Monday, March 3, 2014

Fascinating Rhythms

Cycling in Boston for the first time in over three months I find myself looking at it with fresh eyes - or, rather, experiencing it through a fresh set of senses. It's not so much the noise or the traffic that I find to be the biggest contrast to my rural existence. It's not the crowds of people or the architectural density. Although in a way it is all of these things. Because the main difference I feel is in the rhythm. In the sense of flow.

The morning after I arrived, I got on my bike and took off without hesitation. After all, I knew this place well, I knew where I was going. But as I rode through the city it was as if my body was still tuned into one music station, while the streets played another. We were out of sync.

There is a frenzied, erratic, atonal feel to cycling here - or at least it strikes me that way after an absence.

My first experiences riding a bike as an adult were in cities. In the Spring of 2009 I lived in Vienna, Austria and began Lovely Bicycle as I was moving to Boston. For the next two years, I would go back and forth between these very different metropolises, getting more and more accustomed to life on two wheels in the process. It was in cities that I learned how to ride. From the start, the noises, the crowds and the traffic were an inherent part of the experience. Along with countless other urban cyclists, I internalised this barrage of stimuli and rode in tune with their chaotic music.

There are skills and intuitions we develop through years of urban cycling. Quick reaction times. Keen peripheral vision. An instinct for evasive maneuvers. Anticipation of potential doorings, right hook turns and other rogue moves. The ability to "hover" and "creep" at intersections. We also grow desensitised to the scary fact of being, at all times, just inches away from a fleet of heavy moving vehicles that could easily squash us at any moment.

None of this has left me. I feel safe and comfortable riding in Boston. It's just that the rhythm of the city feels …foreign. And it insists upon itself, urging me to internalise it again.

There are parts of greater Boston that can go from urban to suburban and back very quickly, with pocket neighbourhoods of Anglo-Cantabridgian quaintness wedged between busy city roads. This contributes to the arhythmic feel of cycling here. The BOOM-BOOM-silence-BOOM of it. It is not a place for lovers of consistency.

My speed in the city is regulated by what the traffic patterns allow, more so than by my fitness level or by the kind of bike I ride. I had almost forgotten about this in rural Ireland, where changes in fitness translate into noticeable changes in speed, and where riding a faster bike cuts down on travel time considerably.

And maybe that is at the heart of what I'm struggling with here: Giving up control to the city and its fitful, fascinating rhythms.

31 comments:

  1. I was wondering what was going on - a move! Welcome back - we missed you. At least I did. I rode 23 (very hilly) miles on my mtn bike yesterday in the CA rain - great day.

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    1. I'm just here for a few weeks. CA rain sounds good compared to the freezing temps and crusty dirty snow piled up here.

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  2. As a city dweller with a summer house in the country, I can relate to this but also my preferences are the exact opposite of yours! Am I the only one who finds riding in the countryside dull? I am not a racer type, just riding along to the farmers market and visiting friends. Even short trips feel like they take forever, why is that!

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    1. I know what you mean actually. And I think it's because rural landscapes can feel monotonous if you're used to the stimulation of looking at something new on every block.

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    2. It's the opposite for me. Riding the streets of the city gets boring, all the streets begin to look and feel the same to me. But in the hilly country where I ride, every turn in the road leads to a new vista. Even the speed varies more than in the city-- up hills I go slow and down hills I go fast. In the city it seems I'm always going around the same speed.

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    3. When it comes to that, neighbourhood matters to me. Streets with a lot of variety in store fronts and architectural detail are nice to ride on; generic avenues with endless gray concrete less so.

      The same can be said of landscape in the countryside. The thing I love about the part of NI where I live is the variety; it always keeps my sense engaged.

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  3. Very interesting. I can identify with all of that very easily.

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  4. "There are skills and intuitions we develop through years of urban cycling. ... None of this has left me. I feel safe and comfortable riding in Boston."

    Five years after giving up my office job, 15 miles across town by bike, a commute I made with variations over some 11 years, I certainly have found that I am less comfortable inside urban traffic than I was then. I haven't lost the skills or knacks that you describe, but I have lost my comfort.

    "My speed in the city is regulated by what the traffic patterns allow, more so than by my fitness level or by the kind of bike I am on. I had almost forgotten about this in rural Ireland, where changes in fitness level translate into noticeable changes in speed, and where riding a faster bike cuts down on travel time considerably."

    Whew! As most of my riding is at least suburban, if not urban, with stop-signed residential streets and many corners, I am glad to know that it is not fitness or bike weight or tire type that keeps me in the ~12.5 mph average (though come to think of it, my clock is usually running as I walk around the store or PO). Point is, it's always ~12.5 mph whether loaded with groceries or on the gofast with just a small messenger bag (unless it drops to 11.5 because I'm inside Albertson's for 30 minutes).

    Welcome back -- wondered if you had given up bicycles and blogging and entered a convent.

