Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Just Like Riding a Bike

Assuming a background familiarity with free-wheel cycling, the learning curve for a track bike is roughly equivalent to that for a car. Unlike many of my friends, I hit drivers ed without ever having sat behind the wheel. Evidently, my parents believed it better to inflict me on an instructor than take on my inexperience first hand. Or they just were more law-abiding than many of my friends' parents, who had let their children tool around along the beach somewhere or in the woods or even on a side street in town.

Overeager to learn, I had absorbed much of what I had seen of driving education in film and on television. Accordingly, I imagined that my first experiences behind the wheel would be disastrous, like real-life sight gags, as I ran over curbs, when crashing down embankments, and drifted away in some culvert as an ashen faced gym teacher beat me about the head and neck with his clipboard and I cringed in dumbfounded mortification.

In fact, my first experience went rather smoothly. I was installed by Mr. Gleason -- a gym teacher, the only part of my imagined scenario that real life vindicated -- in a dull white mid-eighties Buick Skyhawk, identical in size and contour to Chevy's Cavalier, automatic transmission, cheap fabric interior, and wear and tear far in excess of the tale told by its odometer. We met at school, where Mr. Gleason invited me to sit in the passenger's seat while he drove us to a quiet part of town near my house. There, we switched position and on quiet, tree-lined residential street, began to explore the controls, creeping down the street to a stop sign, stopping gently over a long period of mild braking, then signaling dutifully, turning, and turning again, in rigid esses, up and down the neighborhood.

Convinced of my basic competency with the controls, Mr. Gleason led me out of town to the north, inevitably putting me on busier streetws where I had to interact with traffic. Nothing went awry, and he then had me merge onto Route 46, a busy highway that Route 3 out of Manhattan eventually meets, continuing west with three lanes. This was not what I expected.

To put this in perspective, Route 46 was and remains busier, faster, more chaotic, than any Pittsburgh thoroughfare, like McKnight Road with twice as many commercial establishments, twice as many cars, and half as much collective caution. Even so, I continued on slowly in the right lane without incident, occasionally slowing to admit entering traffic that wouldn't be denied, until six or seven miles down the road, Mr. Gleason had me turn off to enter the DMV parking lot. This had been his plan all along, it would seem; we were here to validate my learner's permit, which would be mine upon satisfactory completion of my six hours of training.

Then and after things went fairly smoothly. Oh, sure, there were moments. On our final day, Mr. Gleason guided me out to Interstate 280 and then onto I-80 heading west, to log some time and miles on the superhighways. It had snowed recently, and snowmelt liquefied the salt on the road to create a dilute paste that covered the windshield instantly whenever we found ourselves behind another car. We had no wiper fluid and the sun filled the windshield with a milky glare. We had to pull over every few miles, it seemed, to wipe off the residue with whatever papertowels or rags we had near to hand. Beyond that, I distinctly remember two occasions with my parents mini-van during my permit months: once, I nearly broadsided a car in my sizeable blindspot on another highway comparable to Route 46, and another time I got hopelessly enmired trying to K-turn on a narrow street at the edge of town, where the pressure of cars waiting on either side of me panicked me into inadvertantly over-reversing a yard or two up a steep, ivy-covered hill. But mostly, the drama all occurred a year later, in the first year of my license, when the absence of adult supervision and the presence of thrill-seeking or just moronic friends led to some serious misconduct. Not to be outdone, my own urge to find the limits of the 1980 Mustang my parents were kind enough to give me on my 17th birthday was at least the equal of my friends' desire to wreak havoc. I had three speeding tickets, and several excruciatingly spin-outs under my belt within nine months of my seventeenth birthday.

The thing is, I'm still learning how to drive. I haven't stopped driving aggressively. But I also have grown adroit at avoiding speed traps and danger. In nearly fifteen years of driving like I owned the road, I have yet to hit anything worse than a curb, and even that only once or twice hard enough to do any damage. It's not that I ignore the obvious role luck has to play in my good fortune -- sooner or later, if I drive enough, someone's going to get me, and if there's any justice, any sense of balance in the world, he's going to get me but good -- but I do drive well, confidently, decisively, and part of that is never believing I'm done improving.

