It all began with an apple green banana-seat bike.
It wasn’t a pretty bike. I didn’t like yellow-green. The seat was funny.
The way the wind roared beneath the cottonwoods when I came gliding in under their shade. The swaying, sweet-smelling fields full of cricket calls and meadowlarks singing.
Then I got older and moved from the wide open West to a Midwestern suburb full of cars.
On occasion — out of necessity — only to piano lessons, I rode a heavy old Schwinn, in an unexciting blue, someone’s Grandma’s hand-me-down – not a plus in my mind in those days. I’d arrive at my piano teacher’s, my hands so stiff with cold I could hardly play my pieces . . . even when I had practiced.
Every Wednesday I imagined myself turned sixteen and driving a car.
And then I was grown up. And in this grown-up world, no one ever rode bikes. Except triathloners who rode around in bright-colored skivvies and funny shoes. Or teenage boys on tiny trick bikes with bad-dog chains hanging out of their pockets. Or little kids in bobble-head helmets with training wheels.
And this could have been the end of my riding life.
But by lucky chance I had married a mountain biker turned weekend road-warrior. Not that I rode with him. When he’d come home from his Saturday of defending his claim to a 3-foot strip of asphalt on any road around, throwing himself down in the middle of the floor in a puddle of his own sweat, I was not persuaded that the biking life was the life for me.
In the pearly mornings, though, as he waved good-bye over one shoulder, I would sometimes think of my childhood fields full of crickets and blue alfalfa and meadowlarks’ song. I’d remember swooping downhill with my feet lifted up out of the way of the whirring pedals.
And then my young daughters learned to ride bikes. I went shopping for a reliable and affordable hybrid so we could ride together.
At the bike shop, I lingered over the mint-green Bianchi. Coveting its thin red stripe accenting that luscious sea-green? mint-green?which was it? Admiring the simply desirable shape of it, wanting it not for anything I knew about it. I knew nothing about it. Except that I couldn’t afford it.
And so turned to the homely and serviceable hybrids I’d come in for, enduring the patronizing grimaces of the sun-burned boys who ran the bike-shops in those days.
They were as helpful as they knew how to be. And I came home with a perfectly adequate and ridable bike.
That’s the short story of how I got back on a bike as an adult, and the end of the first chapter of My Riding Life.
In the second chapter of My Biking Life, family rides ruled my world. Five miles was nothing — even for 7 to 9 year-olds — I was surprised to discover. Twelve miles was fun. Twenty-three miles exhilarating — once the toxins has been sweated out of them — it took about 15 minutes each time and we just patiently jollied them on, ignoring the groaning and whines until the endorphins kicked in and they started singing and racing each other far ahead of us.
We found ourselves on longer and longer rides, punctuated by ice cream stops and picnics. There was suddenly so much to see. The young hawks surveying their domain from fence posts. The hawthornes on the hill coming into bloom. Llamas in a water meadow of skunk cabbage and wild iris.
These were shorter rides than my husband would have inflicted upon himself (though he was happy just to have us all riding together). They were longer rides than the rest of us could have worked up gumption for if there hadn’t been the promise of stopping halfway for the best burritos north of Portland.
Until we hit fifty miles in a day. Even though we were the last to come in on an organized ride (a coast ride by a cycling association in Astoria now sadly defunct) and missed the salmon dinner - we felt triumphant. Our seven- and nine-year-old daughters came home smug and delighted in their own strength and speed – not bad things for girls in our culture to be able to claim.
It was this same time that I ducked into a tiny, now-gone, Mom-and-Pop local bike shop for a new reflector and learned an essential insight. The gray-haired gal at the front desk answered my stoic responses to how I was enjoying the riding, with, “Honey, you’ve got to get yourself a real woman’s saddle. You’ll never break in one that’s not structurally even built for you. No gel cover is going to compensate for the wrong construction.”
Ah, the power of small details.
Meanwhile, a short trip to Belgium opened up another whole world of what biking could be. In Bruges, everyone cycled.
On Sundays the market square buzzed with cyclists. But even on Monday through Friday, bikes whirred through medieval lanes almost too narrow for cars, over the steep canal bridges, in and out of the ancient gates of the city, and also along the highway, to market, to school, between neighboring towns, out into the countryside.
Teenagers, families, young couples, sedate and dapper old gentlemen. Most memorably: elegant women in long black coats and skirts, with scarves and high-heeled boots.
I wanted to live there for the rest of my life, in a town of bridges and old stone churches, full of rosy-cheeked faces and spinning spokes and wicker baskets.
I began dreaming about a bike I could ride in a skirt. With a basket full of fruit and flowers. The third chapter of Me and my Bicycle was about to begin in earnest . . .
When I came home, I came back to riding my well-used Specialized hybrid up and down hills for quick errands and on long weekend rides in the Pacific Northwest with my family. But I was riding now with a difference, seeing my bike as a viable, even potentially civilized, form of transportation for adults. I added panniers for groceries because none of the usual bike shops I checked had workable baskets.
