I’m not sure if I was trying to figure out that which cannot be, or trying to put words to it, which maybe should not be done. I’m kind of embarrassed by a lot of this now. But it seems honest, still.
I: THE FIRST ONE WE LOVE IS A MYSTERY. It is an inevitable surprise. It is the gift we dream of yet cannot use once we have it—unless first we cripple it with training wheels. We are told, with a certainty anchored by more than two centuries of proof, what we in our wobbling, toppling but unbreakable desire cannot comprehend: that mastering it is one of life’s fundamental skills, a function that once gained will never leave us. We are not told of what else is granted us for life by taking a few pedal strokes along a sidewalk, those lesson that at our age we could neither verbalize nor comprehend yet, of the experience, absorb: how to accept dependence to become independent, how to leave those who make it possible for us to leave, how no adventure is complete until we find our way home. And to not stick our big toes in things that are spinning really fast.
That bike, the first bike of our lives, cannot be bound by either its own tubes or the curbs of our youth. It is emotion and sensation not only incarnate but powered, for once on purpose, by our own bodies. It is abstractions such as freedom, risk, and tenacity wrought into physical form — with cool stickers. Sometimes even a bell.
Such particulars are not to be underestimated. The color of our first bike — whatever color it is — will for the rest of our lives elicit an indistinct, seemingly rootless pleasure we rarely think to trace back to its source. And at the far stretches of age we will still summon, vivid and lush with portent, the scratch along the top tube, the nameplate askew, the scuffed-off end of the grip, the mechanical rattle of the chain against the chainguard.
Yet for all the strength with which we hold the bike in our minds, we so easily let the real thing slip from us. Who among us has not abandoned our first love? It comes to us as a mystery, that bike, and in absence remains so throughout our lives, and maybe that is why it is the one we never stop longing for.
II: IN OUR MADNESS WE PROCLAIM PASSION FOR A BIKE. For how is it possible to love a physical object — not the riding, or the way it makes us feel, or the body it gives us, or the friends, or the capitalistic rush of purchase, not the aesthetic ecstasy of beholding a frame nor the intellectual appreciation of its functional beauty, but the actual bike itself — the way we love a person or a dog? Art has much to tell about love, but it is the emotionless march of science that leads us to yes or no answers.
Neurologists define the emotion through functional magnetic resonance imaging and chemical analysis: Love is a cocktail of testosterone, dopamine, pheremones, norepinephrine, phenylethylamine, oxytocin, and endorphins, quaffed until the gray matter associated with motivation, reward, desire, intimacy, and attachment goes manic; perversely, some studies show a parallel slowdown in the brain parts central to making plans, social judgments, and determination of trustworthiness — all of which sounds like a cyclist on the rivet. But, still, is it biking or the bike we love? A cognitive scientist named Don Norman, author of Emotional Design, believes our affinity to objects influences our physical experience — for instance, cheap wine tastes better to people when served in expensive glasses. Then there’s objectophilia. Identified in 1998, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, by Volkmar Sigusch, former director of the Institute of Sexual Science at Frankfurt University in Germany, objectophiles experience intimate, romantic relationships with inanimate things (different from a fetish, which is marked by intense, but ephemeral, arousal). Sigusch’s objectophiles feel love for a computer, a metal-working machine, and a building. One of them falls in love with a Hammond organ but leaves it for a steam locomotive.
Now: Do you love your bike?
III: I HAVE OWNED AND SOLD, IN MY LIFE, NINE BIKES I WAS GOING TO OWN FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE. Five steel, one titanium, three carbon, two of them full-on custom. If I am to believe that I am a person who can love a bicycle, then I have been at best a philanderer, at worst a whore, giving myself to whichever bike came along that offered me what I wanted at the time.
IV: BUT WE LOVE OUR BIKES, WHATEVER OUR SINS AND DELUSIONS MIGHT BE. The one I love at the moment asks me questions and promises rewards. “If?” inquires the head-tube badge. “If…” proposes the seat tube. The one I love is black and white but knows shades of gray — it has timelessly elegant lugs, for instance, yet they are titanium, joining carbon tubes. The one I love traces its lineage back to the great Fat City Cycles via one of those 1990s corporate buyout merger disasters that pilfered the company of everything but its only lasting asset: the people who made the frames, who stayed behind in the great U.S. cycling town of Somerville and founded Independent Fabrication and kept making bikes one at a time by hand and didn’t go broke, thus sticking it to the man.
The one I love was judged best Dream Bike of our Editor’s Choice competition two years in a row, and someone from one of the revered European companies lectured IF that it was impossible for mine to be better than theirs, because they’d been making bikes for more than 100 years and they were who they were.
I love all of that about my bike, but none of that explains why I love my bike. Neither does the ride — a lot of bicycles today ride not only great but near perfect. Phenylethylamine floods our head, or Juliet walks out to her balcony, or you lift your front wheel from the hook in the garage, and it is all a mystery that we for some reason are compelled to try to solve with science or stories. That firs time we fall in love the only proof we need is that we are in love. We ride the bike we love and we love the bike we ride and we don’t worry about what’s true or forever. We ring the bell. We spin the pedals. We wobble. We stay up.
Originally published in the May 2008 issue of Bicycling magazine