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Bicycles Are the Only Time Machine You’ll Ever Need

With apologies to Vonnegut.

an illustration showing a clock that is also a bicycle wheelBikes are time machines. No two ways about it; (Illustration/Andrew Marshall)
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I stepped back from the tight Tetris pile of furniture and considered my handiwork.

In preparation for a cross-country move, we’d downsized our family of three’s worldly belongings to the point where they almost fit into two small trailers — a 10-footer and a 5 x 8 U-Haul model.

But almost is the operative word. Despite our ruthless cutting, not everything would fit. Still scattered across the concrete was a smattering of random but crucial items. Worst of all, two bicycles — old-school steel frame Raleighs, one of which I’d always intended on touring across the country. I’d let it fall into ill repair. But I still loved it.

Giving it away on Facebook Marketplace felt like a betrayal. But I was out of options.

Luckily for me, bikes function as time machines. Hop on one, and you’re immediately transported back and forth through your life on every bicycle you’ve ever owned. So, even though I was about to give away my Raleigh Kodiak, I’d always be connected to it.

How does that work? I’m not entirely sure.

I just know it does.

It’s 2021. I’m out of control.

I’ve locked up my rear tire, and it is skittering through powdery Sierra Nevada trail dust. I’m pitched forward at what I’m convinced is an 87-degree angle, and my bike is loaded down with 30 pounds of camping gear, food, and water. If I touch the front brake, I will fly forward like an unlovely goose and land in a tangled heap of limbs, medical bills, and dental work.

A Salsa Deadwood leaning up against a tree.
My bikepacking rig and most recent bicycle: A Salsa Deadwood with a single-speed cog and big tires; (photo/Andrew Marshall)

My wife is pregnant after 5 years of miscarriage and medical intervention. Now is not the time to go over the handlebars.

In his book “Time Travel: A History,” author James Gleick observes that the time machine in H.G. Wells’ seminal novel is reminiscent of a bicycle.

Wells describes the time machine as tubes and metal, leather and gears. Sound familiar? Wells was a futurist, socialist, progressive thinker, and committed free-love enthusiast. All of which makes me think he’d be great fun to go riding with, though I wouldn’t necessarily put him in the vicinity of my romantic partner.

He was also one of the planet’s first bicycle maniacs.

an illustration of a bicycle
(Illustration/Andrew Marshall)

It’s 1995. I’m out of control, but I don’t care.

My younger brother and I are half-feral in the way that only kids with unlimited forest roads, cheap mountain bikes, and a hot southern summer can be. We scorch down gravel slopes and slam into power slides with total immunity. The sunlight burns through the dust we kick up. We pick and eat blackberries when we rest.

We rarely crash. When we do, it never hurts. Time and physics are, for a few precious years, totally on our side. As we ride home in the evenings, we lift our legs off the pedals to avoid the rattlesnakes absorbing the last heat of the day on the infinite gravel.

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race. After your first day of cycling, one dream is inevitable. A memory of motion lingers in the muscles of your legs, and round and round they seem to go,” H.G. Wells wrote in his light romance “The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll.”

If you’ve ever ridden a bike for over an hour, you know what Wells is talking about. It’s the sensation that your legs are still pedaling — or should be pedaling — or want to be pedaling. Time on a bike is time stored away in a muscle-bound battery. What the body remembers is shared with the spirit.

It’s 2017. My father is pulling prickly pear spines out of my calf with a pair of tweezers he keeps in his frame bag for just such occasions.

My steed is a Zaskar 26-inch from earlier days of mountain bike geometry. Another rider stops to tell me that my bike was famous for throwing riders over the handlebars. My scabbed forearms second that assessment.

Two men standing with bikes
In my early 30s, my dad (right) and I (left) started mountain biking together. This Zaskar, with a decidedly unmodern drive train and old-school geometry, tended to throw me over the handlebars. It climbed like a goat, though; (photo/Andrew Marshall)

On our next ride together, Dad will confess that he hasn’t been feeling well. A few weeks later, he’ll have a major heart attack, which he survives. And then he’ll be diagnosed with stage 3 kidney cancer, which he also survives.

