Bikes That I've Loved - Pacific Standard

Bikes That I've Loved

On the psychology of cycling, and the meanings of possessions.
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(Photo: Sam Riches)

(Photo: Sam Riches)

My first bike came from the dump, in small increments. Over the course of one summer, every Saturday my dad and I would drive to the landfill, arriving early for opportune scavenging. There would be a jagged row of pick-up trucks idling in wait, the drivers' silhouettes framed by the sun as they stood on their flatbeds and swung garbage bags that thudded into dumpsters. At the edge of the lot, where the dirt and gravel pushed up against windswept grass and crooked oaks, I would dig through scrap metal, unearthing bike parts from a heap of glinting steel.

My dad built the bike in the garage, a room that smelled of grease, with a tinny radio that played Van Morrison, or Supertramp, or the Blue Jays game. I would hand him tools and watch, wide eyed, as the Franken-bike came to life. The final touch was a layer of spray paint, coating the patchwork parts in a uniform black.

I felt ecstatic as I rode out of the garage, impatient to start on a journey that was, for the first time, dependent on only myself. I rode to the top of the biggest hill in the neighborhood, where I stopped at the edge.

When we imprint our possessions with meaning, or consider them a part of ourselves, the loss of those objects, especially when unexpected, can be devastating.

There's something about biking that disengages the mind—maybe it's the distraction, or the dopamine, but it becomes easier to think when you're riding, to bounce around in some strange corner of your subconscious. The difficult part is staying there. Any thought, or sound, or previously unnoticed quirk in the road, can jar you out of that mental state, bringing you crashing back down to Earth. In this case, that moment arrived when my front tire began to loosen from the frame.

About halfway down the hill, the bike bucked and wobbled and then splintered apart. The frame collapsed into the concrete; I went down alongside it. The wheel kept rolling, bouncing down the hill, eventually coming to a stop at the edge of a nearby creek. I plucked it from the grass and carried the pieces home, disappointed, not just because I'd crashed—though that was certainly part of it—but mostly because I'd lost that moment of lucidity. I hadn't traveled very far, physically, but the bike had taken me somewhere new in my mind, and I wanted to go back.

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Like any form of exercise, cycling boosts our mental and physical health. It rewards us. There is a thrill in the risk and speed, familiarity in climbing into the saddle and moving forward. There's a sense of accomplishment after completing a long journey, or reaching a goal, and there's optimism in setting the next one.

But the bike itself can also take on special meaning.

In his 1988 landmark paper "Possessions and the Extended Self," Russell Belk writes, "a key to understanding what possessions mean is recognizing that, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, we regard our possessions as parts of ourselves." Belk quotes from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who writes that the objects we possess and consume are desired because they "tell us things about ourselves that we need to hear in order to keep ourselves from falling apart."

We have devices for transporting ourselves, for assisting in manual labor, for making daily tasks less arduous. All of these possessions, "act as extensions of our body, mind and soul," Belk writes. "Not only do such objects do things for us, they are often perceived as being a part of us. Increasingly you are not only what you eat, but what you drive, what you wear, what you read, what you listen, where you live and what you own."

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When we imprint our possessions with meaning, or consider them a part of ourselves, the loss of those objects, especially when unexpected, can be devastating. "Involuntary loss can disrupt our ability to find meaning in experience," writes Shay Sayre, in the study "Possessions and Identity in Crisis." Our identity can be so strongly correlated with a possession "that the loss of the object would constitute a danger to the viability of the person." It challenges the notion of our self-conception.

Last year, a thief cut through a U-lock and a cable lock and rode a bike out of my life. It was a bike that I had known well. I'd ridden it through two Yukon winters and past at least one bear and one wolverine and countless caribou. Later, when I viewed the security footage, only the rear tire was in the frame. In one 10-second sequence, the bike rattled and shook, and then disappeared forever. There was no indication as to who took it, no clues as to where it might have gone.

The bike I ride now is about 25 years old. It's a deep forest green, heavy and worn. Scuffed up enough that I don't have to worry when I leave it unattended. On this bike, I can feel the pull of the past. I can remember other rides in other places on other bikes. On this bike, the farther I go, the more I feel like myself.

Sometimes, though, I can't help but crane my neck and glance at the bikes that I pass, hoping that my old bike will suddenly appear. Toronto is peppered with forgotten, decaying bikes that are chained in place. Some are completely rusted through, most are missing parts. As a memorial of sorts, a few have been painted white and decorated with colorful plastic flowers that are wrapped in the spokes. They're the bikes that have been swallowed by the city. They are shrines to the past. I search to see if my bike is among them but it never is, so mostly I just ride, and imagine the ghosts those bikes used to carry.

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The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.

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