At the Sardonic Spectator we plan to regularly inform readers about cycling in the Haute.
Taking a look at the role of cycling in Terre Haute is a fraught concept; after all, we are living in the culture that gave the world the sports-utility vehicle, and that species (along with many other privately owned motor vehicles) is heavily evident on our lanes and streets. It’s notable that these fossil fuel powered, mass-marketed behemoths rarely deliver much in the way of sport and generally offer a level of utility that inspires the use of the word “marginal.”
My prefatory statements are not intended to bash motor vehicles. There is no need, as careless operation accomplishes that every hour of every day. Drawing attention to the Sports Utility Vehicle is simply pertinent when considering the questions that arise when an otherwise sane Hautian chooses to own, operate, and occasionally even maintain a human powered vehicle.
The Bike as Sport Vehicle
In Terre Haute, we have a fair contingent of riders who don colorful Lycra outfits, jump astride low weight and generally high dollar velocipedes (often called “road bikes”) then ride like the wind, alone or in groups. Whether or not these individuals participate in formal competition, their activities seem to me sporting in nature.
Competition of another sort exists among a class of our younger citizens who are attracted to the “trick” bike. These machines generally are built around a smallish frame, with small diameter wheels, a low and mostly ancillary seat, and often have foot pegs attached at the axles. Various athletic stunts can be, and reportedly sometimes are, executed with these bicycles.
Also amongst Terre Haute bikers are adherents to the BMX (Bicycle Moto-Cross) bikes and Mountain Bikes. Many machines of these two classes exist in our fair city. However, at present I am unaware of any organized BMX (by definition, off-road) races in the area, and the noise from current BMX enthusiasts often centers on the machines themselves, not their actual operation, and not infrequently, seems related to nostalgia for the lost youth of individual owners. While we do have some hills hereabouts, past glaciations have seen to it that Terre Haute residents hoping to ride bicycles down local mountain sides may have to find other diversions for a few eons, as transformative geologic processes can be aggravatingly slow.
Cyclo-cross is a lusty, sweaty, muddy, form of off-road cycling competition that I first learned about in a short film presented at a long ago meeting of the Wabash Wheelmen, a cycling club now sadly defunct. Cyclo-cross was then (more than forty years ago) portrayed as a “European” sport. It now has adherents in the states, but I personally am acquainted with no local enthusiasts. Randonneuring too has American enthusiasts. The list could go on. And it shall, at another time.
The Bike as Utility Vehicle
Terre Haute has utilitarian cyclists aplenty, though they’re currently far outnumbered by motorists. Here I simply mean people who primarily use their cycles to get from a present location to a desired one. This can involve commuting to work, shopping, or other everyday uses. Almost any bicycle can be put to some sort of utilitarian use.
As with a motor vehicle, sometimes the only thing being transported is the operator, with perhaps a small and/or lightweight load. However, weighty and bulky loads can often be accommodated. To increase carrying capacity, most bicycles can be equipped with baskets, package racks, panniers, and variously configured and mounted bags. Trailers are available. Riders sometimes use a backpack or shoulder bag. Purpose built cargo bicycles have been around almost as long as bicycles themselves and are not unknown in our Athens on the Wabash.
Other cyclo-motives include: touring (for the weekend, or across the continent); recreation; exercise; owning a status symbol; personal expression (here I am thinking owner customized); political expression (Critical Mass, anyone?) or as a plaything.
The Bike as Vehicle for Well-Being
My own motivation for cycling centers on the joy of the activity, with a good mix of practical appreciation. Cycling is gratifying to all the senses. The cyclist is much more able to take in the sights, sounds, and aromas of a neighborhood than a person traveling by other means. It is easy to stop and talk to a friend. A motorist, even in or on an open vehicle, imports another set of sensory inputs that tend to overwhelm those of the surrounding area.
Walking too, allows close examination and sensory experience of a person’s immediate environment, but cycling adds intensity and grins.
Walking too, allows close examination and sensory experience of a person’s immediate environment, but cycling adds intensity and grins. Finding a parking spot for a bicycle is rarely as frustrating and time consuming as finding as parking space for a motor vehicle, resulting in a net increase in serenity.
The Bike as Proto-Vehicle
Bicycles were in active use before horseless carriages, and well before heavier-than air flying machines. The bicycle evolved from the dandy horse, or draisine, a largely wooden vehicle with two wheels a seat and handlebars propelled essentially by walking, to the ordinary, also known as “high-wheeler” or “penny-farthing”, then on to the safety bicycle with equal diameter wheels and a chain drive mechanism. Industrial innovations such as improved metallurgy, better heat treatment of steels, and more precise machining of metal parts, were all driven by the process of refining the bicycle, and were later applied to motor vehicles. The first Americans to insist loudly on the need for better roads and highways were not motorists; they were cyclists.
Furthermore, the first successful airplane, the Wright Flyer, was the creation of two handy and resourceful brothers who ran a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. Terre Haute too, had bicycle shops at the beginning of the last century.
The Bike as Vehicle for Change
The Terre Haute of my youth supported two bike shops. Although both of those shops are long gone, two very different bike shops now supply the community. Yes, there have long been and still are bicycles available for sale at what I will politely call “other retail outlets”, but there are many sound reasons to pay a little more and to get to know the people who know about bicycles. After all, Sears & Roebuck once sold automobiles. Who would buy a car from Sears today?
It also seems likely that long after most private autos have become impractical to operate and been put out to pasture as lawn ornaments and well after commercial airlines are no more, people will still be willing and able to ride bicycles.
We now have a system of designated bicycle paths in town. This is a local improvement that not so many years ago would have seemed very unlikely to ever occur. This development deserves support and encouragement. Perhaps it can grow.
My subjective observation is that more people, especially more adults, are riding bicycles year round in Terre Haute than has been the case for decades. I see this as good for individuals and good for the community.
Whether we like it or not, our industrial society tends to make profligate use of non-renewable resources, especially energy resources. Locally, and nationally, we have likely passed the peak of motor vehicle use and that use, I believe, is gently moving into decline. It also seems likely that long after most private autos have become impractical to operate and been put out to pasture as lawn ornaments and well after commercial airlines are no more, people will still be willing and able to ride bicycles.
Able Trencherman has lived in Terre Haute, it is fair and accurate to say, since before Sputnik. Able says, “My favorite place in Terre Haute would have to be Dresser Memorial Park. It reminds me, situated as the park is on the banks of the Wabash River, that this is, in its essence, a river town. At the same time, it reminds me that this is a town full of contradictions: Brothers Paul Dresser and Theodore Dreiser spent years of their early lives here. We stress the memory of the innocuous songwriter more than the memory of the "controversial" novelist; in order to "preserve" the Dresser home it was uprooted and moved to the park while its original setting and much, much, else, essentially the old part of the city close on the river, was obliterated and left barren in an orgy of federally funded destruction perversely called ‘Urban Renewal’.”