I said this to myself as I cycled home from the cinema after seeing another superhero film. I was rushing for food, covering a twenty minute walk in somewhere around six minutes. The thought became less ridiculous as I turned it over. Without the bicycle I would have delayed dinner, with it I was empowered. Amplified times three.
There is a distinct class of superhero that is made up of well-equipped humans without intrinsic non-human attributes. These physically unexceptional characters are usually given, or themselves create, a tool or tools that bestow superhero powers, allowing them to operate on the same plane of adventure as their intrinsically superhuman colleagues. While superheroes in this class are typically represented as unusually courageous, intelligent or driven, what ultimately separates them from you and I is the quasi-magical tool that they possess. Such supertools offer a unique appeal. It is possible to covet Iron Man’s suit without wishing to be Tony Stark. It is possible to imagine oneself climbing into the suit and becoming extraordinarily empowered without having to become another person or assume another state of being.
A bicycle is such a tool, albeit one we have become used to the concept of (if not the potential application of). A person who is less than moderately fit can climb on a bike and cycle a slow 30 miles over the course of a day. With a reasonable amount of practice the achievable range becomes two, three, five times this distance. It is difficult to fully appreciate the degree to which a bicycle amplifies human strength and fitness. This is true even if one is a practicing cyclist used to trips of 5 miles or less. The bicycle’s short conveniences mask its silent, ever-present potential. The machine is a near-magical power-up.
If no one had invented the bicycle and I offered you a tool that would let you cover one hundred miles in a day using only your own body’s energy—that would effectively allow you to “run" three times faster than you can now for more than twice as long—it would seem most like a supertool. It would instantly become the stuff of fantasies. The reassuring impossibility of superhero powers allows us to dream about them without the danger of ever having to apply ourselves to use them. Bicycles present the opportunity for comparable augmentation, ordinary only because they are familiar, ignored because they are really there.