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Of Bicycles and Oil Wars

Behold the hills of Marin. The stately redwoods grow tall and prosper, and they provide shelter for myriad birds and shade for the ferns on the forest floor. A squirrel runs outward on a branch above, and in an open meadow a deer grazes. As it chews its vegetables, it expresses the ingrained caution of its race. Its ears twitch at every slightest noise, and its muscles are ready to spring — but on this sunny morning in February there is nothing to cause alarm.

But what’s this? A peculiar fellow approaches on the road! He comes quickly, and behind him there comes another! Oh my! Six more, 20, 30! Our gentle deer leaps away-ward in fright as a whole herd of men approaches. Good grief, how grotesque they are! Like aliens, they are skinny, wearing blazing colors, space helmets, and Spandex. Perhaps they are from Europe. And look at their logos! They evidently promote Coca-Cola and Kendall-Jackson, and they probably get paid too much. Who are these clowns?

Of course, they are riders with the first Tour of California, which took place in late February. While Europe has long been home to the biggest cycling races, Lance Armstrong’s success in France has sparked an interest in competitive cycling in the States. Yes, I know. Bike races are ugly, the colors are too bright. It’s just so commercial. And it’s bad for the environment. But Americans love it. Surely it has something to do with the joy of seeing a Texan kick butt in France each summer for seven years. The excitement generated by Armstrong has not eluded promoters of competitive cycling, and they hope that the Tour of California will mature into something like the Tour de France, or España, or Italia. 

“Our goal is to create one of the world’s signature sporting events,” said Bob Colarossi, the ambitious managing director of the Tour of California. He acknowledges the growing popularity of competitive cycling in the wake of Armstrong’s success, and he adds, “The time is right.”

But long before bike racing became an American sport, people used bicycles as a means of transportation. As such, the bicycle has actually become a political symbol — and cycling a political act. In San Francisco people bike against a number of things, like oil, loggers, the president, fascists — whatever — and these peaceful rebels gather once monthly and tour the streets of San Francisco in what they call Critical Mass. I have joined in this huge festive ride several times, and I am one of the tamer participants. I wear square clothes and I ride an ordinary bike, but many of my fellows are artistic eccentrics. They wear bizarre, politically-loaded costumes and they decorate their bikes in anti-petroleum furnishings and stickers that say “Biking Against Oil Wars.” Usually, several cyclists tow huge amplifiers which generate fun dance music. We all smile and laugh, and many shout about the misuse of taxes and the conflict in Iraq, and the poor souls locked in their cars must wait for us to pass. 

But the growing sport of bike racing is not about the environment, clean air, or abstinence from petroleum. Competitive cycling is about money and sponsorships — the morals and convictions which inspire Critical Massers. In fact, bike racers often drive 50 miles with their bicycles on their cars before they even start riding. Their gear is expensive, too, and the poor cannot play. And bike racers must eat plastic-wrapped energy bars during photo shoots with their teams, and they adorn their hideously colored suits with corporate logos. 

I attended the Prologue of the Tour of California in downtown San Francisco. On this first day of the 600-mile race, an announcer riled up a crowd of thousands and introduced the teams and the cyclists. I did not know any of the names, and I generally disliked the entire event. The scene was essentially that of a NASCAR race, except that the race cars made no noise. And it is this NASCAR factor which really bugs me; competitive cycling has abandoned the bicycle’s intrinsic association with environmentalism, sustainable living habits, and alternative transportation and has, in fact, morphed into a fossil fuel sport. Just look at the Tour of California, in which 128 cyclists rode a total of 76,000 miles in a week on the power of their fantastic legs. That sounds nice and organic until you regard the 750 roadies who followed behind in nearly 200 automobiles. These support crews aided the athletes when they were hurt or distressed, and they tended to their technical difficulties, and along the way from San Francisco to Santa Rosa and southward to Redondo Beach — plus air travel from Europe, Japan, and Australia — they produced 518 tons of carbon dioxide. Compare that to 5,000 cyclists at a Friday night Critical Mass traveling 30,000 miles altogether and producing zero tons of that same ozone devouring gas. 

But all cyclists — casual riders and serious racers alike — are generally happy people when we’re on our bikes. We all feel the fresh wind in our faces, the thrill of a long downhill stretch, and that fine burn of a slow uphill grade through the cool redwoods. We all love the forests, the open vistas, and the views of the ocean, and we all know the excitement of arriving at the end of a long day. The difference is that competitive cyclists despair when others ride faster than they do, and they usually return home again in an automobile. 

Not us: We bike against oil wars — and we just keep on riding.

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