I was a middle-class kid, as tormented by boredom as by the peer pressure of my preppy cohort. Bound for college and an easy passage to comfortable adulthood, nonetheless I acted out in all sorts of ways. I listened to punk rock bands and drank too much and did all the drugs I could. I grew my hair, and then I shaved my head. I rode a bike.
There is power in alienation, in embracing otherness and using it as a motivator. There is power in the anger that comes from being treated differently, even when the difference is small or manufactured. The greatest conformists among us still want to be rebels. It’s an attractive image, rebels in our minds, if not in our realities.
Our twenty-year-old selves were self-styled iconoclasts. We wrote bad, angry songs and reveled in having no money. The bike was an integral and functional part of that manufactured poverty, an expression of the freedom we wanted, mainly from other people’s reasonable expectations.
The truth is that, even with our tattoos and ardent devotion to the most unlistenable music, we were never so unique. In a country of 300 million people, even being one-in-300 makes you part of a counter-culture, one-million strong. Maybe none of the old punk bands we idolized made a lot of money from selling records to willfully poor kids after their shows, but that doesn’t mean a million or more people didn’t find a way to know and love their songs.
Cycling is that same brand of marginal, at least here in the States. We the be-lycra’d few, with our too-thin bodies (sometimes) and our shaved legs often hold ourselves apart, a smug counterpoint to the football-loving masses. Cars and bikes might as well be sharks and minnows. Are you with the sharks? Of course not.
Cyclists are different. We wear small funny hats and shoes we can’t walk in. We obsess over races that take place in France and Belgium and Italy and Spain, races with strategies as transparent as pond water. We are worldly, thoughtful, nuanced.
More than 70,000 of us took out race licenses with USA Cycling last year. According to the League of American Bicyclists there are about 57 million of us in total, cyclists. We are not minnows. We are not marginal. These are not sexy truths. This is not fist in the air stuff.
I’m older now, and though the music in my headphones is still loud and inaccessible to most of my peers, I’m turning out spreadsheets, booking orders, and plotting marketing strategies like a grown up. I am usually planning my next tattoo, but the ink never runs because I spend the money on hockey skates and summer camp for my kids.
I’m not dangerous. I’m not weird.
Still, rebellion is motivation. Every time I pull on layers of wool topped with Gore-Tex I rebel against the weather. Every time I cut the corner of someone’s backyard to get to a trail some kids have thrashed into the woods, I push back against the constraints of adulthood. It’s bullshit, small stuff, but it works for me.
Motivation is priceless, and sometimes you have to get some flavor of aggro with yourself, with society, or with the laws of physics, just to get out the door. I sometimes shudder to think of the poses I struck as a young, angry man, except they brought me this far. They put me on my bike.
And thank god for that.