Wednesday, June 20, 2007

How I Got Into Bicycles

My life with bicycles started later than most. My parents bought me my first bike, a red Dunelt coaster brake single speed, around my 9th birthday, I think. It was much later that I learned to ride. We moved when I was six, to a house on a busy main street, at the top of a steep hill. My dad apparently worried about me riding there... he was a cautious guy by nature, so it makes sense. I wasn't exactly the daredevil of the neighborhood either, so time passed. I think I was about 12 or so when my brother took it upon himself to teach me to ride. He'd moved out to a nearby townhouse, and it happened to have a nearly unused street behind it. So one day he took me back there and slowly, patiently, got me started riding. The first time I felt like I was moving totally under my own power and control was like magic.

The funny thing is, unlike many kids, I never stopped. Maybe it was because I started late, or maybe not. I rode that Dunelt everywhere, with friends, and alone. On streets, down dirt paths into the woods, you name it. As I got more into it, I lowered the handlebars for a more "aerodynamic position". The funny thing is that this was the late 60s/early 70s... so all my friends were on Sting Rays and the like, while I was on this red, fendered, "British Professor Bike". No matter, I loved that bike... it was freedom, fun, and adventure for me.

But of course... we always want more... something new and different. And those were the early days of widespread appearance of that magical creation... the TEN SPEED! My sister got a lovely blue Raleigh Record, and I was smitten. I launched a campaign of hinting incessantly to my parents that what I really needed was a 10 speed... preferably a white Raleigh Record! I have no idea now how long this went on, but I must have driven my parents crazy with constantly showing them pictures in catalogs and such. I had just about accepted the fact that it just wasn't going to happen... it was just too big and expensive a thing for a couple with five kids growing up. Then on Christmas Day, I was asked to get one of my sisters out of the living room so my parents could surprise her with some big present. She and I were both surprised... I've long since forgotten what her big gift was, but there by the tree was a white Raleigh Record, all for me!

If I thought the Dunelt meant adventure and freedom, that Raleigh was a whole step beyond. With that bike, I rode farther and longer than I could have imagined... even going to OTHER TOWNS! Seems silly now, but that was huge back then. I was in junior high by then I guess, and I explored far and wide. And I began to learn about the mechanics of bikes. With the Dunelt, it was pretty basic... one speed, and a coaster brake. The Raleigh had 10 speeds, two derailleurs, and hand brakes front and rear. I learned how to adjust the gears and brakes, even learned how to overhaul hubs and the bottom bracket. A whole new world opened up to me there... I'd built models and things like that, but never really done anything mechanical before. Learning both the riding and mechanical skills that Raleigh taught me did a lot to help me gain confidence and grow up.

And I started reading everything I could about bikes. Much of what I learned about riding and mechanics I learned from two classics of the era: Richard's Bicycle Book, by Richard Ballentine, and Anybody's Bike Book, by Tom Cutherbertson. Wonderful books, and since I was always a book lover, it makes sense that I would turn to books to learn. Besides, I didn't really have anyone else to teach me... my dad didn't really know about bikes, my brother had moved away, and none of my friends were really into it either.

Now reading those books, and others, lead to the inevitable desire for something better... something new. So I set my sights... on a Fuji S-10S, Special Road Racer. Don't let the name fool you... the bike was anything but a racer... but it was a highly rated bike in several publications, including my favorite, Richard's. By this time I had started earning money in a small kite company my then-brother-in-law and I started (the subject for another post?), so I saved up my money, until I had enough to buy the bike myself. It was a very happy and proud day when I plunked down my $225 plus tax on a shiny new 1977 S-10S. I went from the white Raleigh to a black and chrome Fuji... and interestingly, my next two bikes were also variations on black. Come to think of it, the "trashmo" bike I bought for college ended up spray painted black, so I guess it was a theme of sorts. Not sure why... I think I thought black was classy.

That Fuji was a revelation... lighter and smoother riding than the Raleigh, with a much more reliable drive train, and the first bike I tried toe clips and straps with. Those may seem quaint now to some, but they were the ultimate in connection to your bike, and a statement about your expertise. That Fuji was also my ticket out of the horrors of gym class for me. I hated the team sports and such, in part because I was terrible at most of them, and was the classic "last to be picked" kid. Luckily for me, as I was about to start high school they instituted a new policy, that if you would commit to some number of hours of some regular athletic activity on your own, you could opt out of gym. Hmmmm... an hour a day of humiliation and sweat with a bunch of other guys, or ride my bike to my heart's content? Tough call. Funny thing is, I don't recall that there was any sort of real proof required that I was doing it... but no doubt I did. I rode that bike constantly... even after getting my driver's license. Unlike most teens, the driver's license didn't lead me to put away the bike. I just enjoyed riding too much.

After a year of college, and having a beater bike stolen, I decided it was time for something better again. I did a lot of shopping around and research, and there was this newish shop in a town called College Park near me... carrying a brand of bike that was largely unknown back then. It seems that after years of nothing but low end bikes made in the USA (apart from Schwinn, that is), this little company in Wisconsin by the name of Trek was starting to make a name for itself building frames and bikes by hand. It was May of 1980 when I bought my Trek 414... their low end model, but still hand brazed in the US. A wonderful, amazing bike, that I would have for many, many years. I still have it and ride it today, 27-plus years later. I've raced on it, toured on it, ridden it on pavement and dirt, in many states. Over the years it's become like an old friend, and I can't imagine parting with it now. I've changed out all the various parts except the frame, but if a bike can be said to have a soul, it is still intact in that frame.

I've owned many bikes over the years, and now own quite a few. Almost all of them have been or are great bikes. Some are "better" than the Trek in ways, or better at some kinds of riding... but the Trek goes on, as my reliable companion, and it just feels right and fits right. It's the bike I really entered adulthood with, and the bike that saw me through good times and bad. I hope to keep riding it for many years to come.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Summer in the Mid-Atlantic

Well, it's come a little early this year. Sometimes it holds off until July or even August if we're lucky, but this year, it's mid June and the humidity and heat are here. Not my idea of fun at all. I grew up in the region, but I've lived a lot of other places, and honestly, I prefer summer most other places I've lived. The slightest activity leaves me soaking wet and tired.... and working in a shop where we generally keep the a/c off most of the time, it's pretty challenging some days. Thank god for fans!

Riding isn't much fun this time of year either. The air feels heavy with moisture... you feel like you are having to push through the damp like a boat at sea. Breathing is harder, due to the heaviness, and the fact that pollution levels rise at this time as well. And while riding along on the flat or a downhill isn't so bad, when you come to a stop your clothes are instantly soaked through and you feel the heat rising off the pavement and from the tailpipes of the cars around you. It makes me miss the cold of winter. At least then my cycling warmed me up and made things better.

Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch. The thing to remember though is that I am out there... riding my bike. It's been one of my favorite things in the world since I first learned how. So I try to stop and remind myself what a gift it is to be able to simply ride, whatever the weather. I watched the movie Venus recently on DVD... starring Peter O'Toole. It tells the story of a man (and his friends) very late in life. Watching it reminded me that being able to hop on my bike and simply ride off somewhere is not something I should take for granted.

But of course, being human, that doesn't stop me from complaining about truly silly things like the weather from time to time. The trick is to catch oneself and remember the joy of just being here. And riding.