Bicycles, guns, and obsessions

Bike Intensity

In a recent Facebook comment, a friend reported on his just finished winter bike ride: 32 miles, temperature about 37 degrees, snow and slush all around. “There is something masochistic in cyclists like me,” he wrote.

“Obsessive is a better word,” I responded.

Graeme Fife offers this word to characterize a friend (in his book The Beautiful Machine: A Life in Cycling).

“And saying that Richard is not a cyclist is no disparagement, simply that in his enjoyment of the bike there is no trace of obsession, and it is obsession, of whatever intensity, which defines us [italics added].

“Our life embraces the bike—the idea of it, the fact of it, the significance of it, the freedom it imparts, the joy, the pain, the inexhaustible delight—and without the bike the life would be, in an essential element, incomplete” (p. 332).

I recognize this quality in my own use of the bicycle. Years ago, I described it as a benign eccentricity, but that characterization fails to express the intensity of my interest and my unyielding determination to possess and use bicycles. Furthermore, I recognize obsession in some of the bike people I meet.

Despite my determination that cyclists should have use of most public thoroughfares and be accorded respect for their vigorous activity, I readily acknowledge two limiting factors.

  • The first is that obsessions, even of bicyclists, can lead to actions that are foolhardy, irrational, and potentially dangerous, both to the cyclist and to the general public.
  • Second, the public sector is charged with responsibilities to allow cyclists their proper place and to protect cyclists and everyone else from danger-inducing behavior.

Self-awareness about my own obsessiveness over bicycles helps me recognize similar obsessiveness in other people. The objects that fascinate and shape behavior differ widely—fancy cars, fountain pens, first edition books, rifles—but much the same quality is present.

Fife is right: for the obsessed person, there is an object, or perhaps an idea, that captures the imagination, focuses the attention, brings joy, a sense of completeness, inexhaustible delight. Without it, life can hardly be imagined.

As an obsessive cyclist, I have learned to live with the fact that most people do not share this obsession. I also know that there are a few crazy cyclists, whose behavior in traffic is potentially dangerous. Even so, for most cyclists, this obsession is, to use the adjective I mentioned above, essentially benign.

Not so, with the obsession over guns. Some gun owners I know are like Fife’s friend mentioned above. Their interest in guns is too casual to count in the current public debate.

But some of the people I meet are obsessive, including a neighbor when I lived in Arizona, some people I met at a community meeting about guns in an Indianapolis church, and three or four people I’ve talked with lately in Portland and Vancouver.

Their obsession is clear whenever guns come into the conversation: their faces harden, the tone of their conversation darkens, their manner becomes aggressively defensive. I can understand why elected officials and public safety officers back down when they encounter people displaying this obsession.

There’s nothing benign about it. The danger to friendship, even to civil relationships, is palpable.

What adjective would I use to describe this second kind of obsession? The first that comes to mind is vicious, but this word may reflect my own animosity toward guns rather than accurately describe the obsession. People with a gun-related obsession for the most part don’t mean any harm by their preoccupation with weaponry.

Dangerous is a better word. It leaves unquestioned the motivations of gun-obsessed people, while recognizing that firearms are hazardous and present serious challenges to the well-being of people everywhere.

My hope is that as our nation revises current legislation about fire arms and public safety, the same limitations that I think should pertain to the use of bicycles should also—yes, even more—be applied to the ownership and use of guns.

  • Gun-related obsessions easily lead to actions and that are foolhardy, irrational, and potentially dangerous, both to the gun owner and to the general public.
  • The public sector is charged with responsibilities to allow the ownership of guns its proper place and to protect gun owners and everyone else from danger-inducing behavior.

One more comment: obsessions, even the most benign, have a way of taking control of a person’s life. The more obsessed a person, the greater is the need for a keen sense of self-awareness and  a high degree of self control.

And for intelligent public policy rigorously enforced.

Note: Image is a detail from a poster by Marciej Urbaniec advertising the Prague-Warsaw-Berlin International Peace Race, 1966.

2 Responses to Bicycles, guns, and obsessions

  1. Joe Culpepper says:

    Helpful analogy of obsession with cycling & with guns! It certainly takes self-awareness to keep from letting an obsession become dangerous (even vicious!) to oneself & to others. I have seen myself at times disobey some traffic laws with the justification that I was pursuing my passion for cycling & not hurting anyone, but later realized that I was in fact putting myself & others in danger. It takes self-transcendence to realize that my passion (cycling, guns, church, or any other activity) can become extreme enough to be dangerous, & to realize that my obsession is not necessarily shared or valued by others. That self-transcendence is what keep one’s obsession/passion in proper perspective.

    As to masochism vs obsession, I agree that obsession is a better word, or perhaps passion is a more positive way to put it. However, there are those who do take pleasure in the pain itself. Lance Armstrong was asked in an interview just after he first retired if he would now enjoy bicycle touring at a more relaxed pace. He replied that he would not change to touring because he didn’t cycle for the pleasure, but for the pain! For me, my obsession/passion motivates me to push into the discomfort & to cycle even when I know it will be difficult – below freezing, high wind, steep climbs. Although it is still painful, I have become inured to a degree to the discomfort. It doesn’t “bother” me in the same way it used to, or stop me from cycling even when it is uncomfortable. I do take a certain satisfaction (pleasure?) in completing a ride that was particularly difficult, of course. That’s not masochism exactly, but is an aspet of passion that keeps me motivated & enables me to push through the pain barrier. Here’s to passionate & healthy obsessions like cycling!

    • Your comments about obsession and masochism are probably correct. We do sometimes push because of the pain itself. I find that this happens to me less often than may once have been the case. In fact, I’m finding it more difficult even to push myself outside on cold days (like right now, 39 and cloudy). I will head out in a few minutes and will ride toward the Gorge because the news just reported that there’s sun in that direction.

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