I spent a lot of time thinking about the name for Pedal Powered Anthropology. I like it. I liked it. The “Anthropology” part is obvious–I’m an anthropologist doing anthropological things. But why “Pedal Powered?” What was it about the cycling part that was more than just how I get around at best, a novelty at worst?
First! A little background:
Cycling has been a major part of my life for years. I biked as a kid, as close to everyone did. I stopped at some point. Probably around when I got my license. By the time I was 18 I was having some pretty serious knee issues. Diagnosed as patellofemoral syndrome, it got pretty bad pretty quickly. For several months of being 18, I was out of work on disability. I pretty much couldn’t walk. Eventually the flare up or whatever calmed down. I could get around, albeit hobbly at times.
I started wearing different footwear. At the time I worked in a stock room. Lots of hours on my feet on a cement floor. I have flat feet. Pretty much everything is bad for them. I also worked part time refinishing wooden boats. That became full time, I started wearing sandals more often. Eventually, I somehow figured out that being barefoot really, reeeeeeaally alleviated my knee pain. It was still there, but I could get around without much discomfort.
Now, I also have always had issues with anxiety. I’m also diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, which made it pretty difficult to bring myself to source new clients. With work slowing down and rent to be made, I set off from my apartment (I’m newly 21 at this point) on bicycle to track down a new job.
I kept a list, I bet I still have it because I save notebooks like crazy. But over a course of about 2 months, I applied to 54 different jobs. I biked to all of them. Providence is a small place so it’s not like I was going 60 miles a day or anything.
But you know what? My knee stopped hurting. Almost altogether. By the time I ditched that apartment and lived in my car in mostly New Orleans for a couple months, it was pretty much a non-issue. It bugged me. It predicted the weather still. Some days I’d still have to drive with two feet (an automatic). But it was improving quickly.
You see, turns out cycling works your legs. It wound up mimicking the physical therapy exercises (horrible) while actually being a lot of fun and also getting me around. It was still a sometimes thing, though, until a few years later. I was moving into an apartment and my bike was stolen from behind it while I was off getting a load of stuff.
I was so mad that this bike I rode like three time was stolen (it was a pretty nice bike) that I immediately went to the local department store and bought a really, really low end crappy road bike.
BUT I LOVED IT. I started riding to work on that thing. 16 miles each way. It was a huge achievement for me. I started riding more and more and encouraged the people around me to start riding. I founded The Vehicular Liberation Front as an inclusive cycling group that would help encourage new cyclists who were maybe intimidated by bike shop culture (lots of snobbery in the cycling world) while also networking like-minded cyclists who wanted to meet.
I got my next bike. And fell completely in love with the sport. I spent “real” money on it. It was an investment. A vehicle. I got it 8 years ago this month (August, 2018) and I’m still riding it regularly and it’s still one of the most comfortable vehicles of any kind that I’ve ever used. I started to bike more. And more. And get more bikes and learn more about cycling and meet more people who were into cycling and get more bikes.
I went to school for anthropology, as you’ve likely gathered by now. I did my general education requirements at a community college, transferring to Rhode Island College for my degree. I live about 5 miles away, and so decided that I wouldn’t drive to school. Ever. And in about 3 years of going to RIC, I drove I think twice. Both times for exams. There was one time that I triiiiied to drive, because of how bad the snow was. But it was so icy I couldn’t get my car out of the driveway so I biked in. That bike pictured above was the bike that I rode throughout my undergrad.
Also I don’t own a car anymore. So now I kinda have to go by bike.
I’ve since built a bike that’s tailored to the kinds of riding I do…versatility + film making + spending long days in the saddle.
Okay. You get it. I like cycling and it’s a big part of my life.
Well, here’s where it starts to tie together.
Cycling is a bit different than driving. Driving sort of cuts you off from your surroundings in a way that feels private. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but cycling is very much the opposite.
You see things differently…and I mean that literally. You’re going fast enough to get somewhere but slow enough to notice.
You’re exposed. The wind, heat, rain, hills. The cars and the smells. A bit of sand you don’t notice in a car can be a hospital visit to an inattentive cyclist.
You’re right out there in the middle of it. Every time you’ve honked and screamed at some idiot on the highway it’s been kind of a non-issue. But…that’s kind of horrifying when you’re on your way home from work and it happens to you because someone who isn’t even going the same way as you can’t deal with the fact that you’re doing it on a bicycle. Only they’ve decided to stay put at a stop sign when you’re at a red light and they’re just going off on you. For not being in a car.
It happens all the time.
Cycling is an interesting way to travel. It’s physically demanding at times and you’ll get into pretty excellent shape. It’s emotionally demanding at times and you’ll find yourself relating to wind and cold in new ways. And if you’re a commuter cyclist or just someone who is regularly out there cycling where cars are, it can be intellectually demanding because you’ll do well to learn hand signals, traffic laws, traffic laws related to cycling, maybe the contact information for someone in state/local law enforcement who is also a cyclist and so is sympathetic to the rights of cyclists. You might also want to get involved with groups that advocate for cycling infrastructure.
In short, cycling makes you: stronger, more confident, healthier, more observant/more curious, and it also makes you in some ways an activist.
In lots of ways I’ve had a fairly insulated life. Being a commuter cyclist, year-round in New England and going from the inner city to the relatively urban…it keeps you on your toes. I deal with all the weather New England has to offer, some of the most unbelievably terrible road surfaces and conditions, and plenty of drivers that would probably rather I just get a job…even though 9 out of 10 rides are commutes to/from work.
My education as an anthropologist has in some ways taught me how to do the same things that cycling has. To be confident in my intellect and curious to engage it in learning new things. To learn the intricacies of the sociocultural norms surrounding what it is I’m up to. To keep an eye out for the lesser-noticed. And, as anyone who has spent any time doing remote (or even slightly removed) field work can attest…to take the most ridiculous turn of events in stride and with a sense of humor that can only be honed with experience and the knowledge that it’s inevitable.
That is cycling, and that is anthropology. They’re perfect for one another.
For quite some time I had felt that the Pedal Powered aspect of what I do was a gimmick. It’s not. My perspectives as a cyclist have been shaped by my education as an anthropologist, and vice-versa. They meld so well together that it’s effortless to work cycling into it.
I don’t have to try and work the cycling into it to keep the novelty…it’s going to be there anyway. And honestly, it’s so much of how I view the world now that I’m not sure how I would do it otherwise.
And just like the cycling group I started, it’s still all about encouraging others to just get outside and explore.