I was told to expect the worst when I bought my track bike. I was told I'd be utterly baffled by the inability to coast, that the first time I tried to stop my legs at speed the bike would try its damndest to throw me over the handlebars, that on a fixed-gear, clipped into the pedals, I was destined to fall, and probably in traffic among a gaggle of gawking pedestrians. I accepted these cautions as likely true; they merely fortified my resolve to take on this new challenge.

They weren't wrong: not only did the lack of coasting quickly exhaust me, as well I had some very unbalanced moments when, after sprinting up to a traffic-signal-beating speed my legs naturally tried to go limp, as they would on my cyclocross bike after a quick burst of speed, and the bike wobbled terribly under me as it dragged my legs reluctantly back into cadence. For weeks, I struggled just to get onto the bike cleanly, learning to clip into the pedals while they moved instead of holding them in place as I would on my cross bike.

Learning to apply back pressure presented even more serious challenges. After thirty years of pedaling only forwards, how does one teach his legs to resist that forward motion with enough strength to reduce speed. Even once I'd learned the basics on flat ground, I was all but hopeless on significant downhill grades; although I could, groaningly, stop myself given sufficient space and determination, it invariably exhausted me as muscles I'd never before deployed in such a fashion struggled inefficiently to learn the new movements, the tensions and releases. The quicker cadence of a track bike at a healthy speed also presented difficulties: I had to learn how to accept the rapid movement in order to stay fluid and avoid bouncing up and down in the seat on every stroke, which was neither comfortable, stable, nor safe.

But through all of this, I never really found myself in dangerous situations, I never fell in traffic or in front of pedestrians. As in the early days of driving, I simply had to consciously monitor a number of rote tasks I trusted would eventually become second nature. The transition from manual to automatic, as it were, would come organically; only at the margins would the ability to react instinctually, rather than with conscious deliberation, make a difference to my safety. Fortunately, no marginal situations arose during my early learning phases in the car or on the bike.

But this is chess, not checkers, as was driving, and it has taken time to find routine what so recently felt unnatural, to embrace what my body so recently resisted, to learn just to have fun.

Today, this glorious day, I awoke and ate a Clif bar and drank coffee and read some of the Times. Then I donned cycling clothing -- padded shorts, corduroy shorts, two jerseys, and sunglasses -- adjusted my chain tension (on a track bike, a manual adjustment), filled a small bag and a water bottle, and headed outside into the cool air and the freshening sunshine. I rode downtown from Bloomfield at an easy pace, choosing Liberty over Penn through Garfield for the first time, and rode out the jail trail and back. Then I ducked over to the north side and rode up to Washington's landing. For the first time, I followed the gravel trail, which is a bit tricky on a road bike, all the way to the concrete sleeved northern tip of the island.

There, surrounded by lots of smooth grassy area, warm and perspiring but not too much, I removed bag, water bottle, helmet, and started looping around aimlessly, determined to start learning to track stand (stand in place) where a fall wouldn't hurt me. Over and over, just in sight of the tennis courts and just across the small riverlet between the island and Three Rivers Rowing, I drew the bike to a cautious stop, feet level and left foot forward, and attempted to reverse my direction and initiate the back-and-forth rocking that stabilizes a track stand. When I succeeded in snapping the bike backwards my balance maintained, but on successive attempts to repeat the maneuver I would overbalance; either I'd manage to snap a foot out of a pedal and catch my fall, or I'd thud to the ground on my side, giggling, aching more with each fall, laying in the vernal grass and gazing up through my violet-tinted glasses at an indigo sky untainted by clouds. It was beautiful, but I wasn't making much progress.

