I have never experienced “love at first sight.” I never will. As an American, I have trained my mind to believe it’s wrong. At best, it’s a sign of immaturity. At worst, I would be oppressing some poor woman with my objectifying white male gaze. We are a country of lawyers, not poets. We have reversed the hierarchy of sins found in Dante’s Inferno. We value duplicity. We condemn lust. In an American Inferno, Guido da Montefeltro might even go to heaven. Paolo and Francesca would end up in the City of Dis.
I do, however, know what it feels like to fall in love at first sight. In 2008, I decided to get back into cycling. My job was only a few miles from where I lived so it made no sense to drive there every day in a Ford Explorer. I hate driving. Not only are you locked up in a tin can, you are entombed in the general stupidity of the traffic flow created by your fellow motorists. On a bike, you make your own rules. You can zip in, out, and around cars and SUVs. You can ride on the sidewalk. You can ride on the streets. You can run red lights if you’re willing to take the risk. I had ridden a Centurion Dave Scott Iron Man in my teens and twenties. It was a great bike that got me around the Rutgers campus without having to take their horrible bus system. But, to paraphrase Keats, never did I breath the pure serene air of cycling until I walked into Jay’s Cycle Center in Westfield, New Jersey and bought a Trek 7.2 FX.
The Trek 7.2 FX, for those of you in the know, is not a glamorous bike. It’s a low-end hybrid with a cheap drive train and an aluminum fork that absorbs every bump in the road. But it didn’t matter. As soon as I got back to my house in Roselle, and took a spin around the block, I was in love. Something just felt right. Something made sense. This was it. The moment I had been waiting for all my life. I went back inside, and got my wallet and cell phone. I got back on my bike. I took a longer ride, south, through Clark, through Woodbridge, through Edison, through Highland Park and New Brunswick. I took a spin through the Rutgers campus, road the same paths I did when I was a 20-year-old kid on my old lugged steel road bike. Why did I take to cycling at age 44 in a way I didn’t when I was 20, and still had time to train for the Tour de France? Who knows? Why cares? I kept going. I road through North Brunswick, South Brunswick, Kendall Park, and Kingston. I kept going until I reached the campus of Princeton University, 30 miles from home. I road around Nassau Hall. I road past Morven. I ate lunch across the street from Albert Einstein’s old house. Then I popped over to the Princeton NJ Transit Station to take the train back to Linden. I waited. I waited, and I waited. The line was long. Some foreign students were fumbling around looking for the right combination of buttons to press to get a round trip ticket to New York. Fuck it, I said to myself. I’ll just ride my bike. Another 2 hours, and another 30 miles and I was back home. It was late August. I was drenched in sweat. I ate dinner, and grabbed a can of beer from the refrigerator. I ate a pint of ice cream. What did I care about calories? I had finally vanquished the memory of the fat kid I was in junior-high-school. I had found my calling.
That’s the first thing to remember about cycling. Unlike sex, it makes you feel better about your body. As a teenager, I felt I was ugly, dirty. I would have to shower twice a day because I thought my sweat was unclean, that it had a funny smell. It only occurred to me year later that the funny smell came from the old, poorly maintained inner-city high-school I graduated from, not me.
Theoretically, of course, sex should also make you feel good about your body, but it doesn’t. It’s not the sex. It’s the effort you have to put into finding it. Sex puts me into a hierarchy. I become aware that I’m 50 years old. I’m bald. My teeth are crooked. I’m not exactly what you would call a “good catch.” I become subject to an increasingly restrictive, puritanical set of laws. Did you get the impression that I don’t like being 50-years-old? You got the wrong impression. Thank God I’m 50-years-old. I would hate to be 20-years-old in the age of “affirmative consent.” Were I still a young man, subject to getting a hard on over any women who smiled at me, I would have to deal with more than I had to deal with back in the 1980s. Today, if you talk to a strange woman in a bookstore or a coffee shop, she might suspect you of being a “pickup artist.” If you whine about not getting enough sex, you’re an “MRA.” But that’s all trivial. Any 20-year-old man not in solidly in the upper-middle-class or above will probably never get a job that pays a living wage. He’ll never buy a house, or send his kids to private school. The evangelicals haven’t succeeded in getting rid of birth control or abortion, yet, at least in New Jersey, but even fucking on the pill raises all sorts of issues. Does the pill damage a woman’s health? Is birth control just another form of “male entitlement?” No. Thank God I’m 50-years-old. Thank God my blood is tame and waits upon the judgment. Let me be 50-years-old forever.
