In praise of the bicycle

What can be said about the humble bicycle when everybody is going on about the latest model car with a who-knows-how-many horsepower engine? Best is to go to an intersection and wait. The words will come...

Setting out on the road to wait, we will see Turkish writer Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar (1864-1944) head our way on a bicycle and call out, “The doctors advised me to ride a bike for my kidney stones!” And on another road to Konya - famous in the 1950’s as the ‘town of bicycles’ - a passing cyclist will stop next to us and, pointing to his bike, say, “The airplane of the flat plain!” Meanwhile novelist Orhan Kemal (1914-1970), in one of his short stories, refers to it as “our mechanical ‘steed’ in Adana” or simply “the wheel”. And during the last days of the tulip season in late spring, Turkish poet Fazıl Hüsnü Dağlarca (1914-2008) rode his bike to Keukenhof Gardens and mumbled as he whizzed past us, “Bicycles are / The new angels of / The Old Churches / In Holland.”

Had I only been a reader of newspapers, I would have clipped out this news item that appeared early in 2007 and attached it to the rear view mirror of my car so I could read it every time I got stuck in Istanbul traffic: “There are more people than bicycles in Holland, a country with a population of 16 million. In this country, which has 18 million bicycles, the average Dutchman covers more than 917 km a year on two wheels. The multi-story car park at Amsterdam’s central station has a bicycle parking area on every level. Many politicians and even members of the royal family ride bikes. The Dutch are past masters at holding an umbrella, talking on their cell phones and listening to music while riding a bike. It’s not uncommon to see people with ski gear, a chair or even a television perched on the handlebars.”

Had I only been a poet writing a piece about the bicycle, I would have taken you to the garden of a house in Karşıyaka at Izmir. The members of the household are gathered around a man, watching him put a disassembled bicycle back together. The man is a carpenter, and the one who has taken the bike apart is his little son, Atilla. This boy will grow up to be the great poet Atilla İlhan (1925-2005) and write, “I was a wild and naughty child, not a single toy of mine remained in one piece for more than a few days; I always fiddled with them and took them apart to see how they worked.”

In his book on the life of the poet, ‘The Great Highway Bandit’, Öner Ciravoğlu explores the symbolism of this bicycle: “The inclination to ‘break’ his toys would stay with İlhan for years, evolving eventually into his famous ‘analytical’ power. In later years, when sizing up the opportunities that came his way, Atilla İlhan would examine and question them exactly as he had his childhood toys, resolving them in the most modern, up-to-date fashion. We can almost see that wooden bicycle when we look back at what he wrote and his often stormy journey through life.
Yes, had I only been a photographer, I would have put a caption below the photo you see at the start of this article: “Every morning in Sultanhanı in Central Anatolia, thousands of men bring their bicycles up from the basement or out from behind the front door and set off down the road. Some ten to fifteen minutes later the spinning pedals come to a halt in front of the carpet repair shops. Getting off their bikes, the masters lower their glances once again to the colorful threads and begin ‘healing the wounds’ of the carpets from where they left off the day before.  From half-burned carpets to those that have rotted due to flowerpot overflow; from those that have been trodden threadbare to those with a tear in one corner, thousands of carpets are repaired every day thanks to these men’s tireless efforts.”

Had I only been a traveler, I would have written the following for the old man who came up to me with his little grandson on his bicycle one day when the trees were in blossom: “‘Come on,’ said the old man to the boy. “Get dressed and let me take you to Spring!’  ‘Is Spring near or far, Grandpa?’ asked the boy. And the grandfather replied with a faraway look in his eye, ‘For you it’s very near, for me a little far!’ ‘How, Grandpa? I don’t get it...’ ‘It’s a little hard to explain, my boy! But with you at my side, Spring is a little closer even to me.’ ‘I still don’t get it, Grandpa!’ ‘Never mind, my boy, Come on, let me take you to Spring.’”

One morning at Pınarbaşı in Kastamonu, the trees got wind of an old man who had left the house and gotten on his bicycle to take his grandson to see Spring. And the they burst into blossom immediately so as not to embarrass the old man in front of the boy.”

Had I only been a cinema buff, I would have recounted film after film for you. Vittorio de Sica’s 1948 masterpiece, ‘Bicycle Thieves’, which takes place in the poor districts of Rome; the scene in ‘ET’ (1892) where he passes the moon while flying on his bike; the clumsiness of the great orchestra conductor in the Swedish film, ‘As it is in Heaven’ (2005), when he is learning to ride a bike; the bicycles and so much else in ‘Life Is Beautiful’ (1997). But there is one... how could I forget? In the film ‘Amélie’ (2001), the garden dwarf is watching a video in which the cyclists racing in the Tour de France appear in a convoy. Suddenly a horse materializes at the side of the road and gallops alongside them for a great distance! Is the scene real or only a dream? You can’t be sure...

Kids all over are crazy about bicycles. Haydar Ergülen was one of those kids, but unfortunately he never got a bike. Years later he would feel this keenly in a place very far from Istanbul. “When I first saw Amsterdam, I was delighted to witness the city’s ongoing love affair with the bicycle, but very sorry that I spent my childhood in a city without bikes. I walked, I passed a bicycle, I walked some more, a bicycle passed me.”

Like Ergülen, I never had a bicycle either. But the first time I rode a bike - I must have been seven or eight years old and it was a rental bike - I failed to put on the brakes as I was careening down hill at breakneck speed and I flew into a dirty drainage ditch at the side of the road! I wonder if this is why I never developed a fondness for cycling?  If only I had not been somebody who does all the things I enumerated above, if only I had been a psychologist, I might have analyzed myself on the basis of that experience... And I might have taken my cue from writer-journalist Çetin Altan’s admission, “My only deprivation in childhood was that I never had a bicycle.”