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

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  1. MattC

    That line of paint is our impervious shield…we have to believe we are safe behind it. Obviously it’s not true, but if I didn’t belive it at least partly I might not be able to road ride anymore. A girl in our local club was ‘run over’ on the right side of that line this past July…she’s alive but messed up for life (never gonna walk again). We lost a few club riders after that…they’re sticking with mountain bikes where it’s you against the mountain…crashes are usually your fault. Can’t fathom how urban cyclists do it…especially bike messengers. Mad skills only carry you so far…there’s so much luck involved no matter how good you are.

  2. JKCRB

    Lovely little piece. I totally agree. “Paint has this way of telling you which way to go, of drawing your attention and letting you express yourself.”

  3. hoshie99

    I have had an hour of fun playing with the configurator at Mercian cycles, playing with colorways on a classic steel steed that are exciting (chromatic purple with silver lug lines), classic (pearl black with silver gothic lettering), or novel (bright apple green with gold contrast barber pole strip anyone?) to suit my mood.

    I need a new frame to express myself! Will my spouse believe it?

    Robot says so 😉


  4. Patrick O'Brien

    Paint will not stop a car any more than a red light. When I ride I try not to trust, but verify. Sorry, Ron.

    The shiny, paint on my bikes must accept a coat of wax, BRG paint on my Saga makes me smile every time I see it. If I can’t wax it, how can I inspect for damage and cracks?

  5. Les.B.

    And about no-paint:

    I hate getting dings and scratches on my bikes, but then there’s the philosophical side: They bring character, are evidence of my miles on the road and mishaps along the way. They are part of my life on the bike, memoirs and billboards.

    Hate getting scratches anyway.

  6. Cy

    I hit the deck hard while crossing over that wet white reflective raised painted line. My fault, I lost focus, looked away and was sliding across the pavement before I knew it. My hip & shoulder always remind of that day. I spend hours looking down at it and will never view it the same. Good thing I left the orange & white steel home that day.

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