We began taking our bikes with us when we visited family and friends in Illinois (nice biking), Oklahoma (unrewarding), Idaho (not bad), Utah (surprisingly great).
We found ourselves planning our time away around where we could ride our bikes.
The fourth chapter of The Bike: a Metaphor, a Vehicle, and a Way of Life had our family suddenly stumbling on moments of serendipitous bliss: Toronto on Canadian Thanksgiving - the jostle and honk of the city we’d seen driving in, completely stilled.
That morning while native Torontonians sat down to their full and festal tables, the city of Toronto was all ours, so empty we could bike up the central boulevards.
During our stay we discovered, too, that Toronto has a marvelous biking trail system open every day of the year. A trail that began right at our hotel channelled us through parks and green spaces into the heart of the city.
What an intimate and human experience a city is, entered this way.
Having seen what biking could be, the fourth chapter of My Life on Two Wheels was all about transformation – my bike became an everyday convenience and a vehicle for revelation instead of a once-in-awhile weekend recreation.
Not just training rides up heartbreak hills and daylong treks in the summer, but Monday through Friday year-round pedalling the kids to school. And birds’ nest and ripe blackberries along the way.
To the post office. To the grocery store for a couple of gallons of milk. And longlost architectural details in the houses I thought I’d seen a hundred times before.
To the local, everyday, under-cover farmer’s market where we loaded up the baby trailer’s back bay with apples, ruby chard, honey sticks and sweetmeat squash, and then huffed baby and bounty back up hill and home.
To the hardware store for nails and a can of paint. Quick grocery trips where we always stopped and watched the geese on the nearby creek. Matinee movies. Picnics down by the river. Zipping over to friends’ and neighbors’ to pick apples or gather sacks of walnuts, carting them home behind us.
All these small elements of the good life that had always seemed too much of a production when a car was involved. The bike delivered to us the kind of town we’d always been looking somewhere else for.
Another serendipitous bliss: my husband and I spent one superbly happy day of Christmas shopping at the local bookstore, toy train shop, art supply, handmade jewelry, pottery, antique stores . . . with a midday stop for sushi and miso soup, our packages bundled up around our feet. I still remember riding home in the roadside slush, laughing, balancing our awkwardly bulging panniers. Laughing even more.
I began to know my town as if I had grown up here. And my town began to be delightful to me, full of small beauties and seasonal landmarks.
People newly introduced to us would say, “Oh, yes, you’re the Biking Family,” having seen us out and about on the roads around town. We began to describe ourselves as cyclists.
Our children grew. Their bikes got bigger. Our hours on two wheels got longer. We traded the baby trailer for a Tag-along we could bolt to mom or dad’s bike and started carrying panniers wherever we went.
We began to understand hills and miles in a way you never do if you only know them in a car. We biked in rain and hail and hard heat, all of which was sometimes miserable, all of which just makes the stories we retell each other now the better to tell.
Our summer rides became more ambitious. Best of the best: a weeklong ride from Seattle to Port Townsend back to Portland. We fell in love with ferries and hostels, farmer’s markets and bakeries.
And amazed ourselves at what our two legs (times five) could do.
I am convinced that it is the ride that matters more than the machine.
* * *
But I could be wrong.
After ten years riding a good enough Specialized hybrid, I succumbed to the siren call of the second bike. An everyday, toting groceries bike. One I could ride with a skirt. And scarves and boots if the mood took me that way. I’d save the old bike for the long rides, that would be sensible, right?
Here in Portland, the place for seriously fine transport bikes and excellent and responsive service is Clever Cycles (see Dream’s End). And the kind people there fitted me out beautifully, so that now for the around town, daily commuting . . .
. . I ride a sturdy Dutch bike, the Oma by WorkCycles. Which I love. With a Basil basket on the handles and a folding Wald basket on the side. I can carry …
. . . just about anything I need to carry.
And do it in a skirt.
Which makes me feel elegant and European.
Even when I don’t wear the skirt.
Though there is one drawback.
The excellence of the Oma’s ride has made my old faithful hybrid feel cramped and crotchety. Instead of keeping Old Blue, my Specialized hybrid, for the long summer rides as I’d planned, I’ve passed it along to my sister who needed a better long-distance bike.
She says she’s loving her New Blue.
And now when I want to go fast and far I’m zipping up hills, training for the long rides of summer on a springy Long Haul Trucker . . .
Do I also love this bike?
I do. I love how zippy it is to ride and how comfortable it is to settle into.
And I love the way its been built up (Thanks, Seven Corners Cycles! Another great cycle shop, suggested to me by Clever, focusing more on road and touring bikes, with an equal emphasis on affordable and quality) with just a few necessary-to-me tweaks:
- Brooks saddle,
- Rivendell Grip King pedals,
- Velo Orange fenders and
- a much-lengthened headstem raising the drop-bars exactly where I want them.
But mostly, I just love having a bike to ride.
I guess some things just never change.