Lucas Brunelle and his buddies bike very fast, against the flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, through major cities everywhere. Brunelle himself does it with a couple of video cameras strapped to his head. These are what have come to be called “alleycat races.” They’re unofficial and illegal, they’re almost bizarrely nonlinear, and they pass through pretty much everything in the built environment, no matter how non-bikeable. They’re usually raced by bike messengers on their days off, which I suppose is the only group possessed of the necessary skill set and habituation to street danger. It’s easy to call alleycat races nuts and the people who participate in them nuts for doing so, but you know what? I kind of see the appeal.
I learned about Brunelle and alleycat races in one of his videos screened at the 10th Annual Bicycle Film Festival, which came to Santa Barbara last weekend. I caught the final program of the day, “Urban Bike Shorts”. (Whether or not the pun was intended, but either way, it certainly wasn’t lost on me.) I enjoyed its Japan-related segments and Ari Taub’s mid-80s comedy short On Time, which whipped through NYC at its graffiti’d-est, but I knew I’d like those.
Brunelle’s closer I didn’t expect. Its combined elements — world cities, urban environments and the unconventional use thereof, independent media, transport techology, physical fitness, filmmaking, D.I.Y.ism, proximity to one’s own mortality and the resultant feeling of aliveness — made it pretty much exactly what I wanted to watch right then. Not that I’m about to disassemble my bike, fly to Amsterdam or Tokyo or Munich or Sydney, reassemble my bike, and blast straight up a one-way, but still. In examples of extremity there exist many ideas useful in moderation.
The footage reminded me of something that, growing up a hardcore sit-around kind of kid, I never really imprinted on. Because of that, I still regularly forget it today, even when I should know better. It’s that there is great satisfaction in using your body for stuff. Not specifically to the end of making it look better and boosting your self-confidence or whatever; just in the very act of doing things with it. It’s a pretty standard nerd/geek-axis syndrome: when you’re rewarded for your intellectual efforts and your intellectual efforts alone, you tend to slack off on the other stuff, and you miss out.
Not that there’s less satisfaction in exercising your brain; there’s satisfaction in all of it. I would submit that there is great satisfaction in exercising whatever faculties you happen to have — physical, mental, social, artistic, entrepreneurial — in whatever ways you can. This is how I interpret those weary old commandments about how we should all be eternally grateful for what we’re given. I’ve never understood the literal interpretation. How on Earth to you just “be grateful”? What do you look like while you’re doing it? Should you have a straining facial expression, as if you were trying to open a difficult jar?
So I take having gratitude for something to mean using that something as well as you possibly can, pushing it as far toward its limits as you possibly can. I do find, however, that these somethings exist in a kind of pyramid. Physical fitness seems to be at the bottom of mine: if I stop paying attention to it, I have a hell of a time doing anything else well. Theoretically, I should be able to still write or talk or whatever even if I let myself turn into one of those sponge-bathing types who eventually has to be surgically separated from the couch, but I don’t think I could. Even if it’s been a little too long since I last went out for a run, I can barely process two thoughts in a row. So I guess the message here is, don’t be surprised if, a decade from now, you’re driving through Pusan or someplace and see me cycling by in your lane, going the wrong way. I’m just trying to think.