If you've ever bicycled down an unfamiliar route and found yourself delighted by the people or sights you encountered, you share an experience with many recreational riders, including me, adventure cyclist Willie Weir and musician David Byrne. To some degree, we are all grooving on the unknown.
OK, for David and Willie, who travel the world with their bikes, the experience might be a bit more unknown than for you or me, who might just find a new route to a friend's house or a mercifully flat alley in an otherwise hilly neighborhood. But then again, we might just be world travelers too.
During the dark, wet and cold days of winter, I spent a lot of time with my nose in two great books: Travels with Willie by cyclist Weir and Bicycle Diaries by Cyclist Byrne. Both greased my wanderlust.
I picked up Willie's book last summer when getting my STP registration packet at the Seattle REI store. There was Willie, selling and signing books, with all proceeds from the event going to a local cycling cause — what a guy! Willie is a great performer; if you've never seen his stage show with slides of his latest adventure, put it on your list — he'll be at the Bike Expo on Saturday, March 13 at 4 p.m. But he also seems genetically predisposed towards good works. This comes out in his journeys, too, where he serves as a model ambassador for our country, the polar opposite of the obnoxious American tourist that seems to be such a common stereotype.
But when I bought Travels with Willie, I was in traveling mode myself, so it set on my "to read" shelf throughout the cycling season.
By October, David Byrne's book was released, to some fanfare. Through the graces of a friend-of-a-friend, I had met David backstage after his Paramount show last summer, and we chatted briefly (well, me stammering, really) about cycling. I offered to give him a two-wheeled tour of Seattle whenever he's in town, and he mentioned that his folding bikes were all packed for Europe and the next leg of their tour. Ah, well, maybe next time.
So when he came back to Seattle to do a Town Hall event for Bicycle Diaries, I was all ears (but still no tours). The evening included people from the local cycling community speaking about efforts to facilitate and encourage more biking. And with each ticket, you got a signed copy of the book.
An enthusiastic crowd greeted David, who showed slides from his travels to different cities and discussed how some cities are making cycling more a part of urban transportation. He observed that "you see things when you ride around town on a bike and you're more inclined to stop and check it out than if you're in a car." He related a bike ride in the southern U.S. where he and tour-mates saw a small sign on a non-descript building that said something like "Get in here for this BBQ!" and it turned out to be a delightful meal.
He also noted that riding in New York City has been upgraded quite a bit in recent years, and now includes some protected lanes, where bikes are completely separated from cars on the street. "It feels like I can relax in my own city," he said.
After those stories, I was ready to read, so as the November rains chased me off our streets, I dug into Bicycle Diaries. Instantly, I became an armchair traveler, heading off with him to Berlin, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Sydney, London and a number of American cities.
His essays, which began as blog entries, were far from being bicycling travelogues, and in fact pages would go by without a mention of the bike. What emerges in the diary entries is a wonderful curiosity about his surroundings, a desire to get a little lost and out of his comfort zone, and an insightful take on the art, architecture and culture of the places he visits. In a subtle way, you come to realize that many of his observations and activities were fueled by his bike rides. At a leisurely pedal pace, there's plenty of time for contemplation.
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