Friday, October 26, 2012


“The pleasure of ‘riding alone’ depends very much on whether or not a man takes good company with him.”—Karl Kron

As any 5-year-old can tell you, the key to riding a bicycle is balance. Once this is mastered, it rarely requires any conscious thought. As a 45-year-old, however, I’m finding myself thinking about balance of a different kind when it comes to my bike-riding life. I’m talking about a kind of social balance, riding sometimes with friends and other times alone. I like doing both, but it’s not always easy is to strike the perfect balance of the two.

I’ve been thinking about this lately for two reasons. One, it’s nigh on the end of the cycling season (not counting commuting) here in Alberta, and I’ve been reflecting on the year that was. For various reasons, I ended up doing a lot of solo cycling this year. It wasn’t always by choice. It seemed that my cycling friends were often away or incapacitated or just plain unavailable; or else I was far away myself, with no one to call on for a social spin. So that meant lots of solo excursions for me, most of which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Solo rides can be exhilarating, occasionally therapeutic, and sometimes allow for a special contemplative mood that doesn’t happen in group rides. I find that often I can slip into a comfortable, solitary head-space on a 3-4-hour solo jaunt. My mind is free to spin and loop, turning over ideas, allowing for a unique kind of incremental progression. This serene mood can be attained through many kinds of repetitive motion—swimming, running, knitting.  

Photo Credit: Erik Koto
But I also know that, for me, sometimes, what I crave is social cycling—the gab, the teasing, the pushing of the pace. Those days I’ll go alone if I have to, but I’d rather ride with almost anyone. I know I’m ready for company when I’m out alone and spy a cyclist up ahead (or even going the other way), and feel an immediate desire to catch up (or even turn around) and ride with a stranger for a while. My spirit perks up at the prospect of even a brief chat, or of just riding—even without talking—beside someone, anyone, for a few miles.  

(Sometimes when I pull up beside a stranger, the person will chat politely for a minute before giving me the look-away. The cyclist actually wants to be alone on his or her bike, and I respect that. They’re quite content with the company they’ve brought.)

The other reason this has been on my mind is because I’ve been reading Karl Kron’s Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle (1887), and, even though I’m only one chapter in, it’s already clear that for Kron, cycling is very much a solo act. He seems to like the idea of being the lone cyclist, especially in an age when bicycles were still something of an oddity for many, especially in rural areas. He argues that while the lone person afoot is viewed with suspicion, as a tramp or shady horseless operator, the lone cyclist is seen very differently:
Mounted on a four-foot wheel, which sends him spinning swiftly and noiselessly o’er hill and dale, the whilom tramp is transformed into a personage of consequence and attractiveness. He becomes at once a notable feature in the landscape, drawing to himself the gaze—it is usually the admiring gaze—of all whose eyes are there to see. His fellow-humans ignore him no longer. Gentle or simple, they all recognize in him the representative of something novel and remarkable. He is the center of universal curiosity and comment. His presence illustrates a fresh triumph over matter. All creatures who ever walked have wished that they might fly; and here is a flesh-and-blood man who can really hitch wings to his feet.  
So Kron kind of likes being gawked at, admired by the poor earth-bound saps who have to settle for walking.

But he also acknowledges that riding alone often does, ironically, foster a certain kind of social interaction with all kinds of strangers, who constantly beard him questions. How much does a bicycle cost? How far can he travel in a day? Kron notes the “magnetic power” of his bicycle “in drawing to the surface the quaint characteristics of many peculiar people, which they could never be tempted to reveal to the casual stranger not possessed of this persuasive instrument.” I suspect many cycle-tourists would agree that even today bicycles still hold some of this “magnetic power” over strangers. But this is kind of socializing tends to be short-lived and mostly superficial.

For Kron, the main appeal of solo cycling seems to be the way it allows him to cultivate a Romantic persona of the enigmatic loner, the figure who stands/rides apart from the crowd, who chooses to break away from the masses, to go it alone. Although he acknowledges that many cyclists enjoy their club rides with the fellows, cycling for him, he says, offers
solace for the solitary; as a companion for those whom the voice of nature or of fate has commanded to hold themselves apart from the hurly-burly; as a device for enabling the philosophic observer to be among people without being of them, to examine at first hand all phases of life and society without revealing the mystery of his own personality.

In a way, Kron anticipates a mid-twentieth-century existential-cyclist schtick, a guarded, inscrutable, aloof poet on wheels. But I’m not sure I’m buying it, or at least not all of it. Perhaps he’s trying to put a positive spin on his solitary reality. While it makes for a poetic image, it sounds pretty lonely to me. Sometimes you have to look farther than the mirror to find good company.

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