Bicycling as a Liberal Art

The problem for most serious bicyclists is that we focus attention on going fast. By so doing, we negate one of the finest virtues of cycling, which, according to Harvard professor John R. Stilgoe, is to explore the ordinary world around us. “Exploration,” he says,” is a liberal art, because it is an art that liberates, that frees, that opens away from narrowness. And it is fun.”

As proof of his claim, Stilgoe provides a book full of his own meditations and reflections about bicycling through alleys, the back side of shopping centers, abandoned railroad rights of way, country roads, and short cuts through neighborhoods that only kids know about. His title suggests his mood: Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. 

Most of the time, however, aggressive cyclists like me (even when we grow old and necessarily slow down) are fixated on going someplace fast. Although we are ever alert, we are watching the road, avoiding the hazards, paying attention to motor vehicles and pedestrians, and noticing other cyclists who may be going faster, all of which keep us from cycling slowly enough to see the details of the places we are cycling though,  to hear the quiet noises (like the hum of electricity in wires), and follow trails that lead to odd places that often reveal secrets about the built environment in which we live.

The  cycling that Stilgoe recommends is a gentler, quieter, easier way to get around, more like walking than traveling by automobile. It is a mode of exploration.

This kind of cycling “begins in casual indirection, in the juiciest sort of indecision, in deliberate, then routine fits of absence of mind…Bicycle to the store, then ride down the alley toward the railroad tracks, bump across the uneven bricks by the loading dock grown up in thistle and chicory…”

You get the drift. “Read the book,” Stilgoe tells his readers, “then go. Go without purpose. Go for the going.”

There is “a particular magic” to riding like this, the professor assures his readers. “Unlike the surging glow of the walker or bicyclist racing against other walkers or bicyclists, or racing against times established a week or year before, but nonetheless akin to the rush an athlete experiences, the explorer flushes at noticing something—a tiny detail like a trace of pollution in a nearby brook, a hole roughly cut through the chain-link fence guarding the power-line station…”

Even though I rarely cycle in the exploration mode, Stilgoe has come close to persuading me that this kind of cycling would enrich my enjoyment of two-wheeled travel. Inadvertently, it has already happened in my cycling through unfamiliar neighborhoods in the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan region and on longer journeys where I have to improvise my own route.

I can’t speak as an expert on exploration, but here’s my list of ideas that can help riders like me turn cycling into the liberal art of exploration.

  1. Go slowly enough to see, hear, and smell. When savored, the immediate world can overwhelm the senses. We don’t have to go very far to experience a multitude of sensations.
  2. Use a bicycle that is adapted to exploration: wide tires with moderate pressure, fenders, lights, and a front-mounted bag to carry things.
  3. After the ride, make notes not only of what we have seen heard, smelled, and touched but also of their impact upon us and the ideas that they are prompting.
  4. Enjoy the anonymity that comes to the cyclist and also the comradery that emerges as we meet cyclists and other people along the way.
  5. Don’t be a slow poke all of the time. Riding fast and covering long distances also have their rewards.

I’m going to try Stilgoe’s gentle approach to cycling. Exploration does sound rewarding and fun. But as long as I can, I’m going to keep on riding fast most of the time. Why?

Because that’s what aggressive cyclists do!

One Response to Bicycling as a Liberal Art

  1. […] reading John R. Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic, I’ve been waiting for a good day to explore a forgotten place on my bicycle. On his blog, Red […]

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