Medicine For People!

July 2014: Ode to the Bicycle

The Wondrous Bicycle

Ode to the Bicycle


  • Ode to the Bicycle
  • What If?
  • Something Had to Give
  • Eureka!
  • The Doubters
  • Your Miraculous Engine

Ode to the Bicycle

Had the bicycle been invented after the car, I think we would appreciate it much more than we do. From today's vantage point, we often think of the bicycle as more primitive form of transportation, something people in poor countries use because they can't afford automobiles.

What If ?

Imagine though, that the car had come first. No bicycles, just cars and trucks and buses. Things would not be much different than they are today. We'd still have traffic congestion. We'd still have 43,000 adults and children dead from accidents each year. We'd still be pouring money into new highways and the repair of old ones. Our environmental scientists would be adding up the health effects of automobile exhaust (caused primarily by particulate matter and ozone) and telling us that those emissions killed 58,000 of us each year.[1] And we'd be ignoring them, just as today, but also feeling faintly guilty about our lazy response to environmental ruin.

Something Had to Give

And then, as gridlock seizes the big cities (today's speed in New York City streets is usually less than ten mph [2]) , some Seattle billionaire entrepreneur starts to look seriously at the problem. Geeks fire up their computers, tech people pull out their oscilloscopes and integrated circuits, and the World Wide Web is Googled and Googled again.


One high tech solution after another is prototyped and discarded, until, in the back room, Suzie the intern from CalTech puts it all together. She conceives the idea of a two wheeled vehicle you power with your legs that goes as fast as New York City traffic. This inexpensive device can travel ten miles in an hour, about the length of the average automobile trip.[3].  Not only does it use much less energy than a car, but it is energy you'd otherwise be expending at the gym, trying to stay healthy. She puts together her figures and shows them to the geeks.

Car vs Bicycle

©Exploratorium, and used by permission

Her chart shows the energy cost of transporting a single person a given distance, based on how they travel. Her pedal-powered device beats them all, even walking. She shows them the gears, and notes that her new invention can carry you at twice the speed of a walk. In the time and with the energy it takes you to walk a mile, her bicycle invention will carry you two miles. If you've got groceries to carry, you can get them out of your arms and onto the back of her new invention. What a relief for your arms!

The Doubters

The geeks, of course, have lots of objections.

"It's only got two wheels; what keeps you from falling over?"

"Just try it," she says.

"What if it's raining?"

"This is Seattle. I've got rain gear. What's wrong with you guys, anyway, afraid you'll melt like the Wicked Witch of the West?"

"I might get tired."

"C'mon, man up! You're driving to the athletic club every time you catch a look at your spare tire in the mirror. In fact, you're giving me an idea for marketing. What do you think of this?"

Car vs Bicycle

So, let us leave Suzie to the education of her colleagues and think of the wonderful invention that the bicycle is. Consider riding a bike yourself. What other habit can you adopt that accomplishes so much?

Susie is a creature of my imagination, but her bicycle is not. Over 100 million people worldwide buy one each year. In Europe, bicycles now outsell automobiles.

Your Miraculous Engine

A bicycle, of course, requires an engine. It's a most miraculous engine – you and your legs. If you buy a car, the engine in that car will never be more powerful than it was on the test drive. Your legs and the rest of your body, however, will increase their power when you use your bicycle regularly. The hill you find difficult today will not feel nearly as steep next month. The following month you'll sail up it – no problem.

A time will come when you forget you are turning the pedals, and you can just listen to the birds and enjoy the scent of the flowers you pass. You will find great joy, riding under God's blue sky and knowing you are contributing to a better world and a more normal climate.

Just remember to thank Susie.







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Medicine for People! is published by Douwe Rienstra, MD at Port Townsend, Washington.