From motorbikes to bikes

Lured by the steep drop in the prices of motorbikes, people who ride bicycles seldom hesitate to trade their bikes for motorcycles as soon as they have saved enough for a small down payment. It doesn’t take long before they realize what they have given up, and how much financial burden they have unwisely assumed by that shift. Last week, I did the opposite: I decided to return to a youthful passion—biking, while reserving my motorcycle for long out-of-town trips.

I am lucky to live inside a biker’s paradise—the University of the Philippines campus in Diliman, Quezon City. One quiet evening a couple of weeks ago, I went out on my heavy KTM 1190 Adventure motorcycle for a quick spin around the campus. It’s my way of de-stressing. Some people go out for a smoke, or play games on their tablets, or take long walks. I ride.

Balancing myself on the pegs of this powerful machine, I tried to maintain a speed of 15-20 kph on first gear around the oval. It struck me suddenly that no matter how much I tried to go with the flow set by cyclists and joggers, I felt like an alien intruder. I promptly went home, took off my padded jacket and pants, changed into shorts, and decided to walk.

But there was something about motorcycling that I could never get from walking. It wasn’t just the wind on one’s face, or the speed. It was the also the thrill of being able to keep one’s balance on two wheels while rounding a bend with just the right lean. I thought I should get myself a bicycle.

The transition has been humbling and, to use a pompous term, paradigm-shattering. Rather than use my legs to power the wheels, I kept instinctively twisting a nonexistent throttle to gain speed. Several times, I unconsciously reached out for the gear lever with my left foot, and pressed the pedal with my right to slow down on a corner, when I should be using both to do the hard labor of pedaling.

The quest for the proper gear combination on the handlebar using both the right and left thumbs preoccupied me so much that the bike began to shake and wobble as if wanting to throw me off its perch. Instinctively, I tightened my grip on the handlebars to avoid falling, which, of course, only made the bike even more unsteady. The result was a mortifying first ride that totally amused my granddaughter Julia, who had quietly followed me on her own bike like an anxious parent.

Most of all, I felt naked and unprotected. The plastic helmet rested lightly on my head; it felt as fragile as the cranium it was supposed to protect. Instead of fully-armored Kevlar motorcycle pants and jacket, I donned a cyclist’s thin polyester shirt and a flimsy pair of Spandex shorts, the same ones I normally wore under a heavy motorcycle jacket and padded riding pants. The cycling gloves were open at the fingertips, which made me wonder if these were expressly made for texting.

But as soon as I got past the aching thighs and the task of figuring the most suitable combination of gears, I began to relish the indescribable delight of a bicycle ride that I had known as a child. Nothing perhaps can compare with the sensation of gliding gracefully while being propelled forward by one’s own effort. There’s a rhythm to it that is uniquely its own.

The noise that a motorbike emits is a source of protection for the rider, and is as important as the headlights that alert other motorists to the presence of a barely visible vehicle on the street.  But on a still night along half-deserted streets, the cracking sound of a motorbike’s pipes is an aggravation to the senses. Not so with a bicycle.

You pick your way through the darkness like a firefly. No one hears your coming, not even yourself. The night embraces you like one of its own creatures, and in an instant, you feel at home. A sense of calm descends upon you, and soon you learn to regulate your breathing so no one can hear you. I actually felt conscious about constantly changing gears because the resulting strain on the chain at low speed sounded so much like the protestations of a machine that was being abused. I felt compelled by an ethic of unobtrusiveness that I could not explain.

But for the first time in many years, I experienced the simple joys of being able to stop at any time by the curbside, lift your vehicle off the street, lean it against a lamppost, and pull out a bottle of cold drink from underneath the bike’s slender seat. You can’t do that even with the lightest motorcycle. You invariably find yourself seeking shelter in gas stations or sari-sari stores.

The last time I remember frantically looking for a gas station in which to get a drink and use the rest room was a year ago while on a tour of Panay with my motorcycle group. On a long stretch of road bordered by sugarcane fields, I felt strange and decided to pick up speed and zoom past my riding buddies. Departing from Iloilo City after a heavy breakfast, we had been on the road for nearly two hours. We were riding in the direction of the late morning sun. Then, almost magically, a Petron station appeared on the horizon, and I had to ask myself if this was not an illusion. Indeed, I should have done the most sensible thing at the first sign of dehydration: pull up anywhere it was safe, dismount, find a shade, and sit down. Yet, it seemed difficult to do that when you’re riding a 500-pound bike.

Lightness is ultimately what it is about. That’s the reason bicycle frames are being fabricated from the lightest materials, like carbon fiber, sometimes making them more expensive than motorbikes. But for as long as they are powered by sheer human effort, they will never be far away from the rudimentary bikes on which, as children, we first learned to balance ourselves.

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