Open Access
Hopsicker, Peter Matthew
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
August 09, 2006
Committee Members:
  • Robert Scott Kretchmar, Committee Chair
  • Mark Dyreson, Committee Member
  • Douglas Ray Hochstetler, Committee Member
  • Doug Anderson, Committee Member
  • cycling
  • improvisation
  • phenomenology
  • jazz music
  • Polanyi
  • modern dance
  • Sudnow
In his book, Ways of the Hand, David Sudnow describes the journey he encounters en route to becoming skilled at performing improvisational jazz music. His project is one of first-person description – not explanation from third-person reflection. He examines the problems, challenges, and hurdles posed by the task of sustaining the orderly activity of improvisation. Through his work, Sudnow offers a study of the human body engaged in a complex activity. The purpose of this study is to use Sudnow’s methodology to examine the journey one encounters when learning to ride a bike. Specifically, this study seeks to explore the nature of improvisation and to determine what promise it holds for informing us about sports in general and cycling in particular. What are the benchmarks that lead to the experiencing of improvisational behavior in the practices of jazz music and modern dance? Are these benchmarks analogous to those encountered when learning to ride a bike for long-distance and endurance? How one learns to ride a bike has defied accurate description since the bike’s invention. Those who have attempted to describe the complex intermingling and negotiation of forces necessary to keep the rider and machine upright and moving forward have rarely succeeded in their quest. The skill seems to be too complicated to be described in words. Riding a bike has long been described as a “difficult to explain yet easy to perform” phenomenon. This characterization has also been attributed to the performances of jazz music and modern dance. In fact, many musicians and artists have likened the ability to create improvised behavior to the skill of riding a bike. This study offers a description of this “learning to ride a bike” phenomenon by providing a closer examination of human performance in improvisational activities. This study begins with a review of Michael Polanyi’s work Meaning. This text focuses on the acquisition of skills and their use in practical activities. Polanyi’s characterization of tacit and focal awareness provides important structure to this dissertation. A review of the jazz music and modern dance literature then follows. From this literature, the benchmarks one may experience on the way to becoming a skilled improviser are revealed. Then, a review of the first-person cycling literature is considered followed by an account of the author’s own experiences in learning to ride a bike for long-distance and endurance. Together, these cycling perspectives describe a pathway one may experience when learning to ride a bike for long-distance and endurance. The improvisation and cycling pathways are then compared to determine similarities and differences. This comparison reveals that riding a bike can be roughly analogous to improvisation when viewed as one of Polanyi’s “technical inventions.” However, it is further revealed that cycling can be more forcefully analogous to improvisational conduct if riding a bike takes on Polanyi’s “artistic frame” revealing mythic storylines of “flowing creativity.”