Back in the Saddle, Again

By Jack Wax


I stopped riding a bike when I didn’t want anyone to think of me as a child. When I was 14, I got off my bike and started walking, hitchhiking or begging my older brother for a ride when I needed to go somewhere too far to walk. It would be more than 50 years before I would ride unembarrassed and smiling with the simple pleasure of pedaling along.

As a child, I had learned to ride a tiny two-wheeler with wheels not much bigger than a tricycle’s. I had to pedal constantly to keep up with my older brother and the other kids in the neighborhood. Coincidentally, it was my older brother who got me started riding again. Because I don’t live far from the Katy Trail, I had tried riding a couple times. But I didn’t like it. Riding for more than a few minutes would tire my legs, hurt my butt and cramp my neck and shoulders. My brother had already rediscovered the joys of riding a bike and had recently upgraded to a better bike. Just as he had passed down shirts he had outgrown or baseball gloves that he had worn out, he passed down his old bike to me.

I wanted to enjoy riding a bike, but my body wouldn’t let me. Maybe my joints were too creaky. Maybe I had spent too many years hunched over a computer, sitting at a desk in an office. I kept trying. I bought a pair of padded bicycle shorts, and the shorts made sitting on the seat more comfortable. After pushing myself to go a few miles at a time, my legs got stronger and didn’t hurt. I bought some handle attachments that helped me sit more upright, and my shoulders and neck stopped aching. Before I knew it, I was enjoying going for bike rides.

That was three years ago. Since then, bicycling has become an important pleasure in my life. I don’t think of it as only an exercise (although I know it is). I don’t consider it a sport (which it could be). It’s a pleasure – pure and simple. Good for the body, mind and spirit.

Although I sometimes ride on the streets of Columbia, mostly I ride on the Katy Trail. Cruising along the trail is about as close as a person can get to actually flying. On a bike, you can bend the law of gravity. You’re moving forward – gliding into the wind or, maybe, pedaling, but at times it’s almost effortless. I know that my body weighs the same sitting on a bike as sitting in a car, but when my legs pedal rhythmically and I sense myself moving along, I feel like I’m starting to float. Riding my bike gives me that same lift, that same sense of buoyancy, as swimming through water.

Riding changes my mental perspective as well as my body chemistry. I may be feeling tired or a bit unsettled (meaning grumpy) before getting on my bike. Within seconds, I transition from the regular world into a different dimension. There’s nothing wrong with my regular world. I feel more than pretty good about just about everything. But do I feel fantastic and bubbling over with energy at age 65? Is my blood pounding through my arteries? Am I feeling as brand-spanking new as a 20-year-old? Well, when I get on my bike, I do. It’s not exactly a fountain of youth, but the aerobic workout gets my 65-year-old juices flowing. My endorphin level spikes and I shake off any sluggishness I may have been dragging around. It clears my arteries as well as my mind.

Am I tempting you? Are you thinking that maybe bicycling sounds like a piece of fun that you’ve left behind in your childhood? Unfortunately, you’re probably thinking that you have more important or pressing things to do. It takes about an hour or even more to go on a decent bike ride, and who has time to spare? I used to think like that too. I have come to believe that riding a bike is the opposite of a waste of time. When you waste time, you do something that is against your nature –like sitting at a desk for eight hours a day or staring over a steering wheel and speeding past the seasons. As a result, wasting time makes you feel empty, foolish or used. I never feel empty or foolish after a bike ride. I feel relaxed. My body and mind hum with contentment. I know, without having to justify it to myself, that taking the time to ride a bike is as important as taking time to eat or sleep.

A bonus to riding along the Katy Trail is that in addition to the natural surroundings – the trees, creeks, cliffs and Missouri River – you’re in a vacation environment. Everyone you see is on a mini-vacation, if even for 15 minutes. People aren’t wearing their work-weary expressions. Beneath the trees that shelter the trail, you are 10 times as likely to see a smiling face or a peaceful demeanor than a scowl.

I would be misleading you if I mentioned only the obvious pleasures of riding. There is more. Some things only seem simple, and riding a bike is one of them. Any activity that can push time aside and tunnel you through space can’t be called simple. Moments spent riding occur outside the usual stream of time. Minutes lose their power to niggle at your life, and years trail behind you in the dust. You have neither past nor future, only the beautiful present.

As if such an experience weren’t enough, riding also jolts your sense of place and distance. You may have driven your car along a street a thousand times. You know that street, the houses, the lawns, the usual parked cars. Except you don’t really. You have only experienced the street by glancing at it while encased in a steel, soundproof box, moving along at 20 or more miles per hour. You have viewed the scene without being part of it. Riding a bike along the same street changes your experience of that street completely. You become a part of the landscape and neighborhood. You can hear birds, dogs, children and rustling leafs; smell the grass; and be aware of doors opening and closing and people coming and going.

Riding to do chores brings yet another alteration in the time-space continuum. Traveling via car, you start at home, then arrive at your destination in much the same mood and frame of mind as you left. You might be a bit more aggravated, depending on the traffic. A bike ride to the same destination along the same route isn’t a parallel journey. It takes longer, but the time goes quicker. Your bike has freed you from the petroleum-eating, fume-spuming, world-isolating experience of a car ride. If a car ride is the black hole of experience, a bike ride is a tunnel away from that black hole. Going through that tunnel somehow flips you into a much healthier, more pleasant universe – the very same one you experienced as a child. Only then, you didn’t really appreciate it.

I have sat long enough before this computer screen. It’s sunny outside, and for the past few days it has rained, keeping me from my bike. I think I’ll make time for a ride later. After all, I’ve lost about 50 years driving cars, and I’m not getting any younger – except, that is, when I’m riding my bike.