I first learned about the term “negative space” when I was still just a peanut in art class. Our teacher explained: To draw the branches of a tree, one can focus on the branches to draw them, or one can draw the space between the branches, allowing the branches to naturally emerge in the image. The space between the branches is called negative space.
As a cyclist, I find myself more often than not viewing the world around me in terms of negative space. During a race, we cyclists focus on negative space as we move through the peloton: where is the space between riders, how is the space shifting and how can I use the space to move into position? We learn to see patterns in the movement of negative space, how it changes and flows, how to find the spaces that are moving forward and how to predict how the space will change with the terrain or race tactics. The longer we race, the sharper this instinct becomes.
Since moving to Europe, I’ve been honing this instinct each time I set foot outside my apartment. Negative space in the U.S. generally seems to be more voluminous than does the negative space in Europe. Most road racers would agree that maneuvering through a European peloton involves squeezing through smaller spaces than when moving through a U.S. peloton, and if you’ve ever driven a car around Europe, you know what I mean. The same seems to be true for sidewalks, bike paths and of course, anytime one is standing in line.
Waiting In Line. David and I ended up in a long line for a surface lift when we were last skiing together. The line for the lift could only be defined as such by the loosest definition of a line: a large group of people wanting to get on the lift, which could only accommodate two people at a time. A more conventional definition of a line might suggest that people are waiting their turn in a formation that resembles a line. Not even close. An Austrian line is like a crit: if you’re not moving up, you’re moving back, and there is only so much pushing and line-cutting that a person can take before politeness goes out the window. I nodded to David, and we went into lead-out mode. Elbows out, we moved quickly and decisively through the negative space. It was an excellent mental exercise to hone that instinct. Some little punk kids were squeezing between adults to cut the line and get ahead, but they were no match for us. We totally smoked them.
Sidewalks. Back in the States, sidewalks offer a generous berth, and if I were to encounter someone walking towards me on the same sidewalk, in most cases we would both move to make room for the other as we passed. I seems simple enough. Here in Europe, however, the sidewalks are tiny and negotiating other pedestrians becomes a game of chicken. After a week of constantly stepping into the street out of naive courtesy, I quickly learned that most people would rather run into one another (hard!) than move aside so both parties could pass without bruising a shoulder. I’ve also learned that by paying attention to the flow of negative space, I can adjust my walking pace to move through a crowd with speed and accuracy, and without having the wind knocked out of me. The sidewalks have sharpened my instinct, and my elbows.
Driving. We have a sweet used diesel wagon we rarely drive, but when we do, it’s all about the negative space — squeezing between a row of parked cars and a speeding tram in a lane that isn’t quite as wide as the car. It’s like most big cities, except most of the streets weren’t constructed with cars and buses in mind, so the lanes are tight, and the turns awkward. It also seems that no matter how fast you’re driving, it is not fast enough for the person behind you. Ever. The passing is constant, and what might appear to you as a line separating two lanes of traffic is actually a two way passing lane, or so it is used, despite the fact that the road is barely wide enough to fit a car in each lane, let alone a third in the middle. It’s an intriguing phenomenon of expanding negative space.
Bike Paths. Everyone rides bicycles here. They are everywhere, and you’ll see people from all walks of life riding around town. More than a few times this winter I felt my dignity ebb at the sight of a little old grandma grinding her pedals through snow on a day I’d decided not to ride outside. When I do ride outside, it’s a constant game of finding the hole shot. Pedestrians and pets and other cyclists populate the bike paths, so getting out of town becomes a mental game of navigating the negative space as quickly and efficiently as possible. I’ve become quite adept at dodging trees, sign posts, lamps, people and this one bald little chihuahua that is ALWAYS on the R2 Murradweg when I ride (creepy).