Finding Your Pack

Well, it was bound to happen:

In case you don’t know who Doug Gordon and Peter Flax are, they’re two of the more prominent voices in bicycle advocacy. Doug tweets as Brooklyn Spoke and is one-third of the “War on Cars” podcast:

While Peter has held a number of editorial positions in outdoor media (including serving as the editor-in-chief of Bicycling for awhile), tweets as @Pflax1, and is building a brand around his own advocacy:

Nice Try Flaxy! is the adopted but beloved half-stepchild of Peter Flax, a journalist and lifelong bike lover who lives in Los Angeles. The brand, at least for the moment, is all about being in love with bikes while also being more than a little bit pissed off about the struggles that riders face.

Doug’s tweet about was prompted by a recent post in which I used one of his tweets as an example, and Peter’s refers to my recent Outside column about bike lane obstructions. I mention them not because I mind being critiqued or even disparaged (I’d be delusional if I expected everyone to agree with me or like me), but because of the oddly disconcerting manner in which they both refuse to mention me specifically, as though I’m Beetlejuice and they don’t want me to appear:

As Oscar Wilde famously said, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

However I’m not sure he addressed the strange and paradoxical state of being talked about without being acknowledged, which is where I seem to have found myself. It’s especially conspicuous to me since I known both of them for awhile, and Peter even interviewed me for a piece in CyclingTips awhile back. Yet Doug has me muted (which I hardly blame him for, I mean I’d probably mute me too), while Peter finds my Outside column worthy of his commentary, yet doesn’t even link to it when offering said commentary, which I suspect Oscar Wilde would have applauded as a delectable snub. (It’s too bad Oscar Wilde lived before the Age of Twitter, he’d have dominated the medium.)

While I can’t help feeling a little indignant (in a way we’re colleagues, since we’re all in the business of opining constantly about bikes), I’d also be disingenuous if I pretended to be surprised. Of course I realize that, if I write a column saying maybe we’re too focused on people blocking bike lanes, some people will be annoyed. Furthermore, a commenter on last Friday’s post sized me up accurately by noting my inclination to go one way when everyone else around me seems to be going the other:

I’d like to believe that, while I may write things about bikes and advocacy that challenge what others believe, I’m at least open to good-faith discussion and willing to engage with anyone who’d like to hold me to account. I’d also like to give myself the benefit of the doubt by saying I’m not just being contrary for contrary’s sake, and that fundamentally I get uncomfortable when people start telling me what to do–and when lots and lots of people start feeling one way about something, they sometimes start putting lots and lots of pressure on other people who feel even a little differently. As far as bike advocacy goes, that can sometimes manifest itself in an all-consuming self-righteousness in which you’re so convinced of your own virtue that you’re compelled to stomp out any and all discourse that questions or conflicts with your own.

This assessment isn’t just me pointing fingers at others, by the way–it’s something I’ve often engaged in myself, having railed against innumerable politicians and community boards and tabloid columnists and people who dared speak ill of the bike on Twitter. However, over the last couple of years, as people seem to have given themselves over completely to framing things in absolute terms, I’ve tried to at least be aware of this impulse in myself and keep it in check, in the same way you make a half-assed attempt to improve your diet when someone in your orbit has a heart attack. I don’t always like who I’ve been when whipped up into a froth over a Steve Cuozzo column, or an inconsiderate driver, so columns like the one about blocked bike lanes are my attempt to say it’s okay to prioritize your own sanity sometimes. As I’ve written before, the relentless pursuit of advocacy can undermine your happiness, and just as it’s fine to stop for a red light and put your foot down when you’re riding in the city, it’s also fine–more than fine, essential really–to remove yourself from the cycle of anger, fear, and shame.

It’s hard for me to separate bikes and writing and the world and life in general because to me they’re all the same thing. Riding bikes requires balance, of course, and to maintain that balance you’re always making corrections–some imperceptibly small, others more drastic if the terrain or the circumstances warrant. Riding bikes can also be totally solitary or deeply social, and both approaches can be equally rewarding. However, when you’re riding in a group, the pack is far less tolerant of these corrections, as they can result in chaos. Moreover, the corrections you do make in a pack are informed not just by the terrain and the circumstances, but also by the riders around you, and you ride on it in their terms, not your own.

The time I’ve spent riding in packs has brought me a lot of joy and taught me a lot about riding and myself, and I have lots of respect for the people who excel at it. I’ve never been one of them though, so maybe I’m just more of a Lone Wolf type:

Though I probably don’t deserve that distinction, since while I may like to pretend I’m not part of the pack, I still define myself in relation to it.

Really, I think I’m just a garden variety wheelsucker, only the wheel I’m sucking happens to be my own.

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