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After Oil - Bicycles
Turn on the Tour de France and let the inspiration (and perspiration) begin
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
Published 2008-07-08 06:20 (KST)   
"Modern bicycles, based on technological innovations from the late 19th century, remain the most efficient means of human transportation ever invented."
--William P. Ancker

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It is not a gimmick, it is not radical, but it also is not what most people have in mind when they think of "alternative energy." Yet it should be. At a time when energy efficiency is the ultimate, there is no more efficient mechanism than a human being on a bicycle. People are inclined to be dismissive of the humble bicycle, imagining instead some new breakthrough technology, rather than embracing a technology that predates the oil era in its entirety.

Today, about 120 years after the first penny-farthings made first appearance, bicycles have come a long way. It is probably not accurate to refer to bicycles as "humble" these days, since space age technologies and designs have been implemented -- attentions not dissimilar to those we see applied to Formula 1 racing.

The Tour

If the above seems like wishy-washy pontification, tune in to any of the 20 or so Tour de France stages over the next several weeks. Viewed from above, it is staggering to see the speed of the peloton -- a tightly packed bunch of over a hundred cyclists -- cruising through the countryside, through villages and over mountainsides. Yes, it is possible to circumnavigate an entire country in a matter of three weeks -- on a bicycle.

I know what you are thinking. The riders of the tour are superhuman. Yes, they are among the fittest athletes in the world. But if tour fever has ever infected you, and you have acquired a racing bike, you too will have discovered the incredible grace, power, beauty, elegance, symmetry and sensibility that is a human being on a bicycle. It is not out of the reach of most people to ride 180 kilometers in a day. I have gone on bicycle tours with people who are completely unfit who manage to achieve this over successive days.

On the other hand, let it be said that effort is involved. It takes perspiration and an act of will to move over and across entire mountains.

Lessons in Efficiency

Usually our conversations on energy conservation are about changing the machines we make. The favorite method of "saving fuel" is simply by swapping from one fuel-efficient machine to another that is more fuel efficient, never mind that the idea of motoring, the motoring culture, remains entirely intact. And of course by now we ought to have realized that the motoring enterprise -- like airlines -- is over. Also, those enterprises that exist alongside -- suburbia, shopping malls, fast food -- none of these can continue as long as fuels remain expensive.

Cycling does a great deal to address the source of the energy conundrum. Who are the greatest energy consumers? Not cars. Human beings that drive cars, want to drive cars, and cannot stop driving cars. So, unusually I admit, here is a way to address that demand addiction. Buy a bicycle and use it as much as you can. Why?

- Weight loss. One of the best ways to lose weight is by cycling. If you doubt this, you will no longer once you find yourself lugging your own body weight up a steep incline. It is impossible to be more eloquent than this reality. Weight loss is an important place to begin, because the fat human beings carry is representative of our own personal inefficiency.

- Human fuel. The more people exercise the more they begin to care about themselves, and those around them. One of the ways we care about our bodies is by treating what we put into the muscle machine with more respect and circumspection. People who exercise soon realize that eating certain food habitually does not make sense. It is counterproductive.

- Cooperation. Perhaps the greatest thing we can learn right now is the high levels of cooperation that are possible between different people who barely know each other. While the internet promised to bring this about, it seems the internet does more to encourage lethargy at the click of a button. Only a cyclist knows the thrill of unworded cooperation between strangers as they brace against the wind, sheltering those around, committing their own energy and then allowing others to come forward to offer up their commitments. It is beautiful to experience, and something vital and important for our community to learn.

- Sensitivity. When you cycle on a road, you are not sheltered from the world outside by a bubble of glass and music. You can feel the rain, the breeze, the sun. You move at a pace that is slow enough for you to see sunlight sparkle in ponds adjacent to the road, to hear the birds singing, to see snakes wriggle into tussocks of grass at the last moment, to dodge caterpillars and dice luckless butterflies. Cyclists are probably far better drivers, because they realize how incredible dangerous roads and road surfaces are, and appreciate that a road belongs to anyone (and thing) that uses it. This is as it should be.

- Efficiency. There is a certain amount of efficiency of course, in the act itself, in cycling. But any cyclist will tell you that as you invest more time, as you practice more, you become stronger, harder and faster. This is true for both individuals (who must expand on their own abilities) and groups (who learn to grow as a collective force).

It may be when fuel shortages first strikes around the world that the world will respond with similar paralysis to the oil shock of the '70s. There may be strikes, looting, chaos and anger. We have a choice, of course, to adapt -- not only our minds but also our bodies.

It is my fervent hope that instead of being overcome by disorder and disillusionment, large groups will take humble, but constructive steps, connecting with each other, encouraging those not used to this sort of activity, and putting the highways and byways of the world to infinitely better use -- not only for us but for all those creatures we happen to share our world with.
For more information on the writer, visit www.nickvanderleek.com.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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