Tuesday, October 31, 2000

religious epiphanies on two wheels

I've decided to give up riding my bike for a while. I've been having too many religious experiences on it.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for religious experiences. In fact, I've had several of them in my lifetime, including one or two that actually involved God. But I'm not talking about an experience like "Zen and the Art of Schwinn Ten-Speed Maintenance." I'm talking about religious experiences of a wholly different class.

There's certainly nothing about my bike that should make it serve as a magnet for supernatural activity. To the naked eye, it appears to be an unremarkable 21-speed aluminum alloy frame built to endure moderate off-road travel, basically meaning that I should honor signs like "Bridge Out," "Expert Skier Slope" and "Danger: Land Mines."

But you can't fool me. There may be no earthly reason for it, but my bicycle is a greater magnet for spiritual activity than the apartment building Sigourney Weaver lived in for "Ghostbusters."
When I rode my bike to work this summer, I had experiences so spiritual that I practically saw God face to face. Any day now, I expect to come in the door, my face burning with divine glory and my hands holding stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God himself -- assuming I'm not ushered directly into his presence first for all eternity.

The longer commute notwithstanding, there are many physical and psychological benefits to riding a bike to work, and only a few of them involve the humor potential for coworkers when you have an accident in the parking lot. New Jersey, never a state to miss ruining a good thing when the opportunity presents itself, has added another benefit: natural selection.

New Jersey is a state for motorists. If you don't believe me, give it a try. I guarantee that once you take your bike for a spin through New Jersey, friendly-sounding street names like "State Highway Route 206" and signs like "Speed Limit 45" will assume a sinister new gloss.

One stretch of Route 514 in Franklin Township is particularly interesting to bicycle on. The posted speed limit is 45 mph, but this is merely a direct application of Darwin's theories. The road twists and turns so rapidly that trying to manage that speed even in a car is impossible unless you already dabble in the black arts and have offered your next-door neighbor's cat to the Dark Lord.

Bicyclists don't have a prayer. How on earth are you supposed to ride a bike on that kind of road, with cars whizzing by so fast that the wind shear alone doubles your speed? I won't even mention that some cars come so close you can sing along with their radios.

All that said, I find I enjoy the solitary experience of biking, of actually seeing the rows of identical houses with immaculately prim yards and the rabid, slavering dogs that chase me each day. After a while, as fatigue sets in, I don't even notice that my bike leans from one side to the other as I pedal, lurching back and forth like an old sailor whose pegleg has been declared Special of the Month by "Termite" magazine.

But I must cut a lonely figure, and sometimes motorists decide they would rather have me in their front seats. On one particular afternoon, I was already halfway across an intersection when a motorist - let's call him "Bonehead" - stuck his car out so far into the intersection that oncoming traffic screeched to a halt.

As much as I would have appreciated a better view of Bonehead's hood and windshield, I clenched my handbrakes with a grip I typically reserve for the necks of nincompoops in certain favorite fantasies of mine, and in the background heard strains of angels' singing.

But that's not where the story ends. The same thing happened to me a second time less than a mile later, this time with Bonehead's wife. The heavenly music was getting louder now.

The angelic choir burst forth into full rhapsody when I was less than a mile from home, on a stretch of Sandford Street that runs by St. Mary's Church. (A very suitable place for religious experiences, I am told.) The road there is two lanes, with adequate space for parked vehicles or bicyclists.

It is not, however, adequate space for parked vehicles and bicyclists, as I discovered. To ensure that bicyclists don't get any clever ideas about actually riding on the road, the city engineering department measured 300 cars to determine their average width, added half a foot for skinny bikers in case Ichabod Crane ever came that way, and then made the lanes exactly one inch narrower.

I was just passing the statue of Mary when a full host of angels burst into view with a glorious euphony of singing. Behind them was a vast throne, concealed by clouds from which came thunder and lightning.

"You stupid idiot," the angels sang. "Ride your bike on the sidewalk."

Yes, I had had a near-encounter with Bonehead's brother-in-law. If he had had a second coat of paint on his car, I would have had to switch religions in order to appreciate my new oneness with the asphalt.

With my new revelation of knowledge, I have stopped riding my bike principally on the streets, and have taken it a few times onto trails, which I have decided are safer than New Jersey roads.

Even if they do have land mines.

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