What It Isn’t Like, Part I

My history with bicycles is not a very storied one. I didn’t learn how to ride properly (a term used incredibly loosely) until I was probably ten or eleven, when a trip to Ocean City, NJ, and the inevitable bike rental on the boardwalk, in the company of a friend & her whole family, meant doing it, regardless of whether I could (in the sense of being comfortable or competent–I’d settle for either). There were a few figuring-it-out moments earlier; I think I received my first bicycle–my only bicycle, at least until incredibly recently–for Christmas when I was about seven. Somewhere around age nine, I wrecked it spectacularly. It still had the training wheels on it, brittle white plastic discs, and I say spectacularly because it was a fairly spectacularly dumb way to wreck a bike, at least compared to the grisly and deeply cool stories all my friends had. I simply managed to tip a bike–one that had four wheels on it at the time–off the crumbling berm on my grandmother’s narrow, creek-bracketed road. (All of the significant roads in my childhood are like this.) I don’t remember the falling part at all. I do remember the aftermath: the training wheel on the right side shattered, which cut up my ankle pretty badly because I was not at all agile or smart enough to at least pitch myself free of the wreckage. Thinking about it now, it feels a little like those Calvin & Hobbes strips.

The genius of Bill Watterson

Except it wasn’t an explicitly adversarial relationship. The bike–now without training wheels, which made my parents happy, I think, because now I’d have to learn to ride the bike properly–was kind of a non-entity to me. There wasn’t anywhere I could really go on it. I grew up in the utter middle of nowhere, and riding on the road (always narrow, crumbling, creek-bracketed) was verboten by my mother. Probably because of my propensity to just fall over on the bike, as exhibited above. Blessings upon my parents because they did everything they could to help me figure it out, including driving me and the bike to the empty high school parking lot and jogging along behind me. I remember my dad running with one hand fisted in the hood of my winter jacket as I pedaled, ready to lift me out of the inevitable wreckage. I wasn’t very big, so the system worked more or less for my safety. In the end, it worked enough. I managed three years of beach trips with my friend’s family, and those were the only times I rode a bike each of those years. Angelina and I rode tandem bikes sometimes, too, which helped, or several of us (she has three sisters) trundled along in one of those surreys that are super-fun to be in (especially when one is twelve) and probably dead annoying to everyone else on the boardwalk.

When those trips ended after the sixth grade, the bike ceased to be part of my consciousness. I was–am–a walker. As an adolescent, I preferred the woods for my angsty sojourns. As an adult, I still prefer the woods, whether the sojourns are angsty or otherwise. But now I live in a place where there are locations a few miles away I often go, places like work, the gym, the grocery store. The miles are few enough that driving my car, especially while the weather is still mild, tangs of the ridiculous, but even three miles of walking in one direction adds enough time to the activity that the walk can be prohibitive. I thought of solutions. I encountered resistance:

I have been informed by several parties that I am not permitted to put a horse in my–or my neighbors’–back yard.

The sidewalks of Casper are not skateboard- or rollerblade-friendly.

I have been further informed that a team of sled dogs is not an option, no matter how happy a gaggle of Huskies would make me, no matter how many times I have read The Call of the Wild.

A camel is right out.

So: a bike. The championed conveyance of the fit, the environmentally conscious, the frugal, the badass (wherein I think of my friend Vanessa, the cyclocross ninja, and my former student Rachel, who rode across the United States the summer after graduation). It’s been nearly two decades since I’ve ridden a bicycle, and I’m not sure I’d ever really call what I did on a bicycle “riding,” at least not in comparison to pretty much everyone else I know who’s ever ridden a bike.

I have to tell you that the cliche, at least as it applies to me and my riding of bicycles, is bullshit. Riding a bicycle has never been like riding bike. Knitting is like that. Ice skating is like that. Time doesn’t matter: the body remembers. I think solving quadratic equations would be more like that, actually, more attuned to some kind of muscle memory than the bloody bike-riding, and I probably stopped doing that at the same time I last rode a bike. I like other activities sort of like cycling, in that they transport; horseback riding, though I’ve done that about as many times as I’ve ridden a bike, feels natural and easy and comfortable. I can rollerblade and ice skate. I managed enough coordination to play softball and field hockey and soccer and recreational ice hockey. There is no reason that a bicycle should remain so opaque (particularly since I live in a residential neighborhood, full of kids from four to fourteen, who zip about and set up ramps in the street and noodle around with their feet on their handlebars in blissful ignorance of my seething envy). I don’t even want to get in touch with my inner X-Gamer in this arena; I just want to be able to get to the grocery store and back without getting in my car and without the ice cream melting.

