The late mythologist Joseph Campbell used to say that the promised land is an inner experience having nothing to do with real estate. If he was right, which I suspect he was, then a good bike ride, in place of a drive, can not only cut car use and carbon pollution but inadvertently lead us to the promised land. The journey varies from person to person. I'm a latecomer to the sport and content on an old bike with gears and brakes that work. On a decent road in good weather, cycling is a kick. But add just a little well-equipped fanaticism, and bike riding becomes transcendental.
Passionate bike riders are undaunted. More than once I've driven by a cyclist on some impossibly steep and narrow stretch of road and exclaimed from behind the wheel, "What a nut!" But secretly I envy her leg muscle and audacity. People taking hard rides for the joy of it are actually the best models for green self-transport. They're the ones for whom cycling is bliss.
Marin rider Graham Hewson didn't start riding because it was good for the planet. He began as a kid because it was fun. But when two wheels got traded for four, Hewson never let his bike go to rust. For decades he's been a distance rider, and thinks nothing of the 22-mile trips he made from his home in Pt. Reyes to College of Marin for night classes. When I exclaim at his returning in the dark through Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Hewson explains dryly, "I used a headlight." And through its beam the same owl glided over him at the same spot in the park several nights in a row.
Cycling nuts don't spend years in the saddle without learning about wheels and gears. The 53-year-old Hewson is a bike mechanic in a Santa Rosa shop and often bikes the 49 miles to work. I visited Aria Velo innocently expecting the smell of patching glue and grease but instead arrived in what struck me as the waiting room of an upscale spa that happened to contain a few bikes. Bikes like I've never seen before.
"Here, pick this up," invites owner Rand Libberton, pointing to a silvery one. I grasped it and hoisted. I might have been lifting a kitten. "Carbon frame," he explains, grinning. The true nerds of this sport obsess over lightness. And they pay for it. The bike I lifted costs about $14,000.
But the vastly more affordable main business at Aria Velo is a bike fitting. Hewson put my bike on a platform and made me get on it while Libberton used computerized gadgets to analyze my posture.
"Most riders don't adjust their seat properly," Hewson says. "A fitting helps prevent injury and improve riding." I scored high in pedaling efficiency and felt as proud as if I'd won the Tour de France. Well, almost. I could never feel the full exhilaration that real biking athletes feel because I could never generate that many endorphins without a carbon-framed bike and the kind of passion that makes Hewson and others ride a hundred miles just for fun.
"It's meditative," Hewson explains. "The rhythm of the bike can make you raise yourself into a state if nonthought. You hit the right moment on the bike, when your cadence matches your breathing, and you feel like you can go forever." Hewson rides for bliss.
Others bike to win races, and for some distance riders with pricey equipment, using a bike as transportation interferes with their biking aesthetic. Not all riders are politically or environmentally aware. But many who are aware work for local bike-friendly land use and legislation through the Marin, Napa and Sonoma bike coalitions. They are heroes of the road.
Regardless of why or how they ride, all cyclists contribute to environmental progress. "The more people in cars who see people on bikes," Hewson says, "the more it gives image to the bicycle as an alternative." And the closer we get to alternatives like biking, the more frequently we may experience the promised land.