Was it a stroke or heart attack? A stroke, Jim grumbles, slightly annoyed that I would not know the difference, a light TIA, to be precise. The doctor said I needed to get more exercise. Well. What would more exercise be for a professor at UCLA? Writing more books? Grading more essays? More lectures? I am just not an exercise person. Never been to a gym. And no intention of going there, to say the truth.
We are sitting in the afternoon sun in Santa Monica, between Washington and California. Jim remembers: Back then there was this article in the New York Times about women always starting a new diet, and invariably going back to the old pattern. The article spoke about the need to integrate better food and exercise into daily routines. Integrating. Not as a special effort, just make it part of your everyday life. Then I knew it would be cycling for me.
So I wandered up to Helens on Broadway and eyed some of their beach cruisers. Luckily, the guy made sure I got a proper bike. I paid about $500 and rode it back home. Riding a bike is something you never forget, although at that stage I had not done it for, well 40, 50 years. Go figure. Jim says bi-cycling, like bi-metal, with the emphasis on the first syllable.
A little hummingbird flies by. I’d ride to Pico and Ocean and would go up and down the beach. I would do this almost every day, but not on the weekend, when it is too crowded down there. I’d get up really early, before 6, and go from the Marina to Will Rogers Beach. I would really enjoy it. I’d sleep better too. On a day without cycling, I would miss it, and I always looked forward to it. You could perhaps say it made me happy.
Jim offers me a drink. About a year into my new cycling life I ride under the pier, when this little kid in front of me suddenly makes a sharp left, and bang, I break hard and go over the handlebars. Everybody springs into action. Suddenly there was a sense of community among cyclists. The lifeguards were also very good. I had done my collar bone twice before, in sports, but this time they bound me up differently so that I had full use of both hands, so that was good. But it took a few months to heal, steel pins and all.
Was this the end of your bicycle adventure, I ask? Giving up bi-cycling? No, never. I loved it too much. I just realized that the beach path is too dangerous. Children and dogs and the sand, it is just not safe. So I decided to leave the old BMW Z4 in the garage and get my daily dose of cycling by riding to UCLA. People say it is much more dangerous, but they have no idea. Yes, I take the slower streets. I would never ride on Wilshire. I also do leave early, before 7, to avoid all the moms driving their kids to school. They should be cycling too, seriously. There are two hills, but I do enjoy them, because you really want the cardio.
Jim has just finished the substantial revisions for the third edition of his book on the middle east. Earlier he has been on the phone with a radio station in Canada. He likes these professional interviews, but they are pretty exhausting too. He shows me the folding bike in his living room. I love cycling and I love to go out for a drink with friends. That’s why I have this folding bike here. The Dahon has internal gearing, so you can shift gears when waiting for a green light. Even better, when we get together with friends, I ride it to the place, we have a few drinks, and then I fold it up and our designated driver gives me a ride home. Bingo.
I do have a thing about cyclists overtaking each other in traffic. So at the red light I try to make up my mind if I am going to ride ahead or behind the other cyclists. This way we avoid overtaking each other. I find shopping with the bike is really easy. I have this routine that I shop often, but little. This way I am not having too much weight on my bike, and I have stopped to throw away food. I just buy what I need.
When I cross 26th Street, coming home from UCLA, I really feel I am home and safe. Cycling is so much better in Santa Monica now. But some drivers really have no idea how dangerous they are. They just don’t seem to use turn signals any more. This is really dangerous for cyclists.
My bike really opened a new chapter for me. I feel great now and I know I do the right thing, driving less. Who would have thought that my BMW Z4 with a soft top would see so little of me these says. I just had a $1800 repair and the mechanic said I better make sure that I drive it at least once every week. You should have asked me 10 years ago about cycling; I would have said you are crazy. It would never have entered my mind. But now I am convinced that it is a cure for so many ills. I am still learning about bikes, but I have already infected a few of my friends.
James Gelvin is a professor of history at UCLA. His main bike is a KHS Urban Express.