Whatever: The Zero-Horsepower Alternative

John Burns
by John Burns

Maybe I shouldn’t admit it, but since it became my job a couple decades ago to ride motorcycles, I no longer spend every weekend riding them too. One of the new activities I acquired in the last few years is pedalling around on a bicycle. I always did keep a beach cruiser around the house for short hops and for, ahh, cruising to the beach. When the kid absconded off to college with that fat-tired beater, I decided it was time to find out what I was missing that all the guys with the $5,000 bicycles were so excited about; your Josh Hayeses and Ben Spieses and plenty of serious professionals really love their bicycles. So I bit the bullet and bought myself a nice “hybrid” road bike, what we used to call a ten-speed when I had a Huffy, but with a flat handlebar that makes it what we’d call a standard if it were a motorcycle.

Buying a bicycle is probably more complicated than buying a motorcycle; they even come in different sizes, and the salesmen only agree that the one in stock is your size. I actually spent about $500 on my Specialized Sirrus, which I’d equate to about a CB500F Honda – just a nice-enough bike to give other bicyclists the impression I’m trying to be one of them, but I was really just after good, reliable transpo. I do not wish to wear the Spanx at this time.

It all began as a means to exercise an over-active hound and GF at the same time, with the least physical exertion.

It was good timing when I bought my bike, though, because a forced relocation now has me about a 14.5-mile pedal from the beach instead of my old 3-mile one, and fresh out of $500. Instead of meandering down residential streets, I now pedal 5 miles east to hit the Santa Ana River bike trail, which is a 12-foot wide smooth-paved strip of asphalt which runs 30-some miles from the Riverside County line to where the river dumps into the Pacific. From where I get on the trail, it’s about 9.5 miles to the ocean, and on the weekends when I typically ride, there are usually more than a few very serious bicyclists on the trail, many of them in long drafting pelotons, French for bunch of pushy jerks.

Suddenly, I’m the old guy driving slow on the freeway, not that it ever comes close to being that crowded. I always keep right on the bike trail just like I do on the freeway when I’m not passing somebody, but that doesn’t keep faster people and groups from gleefully shouting when they come up behind me, “Passing on your left!

Eating my shorts on your right!”, I think but have so far managed to keep to myself. Now and then I’ll be able to draft off the back for a while if it’s a good-sized group with a thick girl bringing up the rear, but not usually for very long. I attempt to look like I don’t really care by wearing tennis shoes instead of the ones that clip to the pedals, and trunks instead of real bicycle shorts. But it’s just like the old saying about motorcycles: Whenever there’s more than one, it’s a race, and it’s just like people on motorcycles at track days: You really can’t tell by looking who’s going to haul ass until the flag drops, big-boned ladies included.

I’d draft Rita Hayworth any day, you? Say, is that a boom box or is your bike just happy to see you?

Just like riding motorcycles, the fact that most of us have been pedalling bikes since about the time we could walk doesn’t stop other people from letting us know we’re doing it wrong. When I still had the beach cruiser, an older gentleman passed me fully logoed- and Spandexed-out on a Panigale-expensive-looking bicycle, and I latched onto and stuck with him for maybe half a mile. When I fell off the pace in the straw Wal-Mart cowboy hat I favored at the time, an attractive person who may have been his daughter also passed me a minute or so later with a single word I at first mistook for “casserole.” With a bike that pricey, it could’ve been his wife.

Must’ve broken some rule?

It really is a horsepower track; sadly, there aren’t any horses.

People are mostly polite, though, because unlike the motorcyclist who smokes you on the track and is gone within a few corners, on a bicycle, most people who pass you generally make a show of going past pretty quickly before settling into a pace only 1.2 mph faster than yours; it takes them awhile to get out of earshot. The Strava program I loaded onto my phone never lets me forget my average speed over the 29 miles to the ocean and back never exceeds 13.7 mph, and I think it was 13.5 when I started doing it a year ago. Oh well.

