Posted on Monday, March 26th, 2012
Written by Nick Moore
With rare exceptions, humans are not a graceful species. For every Kobe Bryant or Lionel Messi, there are a few million of us striving for mere competence in our athletic endeavors. Artistry in motion, if you will, is unequivocally beyond the physical abilities of all but the supremely gifted. Though repetition of any motion will eventually lead to a certain unthinking ease, I daresay few of us ever feel the way an All-Star point guard or an elite dancer looks: as though they are channeling a divine energy that permeates and unconsciously directs each minute movement, resulting in a sublime synchronization of the body’s complex machinery.
There is, of course, the possibility that not even Michael Jordan feels the way Michael Jordan looks. And undoubtedly his elegance on the court was enabled by countless hours of what one can only imagine were really brutal workouts. But who among us has observed his (or Michelle Kwan’s, or Roger Federer’s, or Pele’s, or Venus Williams’, or Ken Griffey Jr.’s) athletic feats and never felt a corresponding desire to experience some semblance of his physical grace, even transcendence?
It might seem counter-intuitive to suggest, as I’m about to, that the mechanical mediation of a bicycle can help us achieve this sensation of gracefulness. But if you think about the experience of riding up and over a hill, which begins with the surging rhythm of the climb and ends in a liberated downward flight, the suggestion might not seem so farfetched.
At its core, what’s attractive about attaining the kinetic fluidity of an athlete is the fantasy that one could somehow transcend his or her physical limitations. That our clumsy feet, gawky arms, and insufficiently flexible joints would obey the instructions of our imagination, and perform exactly as we want them to. On the openness of a soccer field or basketball court, there are so many physical possibilities that most of us are destined, seemingly, to underachieve. But within the confines of a bicycle, fulfilling our aims is eminently possible. Consider that the only real difference between the way you and Lance Armstrong ride a bike is that he does so with far more speed and endurance—the physical mechanics are essentially the same. Professional bikers might employ more efficient postures, but the overall simplicity of pedaling allows one to focus on the feeling, rather than the process. And there is so much to feel.
When I tell people that I regularly ride up to Grizzly Peak Blvd., which traces a ridge about 1500 feet above downtown Berkeley, many react with surprise. I suppose it strikes them as a difficult and painful endeavor, and to some extent it is. But what people who haven’t done it don’t realize is that the winding ascent up Euclid Avenue imposes a rhythm that, if embraced, does much to alleviate the flaring pain in your legs.
The rising and falling of my torso corresponds to the circular motion of my hips, and after the initial discomfort I begin to drift into a state akin to conscious hypnosis. Because the neurons that command my legs to push the pedals that turn the wheels fire so quickly, I begin to forget my legs altogether. It takes little imagination to maintain the sensory illusion that my neurological wiring has been re-routed to bypass my legs entirely and directly access the wheels, which now seem as responsive to my mind as the movement of my pinky finger.
The superlative pleasure of this state seems to lie precisely in the feeling of having shed some of my corporeal constraints—of having transcended them. Whereas the pounding of feet on pavement, and the uncertainty of stride, can often make running feel cumbersome and not entirely natural, the smooth spinning of my new rubber appendages grants me a sudden grace. Each wheel rolls seamlessly over the asphalt, creating a continuous sequence of revolutions that are nothing short of perfect.
What follows—the triumph at the top of the hill and the breakneck descent, during which my heart rises joyfully in me chest—are further exercises in transcendence. There are infinite destinations for the ambitious cyclist; paramount among them is this state of physical liberty, of which I never tire.