my share of lightheartedness

The year was 1896, and Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy experienced two life-changing events. One was tragic; one wasn’t. First, his son, Ivan Lvovich, died. Vanichka, as he was called, was only seven years old, and Tolstoy’s last child.

Second, two months later, Tolstoy learned to ride a bicycle. He was 67 years old.

Lighthearted Leo Tolstoy

Lighthearted Leo Tolstoy

Moskovskoye Obshchestvo Lyubiteley Velosipede (the Moscow Society of Velocipede-Lovers — and no, I’m not making this up) gave Tolstoy a bicycle and offered him instruction on how to operate the machine. To everybody’s surprise, he quickly became a devoted cyclist, riding along his garden paths most mornings after writing. Tolstoy on a bike; in 1896 that was considered a major news story. Scientific American reported on it: Count Leo Tolstoy…now rides the wheel, much to the astonishment of the peasants on his estate.

One of Tolstoy’s friends was considerably less enthused. He wrote: “Tolstoy has learned to ride a bicycle. Is this not inconsistent with Christian ideals?” Tolstoy’s reply:

I feel that I am entitled to my share of lightheartedness and there is nothing wrong with enjoying one’s self simply, like a boy.

Dude was right. No doubt about it. We’re all entitled to a share of lightheartedness. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying oneself like a boy. I do it all the time. I did it last Friday, in fact. And though I forgot to take my camera, I did take my phone — which like all modern phones, takes photographs.

What was once a lumber yard

What was once a lumber yard

As a camera, the Nexus 4 is a great cell phone. It’s not bad as a camera, you understand. It’s just not…well, a camera. Still, it’s good enough that when I rode by this old lumber yard on the way out of town, I had to stop and shoot the photo. It’s not that old, the lumber yard. I mean, it’s not like Tolstoy-old. But it’s semi-beat up and sort of weathered, and it’s a pretty sort of almost-yellow, so worth a photo. If I’d had my actual camera with me, I’d have ridden around the place and given it more attention. Maybe.

Here’s the thing about being an informal member of the American Midwest Society of Velocipede-Lovers: you almost always have to deal with wind. And heat, in the summer. Wind and heat can play merry hell with bicycle-riding photographer’s attitude. And that day was both hot and windy. We’re talking steady 18 mph winds with gusts up to 27mph. Riding into the wind is great exercise.

I fucking hate exercise.

Some sort of storage shed, plus a tree

Some sort of storage shed, plus a tree

I stopped occasionally to drink some water. Some serious cyclists I know always refer to this as ‘hydration.’ They hydrate themselves. I’ve actually heard them say it, right out loud. “I gotta hydrate.” Then later they re-hydrate themselves. They engage in periodic hydration management. That’s some serious business, hydration. Nothing lighthearted about it. Which is why I just pause now and then and drink some water.

I should note that Tolstoy never, not once, in all the tens of thousands of pages he wrote, ever referred to hydration. It would have astonished the peasants on his estate.

Bike trail intersection

Bike trail intersection

One of the disconcerting things about riding a bicycle in the American Midwest is how abruptly town transitions into farmland. One moment you’re noodling your bike down house-lined streets, then you’re riding through old, out-dated semi-industrial areas, and suddenly without any real warning you discover you’re actually out in the country. You know…where they grow things. Like crops. Soybeans and corn and…and maybe that’s it. I don’t know. But there are massive fields full of green growing things.

And none of it blocks the wind.

There's a lot of not much out here

There’s a lot of not much out here

On the other hand, after you’ve spent forty-five minutes riding northwest into an 18mph headwind, you can turn your bike homeward and enjoy the rare pleasures of an 18mph tailwind. You hardly have to put foot to pedal. You sit upright and the wind will blow you most of the way home.

Riding with the wind is a lot more fun than riding into it — but the fact is, just getting on a bike is enough to make you lighthearted. Tolstoy learned that. At 67 years of age, he learned it. Even after the horrorshow of his youngest child’s death, Tolstoy learned that simply by putting his bony ass on a bicycle seat, he could become lighthearted. It doesn’t change anything, of course. Riding a bike won’t actually make anything better. But it will temporarily lighten the heart. And that’s good for you.

And hey, maybe you can astonish some peasants. It’s good for them.

13 thoughts on “my share of lightheartedness

  1. I have been too long (over three years) without a bike. I must get one and figure out how to store it in my apartment. Hmmm… perhaps I should do the latter first. And then… get a bottle of some sort that I can fill with di-hydrogen oxide.


    • I didn’t ride quite as much when I lived in Manhattan…not because of the traffic or anything, but because it was such a pain in the ass to get the bike out of my 10th floor apartment, into the elevator, out through the lobby. And then reverse all that. On the other hand, there were always great bars where you could stop and rest. And hydrate. After a fashion.


    • You should look into foldable bicycles. You might have to pay a little more for a decent ride, but the stashability more than makes up for it.


      • I have indeed thought about them… a musician I know travels abroad with hers, as does David Byrne (I highly recommend his Bicycle Diaries, by the way), but cash-ability is my primary deterrent.


      • I hear that. I’ve been riding around on the same regular bike for eight years now. It’s beaten and bandaged, but it still goes. I’ve entertained getting a new one now for about a year, and as much as I love the practicality of a foldable bike, when I look at the price tag, I flinch.


  2. When I lived in the (Canadian) prairies, I used to ride my bike all over the place. All the time. On occasion, I’d even manage to find a hill I’d complain about riding up, then race down. Then I moved out east and realized that what I’d bitched about weren’t *really* hills. I also discovered hillbillies with shotguns and people who like to terrorize bike riders with their cars. So I quit riding. *sigh* You and Tolstoy make me miss it.


    • I think if you ride in the country, you’re always going to find some yahoos who think it’s amusing to scare cyclists. Also, farm dogs. Also too, geese. Those sumbitches can be MEAN.

      One thing I appreciate about Iowa is how bike-friendly it is. There are bike trails everywhere — hundreds of miles of them, not just in the country and in the suburbs, but in the city too.


  3. Yesterday I did something I rarely do. I rode my bike up a series of very steep hills. By the time I reached my destination, I felt like my heart was going to explode. The giddy lighthearted feeling came about an hour later when I rode back down the hill bellowing away in a randomly melodic operatic voice creeping out fellow pedestrians. When I got home, I properly dehydrated myself with a couple of frigid bottles of fermented malt beverage.


  4. I loved this one!

    Once at a festival I stopped by the tent of a local cycling group to see if I wanted to join. They were wearing jerseys. I asked if they ever did casual rides. They said, “We do have rides for people who are training.” Training!


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