- Text by Tetsuhiko Endo
I bought a second-hand bike. It’s lime green with orange wheels. Children love it: they press their faces to the windows of the bus when I puff by and tell each other that they want a ride like that. When I was a child I wanted a ride like this too. Now I am too busy cycling to work or school or home to my girlfriend to remember how cool my wheels are. I’m just one of many in a ceaseless stream of two wheeled commuters that dart through traffic as remora flit between larger fish, constantly weary, accommodating, slipping into the negative spaces.
Sometimes, when I grudgingly stop for traffic lights, I look at the other bikers. They are mostly men who set their faces with stares of grim purposefulness, as if, in the luminous, reflector-splattered bags on their backs, they are carrying state secrets, or nuclear detonation codes. Their be-Spandexed legs are grotesquely over developed. They twitch like the hindquarters of racehorses, anxious to click their little plastic booties back into specially designed pedals. Helmets gleam with aerodynamic potential. Their bikes cost twice my monthly paycheque. When the light changes we explode over the crosswalk, pumping from side to side to gain speed then settling into the racer’s crouches as we jockey for position in the narrow strip of road bequeathed to us by our tax money. Then the light ahead turns red and we straighten up, slow down and get back to the business of waiting impatiently.
In the bike lane there is a determination that you wouldn’t believe. In the absence of large scale wars, alien invasions, expeditions to undiscovered lands and all other grand events that move men’s souls, we take to the streets clad as action heroes, as focused as Napoleon on the march, yet in pursuit of the absolutely mundane: a job behind a desk, a drink with co-workers, a pint of milk.
Is it the fate of all men to turn their boyhood larks into manhood fetishes?
Behind all the manly vim there is palpable desperation that grasps at me, as fast as I can pedal, searching for something, for what? Redemption, maybe. Or honor, glory, distinction, and all those other words that stopped meaning anything sometime in the latter part of the 20th century. Of course they aren’t out there, not for me – just another one of the faceless horde of post-modern machine cogs. We haved killed our God and replaced him with neon Lycra and thousand dollar bicycles. No, we are utterly alone in our daily pursuit to break every record so we can arrive at our desks five minute earlier and begin a day that will otherwise be exactly the same as every other day we will ever live until we make enough money to quit and move into a nursing home. My boyhood self could never have imagined cycling as fast as I do; nor how little mirth it brings me.
A few years ago I was interning at a magazine in New York when it was decided that Lance Armstrong would grace the upcoming cover. This was before it was realised that he was a more systematic drug cheat than the entire East German swimming team circa 1976. In a staff meeting, I innocently questioned why we would dedicate the cover of the most important issue of the year to an aging cycling star who was no longer a dominant force in his sport, except as a figurehead. Like born again Christians pouncing on an agnostic, I was quickly informed by the older men in the office that questioning the greatness of the Armstrong would not be permitted ‘going forward’. If I didn’t agree, the door was open and new fact checkers were a dime a dozen. At the time, their defensiveness shocked and scared me, but now, on the wrong side of my twenties with a few more years of work in a dying industry and a few more miles cycled behind me, I have come into view of all those things that aging men of little consequence fear and Armstrong doesn’t look like such a bad messiah.
It was he who beat back cancer with grit and will. It was he who seemingly exemplified the dream that hard work and perseverance would prevail, even in a world beset by cheaters and swindlers. It was he who fought off generations of younger bikers in the Pyrenees as the wrinkles appeared around his eyes and the white invaded his hair. It was he who didn’t know how to lose.
Of course, it was all a lie. The land of swindlers isn’t ruled by the honest man, it’s ruled by the biggest swindler of them all. Many will defend him to the death, as all boys must do of their heroes, because without him, what else is there? I repeat: for those of us on the road at eight o’clock, dressed like wealthy rubber fetishists headed to jobs that we are at best indifferent to, that exploit our youth, our integrity, our dedication to make wealthy psychopaths even wealthier, what else is there besides looking up to the guys who do it better than we do?
Armstrong is a necessary fiction. He is a symbol of a life unbowed, unbroken by the demands of family, taxes and mortgage payments. He is as good reason as any to pedal harder as we speed toward our dreaded destinations.