Weaving a World Through Cycling

"Then weave for us a garment of brightness;
May the warp be the white lights of morning,
May the weft be the red light of evening,
May the fringes be the falling rain,
May the border be the standing rainbow."

portion of the Walthamstow Tapestry

Lately my thoughts have [re]taken an anthropological turn, a revival in a way, of the first of my chosen careers in this life. I have no doubt that this is due, in no small part to my son's embarkation upon life as a university student, and all the new and exciting theories and ideas such a passage affords. Anyway, this has led me to a consideration of all the rides and routes I have ridden over the years and decades; how they are more significant than a mere collection of training miles logged in a book, collected by some nameless server somewhere, recollected as a, sometime, weariness in the legs, or tales retold over pints of beer.

Recently I read through The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, by Wade Davis which, on the one hand, has absolutely nothing to do with cycling, but on the other is especially relevant. Why? I believe that when we, as cyclists, go out on our daily rides we engage in far more than the basic and obvious recreational pursuit, errand run, or work commute. A couple lines in particular, both relating to the creation beliefs and sense of place of the peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in South America struck a metaphorical, though familiar, chord: "The loom, the act of spinning, the notion of a community woven into a protective fabric of a landscape..." (p.143) and "They refer to these periodic wanderings as threads with the notion that over time a community lays down a protective cloak upon the earth" (p.144). Both sentences allude to a bond between people and place, a reciprocal bond that is strengthened, over time, through interaction, awareness and understanding.

In those two sentences, the image of weaving is especially relevant. In simple terms, a weaving, or tapestry, is a collection of individual threads combined in such a way that they create an image. The same can be said of rugs and blankets, of embroidery and quilts. Sometimes what those combinations of threads reveal are moments in history. Other times multiple moments may be combined in a single tapestry. Still other times, stories may lie hidden in what may appear to be simple geometric patterns - think Navajo weavings / rugs, and Pendleton blankets.

Close your eyes for a moment and picture a weaving, tapestry or quilt. Once you have that big picture in your mind move in close and imagine all the individual threads that went into the making of that fabric - different colors, different lengths, some warp, while others weft. It is only when combined that the parts, those threads or lengths of yarn, create the picture we see.

Now close your eyes again and think about your last ride, specifically, think about the imaginary track you left in your wake. Trace the route in your mind by using memory and imagination - no cheating, no Strava or Map My Ride print out allowed, for this they are just too one-dimensional. See how the route is like a thread moving across a landscape, through neighborhoods, a city, a town, the country, up into mountains, and down into canyons, along paved roads and dirt trails. Now think of the other rides you have done over the past week or longer. Lay those routes, those distinct threads one atop another, and picture how they sometimes overlap, other times criss-cross, how they move away from one another, then come back together, how some are shorter, remaining closer to the starting point while others stretch far away before snapping back.

All those distinct lines begin to resemble a weaving when overlain one with another, sure, but that is not what is most significant. Like a tapestry, there is a deeper, complex story hidden in there as well. Each of those lines clarified, or brought into focus an understanding of the place where we live from both geographic and social perspectives. It is often said that crawling starts us, human beings, down a path of independence and discovery. Learning to walk expands our boundaries beyond the home. Following that, learning to ride a bike opens up entirely new worlds for discovery, discovery that takes us into distant neighborhoods, pushes us beyond the bounds of urban structure, allowing us to explore previously unseen, and possibly unfamiliar areas of our world, some close at hand, others further away. Those excursions allow us an understanding of geography, the lay of the land, the way our towns and cities have been built and grow.

Legs, lungs and hearts are particularly adept at reading topography. When we ride, even slight changes in grade are noticeable. As little as 1% or 2% change can be felt; increased heart rate, deeper breathing, that burning in the legs signal slight shifts up. At some point in my cycling life I discovered the term "false flat", and it has been one of my favorites ever since. Very little in this world is really flat, certainly not in our built environments where water must drain, to or from, any given spot. Stretches of road, or off-road, may look flat, they may even feel flat with a motor doing the work; done under one's own power, however, the false flats are all too obvious. 

With each ride we take we notice something new, different, which expands our knowledge. But we also see and experience the same things; there are frequent repetitions. We bump over the same pothole enough times that its location becomes ingrained, we swerve around and skirt a lateral crack to avoid allowing it to catch our front wheel. It is not unreasonable to assume that the things we see and experience repetitively, have a greater impact than do new, one-off experiences. Of course things experienced for the first time can become part of a new routine, especially if they are pleasurable, or are a challenge that, once conquered, result in a feeling of accomplishment. Think of the times you may have adjusted a regular route, to take a newly discovered "quiet" street, to visit an interesting landmark, tackle or avoid an especially technical section of trail, or incorporate a rest stop for a particularly good cup of coffee.

The hard, and mostly unchanging, physical elements of the built environment through which we ride are obvious on a tangible level, but other elements, less directly tied to the built environment may be equally tangible, and also affect the warp and weft of our rides, where and when we ride, the routes we choose. 

