Angry Robot

Slow Motion

Or, third post for bike month, continuing from this one. All of these live here, in reverse chronological order.

As I learned more about city bikes, the thing that really amazed me was how I had bought into this weird suburban attitude towards bikes without realizing it. I always bought beater mountain bikes, and I was always proud of how cheap they were. Yet they were always falling apart, sometimes dangerously so, and with the slightest hint of rain they would spray water everywhere. Even stranger, I was always obsessing about speed when biking. I’d get pissed if someone passed me, I’d be proud of quick times, and generally enjoyed biking as hard and as fast as possible – even though I am not hard, fast, adrenaline-soaked, or performance-oriented in basically any other sphere of my life.

Let’s go back to the back for a second. As I mentioned in the previous post, a couple years ago, I started getting these shooting pains in my back and down one of my legs. It started getting worse. I was diagnosed with sciatica, a classic old man disease I was somewhat disappointed to be getting a sneak preview of in my 30s.

Sciatica is a mysterious illness. I was told it was probably caused by a herniated disc, but no imaging was done so it was never clear what caused it. Apparently since the treatment is the same (physio) in almost all cases no matter what caused it, they don’t spend the money to find out. Could have been spine gremlins!

They told me that 90% of cases are fully recovered within 9 months. They said it didn’t necessarily take that long, but that was how the study was done. I was also told that I would probably feel it on and off for the rest of my life.

It got worse over a couple weeks until I couldn’t walk or stand for more than 5 minutes at a time. Then I slipped and fell and made it worse. I missed work for 2 weeks and spent them lying down – I couldn’t even sit.

I kept going to physio, and got gradually better over a few months. But I had to evolve a bunch of new habits when walking around the city. Every step was painful, so I was moving with the speed of an 80-year-old. No jaywalking, no rushing to make lights. No rushing at all. Over the next months, as my back slowly healed, the walking got easier – but I kept the slow motion habits. I had come to like them. What was the rush? It would take me a bit longer to get places but I would enjoy the trip more. Toronto is a lively city, and walking around it, when you take the time and let your senses roam a bit, feels like a privilege. When you’re rushing you’re fixated on one thing – the menacing abstraction of a clock counting down. When you slow down you can absorb everything.

Thinking about getting back on a bike, I realized that not only would the bike have to be upright, but my attitude would have to be a whole lot… slower.

It’s now about a year into my personal slow-food biking renaissance, and I can report in a bit. A key part is obviously biking slower, but that’s not all of it. In fact, that’s the easy part. I also have been trying to cut out a bunch of behavioural shortcuts that one tends to do when rushing. With walking it’s basically jaywalking, but with biking this can be: not stopping at stop signs or lights, going the wrong way down one way streets, passing stopped cyclists at intersections, riding through crosswalks, etc. etc. You do them when you’re in a rush or just impatient, but almost all of them compromise your safety. Or make you less predictable to your fellow road-users and/or make you an asshole. And if you’re not actually in a rush – or even if you are – is it worth it? Leave earlier and just relax.

This slow-bike attitude isn’t always easy to pull off, though. In my experience, the more separated the bike route, the easier it is to maintain. If you’re in mixed traffic with cars, you wind up absorbing their pace and stress.