The Magazine

Virtuous Cycle

David Skinner, clubman.

Dec 5, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 12 • By DAVID SKINNER
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WHEN I WAS A KID, my friends and I were always starting clubs. They all consisted of the same four or five guys, but membership was not automatic. To be accepted into the Phoenix Club or The Jets or The Time Travelers, you'd have to complete a rite of initiation. This might involve riding your bike off a precariously high ramp or shoplifting candy from the supermarket--shaving cream if Halloween was coming up--or smoking a whole cigarette by yourself.

With the completion of this trial by fire, we'd pretty much forget about the club and do what we always did. We'd play stoopball or spud, or we'd ride bikes. I spent years rolling around the local neighborhoods on my no-brand department store dirtbike.

But around seventh or eighth grade, I became too cool for bikes. I'd walk instead. Even the mile-long trek to my friend Frank's house, to listen to Talking Heads albums, I'd make on foot. Walking suited the introverted and pretentious teenager I was becoming. To get to high school, I took buses and trains. These too I found agreeable since they allowed me to nod off--that is, when I was too tired to read the Camus novels in my backpack.

Travel-wise, at least, my teenage life seemed complete. So little did I care for other modes of transportation that I didn't bother to get a driver's license for several years after I became legally eligible.

This was eccentric behavior in my house. My two brothers were sneaking off with our parents' car keys long before they got their licenses. One summer, my older brother had a job driving an old construction guy around in his Cadillac to worksites all over Long Island. My mother made him quit--because he didn't even have a learner's permit.

Lately I've once again been getting around, except for long trips and certain household chores, without a car. Of course, I do have one, and I like to use it. For one thing, it's a great place to listen to music, but when I drive I rarely get to rock out as I would like to. From the passenger's seat, my wife watches me very closely lest I slip into the CD player one of those depressing hipster albums I'm always listening to.

What was my point? Yes, that I am driving less. Instead, I ride a bicycle--to work and elsewhere. One day last week I rode my bike across two state lines, from Virginia to the District in the morning and then into Maryland for a cocktail party in the evening. A path connects my suburban neighborhood to downtown, so to get to the office I have to mix it up with city traffic for only a few blocks.

I've upgraded from my old knobby wheeler to a Specialized Crossroads hybrid I call Ivan, after Ivan Illich, a forgotten '60s intellectual who admired bicycles for moving at a more humane speed than cars. Yes, my taste in books is as pretentious as ever, but Illich can be interesting to read. It is hard, though, to take him seriously when he nods approvingly at all that Mao is doing to improve China--you know, like starving tens of millions of people.

Then again, China was reliable on the old bicycle-versus-car debate. Until recently, anyway.

While American cities build more paths, and newspapers report that more people, like me, are biking to work, China--the land of the bicycle--is heading in the opposite direction. I wonder what Illich would say about this. Unfortunately he's dead. So I asked my friend, Marc Teillon, who lives in Shanghai.

Marc says that major cities in China are forcing bikes into special lanes and out of some downtowns altogether to give the right of way to scooters and, increasingly, cars. The only people who still ride bikes in the major cities, Marc says, are those "who can't afford to take a cab or don't have the time to wait for a bus. Odds are your average cyclist here is not doing it to help the environment or trying to lose weight."

Of course, in America, riding a bicycle to work represents the height of socially responsible behavior. But I'm no environmentalist, nor a fitness freak. And I confess it was not my intention to stick it to the oil cartels, though I am happy to do my tiny part on that score. There is, I should mention, one clear humanitarian benefit to what I'm doing. Staying out of automobile traffic has greatly reduced the number of times a day I think ill of my fellow man.

The main reason I ride a bike to work is that it's fun. It may even lead me to join some clubs. I recently read an article by a guy who's ridden all over the world, and, to acknowledge all the miles he's pedaled, a local bicycle association granted him its high-mile honor. He is now a member of the Order of the Cast-Iron Crotch.

- David Skinner