Saturday, March 29, 2014


Here we are at the last weekend in March, with the equinox behind us, and yet it’s still chilly. At least I am now bicycling again. I took it out this morning to ride to Wychwood Market in a cold wind. It’s been four months since my old red Diamond Back bicycle, the one I rode from Kashgar over the Khujerab pass and down the Hunza Valley to Gilgit in 1986, has been out on the road. It could do with a cleaning and a tune-up (scheduled for next week), and this morning the back tire needed air, but everything else is fine. Not bad for a bicycle that’s getting on for thirty years old.

I’m very attached to my bicycle. It’s got scraped-off paint here and there, from being hauled on trucks and busses etc while it traveled with me in Tibet and Xinjiang and Pakistan and Nepal, and also from being locked to bits of railing around town in the years since. So it’s not a thing of beauty. And it’s also very old-style of course: no suspension (no-one was doing that in the early mountain bike era), and the gears are not synchro-mesh. I think braking systems have also improved in the intervening years, so the brakes too are very retro, and probably less effective than they could be.

When I dropped by last week on foot to Urbane Cyclist, not far from where I live, to make an appointment for a post-winter tune-up, the person in the repair shop, hearing that my bike was old, suggested that rather than getting a major tune-up, which can run to $200 plus, I might want to consider buying a new bike. I didn’t have my bike with me; she said I should come by with it and get a sense from them about whether it was worth maintaining.

Of course I was a little shocked. Abandon my bicycle? Just because it’s old and a little out-moded?

It’s true that in Chiang Mai I have a more modern bike, white and black, a Giant brand (made in China) which I bought in the fall of 2012. It’s got suspension and synchro-mesh gearing, it’s comfortable, and a pleasure to ride. When I first ride it after arriving in Chiang Mai, each time I am struck by how sleek and easy it is, how user-friendly compared to my old red Diamond Back. I feel guilty, sort of disloyal, for even thinking this way.

The suggestion that I move to a newer model here in Toronto is a reasonable one, on its face. But I don’t intend to do it. Why leave behind all that history when the bicycle is perfectly functional? I don’t care that it could be more comfortable or easy or whatever. I’m not interesting in optimising my “stuff”. I live in a house that is draughty and imperfect, a house that I keep repaired more or less, but that I don’t abandon for newer more “practical” lodging. It’s the same with clothing: I hang onto certain coats and jackets and other garments that I’ve had for ages. They get worn now and then, but even when they just hang in the closet the sight of them reminds me of places and people and stories, and enriches me.

It’s the same way with friends. I don’t like to lose people, to let them slide away, though it does happen. I like to keep the fabric of things knitted together if possible. The bicycle is part of that effort, a conscious preserving and keeping alive of a now long-past time in my life. And by using the bike and keeping it integrated into my current patterns of travel and connection, I keep a long thread going, a thread that began ages ago.

The interesting thing for me is to see how threads of place and people and idea come and go in importance. For example, when I get on my bike, or just see it sitting in the front hall waiting to be taken for an airing, I flash on central Asia, stacks of flatbreads, dry air, the scent of smoke, and more. It’s a long time since I was last in Xinjiang, but these days, as I immerse in my Persian World project, central Asia is again on my mind a lot. The bicycle gives me a little Proustian kick back to central Asia, so that my time there doesn't feel as remote. That perhaps explains why, when I was in the rolling grasslands near Mashad last October, the landscape was immediately familiar, and so was the feeling of exhilaration at being back in a central Asian environment. 

The memories and ties from the past, be they an old piece of clothing, a longstanding friendship, a scarred bicycle, are precious connections, cross-ties to the warp and weft of our lives. It seems to me that as we race around, in physical ways, or just mentally and imaginatively through the miracle of internet access, we are in extra need of grounding. I want to not lose track of who I am, and that means staying in touch with a sense of who and where I have been as I traveled to this point.

And so when I take my bike in to Urbane Cycle, I don't imagine I'll be looking longingly at shiny new bicycles. The new and perfect is highly over-rated, don’t you think? I'm sure that I don’t want a newborn bike, with no history, no associations, no resonance. I want to go on riding the  memory-laden red bicycle I’ve lived with for so long, with all its imperfections.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I know how you feel about your bike, I took my bike back to where I had purchased it many years ago(as mine had been stolen} they told me it was too old to do a tuneup. Fortunately I have a great friend who does this for me and I just keep riding along. I was a participant at your talk at the Library last year re: your Burma Book. Keep up the good work. Margot Guenther