The epic cycle

Scott Gardner


I ride a mountain bike to school. I do it to impress students. One morning I pulled up at my building just as a student was walking by. “Wow!” she said. “Look at that bicycle!”I pointed out to her the high, cushioned saddle optimally positioned for high speeds as well as bumpy roads. I showed her the fat, knobby tires that can navigate through brush and gravel as well as over storm drains in town. I counted out for her the 21 gears that get me up any steep mountainside as well as woosh me through city streets at rush hour faster than most cars. “What do you think?” I asked. “It’s very dirty,” she answered. “You should clean it.”

The truth is, though, that my mountain bike’s lightweight aluminum is no match for the ponderous steel of a chari. Some chari are even beefed up with body armor in the form of oversized baskets, steel-mesh canvas hand warmers, and child seats with reinforced plating to protect against improvised explosive devices (IEDs). I’ve begun to notice chari with vertical brackets attached to the handlebars, on which it seems riders can mount either an umbrella or an automatic rifle.

The placement of child seats confuses me. I’ve often seen smiling, distracted people riding toward me, talking or even singing to themselves. As they approach I begin to worry that they’re about to pronounce a blessing on me or ask for directions to Venus, until I discover they’re actually singing to a child strapped in behind them over the back tire. Other child seats are easier to spot because they’re protruding tumorously out from between the handlebars, almost like the figurehead of an 18th century man-o’-war. Some of the more self-contained ones have little labels on them indicating they’ve been cleared by NASA to withstand atmospheric reentry, should the need arise. ET never had it so good.

Brakes on most Japanese bicycles serve two purposes. One is to slow the rider down. The other is to cause everyone within a 3km radius to clap their hands to their ears in pain. The piercing, grainy, 150-decibel squeal of a braking Japanese chari is unique in that it is capable of both killing off the living and calling up spirits of the dead. I’ve heard of an obscure village in the Hokuriku region that employs chari-braking as part of its yearly summer festival. The locals practice on the hillside for months on end. This village is also noted for its complete absence of dogs.

As a bicycle rider from the USA, I face a certain problem here that as far as I know doesn’t exist in my own country. When it comes to parking a bicycle there always seems to be clear evidence of class division that, despite society’s best efforts, has yet to be surmounted. I’m speaking of bicycles that park vertically versus those that lean. Parking a leaner among a group of verticles is about as awkward as trying to wear a glockenspiel on a crowded train. It’s like mixing up standard Roman letters and italics.

There’s another phenomenon that occurs in my city that I call glaciation, wherein a mass of parked bicycles becomes so compact and condensed that kickstands are redundant: the pressure of bike against bike is enough to hold them all up. These bicycle glaciers inch unnoticeably up and down the streets near the station, converging with or breaking off from others, in a rhythm that is indiscernible to humans and can only be measured in geologic time (except when global warming occurs around 5 o’clock every day). If your own bicycle becomes trapped in one of these, it may be centuries before you see it processed out the other side. And the years of pressure often take their toll, leaving you with less of a bike than what you lost. I’ve seen many a victim riding around on a bicycle that has been severely shrunken to a size more suitable for circus clowns. Their only consolation seems to be that their brakes still work, and now at a higher, even more deadly pitch.