After perhaps twenty minutes of this, I realized that my hands and wrists were killing me. They hadn't been used heavily to cushion my impacts, and I realized that they probably hurt more due to my tension in minutely adjusting the wheel back and forth constantly trying to maintain balance at slow speed in grass and gravel. Enough, I decided, gathered my things and headed back down island.

I followed River Avenue back toward the stadia until, reaching the condominiums and the first of the sister bridges, the Heritage Trail turned paved, and then I joined it. I followed it slowly to its end below Heinz Field, passing parents and their children snapping photos, teenagers meandering in unabashed pleasure at our tardy but thus-far magnificent spring, finally turning around at the end and crossing the Ft. Duquesne pedestrian bridge over to the point. There I picked up the rivers-edge trail on the other side, and followed it until it turned to dirt and gravel, passing behind the Strip District and finally emerging at the foot of the renovation of the huge industrial building just north of the Strip's shopping district.

I've been fascinated by the building, and especially by the renovation, so when I discovered that I could follow its perimeter on three sides I did so, passing first the building actively under renovation and then its twin, which appears to have undergone no changes as yet. In the shadow of that building, again by the river at the end of a side road, I found a circle of pavement.

It began from a desire to tarry and look up at the crumbling structure, speculating what might be done with it -- office facility, residential lofts? Suddenly I realized I was traveling at a very slow speed, my front wheel turned at almost a right angle to the frame, the toe of my shoe occasionally rubbing the tire as I circled and curlicued around and around.

Just for fun, I decided to brave the prospect of falling to the pavement and test my track-stand skills. Once and again my feeble attempts were little more than stops, but in both cases I stayed on the bike and steered out of them. My attempts continued and grew more scientific; every third or fourth attempt, I had discovered, I was able to impel myself backwards with a crisp maneuver; in such cases, my balance was far stronger: I was, in effect, trackstanding, but not for long. I tried to figure out what distinguished these attempts from their futile cousins.

Finally, I realized that on every successful attempt, I allowed the last bit of forward motion to carry my bike out from under me, my hips lingering back a bit. Then, when I reversed my pedals, it was as though I was gathering the bike back toward me. Epiphany: it dawned on me that many of the track stands I observed involved precisely this bodily accompaniment to the mechanical task -- just before jigging the bike forward, the rider would move his hips forward and bring the bike to meet him, then pedal right through his body, his hips hovering back over the seat, and then pull the bike back to him.

Armed with this knowledge, each successive attempt was my best attempt. Furthermore, the conventional wisdom of practicing with the same foot forward each time, front wheel turned toward the forward foot, turned out to be relatively unimportant: with my butt in the right position, I could reverse my field with either foot forward, and with the wheel turned in either direction with respect thereto. Finally, on the tenth or fifteenth attempt in the glow of this new intelligence, I held a track stand for maybe 15 seconds or so, fully three cycles forward, three cycles back.

I haven't yet translated it to traffic, where I don't want to fall, and where I don't necessarily have enough room to pedal out of a botched attempt without hitting a car or wandering into an intersection, but now it's close.

Once I had earned my license, on a NJ DMV closed course in my boss's tiny automatic transmission Mitsubishi Mirage on my seventeenth birthday, I returned home to my Mustang, which had a four-speed manual transmission. I understood what to do with a stick, in a textbook sort of way, but I had failed miserably to translate that to action in my hilly town with my father apprehensive and snappish in the seat beside me. With my license in hand and my insured car registered in my name at home, however, there was no one but me at noon on a weekday (having taken a parentally-approved day off from school). I sat down in the car, started it, and coasted gingerly in reverse down our steep driveway to the street below. That day my driving wasn't pretty, but it was my best day yet behind the wheel of a manual transmission car. And I picked up the details quickly.

Some cliches are vindicated time and again by experience: those things that come to us easily are never as satisfying as those things that we never entirely come to us at all, things we labor to learn, taking big strides at first, then labor mightily to perfect in an endless process of incremental growth and refinement, asymptotically approaching the unattainable ideal that resides only in our minds -- things like driving, lawyering, and loving, things like riding a bike.


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