The American People - American Redemption - CycleBlaze

January 26, 2013

The American People

I'm not sure if you noticed, but 2012 was an election year in the United States.

Overachievers that we are, we managed to turn a one-day event into a ten-month slog where campaigners spent six billion dollars trying to see how much they could annoy the shit out of anyone over the age of about 14. I think the point was to try and sway the decisions of the dozen or so voters who hadn't made up their minds the year before, but over time all of the words and platforms and ideologies started to run together into a steaming mass of red, white, and blue, so it was hard to tell. By the first half of September, if you decided to turn any debate, convention speech, or national newscast into a drinking game and chose terms like "the middle class," "our children," or "good jobs," you were sure to wake up in the morning with a severe hangover, probably somewhere other than your bed.

But if you had something more serious in mind, like tanking yourself to the point of blacking out, and you wanted to make it happen in less than an hour, one phrase beat them all: the American people.

It's the perfect political saying. It's broad, it sounds powerful, it evokes flags and bald eagles and mountains, and at the same time it means nothing at all. If you take away the fact that we all live inside an area painted the same color on a world map, the only thing Americans have in common is that we will always and forever disagree about everything. The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; guns should be illegal. Turn your wants and dreams into reality today; live modestly and save for retirement. Eat less meat; eat more meat. Technology brings us closer together; technology pushes us apart. It's football or baseball, dogs or cats, Android or Apple, buy or rent, boobs or butts. The two most popular colors for cars in this country are white and black. If you ask a group of bicycle riders of any decent size to decide whether it's safer to ride with or without a helmet, it won't take long before emotions run high and someone takes a pedal wrench to the side of the head. Division defines us.

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Well, almost. It turns out there's one aspect of American culture capable of bringing us together. It cuts across the lines of gender and race. It casts aside geography and political affiliation. It even has the ability to turn education, income inequality, and religious beliefs into non-issues. Most everyone in the United States, it seems, can agree on one thing: getting older is fucking terrible.

That's the reason why I wouldn't recognize most of the women I work with if they showed up one morning without makeup. It's why we have pills to boost metabolism, pills to make painful joints feel less painful, and pills to give 70-year-old men the desire and ability to pester their wives for sex like they did when they were 25. It explains the billions of dollars spent every year on gels, creams, dyes, lotions, moisturizers, and other unguents designed cover up, reduce, or get rid of the things that might keep us from looking ten years younger than we really are. It's why we're ok with letting a doctor we've only just met use a quick blast of electromagnetic radiation to fix our soft-focusing eyeballs.

I remember passing through Miami two years ago and hearing a commercial play on the radio station coming from speakers mounted to the ceiling of a hole-in-the-wall pizza place. It advertised a long line of surgeries designed to help women who believe themselves to be damaged become less so in only a day, for just a few thousand dollars (credit cards accepted, payment plans available). In the same way you'd sell a phone or a motorhome, this group of doctors pitched breast lifts and tummy tucks. They also talked about magical sounding things like liposculpturing, the Brazilian butt lift, and vaginal rejuvenation. (A few months later I did some research on that last one. Big mistake. A way-too-long series of pictures on a plastic surgeon's website showed me everything. Everything. It turned my nose and eyebrows and mouth into a series of weird expressions I'd never felt before and haven't since. I still don't fully understand what I looked at, but it's something I can never un-see.)

If you ran for President of the United States, and your only campaign promise was that you could reliably slow down the passing of time by a factor of ten, you'd have the election wrapped up half an hour into the Iowa caucuses.

Somewhere north of Miami. Fake boobs not pictured.
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I'm not quite sure how to break the news to everyone, but I've stumbled upon piece of technology that can do just that. It's not quite the fountain of youth, but it's the closest thing anyone's found so far.

It's called a bicycle trainer.

The thing looks simple. It has a couple of A-shaped frames with little rubber feet, and the frames angle in toward a flat metal bar at the back. It's like a short, weird, bright green-colored tripod. You pick up the back half of your bike and place the ends of the rear axle into a set of clamps that hold the wheel and tire off the ground. Then you crank into place behind the tire a steel roller. It's coupled by magnets to a chamber filled with what the brochure describes as "thermodynamically neutral silicon resistance fluid" that's surrounded by "80 cooling fins that dissipate heat for the coolest operating temperature." I don't know how accurate that is. They might just say those things to make you feel like less of a knob for dropping $340 on a bicycle trainer. In any event, together the rollers and resistance turn your ride into the world's most expensive stationary bike. When the snow outside your window hasn't melted in eight weeks and the wind chill drops into the single digits, this can start to seem like a good idea.

It's the same routine every time I use the thing. I throw on a shirt and shorts that should have been washed three or four weeks ago, fill up my water bottles, and do a couple of half-assed leg stretches. I look down, pat my stomach, and feel guilty about pretty much everything I've eaten in the last 18 months. Then I mount up, take a deep breath, and start pedaling. I can't handle any kind of exercise that isn't bicycle touring or ice hockey, so the moment I push the cranks for the first time always feels like a hard-fought victory.

Right away my mind wanders. I remember the feelings of reward and relief that come with cresting a long, steep mountain pass. I think back to summer nights spent camped in the woods after a long day of riding. I dream about the invisible hand of a huge tailwind pushing me across the plains. I also tackle more important topics, like how the New York Rangers' top scoring line is going to build chemistry during the shortened NHL season. I try to figure out why my vacuum cleaner has a headlight. I remind myself that I have to change the filing status of my business with the IRS. I remember that the garbage needs taking out. I think about how, if an American guy pronounces the T in the word often, there's a 95 percent chance he's a prick. I tell myself over and and over again how much I hate sweating. It's like I've turned on some sort of mental faucet and every note I've ever stashed away comes rushing out. And then all of a sudden I get this vague feeling of accomplishment. There's this twinge of satisfaction for having stepped away from the computer, from working, from watching hockey, from reading about stupid things I won't remember even later today. I'm happy that I've taken a break to unplug and given my mind a chance to unwind its knots.

Then I look down at the odometer and see 0.9 staring back at me. Motherf— I haven't even pedaled a mile! I look over at the clock. What felt like half an hour turns out to have been four minutes and eight seconds. For all practical purposes, time has stopped. That's about the point when my inner monologue switches over to a cloudburst of profanity and I start to look unstable.

Not riding on a bicycle trainer. So much better than riding on a bicycle trainer.
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There's only one thing that can drive a lazy man like me to spend hours on a bike trainer and put up with everything that goes along with it: the dripping sweat, the self-loathing, the discomfort in areas I can only talk about with my wife, my doctor, and my dog. (Not at the same time.) That thing is the promise of another cross-country bicycle trip. I know of no other activity that makes every day an adventure, turns meals into eating competitions, and gives me the chance to hang out with parts of the American people I'd never otherwise meet.

I start riding in four weeks and I can't wait.

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