Having just sloughed the final scabs that resulted from my most recent tumble, I have pause to reflect on my relationship with the bicycle.
I got my first two-wheeler when I was eight or so in Dauphin, Manitoba. It was red, which was good, and had a narrow racing-style saddle, which was also good, but had regular sit-up-and-beg handlebars, which weren’t so cool. It was also way too big for me. My folks, in a display of frugality that would continue to affect my life over the years, bought me a second-hand bike that I could “Grow into”.
Unable to reach the pedals at all from the seat, I was forced to learn to ride under-bar. I simply assumed that this was a standard technique, but apparently I was alone in my experience. It wasn’t a comfortable position to ride in, with the cross-bar alternatively crushing my ribs and hips, and the handlebars clutched asymmetrically to overcome the lack of balance. Not relaxing in the least, there was no opportunity for resting or wool-gathering as all attention was crucial to simply remaining somewhat vertical. High speed riding was more or less impossible, which was fortunate since the dismount was seldom graceful.
As I grew, I was able to ride astraddle the bike, but not stand without the cross-bar smacking me in the testicles. This didn’t help when it came to perfecting the dismount, so I took the simple expedient of leaping from the bike to the boulevard (lushly lawned, as I recall), and leaving the bike to carry on without me. It would clatter to the pavement a little further down the street where I would pick it up when I had regained my composure. The parental units didn’t quite approve of the process but didn’t appear inclined to correct me. This was, of course, in the golden years of child-rearing before things got all dangerous.
They did, however, in a continuing campaign to keep my bike from being the least bit cool, attach a basket to the front. Practical, I know, especially in light of recent events, but uncool in the extreme.
My older friend Jerry (born August 2 versus my August 20. Times were tighter then.) used to get out our bikes whenever a nice day presented itself and ride around all day, often far out into the countryside. From anywhere in Dauphin, the countryside was always quite close. We would load up my basket with sandwiches and drinks and spend the days exploring. Our favourite haunts were the verdant banks of the Vermillion River, where we would catch and torment the amphibious and crustacean inhabitants, and the dump.
Hill’s Paradise, it was called, after the family that undertook the care and frequent extinguishing of the heaps of refuse. They would allow us to roam the less hazardous areas, but otherwise leave us be. As I say, it was less dangerous then. We didn’t even have to wear helmets, for god’s sake. Madness.
The other thing we never worried about was theft. You could leave your bike virtually anywhere in town, secure in the knowledge that it would be there upon your return. Not so much so in Winnipeg, where we moved when I was nine. The old bike carried me far and wide in Winnipeg with no major problems until I turned thirteen or so. As with many boys of that age, I was in the process, a process which would carry on for a couple more decades, of becoming progressively more stupid. I tended to leave my bike unattended in the old manner, even doing so in the downtown area. At this time in its life, Winnipeg’s downtown was not the dangerous and unpredictable hellhole it was to become, but it was still an unlikely place to find your bike if it was left alone for, let’s say, five minutes. I lost two bikes this way along with the bicycle locks attached uselessly to the seat-post. The last one was reclaimed, thanks to the attention of the Winnipeg police, for which I thank them. I have the utmost respect for the members of the Winnipeg Police Department; they never hung a beating on me that I didn’t richly deserve.
In a vain attempt to render my bike more cool, I impulsively ripped the fenders and chain-guard from it, thereby rendering it simultaneously useless in the rain or while wearing trousers. It also reduced my Dad, a soft-spoken and reasonable man, to speechless rage when he discovered the fenders and chain-guard crumpled in the garbage. Oh, he was cranky. I still rode the bike for several years after that, but I suppose that was the original basis for my fair-weather preferences that exist to this day. Never much cared for the prospect of riding in the rain, or snow, god forbid, so it didn’t affect me much unless I was surprised by the weather. Luckily, that never happens in Winnipeg, as everyone knows.
It was to be several years, I think I was nineteen, before I owned my first proper bike. I picked it up at Joe’s Cycle in Saskatoon and rode the hell out of it. This was to be an on-going trend with cycles from Joe’s, but that’s for another day.
