Body and Machine in Perfect Harmony
By Larry Borowsky
This issue’s cover subject, Damian Kevitt, lost his right leg in a bicycle-auto accident in 2013. Within a few months he was turning pedals again, determined to finish the ride on which he’d been injured. Completing that journey, Kevitt says, helped him regain a sense of wholeness in his body and his life.
A lot of us cyclists are like that. We feel as though our bikes are extensions of ourselves—and that’s pretty much true in today’s era of clip-in pedals and Fitbits. But the impulse to yoke one’s soul to one’s Schwinn is hardly new. Way back in the 1890s, a few years after the modern bicycle appeared, the French author Louis Baudry de Saunier observed: “The cyclist is a man half-made of flesh and half of steel that only our century of science and iron could have spawned.”
One wonders what de Saunier would have made of Kevitt, who grinds the gears with a carbon fiber leg. In de Saunier’s world, “science and iron” referred to railroads, steamships, telegraphs, and the first sputterings of the internal combustion engine. Those mechanical marvels ushered in an age of unprecedented speed, power, and reach. But none inspired such outpourings of rhapsodic prose as the bicycle.
That’s because no other 19th-century invention achieved the same level of harmony between body and machine. Industrial technology, for all its benefits, was intensely alienating. As its presence grew, humanity seemed to shrink. But the bicycle offered power and speed in a person-scaled package. It was engineered to conform to our bodies, respond to our muscles, and heighten our experiences. It also fit nicely into the average family budget. Even middle- and working-class earners could readily afford one of these delightful appliances.
That’s the type of technological evolution we examine in this issue’s main feature article. The coming generation of prosthetic devices, like the 19th-century bicycle, is approaching peak compatibility with human skeletons, neuromuscular systems, and pocketbooks. These devices are extensions of ourselves in the most literal sense, interlocking parts that obliterate the boundary between person and prosthesis. If de Saunier’s cyclist was half flesh and half steel, tomorrow’s bionic-equipped amputee will be 100 percent human—not two halves but an integrated whole.
It took decades of refinement for the bicycle to achieve its sublime integration of grease, gears, and glutes. Early two-wheelers provided some utility, but they were too clumsy to gain widespread acceptance. After 70 years, inventors finally found the sweet spot, and bikes became ubiquitous. While that tipping point hasn’t quite arrived for prosthetic technology, it’s on the horizon. Turn to page 14 to read about it in “The Future Is Now.” Check out Damian Kevitt’s incredible story and his efforts to make bicycling safer for everyone beginning on page 20.
There’s a lot more to explore in this issue, so cruise on through at a leisurely pace and enjoy!