On a recent day during a particularly good but unusual stretch of Midwest weather, I got out on my bicycle for the first time this season. The day was warm, not hot. And even though it was a day in mid-April, the unseasonal temperatures did not seem strange like on some days when the weather appears to be out of step with nature. Like many times before, I set out to ride to a coffee shop I like some nine miles away, have a cup on the sidewalk patio and ride back home. But my usual route was not to be. The pedestrian bridge that leads over a busy highway was blocked off for repairs and I had to choose an alternate route through streets and parts of communities where I had never been.
What a perfect little detour.
I rode a street along the railroad line for a time, and then over a raised road that took me to the other side of the tracks, up a hill and around a park I had not known about, and then to the winding streets of a neighborhood of modest homes and wide lawns where I had never been. On the other side of a patch of tall willows, another winding street led me to a tree-lined road that took me through a shaded section of forest preserve and past a small pond. Again, none of which I knew was there. Beautiful, it was. Then, as I rounded a turn out of the forest road, I saw someone in the distance, a woman pedaling on a bike toward me. When she passed, we nodded and smiled at one another, and in just that moment I was sure we both thought, “Hey, look at the two of us doing the same thing. For just one second, let’s be friends.” That’s how Neil Pasricha, the author of The Happiness Equation describes one of his own bicycle encounters, and there I was having the same experience. It was certainly not a coincidence.
I eventually made it to the coffee shop, although it took several more riding miles than in previous trips to get there. But the miles were never the point, it was the ride that mattered, one I could only have experienced while on two wheels, one that left a deeper impression than expected because I was thrown from my usual course.
There are plenty of studies proving the benefits of biking—for physical health, for the environment—but what this most recent ride said to me was something beyond that, deeper, something I have intuitively known but hadn’t taken the time to let sink in, so simple as to think it a bit foolish, so visceral that it manifests itself as something nearly undefinable, yet profoundly instinctive.
The American poet Diane Ackerman wrote, “When I go biking I am far, far away from civilization. The world is breaking someone else’s heart.”
That’s a beautiful thought. And fully true. No one has ever gone out for a bike ride and found it disheartening. “Only the bicycle,” wrote the Irish author Iris Murdoch, “remains pure in heart.”
I’m not talking about “cycling,” for this is another matter. Cycling is the sport of men in tight colorful get-ups, clip-on pedal shoes, and sleek carbon-fiber machines made for lightness and daring speed. What I am considering here is the bicycle, the world’s most civilized form of transport, the one we learned to ride as a child. None of us has ever forgotten our first bike—the Huffy or AMF or Schwinn. Maybe we had an English racer or a Sears Spyder bike with the big handle bars and the banana seat. Whether it is a classic rides of our youth or the newest e-bike of the modern age, each offers the chance at being just one ride away from a good mood, a new horizon, a changed perspective.
The detour I took that day forced me to consider more deeply the reason I get out on a bike. Without the detour, I certainly would have fallen into my usual, almost predetermined biking routine—both the physical and the emotional. Instead, I was reminded of what the bike can do for the soul.
“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”
Arthur Conan Doyle’s words have never been so meaningful.
The next day’s weather turned rainy and cold and so no bike ride for me. But in my head I was out riding with the wind, waving at the world.
Photo: Haydan As-soendawy
I love taking detours! It's the anticipation of discovering what lies ahead. Thanks for sharing this one.