This was a Gitane, a sort of low-rent ten-speed from a small, unknown manufacturer. That’s the way I seem to like it. Unusual and rare always gives me a feeling of exclusivity and sophistication that far outweighs the inconvenience of not being able to obtain parts or even tools to fit said parts. It’s made me a tinkerer of great patience and little accomplishment over the years. I could tear down and re-pack the bearings on that beast with my eyes closed, and I did so way more frequently than was ever necessary. It was a fine-tuned piece of information and I loved it to death. In attempting to remove the crank from the bottom bracket, I kind of buggered up the threads to such an extent that the bearings would come loose every fifty kilometers or so. They even have a name for this condition, brinelling, so I guess I wasn’t the first. Had I had the correct tool for the job, this would not have happened and, as new parts were unavailable, the bike was rendered somewhat useless. My ne’er-do-well soon-to-be ex-brother-in-law took over ownership of the poor abused creature after he lost the privilege of driving cars. Not a moment too soon, might I add. The last I saw of it, it was in the basement of my sister’s place with electrician’s tape wrapped around the brinelled bottom bracket, as well as the back tire. Must have made for an interesting riding experience.
After retiring the Gitane to the loving care of my brother-in-law, I went to Gooch’s (my favourite bikeshop name, ever) and found myself a lovely Monshee in the most unlikely hue of orange. Like I said, I never went for the easy-to-replace or repair models. It was sleek and shiny with brake cables that ran through the frame to lessen the clutter and shifters on the very ends of the handlebars so that you didn’t have to move your hands to shift, as long as you were in the down position, but were otherwise a pain in the ass.
One of my favourite times to ride the Monshee was late of an August night, when the day had been steamy and relentless as only a summer day in Winnipeg could be. With virtually no wind to contend with, the conditions were perfect for high-speed cruising through the newly constructed neighbourhoods near my Grannie’s place. I was living there at the time, barely employed and sleeping at odd hours, so midnight rides seemed to be just the thing.
One particular housing complex consisted of dozens of sets of townhouses, about five to a set, laid out at angles to one another so that the roadway through the neighbourhood presented a smoothly pave sort of slalom course. In the middle of the night it was well-lit and unoccupied by vehicles so I felt confident. On this particular night, something had changed, unbeknownst to me. The people in charge had apparently grown concerned at the speed of traffic through the complex and had seen fit to install speed-bumps across the pristine, linoleum-smooth pavement. Without telling me.
I came around a corner, fully leaned into the curve and already anticipating the next turn, when the first bump appeared where it most emphatically oughtn’t to have been. I hit it and went airborne. It’s surprising how clear things become in situations like this. As I flew through the cool night air, I was already deciding how to land. Not doing so in the presence of the bicycle, with all its hard, pointy bits was paramount, so I kicked out of the pedal-clips and prepared for landing.
Upon reaching the ground, it was evident that I had sufficient momentum to continue along for quite some distance, so landing on my elbows and knees as I had was simply not on. I rolled to my back and waited until the flight had taxied to a full and complete stop. The blessing of the brand-new pavement was that there was very little gravel to add insult to inevitable injury, but my T-shirt was definitely not going to be wearable after this. This particular mishap didn’t require a visit to the hospital, so hardly merits inclusion in this series, but it was fairly spectacular from a scab-formation standpoint.
Much as I loved the Monshee, it was an ill-fated relationship and the bike was stolen one lunch-hour not too much later, from a closed garage. Not locked, though. Stupid stupid stupid.
It sure was a pretty bike. Perhaps too pretty.
I did have the sense to insure the bike, so heading back to Gooch’s was not as onerous a prospect as it might have been. There I found another red bike, a BRC by name.
The BRC was nice, but unremarkable when compared to the cat-like Monshee, but it had the benefit of randonneur handlebars. These are similar to regular ten-speed style bars, but are a bit narrower and sweep up slightly before continuing around and down to the ends. This made for a very comfortable ride, as I could ride with my hands close together on the bars in a very relaxed position (my favourite for cruising), or slide them outwards and up a little to rest on the boots of the brake levers. This lifted my head a bit and made for a more alert position suitable for riding in and among the Winnipeg drivers. They’re all trying to kill you, you know. Once you’ve accepted that fact and your position as prey, it sharpens your perceptions and forces you into a more defensive mode of thought. Fact is, I should learn something from this observation; I have never had an accident involving another driver.
I was out traffic-jamming on Portage Avenue one Saturday afternoon, on the homeward stretch, so about twenty K in and feeling pretty sparky, when I pulled up at a traffic light next to an older gentleman on one of those little fold-up style bikes with the tiny wheels and tall seat and handlebar posts. We nodded to one another in quiet appreciation of a fine summer day. When the light changed I pulled away and didn’t really give him another thought.