I mean it. 50 is the perfect age. True, I’m no longer “young and hot.” But amateur cycling is a middle-aged man’s sport, not a young man’s sport. It’s not sprinting, basketball or hockey. Short of riding in the Tour de France, I can do anything on a bike at age 50 that I could do at age 20. 100 mile rides are nothing. 50 mile rides almost feel like a warmup. Years of long distance running prepared me for that first 60 mile ride back in 2008. I plan to be riding long distances right through my 70s. I’ll die of cancer or the effects of global warming long before my cardiovascular system gives out. What’s more, unlike happily married men my own age, I’ve found the perfect mate. My bike won’t dump me for Lance Armstrong. My bike won’t look at me and sigh that it could have been ridden by someone with better thighs, a better hairline, or a better education. There’s no such thing as “affirmative consent” with a bike. I don’t have to say “bike, we are coming to a rather steep incline. Would you consent to my shifting down a few gears and getting into the drops?” Feminists won’t look at me funny if I trade my dowdy old Specialized Allez compact-double for a sleek new Trek Madone. Unlike with wives, I won’t get thrown in jail if I own two, three, four, five bikes. I can buy as many as I can afford. What’s more, my bike won’t punish me for being poor. In fact, it will reward me. Can’t afford gas? Well just jump right up on top of me. I’ll take you wherever you want to go. Perhaps my happiest week over the past decade was the week after Hurricane Sandy. I’ll never forget the schadenfreude I felt whenever I road past a gas line, and looked at people waiting to fill up their SUVs, those same people who shout “get on the sidewalk” at me or occasionally menace my life when I’m riding on a busy street without a shoulder.
Nothing, of course, is perfect. My bike won’t nag me if I look at another bike, but it does nag me. Badly adjusted brake pads that rub up against your rims, a creak in your saddle, badly tightened crank bolts, STI levers that rattle when you inflate your front tire above 100psi, there’s absolutely nothing worse than a mysterious noise that you can’t trace to its source. At its worse it can become a form of Chinese water torture, an insignificant annoyance that repeats itself every few seconds and won’t go away. Pinch flats are almost as bad. If I over inflate my tires, then surely it has something to do with that sinking feeling in your heart when you get off from work or leave a coffee shop and see one of your rims touching the ground. Blowouts can be fun. You congratulate yourself when you keep control of your bike bombing down a hill and your front tire explodes, but pinch flats? Pinch flats are like viruses. They sneak up on you when you’re not looking, and immobilize you. Yes, changing a tube gets easy after awhile. Not getting grease all over your hands doesn’t. Then there are the people you have to share the road with. Male pedestrians don’t get cat called. Male cyclists do. There’s something about being inside two tons of Detroit metal that just brings out the worst in people. Frat boys are annoying. They throw beer cans. They shout out “Lance” as they accelerate past you. Soccer moms are worse. Something about having to share the road with a middle-aged guy on a road bike brings out the beast in the typical soccer mom. “Get on the sidewalk,” they shout as they roar by. Sometimes they roll down the window, point at the ground and just say “sidewalk.” Catcalls from cars and SUVs bring me back into the societal hierarchy that riding my bike helps me escape. Occasionally, when a motorist cat calls me I can catch him, or her at a red light. But what can I do then? Bang on the windows? If it’s a car load of frat boys I’ll get my ass kicked. If it’s a soccer mom and her kids, she’ll call the cops.
But pinch flats and cat calls are a minor annoyance. Nothing beats getting up at six in the morning, and getting on my bike, especially in the Spring and Fall. I ride out of my grubby old inner-city suburb west. The sun comes up as I ride past the beautiful old colonial revival mansions in Westfield and Summit. Cycling has given me perhaps a better visual sense of the architecture of Union County, New Jersey than just about anybody. I can look at a house and tell you what year it was built, how many bedrooms it has, when it was modified, how much it costs and how much property surrounds it. I have a similar expertise about the local trees, landmarks, rivers, parks,and wildlife. Cycling has allowed me to to assimilate my hometown and the surrounding area the way few people can. I’m no longer an alienated cog in the middle of the suburban sprawl. I’m an organic part of my environment. At about 7:00 AM, if I’m lucky, I cross Route 22 and climb 500 feet up into Watchung Reservation. Watchung Reservation is three times the size of Central Park. It’s thickly forested. It has herds of deer, panoramic views of Manhattan, and even the occasional black bear. It has hills that would challenge Lance Armstrong, houses that look like the East Coast equivalent of estates in the Hollywood Hills, but, above all, it has privacy, especially early in the morning before rush hour. Occasionally, I’ll ride out on the eastern ridges. The trees will clear, and then I’ll see it, New York City, the Empire State Building, the Freedom Tower, the entire Manhattan skyline, shimmering 15 miles in the distance like the Emerald City. I’ll think about the New York Stock Exchange, the hipsters in Brooklyn, the greasy crush of people in Penn Station, Park Avenue, and the Upper West Side, people making money, socializing, flirting, fighting and fucking. I’ll sigh with relief.
“Thank God,” I’ll say. “I’m not part of that.”