It is hardly enlightened to observe that – especially in Western society – most people have a deep affection for the things they own. Materialism seems to be part and parcel of life in the so-called modern world. The automobile in particular has long been acknowledged as exemplary of this fundamental disposition. But the affiliation goes far beyond what is at its worst mere unilateral idolatry. The ownership of a car, to continue the metaphor, can set up fairly significant barriers between oneself and other human beings. While it might at first be speculated that only those who enjoy the ownership (or lease) of the recognized high-end automobiles are likely to turn their respective noses well into the air, the truth is that there are as many divisions of ownership class as there are automobiles. Each brand carries with it its own entitlements (and causes for segregation). So, for example, the operator of an energy-saving small machine is just as probable to sneer at gas-guzzling SUVs. Likewise the owners of practical and economic cars are no doubt ill-disposed towards the owners of excessive and opulent ones (my preference, by the way). Then there’s the German vs. North American thing; propane vs. fuel, and so on. There’s simply no end to the forces which drive automobile owners apart and consequently provide ample fodder for indexing and honking horns when perturbed by a bit of bad driving on the part of another.
But picture my embarrassment to discover that this controversy had somehow made its way into the realm of bicycles. After all, even admitting (as is true) that there are cheap and very expensive bicycles out there, I never imagined that the brethren of the saddle would tarnish the fraternity by allowing a bit of metal to come between them. Yet it is so! Recently, as is my wont, I have taken to the country roads in an endeavour to engage in some healthy out-of-doors exercise on my bicycle. Now, I must explain immediately that my bicycle is not one of those racing bikes. Oh, no! Those days are long gone! At the age of sixty years, and having been on the operating table once already for open-heart surgery, my interest in speed and sleek has been replaced by high handle bars, balloon tires and (if you’ll forgive me for lapsing into the vernacular) a fat-ass seat (not mine, I mean, but the saddle). There was, however, a time when I thought nothing of spending an entire day on my bicycle climbing the hills in the Gâtineau Park, sporting clipped shoes, silk-like pants and a lock and chain about my waist. Now (though I wear a helmet to avoid being thought completely uncool) I tend to look rather more like a tourist from Florida on an early morning expiation along the beach before settling back into lunch and a mid-day cocktail . Nevertheless, I would never have thought that either my bike or my appearance would have alienated me from the world of which I have been a part for so many years. Wrong! Let me now catch sight of a cyclist on one of those racing machines coming towards me on the highway (I always ride against the traffic because my Fat Frank tires – that’s truly what they’re called – enable me to take to the gravel when a car flies by), and I can guarantee that the fashionably clad fellow (perpetually wearing dark sunglasses and the deadpan visage of a sheep) won’t so much as acknowledge my existence as he sails past. For the longest time I made what turned out to be the undignified effort to say a cheery hello, never succeeding in any correspondence. Now, adulterated and bent as I am by past experience, I pretend to out-do their snobbish ignorance by doing the same (though I suspect they only interpret my avoidance as deference).
The other side of the coin is, as you might expect, that when the on-coming cyclist is someone who is clearly doing the cycling for the enjoyment (and not the punishment, as seems to characterize the racers) and is more often than not clad in something anyone of us could find in a bottom drawer at home, the reception and communication is a great deal more enthusiastic. Birds of a feather, and all that, I suppose. Those of us who ride clumsy old bikes, or what were once called cruisers, relate to one another instantly, and – more to the point – charitably. As a result, I’ve given up being concerned about my fellow creatures, at least when they’re wearing skin-tight one-piece multi-coloured outfits and riding bicycles with wheels the width of my thumb. Regrettably, however, I am unable entirely to abandon the pretense of not having even noticed them. Seeing through people takes years of practice, and having been removed from the urban scene for thirty-three years I find it difficult to adopt that unpleasant posture. I am soothed in my commitment only to think that I didn’t even glance at them as they whizzed past!