For years afterward, I woke up in the night drenched in sweat and burdened by this thought — what if he died in the sand next to our bicycles, only partially shaded by creosote and sage?

Step up onto a bike, and you are a time traveler on two wheels, spinning forward at one second per second on metal and math.

Bicycles are so perfect that it’s amazing someone had to invent them. Perhaps — like geometry — bicycles weren’t so much invented as described.

They were always there, just waiting for us to notice them.

It’s 2007. I’m standing up on the pedals of another Walmart cheapie and pumping my legs as hard and fast as they will go.

My first great love — a red-headed girl with freckles and clear blue eyes — has broken my heart. I’m riding to my silly college retail job through the streets of Savannah, Georgia, with what can charitably be called foolish recklessness.

I am on a machine that I can power through the streets with my strength and breath. I have a broken heart, and I am young, and I am raw. And I do not yet understand how time will not only lessen my pain but also sweeten it.

Bikes create a sense of frictionless elegance, a glide through time and space that we experience on none of the other machines we’ve created.

I have to believe that even the spandex-wearing type-A folks chugging down the road on $8,000 insect-fragile carbon contraptions are having a little bit of fun.

The machines demand some fun.

It’s 2014. I’m on a steel-framed 1980s Raleigh Kodiak that’s one size too large for me, pedaling down neatly gridded country roads in northeast Ohio at a relaxed pace.

My wife has just told me she wants children. We’ve discussed it before and decided not to have kids, so this is a bit of a surprise. I’m thinking and riding, and as my legs churn, there is the first flicker of a notion that will eventually be this — I want to be a father after all.

A Raleigh Kodiak leaning against a green car
I let my much-loved Raleigh Kodiak languish for a few years. But the thought of giving it away was too much for me to bear. It’s now safely in a dry basement, waiting on me to find some time to show it love; (photo/Andrew Marshall)

The Raleigh was a Craigslist find. In 6 years, the friends who helped me choose it will start the fundraiser that allows my wife and I to afford fertility treatments.

Recall the old Arthur C. Clarke law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Go observe the faces of the neighborhood children building ramps from cinder blocks and plywood. Marvel as they achieve mere inches of air on each jump. Listen to their triumph, their awe.

It’s better than the Red Bull Rampage every time.

Is that technology? Is that magic?

Does it matter?

an illustration of a man riding a bicycle
(Illustration/Andrew Marshall)

It’s 2010, and it’s the last year I’ll have a full head of hair.

I have one transportation method — a lower-end Mongoose. I do not have a car, but I live in the suburbs where nothing is walkable. So I ride the Mongoose everywhere — to work, to the grocery store, to Taco Bell. I have a friend who lives in my neighborhood, and one memorable night we stay up late drinking basement-brewed beer, and I ride the half-mile home through our subdivision totally sauced.

I only fall over once.

Someone steals the Mongoose 6 months later. I find it in a bent pile on the side of the road, missing a wheel.

I chat with a guy on Facebook about the Raleighs. He’s 5 minutes away when I change my mind, message him to turn around, and unload the trailer. An hour later, I managed to squeeze in the bikes. The important things I left behind — and the related frustration later in our move — need not be mentioned here.

Time travel is all well and good, but I wasn’t ready to part with the Kodiak just yet. Maybe I’d find a few months to get that cross-country tour in after all. The nice thing about the future is how unwritten it is.

We are time-traveling at one second per second. It’s a difficult and complicated journey, but not without its rewards. I recommend a time machine of the bicycle variety.

On a bike, the memory of motion lingers, echoing backward and forward because every bicycle is every other bicycle — just movement and joy and metal and triangles.

You don’t have to know how the science-magic works.

It’s enough to know it does.

Provincetown, Massachusetts biking

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