The bicycle was still there, brand new, with its pale-blue frame and its plated handlebars which sparkled against the dull stone of the wall. It was so lissome, so slender, that even when not in use it seemed to cut through the air…
― Simone de Beauvoir, The Blood of Others
I did a thing, again. I bought a new bike. Used, but new to me. I bought a new one on the cheap last spring, one speed, foot breaks and heavy like a tank, anxious to stay ahead of any bike shortage, like there had been at the start of The Pandemic. I could’ve learned to love it I suppose, like I do, to “make do,” but there is no bike shortage and an impulse struck on the way to walk Violette’s Lock. Wouldn’t it be nice to ride? And Oscar’s Bike Shop was en route.
Winter 2020 Ethan and my bikes were stolen from our deck. I like to think of my deck as my property, although I wonder if anyone can really “own” part of the outside. A deck has a bit of an inside feel, so it rattled me to have the bikes taken. But I thought of Hélène, the hero in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Blood of Others. Maybe if the bikes meant as much to those who took ours, maybe if they yielded such joy in freedom, maybe in the big scheme of things it was good. Although I missed mine — that stolen bike, pale blue like Hélène’s. My new bike is also pale blue, 21 speeds (although I’ll probably only use 5 of them), hand brakes, and shocks that I couldn’t imagine I’d need but it sure is comfortable. The bike doesn’t fit my rack and it was quite a production tying the new bike on. The bike shop owner helped, wrapping inner-tubes around every pole, while I anxiously watched the sun dropping. Still, I made it to enjoy an exhilarating, albeit spookily dark ride along the C&O last week.
Something about riding a bike — one can’t help but feel 10-years-old at the start of summer vacation. I’ve never rode seriously, have never owned bike shorts nor cared much for speed. But riding has yielded some of my favorite memories, simple pleasures, easy to take for granted. As I wait for the temperature to climb through the 50’s, a gift this late in November, to get some more miles on my new friend, I’m nothing if not grateful.
Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.
― H.G. Wells
When I moved to Tucson in ‘95 I needed another option to get to work. Gas was expensive in the “right to work state,” which I think means you have the right to work more hours than paid at minimum wage. So I bought a new, so-pretty, used bike, in a variety of colors, like sherbet. I rode her up the big hill to Zia Records, so hot in the late morning desert sun, then down the hill to home in the cold after dark every day. I got many more miles out of her once I moved to Austin. Police regularly pulled me over there. Jarring and upsetting to be detained at least weekly. I couldn’t understand it but in retrospect suspect it had something to do with my beat-up ‘78 T-Bird with Florida plates. I couldn’t stand it! So I took to riding my bike everywhere. And Austin is a friendly city for that — big, free lanes lining every highway. I rode to my soul-crushing job, pricing insurance claims, several miles away from my apartment.
It was during these tortuously tedious work hours that I decided I’d become a truck driver, get some adventure, see the world. It was faulty thinking. Trucks are big and one can’t see much outside of interstates and truck stops. Again, the bike saved the day! I bungeed the bike to the back of the tractor to take it down when laid over and investigate little towns, find lakes, tour antique shops, and go on quests for jackalopes. I didn’t realize they were an urban legend. (This was all before Google.) Sometime between trucking companies and moving back to D.C., I let my sherbet friend go. She was pretty beat up from the bumps and vibrations of the truck, pedals bent where she’d bore a hole in the tractor.
After a couple of bikeless years, I settled in Riverdale, MD and a friend gave me a castoff bike from her family. Riverdale is beautiful. I still miss the trails along the Anacostia, having moved to Montgomery County in 2007. But for ten years, I tooled along bike paths in PG County and through Rock Creek Park into MoCo. So many treasures I may have missed in a car and would unlikely make it to on foot — the College Park airstrip, Aviation Museum, Mandalay Burmese restaurant (now in Silver Spring), interesting playgrounds, little bridges, and skies as pretty as anywhere, which is saying a lot, because as I mentioned, I lived in Tucson.
I went through a few bikes in Riverdale. Riding played a significant role in the early years of life with my “ex” and I. I gave him the red castoff and got the cheapest bike I could find for myself. Ha, I couldn’t figure out why I worked so hard and he was always ahead. I mean, he was naturally more athletic, but I was really trying. Well, the cheapest bike I could find had wheels about two inches smaller than the red bike. Took me awhile to piece that together but when he was willing to trade, it sure evened things out.
Little gives me a stronger love-feel of nostalgia than thinking of rides I took with little Coley, her bike seat affixed behind me, her red monkey helmet holding back her curly locks. As a kid in Massachusetts, I remember riding along the cracked sidewalks, disheveled by roots of sprawling trees that shaded daylight to a strobe effect. The worlds that opened up with my first set of wheels, a yellow one-speed with banana seat. My Dad taught me to ride in the playground of the local school. I learned to stop long after I learned to ride, leading to many cuts, bruises, and ironically fond memories. I couldn’t wait to teach my kids to ride! And it was every bit as satisfying as I knew it would be.
Ethan and I have put more miles on bikes than I have with any other riding partner — Rockville, Germantown, around Clopper Lake, Needwood, Harper’s Ferry, Hagerstown, Cumberland, New Orleans, back and forth from school when I had the good fortune to have him where I taught for a couple of years. Our adventures have given us much to reminisce and laugh about — how he navigated atrocious Katrina-bit potholes, then fell over on an easy new-straight-away; how I’m rarely willing to turn around when lost, thinking most things are circles, but ten miles later acquiesce to an about-face. He is a generous, patient soul.
Today I’ll go riding with my Man to investigate a new path along Seneca Creek. Grateful to tag along on someone else’s inspired plan. And to be riding with someone who can sail along, no hands. I’m not going to try it, but when already given to the feel of flight, it’s quite a sight to behold! I’ll be thinking of my new bike’s name and holding fond memories of old bikes, but will mostly be thinking nothing at all. Out in nature, I find bike riding a transformative, meditative experience. This is not so much the case when riding around the city, crossing streets, and dodging cars, that do sometimes seem to want cyclists dead. I went without a car for about a year in 2011. I’d take my toddler boy to preschool in the “rickshaw” attached to the bike, then ride on to work. It’s not a great move, admittedly, to be rude or curse too close to one’s job. Realizing that, I experienced great satisfaction when almost hit by a car crossing the on-ramp to 370 in winter and realized that, if you’re wearing mittens, you can flip someone off and no one knows. But fortunately I now have a good car and such commuting won’t be part of today’s journey. Today will be all muscle, wind, strobe-lighting sun through branches, and flight.
Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.
― Susan B. Anthony