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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Knulp, the Hybrid

In David Lynch's film, 'The Straight Story', an old man decides to drive 240 miles to visit a brother he hasn't seen in a long time. As the old man can't get a driver's license because of his bad eyesight, he decides to make the trip on a 30 year old rider mower towing a travel trailer.
I happen to love these kinds of stories, where a journey is made with the traveller, or his equipment, or transport, or his companions not quite suited for the task. The story of Don Quixote is a perfect example of this kind of situation; neither Don Quixote, nor his companion, Sancho Panza, nor his horse, Rocinante, are suitable for knight errant adventuring.
And so it is that I have acquired a bicycle, certainly the biggest part of my preparation for cycling to Syria, that is far from being the ideal bike for making such a long-distance journey. It is a bicycle, though, and not a rider mower. Nor is it a Penny Farthing, which is what the first man to cycle around the world rode. Tom Stevens rode this contraption out of San Francisco in 1884, with socks, a shirt, a raincoat and a revolver.

'Knulp', as I've named my steed, is a used BTwin Daily, a hybrid bike made by Decathlon. Hybrids are a sort of town and country bike, useful for the city or off road. They're not generally used for long-distance touring. I think only those who can't afford a specialized touring bike would even consider them for a journey from Western Europe to Syria. But I like the idea of being on my very own hack pony, even when an Arab would be more suitable for the job.
And Knulp isn't really such a hack. The bike's in very good condition, actually. For 150 euros I don't think I could have done much better. It's just not going to be the most comfortable bike for 100+ kilometers a day, nor will it carry even as much as I carried on my back for the past year and a half. But what is comfort to me, really? I've done without it for a long time now. And it's about time I dumped a few things I've been dragging along. And having cycled my first 30 kilometers on Knulp, from the spot in Milan where I handed over the money to the village of Albairate, I am growing fond of the bike already. It got me to where I was going without any complaints.  Most importantly of all, 'Knulp' is ready to go, chomping at the bit, with panniers and other accessories.

I bought Knulp with exactly the amount of money I was paid for working as a teaching assistant last week. The work was difficult, as being around lots of 7 to 10 year olds all day long makes me want to run away to hide somewhere, but for the pains I've got a machine that will take me far into the countryside.

I have called this black pony of mine Knulp, after the character in Herman Hesse's book by the same name.
Hesse's Knulp is a real vagabond, also not quite suitable for the task as his health is failing, but very much loved by everyone he meets along the road. Knulp brings out a homesickness for freedom in his hosts, which in the end is his real purpose in life.

In the present story, Knulp's purpose will be to carry me to Syria for the serious business of raising money to help the victims of the war, but that doesn't mean Knulp will have to foresake being a vagabond of a bike which creates in people a longing for a freer life. Knulp is not only a hybrid town and country bike, after all, but also a hybrid serious business/vagabond bike. In the end many of us would do well to become hybrids; to temper our self-righteous, serious business side by finding a way also to be vagabonds on our life journeys. As Antonio Machado said, the road doesn't make the journey, the journey makes the road. And so it is I have hybrid Knulp-- made for a Saturday jaunt into the countryside, or a ride through town to the ice cream shop-- to carry me to the Middle East.

Finally, many thanks to Lorenza, my host in Albairate, for taking on the role of a sort of 'cycling to Syria' manager, for giving me a week's employment, for helping me to find this bike, and for being a good host for the past ten or twelve days. Lorenza hosted me here last summer too as I walked across Italy.

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