Just like the motorcycling ATGATT community, a couple of strangers have let me know I’m a jerk for not wearing a helmet; nearly everybody does wear one, including a guy I passed yesterday in an old Bell Moto 5. I exchange knowing nods with other crusty rebels coming the other direction who also choose to let their freak flag fly. I don’t have to ride in traffic at all on my beach route, and if Baby Jesus wants me to bump my head that hard at 13.5 mph and take me home after all I’ve been through, then so be it. I usually do wear gloves in case I need to break a fall, and pad my noggin with my Bjorn Borg replica headband.

In every field of human endeavor, of course, there are guys who live their lives waiting for an opportunity to yell at you. I bumped into my pal Joe Neric last weekend on the trail, and we were blocking about half of the northbound lane while we stopped to chat. We were the only ones in sight, but after about five minutes, a group of three guys rode past us, one of them yelling “GET OFF THE TRAIL YOU F********G IDIOTS!” When you put some people in uniform, even if it’s just a two-sizes too-small Spandex bicycle-riding one, the authoritarian jerk will out.

Smoking tobacco to stimulate the lungs is currently almost universally agreed upon to be a bad idea. A couple flagons of ale on the other hand…

In the winter, the Pacific’s too cold to swim in, but in the summer I like to run my own little triathlon, substituting the running portion with drinking a beer possibly before and always after the bike ride and swim. Thirty miles aren’t that many for serious bicycle people (Erik Buell told me two weeks ago he was doing 100-mile rides till a back problem sidelined him), but for me it’s more than enough good clean low-impact heavy breathing and a good way to keep in touch with the community.

Just like rural areas where people like to display their wealth in the form of junk cars in the yard, the homeless who’ve taken up residence under the bridges along the river trail always have a variety of bicycles parked outside their shelters to juxtapose the high-end carbon-fiber ones whizzing past their front (lack of) door.

Who needs a flat kit when these guys are around?

At the end of the day, the bicycle thing is great exercise for the mind and body, and I have to agree with the many motorcycle riders who think it makes them better motorcyclists too: It for sure strengthens your legs and core and improves balance, or something like that, and basically gets the positive juices flowing. Most of all it makes you want to fall to your knees weeping and thank God you’re not having to pedal when you do get on a motorcycle, now that you realize how much work it takes to go 29 miles at 13.7 mph. God bless Gottlieb Daimler!

I suppose it’s only a matter of time before I’ll need a better bike, those stupid shoes and some tight shorts with a chamois in the crotch, just so I can go 2 mph faster and yell at people who get in my way. Or not.

John Burns
John Burns

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  • DHZ DHZ on Feb 11, 2016

    I am an old fart who loves to ride bicycle (and cycles). Around here in West Virginia on the converted railroad bed trails people just fly. Some people are running 45+ on the down mountain sections. My solution to keep riding at and enjoy was a ZEV Valkyrie E Bicycle at $3900. http://www.zelectricvehicle... In no power or low power assist I can go out and get the same exercise as before, I just cover a lot more ground so I am not bored. Then the power is there if I wimp out and need to get home. On some of the long mountain trails I do not become a slightly moving roadblock anymore. There is one trail I love, but it climbs at about a 35 degree angle for 4 miles. I can ride that again now with the power assist on. Now I can slog through the long mountain trails that I could never make before. Much more interesting. It also fixed the issue of hauling the bike to the trail as in full power assist the thing can run 34 mph so I can run with the cars and not get run over, bike lane or not on the city streets. So I now just ride to the trail head. Best run was a 60 mile run through the mountains. I had just about reached the point of riding, now I am hard back at it again. I am sure someone will bitch that assist is cheating, etc., but wait until you are older and limp from a few cycle crashes. Its either get assist and enjoy or give it up. You should try one.

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    • Schizuki Schizuki on Feb 13, 2016

      Unlike electric motorcycles, electric-assist bicycles make a shit-ton of sense. Nice set-up you've got there, DHZ.

  • Schizuki Schizuki on Feb 13, 2016

    There does seem to be a direct correlation between the amount of professional biker gear and the rider's level of assholery.

    I've got a Huffy hybrid (i.e., a cheap Huffy "mountain bike" that I put hybrid tires on) and a nice old railbed trail that runs from my house to the ocean. It's as fun as motorcycling. Two wheels are simply sublime, whether powered or not.