The line shifts from left to right and back again beneath my wheel, the shoulder of the road marked by a thin strip of white paint, its surface reflective where it hasn’t been worn away by tire tread and time. I spend a lot of time looking at that line, staying to its safe side when there is room, wondering how safe the line really makes me as my fellow travelers sit in their driver’s seats noodling with the stereo or texting their friends a fresh LOL.
When my bike was being built I had the opportunity to sit with the painter to talk about finish ideas. I knew I wanted a matte, battleship gray color to feature, but didn’t know quite what to do with it. He pulled out a gray tube, and told me to follow him. Into the drying booth we went, where he located a matte red sample and held them together. I knew in that instant what my bike would look like.
In steep stretches of pavement, on Pyrennean climbs and throughout the Alps, you will find the fractured scrawling of so many cycling fans who, over the years, have urged their favorite riders on with painted benedictions or sometimes cursed certain other characters with fierce imprecations, too. Most of these amount simply to the repeated statement of a rider’s name. The lengths of road anointed with these markings have always reminded me of the altars and memorials humankind has maintained since time distant, all cluttered with the well-wishing and magical thinking we allow ourselves to believe will have some influence on events.
The charm of these locales has only been diminished, in my opinion, by the invention of the Nike Chalkbot, a corporate-sponsored (albeit charity-inspired) robotic cycling fan, made to channel the fervor of fans who might not have the wherewithal to make it to the site of the race to paint the road themselves. But what are those words worth, chalked mechanically on the route, if not imbued with the sacrifice of travel, the pilgrimage, or the real human effort of applying paint to asphalt?
How your bike is painted makes a difference. Whether you have the opportunity to speak with the painter beforehand or are simply choosing a set colorway and scheme from what’s available at your shop, you are still expressing something about yourself with your choice. You want something understated, or you want something that looks fast, or you want something that won’t look like any other bike on the road. These are all personal expressions, and they are all important. Even if you say you don’t care, your not caring says something about you.
I used to think a time would come when all the roads here in Boston would be lined with bike lanes, that the proliferation of paint would make us safer. I’ve since abandoned that idea. I was riding in a bike lane the first time I got hit by a car. I’m not sure who said it, but someone smart, someone deep in our cycling community said, “Paint is not infrastructure.”
Paint has this way of telling you which way to go, of drawing your attention and letting you express yourself. The bike isn’t made of paint, but sometimes paint makes the bike. So I ride the white line and try to stay on its right side, and I tell myself I’m safe, that paint is important. To cyclists, it always has been.
Image: Matt O’Keefe