Andersen: Biking the Rio Grande ‘Motorway’
The unceasing desire for ease and comfort drives technology toward rounding off the rough edges of life. This has served humans well as domineering, climate-changing, species-killing apes who somehow manage to cultivate a humanizing capacity for Mozart, Picasso and Shakespeare.
Our active brains and opposable thumbs have given us advantages over every other living thing except perhaps the microbial demons and division-minded cancer cells that do their best to eradicate us.
But ease and comfort bear a cost. For example, take e-bikes (please!). E-bikes have converted the Rio Grande Trail — a once human-powered thoroughfare — into a motorized recreation corridor that has forever altered the trail experience for non-motorized diehards like me.
Once a placid trail on which I have commuted for decades, the Rio Grande Motorway is now trafficked by tourists on e-bikes who test their throttles among throngs of walkers and those of us riding conventional bikes.
If someone offered me a brand new e-bike as an even trade for the rigid frame 29er I’ve been riding for decades, I would decline with a bit of a sneer. I know that’s a futile gesture, because once a labor-saving device takes hold, only true Luddites will long for the traditional basics.
By doing just that, I remain loyal to my old steel steed, loyal to my aging body and the challenges that keep it feeling young and, most of all, loyal to a fierce independence from ease-inducing motors whenever I have the choice.
The transformation of the Rio Grande from non-motorized to motorized has changed the feel of the trail. When someone driving a motorized bike that weighs three times what mine weighs passes me at twice the speed I’m going, the equation changes.
E-bikes now dictate the trail experience by upping the pace, lowering the value of the journey, abandoning trail etiquette, reducing physical effort and creating a dependency on power. Once power is harnessed to anything — from snowblowers to sit-down mowers — there comes a surrender to that power.
Power defines and alters the experience for those without power. Watching over the years as dirt bikes trenched out high mountain single tracks, it became evident that pedal bikes could no longer ride those gullied-out trails.
A similar transformation occurred decades ago when Highway 82 was four-laned. As I predicted then with a characteristic note of lament, when 82 gets four-laned, the next step will be paving the Rio Grande, which was soon to come.
Ramping up travel speeds in one sector spills over to ramping them up in another because of expectations and precedent. No one is asking if power and speed represent an overall, long-term benefit. Happiness should not be in the speed you go, but in the quality of the going.
The motive power of e-bikes holds a novel allure, but it brings an imbalance to the Rio Grande. It’s not so much an issue on a road where cyclists travel with other motorized traffic, but it is on a trail where pure human power becomes outmoded, obsolete and quaint.
I was explaining the e-bike phenomenon to a visitor and they asked, “Isn’t the purpose of riding a bike to get exercise by pedaling it yourself?”
There is a cultural myth that the easy life is always better than the working life. But it also is known that dependence on motors detracts from fitness, health, vigor, initiative and self-image. Make life too easy and it’s harder to adapt to inevitable rigors without whining.
Another myth is that e-bikes run clean. They must still be plugged in and charged with electrons that come from energy production, all of which is not clean or renewable. There is a cost to ease and comfort, and e-bikes have become part of that cost.
Ours is a culture tyrannized by a regime of power, where the wielding of power often lacks discipline and usually lacks humility. The ultimate power of power is conformity, because those who decline the advantages of power are deemed weak, especially when confronted with superior power.
But take heed. To quote Michael Foucalt: “Where there is power, there is resistance.”
Paul Andersen chooses to resist. His column appears on Mondays, and he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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