In a recent fatwa, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei banned women from riding “bikes in public places.” But this left a good number of Iranian women unconvinced, and on social media they’ve posted pictures of themselves with their bicycles, daring for the first time to defy the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution.
I can understand those women. Their freedom in Iran is quite restricted, mainly because men could be tempted by them. That apparently is the rationale behind the latest fatwa. I can also see why they appreciate cycling. Cycling can give you a sense of freedom – you go on your own power through the hills and valleys and parks and lakes and beaches and towns of your country, you get fresh air, and nobody is constantly watching you. Perhaps to a religious dictator, it just doesn’t fit into the devout and pious medieval picture he wants to see. Or maybe preventing “temptation” is indeed the honest motive.
There is another world that many of us don’t pay attention to – it is a world of loner athletes.
One time I flew down to Chile to go hiking. I decided that I was not mobile enough, so I purchased a bicycle from a local shop, and headed south toward the lake district. At some point, I heard a yell. A sunburnt young man with a broad brim hat was standing by his bicycle, and calling me. We got to talking, and I understood that he had mistaken me for someone like him. He had cycled from the Northern tip of Alaska, zig-zagging through first Canada, then America, then Mexico, and further south, until he got to this point. He was planning to complete his trip down the Carretera Austral, through Patagonia and to the Southern tip.
I was not an adventurer like him – I had a 2 week vacation, and that was plenty for me. I also looked rather silly, with rubber bands around my baggy pants so they wouldn’t get caught in the bike, and granny glasses and a oversize helmet. He was from Belgium, but he blended in with everyone else. He didn’t even have a helmet. At the time he was having a problem with his trip, because an army camp occupied the land around the road. I went with him to the soldier in charge, who offered to drive him past that area. Of course the Belgian didn’t want to be driven, he wanted to do the entire Western hemisphere on his own power.
I never found out whether he ended up persuading the soldier to make an exception for him.
People like this don’t show up in your newspaper, but there are a surprising number of them.
On another cycle trip I went on, this time with a group, we were overtaken by an old retiree on a bicycle. He was crossing the country by himself, and he didn’t have much money, so the woman in charge of our food van gave him a sandwich. He then shot off at a speed I certainly could not equal. I guess there was a freedom he was seeking, before old age made it impossible.
You can lose your freedom easily on a bike too. On a car trip to Bethpage restoration in Long Island, we passed a cyclist who had been hit. My brother, who was driving, saw more details than I did. The man’s limbs were bent at an impossible angle, and he was in a lot of pain. Such accidents can leave you immobilized in a hospital for long periods of time, and perhaps, with pain for the rest of your life.
Even with a helmet, people can end up with permanent brain damage, which happened to an acquaintance of my mother’s who had been cycling in his local neighborhood.
I’ve been surprised at who is an adventurer, and who is not. On one hike I did with a group in Norway, there was little dark New York girl with an Italian name, whose idea of fun vacations was to go with a friend and rock-climb cliffs around the world. If you looked at her and tried to make up a biography, rock-climbing would not come to mind.
A fellow train commuter to New Haven who did not look particularly strong, had raced in a 50 mile foot race. It actually ended up being more than 50 miles, because of a traffic obstacle that happened at the last minute. Again, looking at him, you would not put that kind of punishing endurance in his biography.
My twin was more of a runner than I was, he made the school track team, and sometimes they would run with our dog Chum, a bull-mastiff Shepherd, out past the pine trees of the Irvington reservoir. Chum was a trooper, but he was a dog, and I should have remembered that, instead of seeing him as a little person. Once when I ran with him, without a leash, up into Pocantico Hills, we had a disaster. As we ran past a little white house, a little dog came forth to defend his property, and Chum retaliated by picking up the little dog by the neck and shaking systematically. This apparently is a built in killer instinct sequence in dogs. The whole thing was my fault, and though we were told the dog survived, I don’t believe it, for various reasons.
Chum nearly drowned once on one of our summer vacations. He thought we had gone out into the lake, and he swam far out into it, until my father noticed what was happening, and came after him in a rowboat.
As you may gather by this point, I am not great in the judgement department.
My twin has hiked in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, he’s gone on his own to the Goat Rock Wilderness in Washington State, and done long runs wherever he ended up, from Pennsylvania to California.
He should have remembered that the city is not the country. For instance, one time he pitched a small tent in a park in San Francisco, and was woken up by the sound of many men walking. The park, it turned out, was a meeting place for homosexuals looking for “partners”.
I’ve camped by the sides of the road, and sometimes on private property, and I really should not have.
In the crazy adventure department, I charged a cougar on a lonely dirt road into California from Oregon. I had a long knife in one hand, and I was on a bicycle. The cougar darted away into the woods, but I don’t recommend this approach. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”. Cougars do attack cyclists and runners and walkers.
I’ve cycled with a Canadian carpenter who I met going down the Blue Ridge Parkway (he was cycling from Toronto to Miami), I’ve hiked with another Canadian when I walked across Switzerland, I’ve cycled the Highlands of Scotland and various parts of the American West, and often, you meet people who are much more adventurous than you will ever be.
But is this activity just a meaningless frivolity anyway? Would it be a tragedy if people can no longer do it?
Lone athletics requires safety, prosperity, and leisure time.
In recent years, the world is getting less safe, not more so. And these lone adventures do kill, I remember reading of two women murdered in their tent on the Appalachian Trail and cyclists being beaten badly by hoodlums on American bike paths.
But there is even a stranger phenomenon that I have personally encountered. I cannot bike distance any more. There are problems with my feet and back. I will not say here how I developed those problems. But I will say (and obviously my testimony is suspect, since my family members believe I’m insane) that if you are disliked enough, there will be people who exult at the diminishment of your freedom. They will exult when you are finally off your bike. They will thrill at the idea that you cannot travel anymore. They will vow to disable you, if they have the unpleasant experience of having to meet you face to face on a pleasant walk with their friends. All this in America, which sees itself as the ground-zero of liberty.
Of course there are other, better ways to explore your world. The world of science is getting more interesting by the day, for instance. Some cyclists do hang up their bikes permanently, because they realize that too much of their life is being diverted to turning a wheel on a boring road.
But we should support those Iranian women who want to keep cycling. And I still admire that Belgian.