Margin Walkers

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.

**Margin Walker – Fugazi

Image: Matt O’Keefe

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  1. spiff

    I live in DC and I know some of those Discord folks.

    I really appreciate your insight to how we both grew up even though it was different, it was different enough for where we each grew up. I felt different when I did not pledge for a fraternity and that I was in school for art not accounting like my friends and that I road a bike when nobody else even had a bike on campus.
    I’m still riding, and one of my accounting friends rides now also.

  2. Andy

    I still like being the only accountant in this part of PA who ever sheared 5000 sheep.

    Now that I’m Grandad to six of my favorite humans, it’s maintaining the difference that drives me. History, by contrivance and by accident, has always given me a separation from what used to be the faceless pack of average and, on the whole, I like it that way.

    More recently I learned that I can bend it toward what I think is a positive difference (the bike is part of that) so that’s also part of the driver. I suppose most rebels think they (we) are improving something.

  3. Andrew

    Good stuff. Like looking at myself in the mirror of someone else’s words.

    I still get a kick out of being a little bit of a non-conformist. Rode my bicycle in the dark 45 minutes to recently give my invited lecture in Zurich- I’d like to think I’m the only visiting professor they’ve had who has done that.

    And I take great credit in being the only professor at my institution who was ever whacked with a baseball bat by Joey Ramone (I got pushed onto the stage- he didn’t like me being there.)

  4. Jasper Gates

    Thanks, Robot. As much we may dream of a world where cycling is the norm, I think I would miss the outsider status that still comes with even semi-serious cycling in North America. You often get the best view from the margins.

  5. JPrumm

    Your post was spot on and something I have been thinking about lately. It seems the older you get the less rebellious you end up. Things like a mortgage, car payment, job, and kids make you a bit more of a conformist.

    In my youth I was very rebellious and hated any authority. Now I still have those tendency’s I have to fight them because of life’s responsibility.

    Then a funny thing happened my children grew up and I see those rebellious attitudes in them. They are way better people than I was at their age but the rebellion is still there. Part of me cringes because I know how hard it can be. But the other side of me say’s good for you.

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