I bought a bike, of course. I may have made a foolish decision in buying the bike I did, a clearance-rack mountain bike from Target, but it had a small enough frame that it fit me with the seat at the lowest setting. Nothing appeared to be lopsided or wobbly or visibly broken, and that was good enough for the experiment, which had several phases.

Hypothesis A: I can figure out the mechanics of riding because I am a damn adult possessed of an able body and a sound mind.

Null Hypothesis A: I cannot figure this out and the ten year old girl across the street who says I am crabby and who grills me about where I have been and what I am doing every time she sees me will have won. (Or a slightly less dramatic version, really.)

Hypothesis B: I will actually enjoy the act of riding my bike and wish to do it more often.

Null Hypothesis B: Riding the bike will bring me no enjoyment.

Hypothesis C: I will actually manage to make the riding functional, allowing me to get to work without trying to put my car anywhere on the construction-riddled campus and to get to the gym & grocery store, where I will get to enjoy feelings of great triumph for a while, and then at least some general smugness after that.

Null Hypothesis C: Nothing will function. Failure on all counts.

I’ve had my bike for a little over two weeks. In that time, I have replaced a leaking inner tube and added a seat-post rack. That time has also yielded data:

  • Hypothesis A: confirmed. I haven’t fallen off of the thing. I can manage to do effective signaling, too, though it is a bit terrifying to take one hand of the handlebars. But it wasn’t easy, wasn’t instinctive, and isn’t getting easier quickly (though incrementally, yes).
  • Hypothesis B: confirmed. I do enjoy it, particularly in the sense that it’s rather freeing. Not-unexpected complication of B: ow. But, as with all things physical, the body adapts. Or gets told to suck it up.
  • Hypothesis C: complicated. Last night, I did a test-run of the route I wanted the bike for most: home to work to the gym. The long, gradual grade of the second mile to the gym and my rubber legs notwithstanding, I managed. I also managed to discover two other things. 
    • Changing gears on this particular bike consistently results in the chain disengaging from the sprocket, which means that pedaling does nothing
    • I can fix the thing enough to get me home without being hit by a car. Pretty proud of that actually, as I know bugger-all about it. Yes, every child on my street can do the same, too, but still. 
I’m going to take the bike to a local bike shop for a tune-up tomorrow (which will cost more than I paid for the bike). We’ll see what they say, and I’ll cap this upon learning the verdict. 
Hypothesis/Wagers/Jokes in Poor Taste About a Film That Still Makes Several Generations Cry:
What are the odds that there’s an Old Yeller moment at the end of this? 
(I said this was a series of elegies. I didn’t expect this kind, but I’ll write it if I have to. That’s what we do here.)

Update: Bike shop says I can expect then to be done with my bike in the vicinity of Monday. So, Part II will come sometime after that. Other bits in this series will come between then and now.

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5 thoughts on “What It Isn’t Like, Part I

  1. I want to hug you so much right now. You are being very brave and sensible, and believe me, the bike-riding will one day be worth it. My bike represented freedom to me (I didn't get a driver's license until I was in college)…I'm so sorry you missed out on that.

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  2. So much love for you for doing this. Ditto the brave bit me mum said.

    I have often wished I lived anywhere having a bike could be practical as well as fun. (Somehow we live in the middle of a residential neighborhood not two miles from most things and you still could not get to those things on a bicycle without it being the Most Terrifying Thing Ever.)

    Also, this:

    A camel is right out.

    I hand you the internet. It is yours. Try not to destroy the universe tonight, as I have plans for finishing S3 of White Collar. ❤

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  3. It doesn't really feel brave or sensible to me at this point–it feels vaguely ridiculous. But I remember several friends biking what I considered at the time a very great distance (between seven and fifteen miles in one direction) to visit me a few times, and I wonder what that would have been like. Would have been terribly handy in Williamsport & Athens, though.

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  4. I think the terrifying part is compulsory, at least until one becomes comfortable. There are many places here I wouldn't ride (just about anywhere I can't get to via residential roads because Casper drivers are the least bike-friendly folk ever), but the terror has become its own reward. Everywhere I go, I just want to shout “I LIVED!” Which is kind of affirming.

    Also, there are no provisions in the campus bylaws about camels, as far as I know. The college president's obligation to provide water & fodder for one's horse, though, still stands.

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