I have a confession to make. I’m sitting here eating the last bowl of cereal from a box of Cap’n Crunch that I purchased on sale at our local Jewel grocery store. It was a bit of nostalgia to into a bowl of that sweet stuff. We ate it as kids. It’s pretty terrible stuff, but was fun in its day.
Similarly, I glanced down at a bike on the floor of a cycling friend’s garage yesterday and noticed a kid’s bike on its side. My own children had bikes that size on which they learned to ride. I had a bike nearly that small too.
I well recall my father pushing me across the yard of our home in Seneca Falls, New York. I was five years old when I broke free from training wheels and took off on that venture across the grass. That’s a bit of a devil’s bargain, you know. It’s much tougher to ride a bike on the grass but it hurts less when you fall. I made it across the lawn before tumbling to the earth. No harm, no foul. The feeling of liberty and balance was secured.
Then we moved to Pennsylvania where our neighborhood offered a network of smooth roads named for golf clubs. Niblick Avenue. Yet even our own long driveway was suitable for that type of riding you do as a kid. Circling round and round, just enjoying the feel of tires on the asphalt.
I lusted for a Schwinn Sting Ray bike in those days, but had to settle for a copped pair of Sting-Ray handlebars that I stuck on my fat tire bike. That worked until the moment that they dropped toward the ground because I had not tightened the nuts that held it in place. So down I went, chagrined and hoping no one had seen.
That was not the last bike crash due to my mechanical failures. I tried putting a smaller front tire on my bike and again, did not tighten it sufficiently. When I yanked up to make a jump off the hill in our yard the wheel flew free and I crashed into the ground with a front fort that stopped my progress cold. Lying there in a grass with a smashed pair of nuts between my legs, I groaned into the turf until I started to laugh. Because it was pretty darn funny, and I shared that tale with many a friend. Most of them had a similar story to share.
That big bike was simply not meant for doing stunts like that. I tried to shrink it but that wasn’t going to work. The little bikes on which I’d learned to ride and even do wheelies were better suited to that kind of riding. But it would be decades before those smaller stunt bike evolved into being. The bike industry shrunk the Schwinn Sting Ray into BMX bikes but by then I was grown well past the desire to sit so slow and tear around the dirt.
When we moved to Illinois I was thirteen years old and we left most of our fat tire bikes back eat. My father purchased two Huffy Three-Speed bikes, one for him and one for my mom. His was black and her’s was light blue with a drop center bar. A girl’s bike, in other words.
My friend’s Eeker and Roy (nicknames) would come by and we’d ride around the little town of Elburn all day and all night. There was nothing else to do, really, except troll for time and the hope of meeting some girls.
I was always embarrassed by that Huffy Three Speed. My buddy Eeker had a bright yellow Schwinn Varsity. His was the wealthiest family in town and my Huffy seemed to symbolize our own family’s modest means. Truly, I’ve always felt like a Huffy Three Speed in many phases of life. Even in running, I never had the biggest engine but always tried to go fast enough to keep up with other athletes and their better means.
Then one year the gear cables on my dad’s Huffy gave out. I was reduced to riding my mother’s blue Huffy. That was near tragic at the age of thirteen or fourteen years old. It already felt like my masculinity was being questioned on a daily basis. That’s simply how it works in small towns.
Then three big hotshots from another town came to visit a girl I really like. They saw ample opportunity to ridicule my “girl’s” bike under their breath. It was evil and mean and they knew it. But they wanted me gone in competition for attention from the cute girl in our town. I hated didn’t like how they talked about her. “She’s got a nice jelly ass,” they’d murmur to each other. “And nice titties too.”
There were three of them, and one of me. I really liked that girl, and yes she did have those attributes, and I fully admit that I noticed them. But we also walked the streets talking to each other about life. I felt like I knew her better. But there I was, still riding my mom’s Huffy Three Speed around town while those three boys would pull up in a Camaro with a cassette deck mounted under the dash. Which is more likely to impress a girl?
In college, I borrowed a friend’s Schwinn to ride out of town into the secret canyons around Decorah, Iowa. The bike took me on birding junkets where I’d spy wild turkey, ruffed grouse and pileated woodpeckers flying among the cedars and white birch. These were great escapes from my daily grind of running 70-90 miles a week. Sometimes my legs would be so tired from training it was tough to pedal the bike at all. But I’d go. And find some birds. And come back to the dorm unable to describe to my friends the delicious mysteries of all that I had seen. You had to be there.
After college, I purchased a Columbia 10-speed. It was heavy as a rock, solid metal and trimmed with black and gold letters. I’d ride that cumbersome thing around on summer evenings because a college town in summer can be one of the most lonesome places on earth. That bike kept me sane. I was in love with a girl who lived three hours away. Yes, I owned a car. But those lonely summer nights almost killed me a times. So I rode, and I ran, and plunged my tired legs into the ice cold water at Dunning’s Springs.
Then came a procession of bikes through marriage. The Raleigh Assault 10 speed mountain bike I bought was used for short commutes and riding around local forest preserves. I’d take that bike up north to Wisconsin as well, pedaling the sand trails and hammering around the actual mountain biking routes at Chequamegon east of Eagle River.
Sometimes I’d tie my clothes around my waist and ride naked around the woods. The national forests were so remote there was never anyone around. I’d ride till I was sweaty and go for a naked swim in some deep forest lake lined with a sand bottom, which made mine sandy too. Just me and my skin and the call of ravens coursing through the woods. Freedom. From life
15 or so years ago I bought a Specialized Mountain bike, a Rockhopper that I still own and ride in the winter months. It takes me back and forth to my art studio as well.
But in 2003, I got the urge to try road cycling and was given a Trek 400 steel frame bike. That got me through a few seasons, and I even averaged 18 mph one ride on that baby. It was a bit tall and clunky, but it fed the appetite.
Then came the Felt 4C, the first carbon fiber road bike. It was fast and light and I raced it in criteriums. Some years I topped 4000 miles on that bike. Enough to call myself a cyclist anyway.
But I crunched the Felt last fall while driving into the garage and it suffered mightily from the encounter. Now it sits like a wall ornament ready to be stripped for parts.
Its replacement is a Specialized Venge Expert. It’s a fast bike too, and my riding has actually improved this year. Yesterday we rode 35 miles under cloudy skies that felt like fall. On a section of country road that curves multiple times and I felt that sensation we all love as a kid. Lean deep into the turn. Swing through and turn again. It recalled all those moments on the bike, for all those years. The kid in me emerged, and Honey I Shrunk the Bike for a moment there. It’s a wonderful feeling, isn’t it?