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Stories

Catalogue of Bicycle Rides

Every kid wants a bike. We remember our first and anticipate the next. For those that never learned how to ride, may their God be merciful and blind. Our writer has ridden many bikes and still keeps one in Brooklyn. A history of cycling in one man’s life.

Prologue: Training

I found a kid’s bike—a BMX, half-buried in snow—in front of our porch. I showed it to my brother, who took it to the basement. He filled the serial number embossed in the kickstand with putty and spray-painted the kickstand silver, then spraypainted the frame yellow.

‘You have a bike,’ he said. I was 10.

We put it in the back of his old Dodge pickup and drove two miles to the college stadium’s parking lot. The parking lot was icy and on an incline. He held my sides as I put my feet on the pedals. I looked back to see him smiling. ‘Go!’ he said, and I burst forth ten feet, then hit an ice patch.

My short, pudgy body slapped against the pavement—thup!—as the bike slipped away. My brother lifted me, put me back on the saddle, and gave another push. By my fifteenth ice patch, sweater and skin shredded, I had learned to ride.

First Ride for Groceries

A year later my mother was in an accident that totaled the Dart, and she and my father decided to give up on cars. We went up to the Dutch Country to buy new bikes from the Amish.

My mother got a 3-speed with four baskets. My father got a 12-speed with one basket. I got a steel 12-speed, painted blue, vintage 1975, with a curved frame, streamlined generator light, and large front basket. Each of the bikes cost $100 except my father’s, which cost $150.

On weekends we rode them across town to the IGA, bought our groceries for the week, then rode home. Sometimes my father or mother put our terrier in the front basket, where it would sit and yap. Given the bicycles, terrier, groceries, and our shared fatness, I expected torment from my peers. But they only stared. Finally my mother found a small yellow car for $500 and bought it without telling my father. She and he stopped bicycling, but I kept it up.

First Accident

Two years later, by the sign for the college at the corner of Rosedale and High, I stopped too hard at a just-yellow light. The rear brake was soft, and I went, legs in the air, straight into the pavement. A driver stopped to ask if I was okay. I slurred that I was. My chin was torn up and bleeding, my nose and cheek bruised red. I picked gravel out of my face and walked the bike the quarter-mile home. When I opened the door I began crying loudly. My parents had been fighting, and in no mood for it. I was told I was overreacting. I went out the backyard and bled sullenly.

First Ride After Midnight

When I was 13 my father left for a while. Since we were too broke for new clothes I had to wear his, which were intended for a 310-pound, 5-foot 10-inch man. This made a serious impression on my more cruel middle-school peers, but I also got his Murray 12-speed, and my legs were just long enough for it.

My mother worked nights answering phones at QVC, so while she was gone I would take the bike out to the new industrial parks, dozens of which were growing up like dropseed in the empty Chester County fields, and cruise among the green light cast by the empty office buildings. I learned where the cops waited for speeders, college drunks, and truants, and I steered through alleys and across backyards to keep clear. I cruised with exuberant speed among the ghost buildings, greenish fluorescence leaking from their stairwell windows.

Transition

When I was 14 my father returned, living in Media, a town about a half-hour away. He decided against owning a car, and took back his 12-speed Murray. I returned to my steel 12-speed, now a bit too tall for it, and wrenched the seat as high as it would go.

First Ride for Love

When I was 15 I fell in love with Beth Price and, many times a week, I would ride a mile and a half to the alley behind her house, then walk the bike respectfully past her window, look up at her blinds and wonder what she was doing. I did this for at least nine months.

Interlude

For a few years I went away to a school that didn’t allow students to ride bicycles. I missed them.

First College Ride

It was the summer before my junior year in rural, upstate New York, and I was working for the biology department, moving pickled animals and painting desks. I began to crave a bicycle, and I excitedly bought a generic red 12-speed for $150, a little less than week’s minimum wage.

In order to be far away from a particular woman who held great sway over me, I lived about three and a half miles off-campus in a cheap room with a ceiling two inches lower than I was tall. The bike promised to cut a good 45 minutes from my commute, but on its fourth ride, going up a hill at 1 a.m., the right pedal blew off and flew into a bramble. I cruised to a stop and fished out the pedal from the thorns, going by feel, scratching my arms and face, then walked the bicycle the remaining miles to my room.

I tried several times to repair it, even bringing in the local trail-mix-eating experts, the ones who owned bikes with aluminum frames and wore special biking pants, but no amount of torque could hold a new pedal to the crank for more than a few miles. Eventually I gave that bike to my father, who added it to his growing collection.

First New York City Ride

When I was 25 the craving returned and my father gave me a bicycle that had fallen out of his favor. 18-speed, shocks, a hard seat, bright red, a little garish. He gave me his old plastic 13-year-old helmet. I rode it around the lot outside his apartment building and fixed the gearshift. I’d arranged a permit to take it back to New York from Philadelphia.

I got off at Penn Station very much in love. The shocks were not made for someone my size, and it hopped a bit as I pedaled, like a modified low-rider car. I got it over to 2nd Avenue, terrified at the city traffic moving around me, then down to the Brooklyn Bridge, at which point I was too tired to keep going, so I took it home on the train, rode a victory lap around my block, and chained it to the railing outside my door, where I still keep it.
 

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TMN Contributing Writer Paul Ford is the author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, a novel that was originally serialized here on TMN. He was formerly an editor at Harper’s Magazine, was an occasional commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered, and is now sole proprietor of Ftrain.com (which has a Facebook group). More by Paul Ford