Commentary

Hitting for the cycle

Americans on bikes still pedaling uphill when it comes to acceptance

Updated: July 6, 2010, 6:34 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Short this week, and right to the point: Thanks for not killing me.

[+] EnlargeLance Armstrong
Joel Saget/AFP/Getty ImagesA little road rash hasn't slowed Lance Armstrong. He's already pulled many Americans off their couches and onto bikes.

Some hurried thoughts today on sharing the road and taking the lane, on spandex and Lycra and "The Star-Spangled Banner," on carbon footprints and carbon fiber, on rage and nonviolence and the Infinite Tao of the Saddle Sore, and on the state of the state of the United States cyclist.

Like a lot of Americans, including Lance Armstrong, I spent some time on my bike this past hot holiday weekend. I'm not an avid cyclist so much as I'm an overweight, middle-aged man who likes bicycles. I ride them as often as I can, and my family does, too. That was me upstate a couple of days ago, out there on the road in my circus-bright colors, out there in the shimmer and dazzle of high-summer asphalt, just to your right as you squinted through the windshield, the fields rolling past, me holding my line near the shoulder as you overtook me, an orange blur at the green limit of your peripheral vision as you zoomed past.

Thanks again for not killing me.

I mention it because of stories like this, in which an Illinois court declined to punish seriously the attempted murder of a bicyclist by a couple of drunks in a car. Shameful.

The story illuminates the fundamental -- and often violently irrational -- tension in this country between automobiles and bicycles, between drivers and riders. We are a car culture and have been for nearly a century. The entire American economy -- to say nothing of the American mind -- is deformed around the automobile. So a bicycle in this country is regarded as no more than a piece of sporting equipment or, worse yet, a toy. Something that slows you down or hacks you off when you're driving and isn't entitled to serious law or serious infrastructure or serious thought.

In Europe and Asia and the rest of the world, bicycles remain a fundamental means of transportation for scores of millions of people. Thus, they're held in respect as a matter of law and imagination and public planning.

When my colleague Tony Kornheiser made a bad joke this past spring about knocking cyclists out of the way with your car, no less a spinner than Armstrong himself took the opportunity to spank him hard for it. Which resulted in yet more witless, unfunny car versus bike nonsense, as predictably written and spoken by people who've (A) never tried to ride their bikes to work or (B) never owned an automobile. Somehow, mutual understanding remains out of reach for all sides of this argument.

The hard truth, though, seems to break down like this: When you're in your car, you hate cyclists. When you're on your bike, you hate cars and pedestrians. And when you're on foot, you hate everybody.

The government is studying up on the problem. And has been for 15 years. Those of us awaiting resolution might want to bring a sandwich and a magazine.

Despite our indifference to bicycles, and despite the carnage at this year's Tour de France, where racers are stacked like cordwood in the infirmaries of Flanders, four of the top 12 teams in the Tour are American. And as I write this, Armstrong the Elder pedals along in 18th place.

How America produces world-class riders in a culture that derides bikes is a happy mystery to me. May we continue to surprise ourselves so.

[+] EnlargeChina
Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty ImagesThis might not be the healthiest example, but cycling is a more important mode of transportation in other parts of the world.

Further, maybe the Tour de France can become an annual occasion for American self-examination, three weeks across which we consider and discuss the merits of the humble bicycle.

Because you'd have to be a GM executive on an ether binge not to understand the links between cars and suburban sprawl and our addiction to cheap fuel and the cataclysm in the Gulf of Mexico. To say nothing of our national battles with ozone and obesity.

We are an economy of excess in a culture of gluttony.

These are the choices we've made.

The good news is that bad choices can be unmade. Unchosen. It just takes some sense. And a lot of courage.

As ridership climbs in this country, rising on the tides of necessity and health and higher gas prices, we need to reconsider the bike and the rider.

So please ride a little more.

Please drive a little less.

And thanks again for not killing me.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.

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