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Archive for July 10th, 2011

“I’m going back on the bicycle,
I just can’t pay the bills,
I’m going back on the bicycle,
And freewheel down the hill.”

–Tommy Sands

In my teens, I was welded to my bicycle. I used it to run errands in the village, and in the summer I would organize forty kilometer rides out to Horseshoe Bay or the University of British Columbia. But as an adult, I let my bicycle rust on the porch until it was beyond reclaiming, and walked or rode in a car – until today, when I spent the afternoon becoming a cyclist again.

I’d been contemplating the move for some time. For one thing, I only preserve my sanity when riding an exercise bike at the gym by doing interval workouts – and even then I have to grit my teeth against the sports and diet talk around me. For another, Burnaby, the city where I live, has kilometers of urban cycle trails, including the Central Valley Greenway, which goes all the way into Vancouver, as well as dozens of trails through the nearby green belt. Just as importantly, now that I’m by myself, I felt the need of doing something new, something just for me.

Still, for a while I thought I wasn’t fated to be a cyclist again. Twice when I planned to find a bike, the Skytrain broke down. Two other times, I had a swollen ankle that kept me near home. Another time, a friend arrived unexpectedly in town, causing me to cancel my plans. But today, the stars were finally aligned, and shortly after noon, I arrived at the shop and started trying bikes.

Supposedly, you never forget how to ride. But in my case, that’s a half truth: in my first effort, I managed to stay upright, but I wobbled like the backside of a duck.

Fortunately, my inner ear and muscles soon started half-remembering the skills I hadn’t used in years, and within twenty minutes I was no longer disgracing myself quite so badly and could almost look over my shoulder without veering out of control. If I couldn’t turn on a dime, I could just about manage the maneuver on a baseball diamond.

I did, though, need to go back and try the first bike again. The first time I tried it, I was too busy clinging to the handle bars and trying not to yelp with terror when the bike store employee gave me a push.

I had come with a definite idea of what I wanted – a refurbished bike, with racing handle bars, and a good gear ratio so I wouldn’t bang my chin with my knees when pedaling on the flat. But a slightly used hybrid (half mountain, half road) was almost the same price, gave a better ride with regular handle bars, and gave me more options for the kinds of riding I was likely to do. So that’s what I ended up buying, even though twenty-one gears seems a ridiculously large number.

Then it was time to accessorize. When I was a teenager, I just hopped on my bike and rode. In contrast, today the law requires a helmet and a bell at the very least (never mind that I would forget all about the bell and most likely shout on any occasion when it might be useful). If I ride at night, I need a rear reflector. A basket and lock were necessary for quick hops to the store. I also wanted fenders, since the idea of my back being spotted by mud didn’t appeal – and, living in the Lower Mainland, sooner or later, I knew I would be riding in the rain. Still, somehow I fought the madness and managed to keep my spending down to only ten dollars more than I had planned.

“How are you going to get home?” the store clerk asked.

I had planned to take my new purchase on the Skytrain and only ride a couple of kilometers home, but in a fit of bravado I said, “I’m going to ride it.”

“Good for you! Way to go!” The clerk enthused. But when he asked me where I lived, I couldn’t help imagining that he looked glad to think that he was unlikely to be on the road while I was. He’d seen me testing bikes.

Since home was ten kilometers away, I was already repenting my rashness. Yet I couldn’t back down without condemning myself as an empty boaster, even if nobody except me would know. So I set off, my hands a little uncertain on the gears, worrying that any moment I was going to end up curled in a ball, like the centipede who become uncoordinated when asked how he walked. So long as I didn’t think too much, I kept telling myself, I could trust my old reflexes to get me home – even if I took three hours to get there, and walked most of the way.

But you know what? Within a kilometer of leaving the store, I was having the most fun I had had in over a year. Like walking, cycling keeps me in touch with what’s happening around me, but it has the advantage of letting you travel reasonably quickly.

Moreover, unlike a car, a bicycle is a machine that enhances your muscular effort. Where a car simply carries you, a bike improves your efficiency, helping you to climb a hill more easily in lower gears, and to travel farther with each revolution of the pedal in higher gears.

The result was a wild joy in my heart, of a sort that only the best of runs can provide. I felt strong and unlimited, as though I wanted to sing but too many songs were clamoring to be sung for me to know which to voice first.

Thirty minutes later, I was regretting the end of the trip, and only the knowledge that I had to get other things done kept me from prolonging it.

I’m sure that my muscles will pay the price tomorrow. But I’m going out for a ride tomorrow, too, hoping to recapture more of that strenuous pleasure from my teen years that I’d forgotten.

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