Think of wind and shade, for instance. Shifts in the wind at different times of the day, different times of the year are easy to discern. That evening wind blowing inland from the coast, from the west, is a challenging headwind while riding into it when returning home from work. There is no question of its direction, the scale of its force. Frequent riders can reel off a litany of ride routes and can relate exactly where winds blow strongest, where they become slack, where they change direction, with a general understanding of when these conditions take place. There is a tactile understanding of our environment that can only be learned through direct experience, in this case learned by time in the saddle.

Just as physical features and environmental conditions of the landscape can affect our choice of route from day to day, or season to season, so too can aspects of a more social or cultural nature. Interactions with other riders during group rides often take us into areas of our urban, or rural, surroundings that we might be unfamiliar with, showing us new places and things.

When I think back upon some of my earlier years of riding I can recall sensing a clear distinction between areas which I might call "home" and "away." The home territory was, naturally, a familiar core area where friends lived, where schools were, and streets I traveled along each day. As I began to ride further afield and crossing the home boundary into areas beyond, there was a concurrent sense of trespass and unease at being outside the familiar area. There was almost a sense of relief, certainly of greater ease, when I rode back into the "home" territory at the end of a ride. Over time, though, and with a certain repetition those "away" areas became more familiar, and the "home" area expanded. I tend to think of the routes my rides take as the structure, the skeleton, the non-dyed threads upon which experiences, the flesh, the color is added. The two combine to create a world view formed by riding.

But there is more to our woven ride tapestry than the physical geographic features we ride through, around, between, over, and under. Geographic knowledge may be the most obvious cues we gather for our ride tapestry because of the shared physicality. But when we look deeper, the geography of both built and non-built settings can clearly be seen to merge with social constructs. It may be needless to say, but the threads that are composed of social interactions are among the most meaningful and telling part of the tapestry we weave from riding. This is where the picture we weave really becomes vivid.

It does not take many outings before even the most novice rider can recount a list of favorite rides - not routes mind you, not the physical aspect, but rides, a far more encompassing term designating a much more broad involvement. Though not a requirement, these usually involve interaction, both with other riders and with bystanders. The interactions can be "planned" in the sense that the ride starts with a known group. Yet quite frequently interactions can be incidental, the result of running into others, even strangers, along the way.

As I mentioned above, interactions with strangers can be the most vibrant threads in our cycling tapestry. Stopping to help a complete stranger, sidelined along the road or trail with a flat or other mechanical issue, can leave indelible imprints. Volunteering, doing a good deed, helping another have long been recognized for the sense of satisfaction such acts engender. Those moments when we stop to render assistance, and conversely when someone stops for us, tie together with much more frequent incident-free rides, as colorful threads clearly standing out against a plain background. Holding back to help a buddy, or stranger, with a flat while the rest of the Saturday group ride speeds away, and then chasing in tandem, or as part of a small group, creates a strong bond, a tight weft in a friendship not quickly forgotten.

Geographic threads entwine with the social ones and, as often as not, there is no separating one from the other. Thus our rides take us into and out from distinct "ethnic" neighborhoods were we may be exposed to different physical and socio-cultural features from those we are, perhaps, more familiar with. Such exposure broadens our world-view, maybe increases our understanding of differences and similarities within and between communities. In The Unsettlers, Mark Sundeen quotes author Erik Knutzen, "... a bike not only provides transportation but also provides you with exercise, and at the same time helps you develop relationships with your community that you could not imitate while locked inside your car." (pp.132-133)  

Consider these words from the Legacy of Spider Woman, by Kathleen Whitaker, former Chief Curator at the Southwest Museum: "Weavers believe that the integrity and balance of a textile is observed in its wholeness. As a completed creation, a woven fabric embodies a design that is made up of isolated elements that are brought together in a single image. It absorbs the free-flowing energy of the culture from which it emanates, and it reflects the character of the individual weaver as an innovator and the role of the community as the weaver's connection to the spiritual and material worlds. Moreover, the textile is a product of individual action and creativity... and it embodies... the processes of continuity and change that are essential features of culture. As such, weaving, in both action and purpose, might be regarded as a model for... an approach to life..."

This brings things back around to the beginning, to those two quotes and their reference to a "protective fabric," a "protective cloak." It has long been accepted that people who feel invested in their community, who see themselves as a part of a larger group are more likely to want to protect it, to be actively involved in maintaining the community, helping it nurture the next generation of its members.

I have decided that this post has been sat on for long enough and, a work in progress though it may be, it is past time to get it out. Weaving a Life Through Cycling, like Fast Digs, has evolved into the kind of post that will be updated periodically as I consider new twists and turns, uncover new content, or simply find additional time to think about it. That was not my original intent, but I have discovered that it is a more involved and diverse topic than I anticipated.


  1. Honored to ride with you. Thanks for opening your mind and your camera to your readers.


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