At the next light, he was right there beside me and said, in a fairly thick Austrian accent (which I sort of recognized because I grew up with them), “If I thought we was going to race, I would have brought my road bike.” And he took off.
As I tried to make up for the low-gear torque advantage he had on me, I had occasion to observe the hard knotting muscles in his calves. In addition, the little bike he was riding, on closer inspection, was a very high quality piece of information. The chain-wheel was the size of a pie-plate and led back to a tiny three-speed hub. We rode along for a while and chatted at the stops, but then turned off onto more lightly traveled streets to carry on our conversation.
As it turned out, my companion had been an Austrian cycling champion in his youth, about the time I was born. He gave me some very poignant advice about cycling that I remember and use to this day. Using the gears so as to maintain a consistent cadence, as well as gearing down a bit to keep said cadence a bit quicker has made riding much more pleasant over the years and kept the memory of our encounter fresh in my mind to this day.
The problem with learning how to ride better, for me at least, is that I’ve never learned to ride smarter, and my tendency to crash continued undiminished. I was riding home one night in the rain down Main Street in Winnipeg which is a stack of stupid right there, and failed to notice through my rain-splattered glasses (can’t see with them, can’t see without them) that one of the parked cars was equipped with trailer mirrors. They protruded into the lane just enough to catch my handlebar and send me flying. I generally only ride as fast as can, so it sent me flying a fair ways.
I made an unfortunate three-point landing—knee, chin, and teeth, apparently—but was up in seconds and scrambling my bike out of the way of the oncoming traffic. When I regained my composure, I was not at all pleased to realize that I’d knocked out some front teeth. Up ‘til this point in my life, I had been blessed with really nice teeth. So much for that. Everything else seemed fine, though, except the front wheel of the bike, so I started walking. My knee hurt some, but the five mile walk home in the rain left me with ample time to reflect on my idiocy.
On arriving home, I pulled off my soaked boots and realized that there may have been more to the pain in my knee than I thought. My left boot was kind of full of blood. Despite only a tiny scrub-mark on my jeans, there was a two-inch long gash on my knee that would require substantially more than a Band-aid to deal with. Off to the emergency ward we go.
The attending physician was disarmingly relaxed about the whole process, exclaiming gleefully, “See that! That’s your patella!” It took some internal stitching and eleven external sutures to close up my knee, and three for the chin. The missing teeth were beyond his abilities, so would have to wait. He asked what sort of bike I’d been riding, and when I described it, he said, “Wait a minute. You did this on a ten-speed?”
The BRC was the bike I had with me when I moved to Saskatoon and this is where I really started to ride. My buddy Clare would run to my place on Saturday morning, a distance of about seven K. I’d get my bike and ride alongside him back to his place, where we’d pick up his bike and ride over to McDonald’s for an Egg McMuffin and OJ. Then we’d ride.
We’d scoot around for most of the day, riding fairly aggressively all over the city. I didn’t have an odometer at the time, but I am very curious as to what sort of kilometerage we were amassing. Did I mention that Clare was fairly fit?
Naturally, we’d end up at one bar or another at the end of the day, usually Mr. Steer’s. This was a cowboy-themed steakhouse owned by Greeks and run by a German guy. The food was fairly standard chicken-and-ribs fare cooked up by the Korean chef. An international sort of place.
We’d stop by for a small glass of water and a large glass of beer or two and then go our separate ways. This was before the place really got rolling and earned the nickname Alcoholics Unanimous, then we’d never leave.
It was on one such day that I rode home after a couple and, because I was going out that evening, locked my bike up behind my apartment building, rather than inside, under the stairs, where it belonged. This would prove to be a grievous error because, sure enough, after a bite to eat and a change of clothes, the bike, she was missing.
Joe’s Cycle, where I’d picked up the Gitane lo, these many years ago, was still in business, so it was thee I headed with my meagre insurance settlement. Nothing particularly caught my eye at first glance, but there was one lithe and stealthy looking steed that could be adapted. The baby-blue handlebar tape could easily be changed, but the matching seat definitely had to go. I couldn’t get the randonneur bars that I’d grown to love, but all in all she was lovely. The ultra-skinny wheels made it look like it was going fifty just sitting there. I’d learn to hate those wheels over the years, as the rims would bend with the slightest provocation, and the streets of Saskatoon are nothing if not provocative.
