A cold morning last week, I decided to ride my rarely-used winterized bicycle to Val’s Monday spin session in his garage—a distance of about 3 kilometers. I took the necessary precaution of extra layers of clothing: a base layer, including a balaclava; a secondary level of wool, including a hoody; and a tertiary level of heavy winter coat, boots and mitts. I was physically tired and hot before I left. The bike worked well, and I was warm in the minus 40. However, I did not think through the problem of wearing my glasses. Without my glasses, I can see no definition, no distance—hell, not much of anything. Of course, after a few blocks of riding, pushing out the warm air from my lungs, my glasses were covered in frost. But I made the commitment to ride in the frigid conditions, so I forged on with limited vision and a love of riding my bike nonetheless. Thankfully, I encountered no traffic, and the sidewalks were obvious to a man frost-blind. I made it to Val’s garage, and I made it home.
My experience reminded me of the writer James Joyce. He loved to ride his bicycle and he had poor eyesight. His biographers are keen to note that cycling references are scattered throughout Joyce’s works indicating a sustained lifelong interest. His cycling feats seem tempered with a touch on the blarney stone, but the deterioration of his eyesight (and the need for an amanuensis—the likes of who was Samuel Beckett) is well documented. On one auspicious August day in 1912, so the story goes, he rode from Galway to Clifden and back again—a distance of more than 160 kilometers (100 miles for you American folks) in one day. Naysayers are quick to point out that Joyce could not have accomplished this ride because of the conditions of the Irish roads and the limitations of the bikes of the period; moreover, most critics are quick to indict Joyce’s limitations: poor vision and lack of physical prowess.
Apocryphal or not, and never a stickler for details of the literary variety, I suspect he could have done this ride. Of course, by 1912 he no longer lived in Ireland, but rather in Switzerland. So the question is (not if he did it), what motivated him to ride this distance? What motivates cyclists with limited eyesight and physical impediments to ride under duress? Could it be for reasons other than love? This poem, (some may attribute it to Joyce writing to Nora—his Galway Girl), perhaps captures his thoughts and motivation:
"My green bicycle"
Muscles, metal, and motion
Moving in the mysteries of love
In a glide and slide world
Hard bumps of road hard indifference
Are merely the obstacles of my
Push and pull pleasure.
My efforts pulsing, my imminent exhaustion
Are distance rewarded
Distinct from my starting position.
Symmetry and stamina combined in
Tailwind-downhill dreams, and
Propel a balance bending beauty.
My green bicycle is
Taking me to you.
(1912, or there about)