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    1. "Point is, it's always ~12.5 mph whether loaded with groceries or on the gofast with just a small messenger bag…"

      That's about the speed for me as well, regardless of bike & weight.

      PS: after much discussion, they've decided to allow bicycles and blogging at the convent

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    2. correction - that's the moving speed for me in the city

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    3. Did 24mph on the DL-1 this morning. 48x21 fixed, chesterfield coat (wind resistance) and big heavy boots. Sometimes in traffic the easiest and safest way to ride is to flow in and with the traffic. Also wakes up the drivers if they see things they don't understand.

      The DL-1 has done walking speed more this winter than it's done speed. When there's a clear shot ahead in traffic sometimes you just go with it.

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  5. WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN!? We've been worried SICK! I know you're a grown woman and all that but you might have left a NOTE for heavens sake!

    You've got mail piling up a foot deep, the guy from the cleaners wants to know if you're ever going to pick up those sweaters and if you think we're going to sit up till all hours of the night waiting for you to post again you MUST BE ON CRACK!!!

    Spindizzy

    In a DITCH! That's where we thought you were!

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    1. I left a note for you, taped to the red barn door. It was the one in Morris code.

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    2. Teehee

      I just had a mental image of Morris dancers spelling out your note.

      Welcome back to the blogiverse!

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  6. A friend loaned me his GoPro to use for filming commutes, and it's been a bit fascinating re-watching footage with a bit of distance from the experience. Those moments of threading a needle between a parked truck and a schoolbus look -really- narrow when you're a spectator and not just focused on getting through the moment. Also, similar to your overall point, it's odd watching a commute go from a quiet, sedate, empty park and cycletrack into the Ben Hur like Circus Maximus of Atlantic Avenue or Post Office Square in, like, three minutes time.

    Welcome back for however long that you're back!

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    1. The high end GoPro with the adjustable focal length lens which can give the field of view roughly matching 50mm on a "full frame" camera will really help with that. It will roughly mimic your eyes. Wide angle lenses make perfectly reasonable gaps look very small (which is why I am a fan of the 50mm on a full frame camera field of view if I was to be looking for "insurance" video to prove a nasty pass or something - not that I own a video camera... )

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  7. The question is what about urban and rural rhythms is the same and why it is surprising they are different.

    Fast bike is faster without stop lights. Go figure.

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    1. fast bike is also faster when one pays little attention to motorist-centric traffic signals.

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    2. For me, even between stop lights city riding involves slowing down for things like cars parallel parking or people jumping out to cross the street at random spots, or other crazy/unexpected stuff going on. The ride is definitely slower than on the open road.

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  8. welcome back to the land of always winter...

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  9. Air quality is something to be taken into account when riding a bike. I'm from Mallorca and Palma is no match for a quiet country road or a cycle path by the sea.
    Salut (health) i força (strength)!

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  10. Oddly, I find rhythms changing almost on a daily basis no matter where I pedal. Time of day, change in weather, level of energy, all seem to contribute to a variation in sensations and rhythms. The biggest thing about rural around here is the change in terrain. It means I often just stare at the road and huff and puff up hills then down the other side. Heart rate high, then low. City cycling maintains a more level rate.

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  11. Yes, we were going to send Liam Neeson out to look for you! Glad you are back (on line!). I have been "out of the game" for these last two months getting lazy. Starting to feel a little apprehensive about getting back into NYC traffic. Been doing OK with upper body exercise with all this snow.
    When the subway train meanders between stations for no reason, then I realize I have to get myself back in gear.
    Stay Warm !

    vsk

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    1. yes, I was wondering too where the weekly stream of consciousness update went - speaking of which, I find cities disturbing - atomising, lack of contact - more than six hours, even in messy London, and everything can become a bit disturbing

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    2. It's the reverse for me; the longer I am there the more I get used to it.

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  12. Trying to controls those rhythms outside of ourselves seems a losing battle.

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  13. I always find a return to city cycling is stressful no matter what the reason for my absence from it. The loss of fitness is a factor in it, strength does make me feel more resilient. Welcome back!

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  14. As you said, fitful riding and dealing with patterns of bicycle lane, these are part of city way of life.
    Sometimes, before riding bike in crowded city we can lose an overall rhythm sense which may endanger ourselves, like clumsy dancer.
    This out of time uncomfortable feeling can be a good signal: you are aware that something is more or less wrong and more careful.
    About security, if you are too confident with habit of doing something awareness, I will not be sure it could be always safely riding.
    L.

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  15. I made a mistake: ... doing something thoughtless ... instead of awareness. I mean a sort of automatic thinking.

    I hope my text is more or less understantable.
    L.

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  16. what's not to like when on a bike? Urban,Rural? Small town? The head has to be in the game first. The body will follow. After winter is still weeks away for Duluth residents. We are fueled with outdoors desire to prepare body and mind for snow biking, single track trail riding, down hill over the hill, bike packing, cafe hopping, road trips etc.............we have it all in Duluth MN

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