It did go like stink, though, and I rode the hell out of it for nigh on twenty-five years. Bought it while I was courting my soon-to-be-bride, and still have it on rollers in the basement thirty-one years on. The Miyata went into the basement a few years back when I scared my lovely wife half to death when I crashed on the way downtown one morning.
I’d been accelerating for the sprint down the Broadway bridge when, for reasons unknown, I changed my mind. I hit the brakes and slid over towards the sidewalk where I would be safe from the early morning traffic. Slid being the operative word. The pea-gravel in the gutter, left over from the spring, made an otherwise innocuous maneuver rather more complicated. I managed to maintain control for the first part of the slide, but with stately elegance, down I went.
When I regained my composure and took stock, I realized my pants were ruined and my thumb was cocked over at an extremely uncomfortable angle. It wasn’t broken, but it was sure as hell dislocated, so I gave it a tug and popped it back into place before it started to swell. A gentleman in an SUV pulled over to see if I was okay and, being the observant sort, saw that I was not. He helped me throw the bike in the back and gave me a ride to the hospital. Not only that, he called my wife and, later in the day, dropped my bike off at home. Sweet guy.
When the thumb felt a little better and my lovely was less jumpy about it, I went out looking for a new bike. And a helmet. Yes, up until this juncture, I had refused to wear a helmet. There’s nothing like the feeling of freedom of the sun on your face and the curb in your hair.
Wind. I meant wind.
The guys at The Bike Doctor had been doing a great job of maintaining the Miyata for the past while, as I couldn’t find the time to do it myself. Besides, they tuned it up in a way that I just couldn’t seem to match. When I picked it up after a tune-up, it would just dance under me. In a good way.
Jo insisted that I buy a bike more suitable to my advancing years, as I had recently turned fifty, so if I couldn’t act my age, I could at least give myself a fighting chance at achieving a few more good years. She appeared to be under the mistaken apprehension that the cause of the whole falling-down thing was the narrowness of the tires I was riding on, so we were looking at something a bit more substantial in the rubber department.
I tried on a half-dozen different breeds of bicycle over the next few days, I’m sure trying the patience of Greg, the owner of the shop. I’d stated early on a ball-park price range that I had in mind and, naturally, found that the only bikes I really liked were somewhat more expensive. Story of my life. There was one Italian cyclo-cross that almost had me, but the ride was a little too harsh for my liking, and the price was just beyond stupid. I finally settled on my Marin. Lucas County ALP, by name. I think it stands for Aerodynamic Light Performance, or some such, a kind of hybrid with luggy tires that are not too wide, a welded aluminum frame, and excellent gearing. Turns out it weighs somewhat less than the cat-like Miyata, as well. As it turned out, even with all the switching of parts and customizing of the bike, it came in on budget, thanks to a monster discount given unbidden by Greg. Love that man.
The more substantial tire/wheel combination didn’t manage to slow me down much and definitely cut back on the number of bent rims that needed repairing. The bike definitely felt more stable, which was nice, but probably gave me a bit too much confidence. That, and the helmet lent an air of invulnerability that would surely lead me to grief. I did know the way, after all.
This leads me to the events of last month, on the eve of our thirtieth wedding anniversary. I was bringing roses home to my bride, preparatory to going out for a pleasant meal. A couple blocks from home, accelerating from the Stop sign, at which I had dutifully come to a full and complete stop, the paper wrapping on the flowers, which was clutched to the handlebar in my left hand, ripped. The flowers fell to the street and, as I watched them recede behind me, I hit the brakes. The front brakes. As I felt the rear wheel lift, I realized that things were not going to go well from this point on.
I was right. When I came to my senses, or mostly, I saw that a guy was standing there watching me flail around on the ground like a fighter on the eight-count. He looked very concerned and asked after my condition. His little girl seemed quite unbothered, but then I wasn’t paying attention at this point. They helped me gather my things and walked me the last couple of blocks home.
I was mildly concussed, thoroughly road-rashed and quite contrite. The result of my high-speed headstand is a sore neck, and apparently I was punching the road with both hands as my knuckles are a mess.
The bike has been put away ‘til spring at this point, but I’m looking forward to getting out there again at the first opportunity.
So that’s the way it stands for now. I’ve spent many of my happiest hours on my bike, and some of my scariest, but that’s kind of the story of my life. Like a bicycle, I have no reverse. Headlong and care-free is the way it’s gotta be.