For me choosing bikes is easy, and choosing to help others choose bikes is even easier. I could go into all the reasons why, and hone my argument based on my audience. I could describe the livability and safety of streets where bikes hold dominion over cars for folks interested in building stronger, healthier communities. For the economically inclined, I could talk about how bike culture and infrastructure keeps money local, empowers neighborhood business, and doesn’t waste resources, citing a bazillion fun facts from Elly Blue’s Bikenomics. For folks that don’t deny the existence of climate change the argument kind of makes itself, as it does for folks that want to see activity more ingrained in day-to-day life. There is a synergy between what bikes do for the individuals that ride them, and what that riding does for the community–and we will only ultimately understand that when everyone who wants a bike gets one.
Until then we can only postulate what our communities will look like, cite studies done in the Netherlands, and gather the stories of folks who choose bikes. For me though, it’s much simpler than all the complex theory a bike advocate could dive into–I just need to remember what it was like to get a bike for the first time, have it be mine, and ride it whenever I wanted to. I just have to remember wanting to go to school for the first time in my life in 6th grade because I knew I could ride my bike there. I only need to remember the day I forgot my lock–or did I even have a lock?–and just left my bike at the racks by the gym because I had to go to class and didn’t know what else to do, and my red single-speed Mongoose being gone at the end of the day. And then remember the day I bought a red Motiv at age 16 with the money I made at the movie theater at the mall. And the day I found a Miyata at age 26 for $15 at a silent auction, and the week that I learned to refurbish it, and the half decade I’ve ridden it to places I didn’t realize I could reach on a bike.
These are all powerful feelings, and they make the choice to help others find their own life-changing bikes, and create their own powerful experiences with them, these feelings make the choice incredibly easy. The list of humans who want and need bikes but can’t advocate for those needs goes on and on, and it gives me great pleasure to see how far it goes. Whether I’m helping a busy friend buy a bike or fix their own because the whole experience baffles them, or working with Bikes for Humanity, sharing mechanical knowledge or granting bikes to 4th and 5th graders, or working for Give Them Bikes! to connect Central City Concern clients or Portlanders at large with their freedom machines, the choice to advocate for bikes gets easier and easier.
Bike for Humanity Free Tune Up Clinic circa 2015, Miyata with milk crate featured in background
The author (left) and Matthew (right) after riding bikes to Centralia to join the Vancouver to Vancouver relay, July 2016
22 bikes granted to 4th and 5th graders in the Cully Community, May 2017
Getting into bikes–especially in a town like Portland with such an established culture around them–is an exciting combination of learning the language of a subculture and feeling as though you are part of a movement to reshape mainstream culture, and creating a new language around that.
I struggled for a moment whether to start with this abstract thesis statement or to describe my run in with Norm this afternoon. I obviously went with the former to make the run in seem more meaningful.
Anyway, I spotted my fellow member of the Bikes for Humanity board coming to the 33rd and Powell intersection where I already was from the southeast. The light had just turned red, meaning this long light would have Norm and me sharing this space for close to a full minute, him pointed north and myself on the other side of the ODOT-controlled river of flying automotive metal pointed south.
This has happened to me several times, crossing Powell or Division or other major arterials in the city. Bikes can trickle to the front of the line of cars, often granted green-painted bike boxes to hang out in, so a cyclist is much more likely to see a friend or acquaintance on the other side of the light than a driver might. Likely there’s no sense in stopping to chat because either of you would have to wait for the light to cycle all the way back, and what would be the protocol for who would make such a gesture? Everybody’s time is valuable after all.
I thought about texting Norm, but dismissed it. We smiled and waved as we straddled the arterial waiting for the light to change. Another time I shouted across Division with a friend of mine about whether we were going to the same wedding. I made a shivering gesture to comment on the whether. Then the light changed and we smiled and waved, just as Norm and I did today.
I think it has something to do with faith in friendship and movement at the same time and might have something to do with this gif I just made from pics I took at the Ladd’s 500:
I work for Give Them Bikes! because doing so has allowed me to pursue my dreams.
In my dreams I ride bikes, not professionally, never in a hurry, but happily, with joy, and usually with a friend, for that is when riding bikes is the most fun. In my dream last night we abandoned our bikes at the top of a dock, that carefree dismount associated with the front lawns and driveways of suburban kids not worried about bike theft, and we ran down the dock and jumped in the water. We swam to a boat and they invited us aboard. It began to sail away, accidentally arriving in my hometown where by magic our bikes awaited us. We got back on them and I showed you the salt-sprayed road that winds around the outer edge of the peninsula, the scenic boulevard that separates the waves crashing against the rocks to our right from the interior upward sloping land to our left.
Riding bikes is an expression of freedom, this is an accepted and nearly stale trope. Freedom is meaningless in dreams, anyhow. You follow along as your fate unfolds before you, and you coast through feelings of purpose. It is movement and meaning synthesized.
Likewise riding with a friend is something deeper than freedom. It’s where freedom meets collaboration. It holds within it the truth that nobody is free when others do not have bikes. The bicycle community refers to the value of self-sufficiency, and the freedom that a bicycle affords, to use your energy and momentum to go anywhere. This is true and important but just part of the way there.
I am interested in mutual support, where vulnerability and preparation meet. I choose to make myself available to the community and be honest about what I need and what I can provide. Just like riding bikes with friends, there’s an understanding that when one cannot go on for whatever reason, we all stop, check in, and regroup. Give Them Bikes! has let me pursue the dream that we are all friends, and that nobody gets left behind. The real ride won’t begin until everyone who wants to join gets to. Period.