Sunday, March 6, 2011

warning! getting my grump on

WARNING! I'm about to get my grump on around subjects where I take a contrarian view.
If you choose to flame me, I'll probably just stay grumpy for a little while longer. No big deal.
You've been warned.

Grump #1: Cycling Bags made for People Who Live Somewhere Else. I see pictures of other peoples' bikes on the internet (particularly at Flickr groups). An awful lot of those bikes, and their owners, do not live in the Pacific Northwest, and it shows. Lots of un-coated thin cotton and old, cracking leather bags are out there. Seriously, who in Portland would be silly enough to run a full-leather pannier or saddlebag on a bike? The time required to maintain a full-leather bag through Portland's rainy winters would be too much time spent off my bike. Waxed cotton or rubberized fabrics (like those used to make Vaude and Ortlieb bags) is a much safer bet here in Damplandia. (For those on a budget there are waterproof slipcovers for your panniers, or plastic bags you can use as liner sacks inside your panniers. Not as pretty, but they work.)

Really, I think that what is feeding this particular grump is that I am really burning out on the cold, wet winter. I have been riding to work in it for months and my knees are creaking from riding in the cold and damp. I am ready for the temperatures to warm up a little and for things to begin to dry out. I'm probably just envious of everyone who lives south of the 45th parallel this week, and I'm more than willing to admit it.

Grump #2: Tweed rides. Yeah, I know, pissing on this is like pissing on the third rail or something. But there's so much unreality and denial going on beneath the surface of these events that it makes my head spin. I'm all for bike rides that are fun and bring lots of people together; but a ride that presents a bygone era as a mere costume opportunity without exploring the socio-economic realities behind it so unfortunate. The time and place these rides are attempting to evoke -- late Industrial Age Britain -- had a lot more darkness going on than anyone running these rides would care to discuss.

While riding a bike was probably a safer bet in the 1890's, when there were far fewer cars on the roads, bicyclists still took a lot of heat from these new motorists and also from the wealthy who still went about in horse-drawn carriages, both of whom wanted those damned "scorchers" off the roads. Today's Tweed rides pretend at a relative quietude on the roads that hasn't existed since just before the Great War.

Late 19th-century London was filled with filthy slums inhabited by folks wearing torn and tattered clothes and riding bikes or walking because that was all they could afford. Many were out of work. Those who tried to organize for better working conditions were beaten and jailed and sometimes killed. Children were abandoned at the doors of orphanages and workhouses by parents who already had too many mouths to feed. People who got too deep into debt were thrown into prison and had little hope of getting out alive. (Some far-thinking people did try to design housing and working conditions that were more human, and humane, in scale but these efforts took a very long time to take hold in a city teeming with so many poor.)
So the idea of throwing a costume party focusing on this time and place, and having everyone show up well-fed, clean and happily oblivious on their lovely retro bikes just seems wacky to me.

Throw a Tweed ride and require people to come in worn and patched clothing -- none of it with tags from Bespoke, Outlier or Rapha -- and with their cheeks blackened by soot, their bellies slightly distended with constant gnawing hunger for want of a proper diet, and their lungs hacking from the filth pouring from the smokestacks. Then I'll be a believer.

My tongue is only a little bit in my cheek as I type this.

Seriously, I strain and struggle between the states of having food to eat, clothes to wear and being able to ride a nice bike to work every day, and watching the growing number of men and women with cardboard signs at every freeway on-ramp and overpass begging for change. I cannot escape this tension, this discomfort, and there are days it makes me absolutely crazy just to be in the world. So when a bike event that encourages a high level of denial becomes wildly popular I find myself wanting to lie on the floor and thrash about wildly because I simply don't know what else to do.

It's 38 degrees outside as I type this. I am in my [relatively] warm little house, while outside a man dressed in rags is riding past on a mountain bike with a slightly bent front wheel, towing behind him a shopping cart loaded up with cans and bottles to take to Safeway. He and I stand on opposite sides of a growing gap. Some days it makes me want to scream, because it's so damned big that it is beyond repair at this point and I can't stand the schizophrenia of it all. So yeah, the cold weather sucks for me and way more for him; and the blatant denial, the gigantic historical gloss-over inherent in something like the Tweed Rides doesn't help matters one bit. I'd rather see a Critical Mass where every able-bodied cyclist in the city with skills and knowledge gathers together and creates a rolling Aid Party to help the poor -- with tools, food, clothing and job leads -- and rolls up to government buildings and riots for socio-economic change and equality. But no one -- including me -- has the time, energy, strength or guts to plan that kind of Critical Mass ride. Throwing a costume party is cheaper in the long run, and far easier.

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