book’s centennial. Go ride your bike!

In a world of artificial intelligence and eight billion people, originality is an illusion. Go ride your bike!

Coastal areas are flooding; California is on fire. Go ride your bike!

It’s too cold—or too hot. Go ride your bike!

There’s no time like the present. Go ride your bike!

You want to change the world, but you can’t find a big enough diaper. Go ride your bike!

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and there’s just enough daylight to explore both if you pedal. Go ride your bike!

You wake up at 3 a.m. and, once again, your tattoos are talking to each other in a language you don’t understand, which is possibly standard English. Go ride your bike!

There are so many reasons not to ride a bicycle. Go ride your bike!

In one hundred years, no one will care you spent the day reformatting a spreadsheet that will be superfluous within days of the interdepartmental marketing presentation. And let’s face it: you don’t care right now. Go ride your bike!

You aren’t a serious cyclist, a racer, a professional. Go ride your bike!

Your efforts to add a sound bar and subwoofer to your television system have been frustrated again. Go ride your bike!

You need time to think. Go ride your bike!

You just pulled out a t-shirt promoting a ride from 1999. Go ride your bike!

You know the way to the coffee shop. Go ride your bike!

Nobody else rides a bicycle to work. Go ride your bike!

All roads lead to Rome. You can’t get to Rome from here. Therefore, there are no nearby roads. Go ride your bike anyway!

You spend your days decrying the authoritarian impulse and its reliance on red-meat anecdotes and simplistic imperatives. Take a break. Go ride your bike!

You don’t have hydraulic brakes, electronic shifting, or GPS with turn-by-turn instructions. Go ride your bike!

Your kids don’t know you know how to ride a bicycle. Go ride your bike!

Your friend says, “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.” But you also have an alternative plan of action. Go ride your bike!

Consider it a mission from God if you must.

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