Monday, September 17, 2012

Upright Cycling: An Introduction

Outside a favorite coffee house in town...

I tend to call the way I use a bicycle--not just ride it--upright cycling. I don’t think something so simple or unfussy needs a pseudo-scientific definition. But, it can be described, of course, and in so doing one can get a sense of why it is both enjoyable and healthy for this cyclist (and perhaps others).

Not about Speed, but Transport and Engagement

At heart, upright cycling is not primarily about speed. Speed in cycling is usually associated with exercise or competition…both veering toward the recreational. The sort of cycling I practice is actually transportation, but on rather undemanding cycling terms. No special "bikey" clothes are necessary, and working up a sweat, while certainly possible, isn’t a goal or particularly valued. I'm not criticizing anyone, mind you. There is nothing wrong with athletic approaches to cycling: they just shouldn’t be seen as the only “real” or “mature” way to use a bicycle.

Upright cycling means being engaged with the environment through which one passes. It encourages interaction with people by its very posture; not being hunched down over the handlebars decreases efficiency but increases appreciation—of people, places, the reality of a moment. Upright cycling treats the bicycle not as a substitute for a car, but a specialized mode of transport having its own benefits and advantages disconnected from speed—a sort of instrument for encountering, experiencing, and examining.

This is probably the most interesting part of upright cycling for me: the question of speed and living life in a truly humane manner.

Going fast appeals to me at times. Like many people, I try to multi-task, making a hash of several things at once but pretending to be doing a competent job at each. I enjoy getting where I want to go in a car on time and efficiently, usually going just over the speed limit in the process. I can get irritated by slow-pokes on the road. Impatience becomes the default mode in diving for me, a certain competitiveness flashing across my mind and compelling me to act in sometimes imprudent ways.

But upright cycling changes things dramatically—to the point of feeling like a different person. Sure, I get sore when people do patently illegal or rude things, but mostly they don’t. They are on their way, just as I am on mine. If I don’t present too unpredictable an obstacle, they don’t mind me much. Most of the time, I take out-of-the-way routes and concentrate on my primary objective: to take in the people and places of my city while getting where I am going—with a little time for some peaceful reflection along the way.

Speed always changes things. Speed on bicycles seems to change them from something that has a certain innocence and counter-cultural simplicity to another tool for competition, anxiety, and aggressiveness. These things all have their place, but upright cycling isn’t that place. It is, rather, a refuge from all that.

Upright cycling slows things down. Appointments have to be spaced out. Transitions from one event to another are allowed significant time. The seasons are experienced and time’s passing is integrated with one’s inner clock and nature. Being forced to take more time travelling ends up making me take more time doing other things, questioning the unspoken American assumption that faster is better, more is always the right choice.

An elaborate civic improvement for pedestrians and cyclists.
 Some people are concerned because of homeless people frequenting this
location, but it has mostly proved very peaceful here, in my experience.

Upright Cycling and an Integrated Life

This led to me looking at my schedule more generally, noting what parts of it normally really called for the speed and distance factors a car provides, and what parts were much better served by a slower, intentional and engaged conveyance. This, in turn, led to identifying some habits that had crept in to my life that were really about self-medicating the effects of living artificially in the “fast lane.” The implications of upright cycling continue to open doors, freeing me to embrace the latter half of life from a less anxious, driven perspective (no pun intended).

Upright cycling is, in my case, a direct function of where I live. Because I live in town, I can get to many places easily and relatively directly via streets conducive to relaxed cycling. If I lived in the suburbs, on top of a very steep hill, or in an enclave surrounded by expressways, it wouldn’t work. Our choice to live where we do was connected to issues of school, neighborhood character, and proximity (by car) to various retailers. That choice has turned out to make this kind of cycling much more feasible.

The life I live--that of a parish priest--means I don't have a regular 8-5 job. I can use my bike more than twice a day, or for only one round trip. The practical utility of a bike for moving in small but congested urban spaces has been made very apparent, and that fits my vocational life, my living choices, and my  actual transportation needs. So, vocation, home, community, environment, transportation, faith…they are now more deeply integrated for me than ever before--and the bicycle has very much been a part of that.

A Mild Protest against Hurry and Anxiety

I cannot help but feel a certain ultra low-key act of protest against the pace and anxiety of contemporary society when practicing “upright cycling.” It doesn’t fit many people’s idea of efficient transport, and it isn’t exactly a leisure activity. It straddles and blurs lines that don’t always need to be there in the first place. Without ever intending it, upright cycling has extended the spiritual dimension of my life into new areas.

While I’m not a bike extremist, I do see the choices we make in transportation (where they really are choices) as significant and having implications. I hope this can be the case for others who, like me, are questioning the direction we have taken in post-war America. We have the ability to change this direction, and part of the recipe might be a dose of upright cycling, or whatever you want to call it...I don't care. Let's just make sure to wave or ring our bicycle bells out there as we pass by; we will probably be able to recognize each other just fine.

A bulky shadow on a late summer's day; off to another appointment.


  1. Great thoughts. I agree with you and why I cycle. Not necessarily exercise...that's an added benefit. Sometimes it's just easier to get around. I talk to the pets and enjoy the water and leaves and flowers!

  2. Another fine post U.C. Thanks! It reminded me of a book I just read called Straphanger by Taras Grescoe which takes a worldwide look at the state of mass transit and other forms of alternative transportation. According to Grescoe the good bike commuters in Copenhagen share your biking philosophy. Amazingly they make of 37% of the citizens there who commute to work or school. Amazing! I hope we will aspire to that someday.

  3. The relaxed, natural upright head posture is why I like recumbent bikes so much, best of both worlds.