Oberlin Blogs

Aries versus Bicycle

August 16, 2009

Aries Indenbaum ’09

Aries versus Bicycle:
A test of grit, balance and seat size

If you go to Oberlin, you know Mike Rauscher.

If you don't, I'm terribly sorry. Mike is one of the most brilliant people I've ever met. Anything related to planes, rockets, Russian history, submarines, Otto von "Badass" Bismarck, cephalopods, or neuroscience... he knows it. And he can draw a schematic of it. Mike can make you believe in Science, Electricity, and the beauty of Space.

And he's a demon on a bicycle. He doesn't do traditional bike "tricks"; he rides in increasingly complex styles, laying cosmic violence onto the concrete. He rides sitting, standing, leaning, one-legged... anything. And it's all for fun, not to show off his balance or proprioceptive skills.

Watching Mike ride convinced me. It wasn't a jealousy thing--I didn't want to be as good as Mike. But I wanted to understand what it was like, to meet him halfway. To clarify: I must learn how to ride a bike.


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Photo by Ma'ayan "Shutter-Bug" Plaut.

When I talked it over with Harris, he clarified something, "I know a few folks here who can't bike. Most of them are ashamed." While he didn't mean it in a judgmental way, he's totally right. Nearly everyone at Oberlin can bike. Many own or rent bikes, thanks to the Bike Co-op. With 4000 More! starting soon, bikes should be abounding. If you can't ride? That's weird.

Shamed, I sought out a teacher, a Professor of Bikes, Mister Miyagi on wheels. Someone with patience, communications skills, and the ability to ignore my foul curses of frustration.

I found Matt. Matt works in Admissions as the Campus Visit Intern. A chemistry major, Matt plays Frisbee, does Brazilian jujitsu, and serves as the head cook at Pyle. Besides being a sweetheart, Matt tolerates my crude and tasteless remarks incredibly well. He makes bad puns.

And, most importantly, he offered to teach me.

For Day One of bike lessons, I was a bit late. While leaving my house, two women walked past the porch and asked if I wanted some zucchini.

My housemate shouted, "We don't have room in the fridge!"

I shrugged at the ladies. "Fridge speaks, I guess."

"Really?" she said. She gestured to the zucchinis. They were huge, the length of a baseball bat and as wide around as a honeydew melon. Dark green and lush. Beautiful, free giant vegetables.

"Well..." I buckled. "Actually... Yeah, I'd love them."

They were heavy, heavier than I'd have expected. By the time I reached the Bike Co-op, my forearms felt unhappy. "Matt!" I yelled, "I brought a present!"

Matt emerged from the co-op door, "Aries! It's good to - woah. What are those?"

"Zucchinis!" I announced, "You can fry them."

"Are they real?" Matt said. We talked about zucchinis for a while, before venturing into the co-op to grab a bike.

The bike co-op is based out of Keep Cottage, one of the largest dining/housing co-ops at Oberlin. After two decades of operation, the bikes took over the entire basement, with rooms christened the "graveyard," "the showroom," and, of course, the "work room." As a non-bike rider, I was overwhelmed by how cool the place was. They had recently reorganized, so all the bikes sat shining in a row. The bike graveyard was clearly the best, a collection of frames and incomplete bikes, lined up with Christmas tree lights. The floor was dirt, patched with occasional wooden boards over the big holes.

Most folks go to the bike co-op for renting a bike or repairs. Renting a bike is absurdly cheap: $15, plus a $30 safety deposit returned at the end of the semester. If you work 10 hours for the co-op, you can build your own bike, free of charge. While a rental bike might have a lot of "character," you can always fix them up. Or, if you're a fix-it person, you can volunteer at the co-op and learn everything.

For more, you can watch this awesome video about the Bike Co-op, made by a mechanic, Ben Neufeld.


The front room is the central repair room, with clamps to hold bikes aloft while one works on them. The tools: wrenches, chain-cutter, screwdrivers, etc. Folks filter through the back rooms, where the dismantled bikes get grouped, quality parts separated from older, rusted pieces. A boombox sits in each room, playing classical, jazz, ambient rock.

Mechanics fill the room, repairing rentals, dismantling bikes, tightening, fixing, etc. They get absorbed in their tasks, face next to the bike frame, hands dark with grease. It can be hard to approach the staff to say, "Hey dude performing open heart surgery, can I ask you a few questions?" It's not an unfriendly place, just... focused.

Matt and I hit the pavement. We started with his bike, a slick steel machine with a tiny seat and the handles far away. I thought of the song "Handlebars" by Flobots as I fumbled around. Matt guided the bike while I attempted to steer and pedal at the same time. This was not a success, but not a total failure either.

Learning got better when we switched to a low-gear ladies bike with a wider seat. While I'll never win a serious bootylicious contest, it's easier to learn when I can actually balance on the seat. Matt called it an "butt basket versus a butt hatchet."

It was more fun to learn than I expected. I was anticipating that it would be like learning how to stilt all over again, with the pounding heart-rate and the terrible fear that I was going to fall and die at any second. Not so much. In between attempts, Matt made really awful jokes. I would laugh, then fall over.

We met later in the week and tried again on the newly-paved road right outside Keep. On the street, cars drove slower; their occupants looked at us.

"This would look natural if you were about a decade younger," Matt said. "Maybe shorter would help too."

I grumbled at him and tried again. And again. And again. After an hour, my butt and pelvis felt like I mashed them with a hammer.

I don't have it down yet, but I can taste it. One day, maybe I can learn to bike like Mike.

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