Are we competing? A tale of two bicyclists.

September 4, 2008 | By | 3 Replies More

As I’ve indicated before, I live about 4 1/2 miles from the office where I work as an attorney.  Because I cycle about 14 mph on average, I am about 20 minutes away from work by bicycle.  That’s only ten minutes more than it takes to drive.  Riding a bike instead of driving offers many other types of benefits too. Cycling to work is thus my routine, but it sometimes offers a good anecdote.

Yesterday morning, while cycling to work, I came to a stop at a red traffic light next to a tall man who was also riding a bicycle. He was decked out in fancy bike riding clothes (a distinct contrast from my standard uniform–inexpensive cotton t-shirt and shorts).

I said, “Hey.”

He nodded in acknowledgment.

When the traffic light turned green, he took off, peddling hard to the next traffic light one block away. I peddled at a steady pace, almost reaching him again because he stopped because that light was red.  Just as I approached that light, though, it turned green and he took off again, pedaling hard.

The same thing happened at the next intersection.  Because he was peddling hard, he got to that third intersection faster than I did but, again, the light was red for him. By the time I arrived that traffic light had turned green, and the man quickly accelerated toward the fourth intersection.  It too was red when he got there, but it also turned green as I approached.

The man on the bike turned left at that fourth intersection, while I road straight through.  Right after I crossed that intersection, the man–who had stopped after making his left turn–called to me across the intersection. He yelled, “Hey!”

I paused and yelled back at him, across the intersection, “What’s up?”

“I am twice as old as you!”

I was puzzled, wondering whether I heard him correctly.  I responded, “What makes you say that?”

He proudly replied, “I’m 57 years old!”

“But I’m 52,” I said.

He looked perplexed, and said “Whu . . .?  Ohhh . . .”  Then he rode on without saying anything else.

All I can figure is that this man thought I was younger than I am.  More interestingly, he thought we were somehow competing. Apparently, he was working hard to race me to the next stoplight, whereas I was simply peddling to work.  I think he was proud because he thought that he was in much better shape than a much younger cyclist.

This story serves as an allegory for me.  How often are other people intensely competing with us while we are simply living our lives, oblivious to this “competition”?  I suspect that this happens all the time. Most of the time, this competition occurs sub-consciously.

For me, Exhibit A regarding this competition is the rampant consumerism in America, where people constantly strive to keep up with others, or stay ahead of each other.  Exhibit A-1 is the American love affair with the automobile–it’s amazing how much money people will spend in order to get a machine that merely allows you to get from Point A to Point B.  Consumer purchases are easy to spot forms of competition, but there are many others.   Darwin would remind us of competition for mates, as well as all of the resources on which human animals rely (shelter, food).

I must confess–quite often, when my bicycle is stopped at a red light alongside cars, and then that light turns green, I often peddle hard to beat the cars across the intersection.  It’s surprisingly easy to do and it gives me a strange sense of satisfaction.  I hear the roar of the engines of the motor vehicles and I think of the gas I’m saving by not driving.   It’s harmless competition, of course.  Just like the competition enjoyed by that 57-year old man who was trying to beat that much younger cyclist.

Did I remember to mention that that man thought I was much younger than I actually am?

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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, transportation

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    Well, Erich, when I show this blog to real-life acquaintances, people tend to judge from your photo that you look about 30-something! Sure, it's a small photo, but apparently the mistake does extend to people who see you in person! All that bicycling is good for a lot more than saving gas, it seems. So "race" the cars all you want.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    I notice these competitors driving on city highways. You've seem them They work hard, rapidly changing lanes. Fast acceleration, and sudden braking as they try to gain any advantage in traffic. After 5 or 10 miles, they usually have succeeded in gaining a few car lengths over my more polite and zen-like driving style.

    Those few car lengths add up to several seconds at cruising speed. Over perhaps a 20 minute drive. Congratulations, I think.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erich, your story reminds me of an important tip for people who claim they don't commute to work by bicycle because they fear it will make them sweaty: just ride slower. People perspire all the time (it's how our skin avoids dryness cracks that might allow the ingress of infection); what makes us "sweat" is when we generate perspiration faster than the surrounding atmosphere can remove. The best way to avoid that is to just reduce the exertion level; i.e., by riding slower to work and saving the hard-core hammering for the ride home. Significantly, as your story above illustrates, the difference in commute time might be negligible.

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