I liked the idea of making this one start out as if it were going to be about the nobility of utility cycling, then going somewhere more much smaller and more personal. Sometimes I think the smaller I make a story’s scope, the better it gets.
There’s a little rise, maybe 30 feet of vertical gain, just past the left turn at the T, and because the pavement is as smooth and black as a new Vittoria, and because there was no traffic in sight or sound and I rolled right through the stop sign, I stay right where I am, sitting up, hands off the bar, and spin up and over the hump.
Far up in front of me, at the distance just before he’d turn into a little indistinguishable dot, there’s a kid on a BMX bike. Light hair, no helmet, chunky gym shoes, long baggy shorts, a light-colored shirt with some logo on the back. He’s whisking madly at the pedals, slinging his body all over, pausing with one foot down and — I can just barely see — turning his head to look back at me before resuming his ferocious activity.
Something about his urgency, the stance of his body, the pace of his bike — I don’t know — tells me he’s been trying to outrun me for some time.
I can’t recall when he first appeared in front of me. I’ve been too busy puttering along at 12 to 15 mph on one of the sweetest, flattest roads in the valley. It’s one of those strange days, half-spring and half-summer, pregnant with thunderstorms that never break. One big, single drop of rain sploshes on the road every thirty seconds or so, not enough to get me wet but all I need to feel noble. I’m in a Rapha jersey, cap, on my Pinarello Paris race bike, and I’m whistling, closing my eyes when I know it’s safe, chucking at horses and cows I pass. For the first time in too long, I’m part of the solution — I’m using my bike for transportation. I want to savor this chance to do the right thing.
Although I get out on my bike about five or six times a week these days, I don’t get many opportunities to use it as a vehicle. This wasn’t always true. For a long period of my adult life I didn’t own a car and used my bike — my one bike, a Klein Quantum racer painted tri-fade fuchsia/white/chartreuse — to get everywhere: to work, to downtown Cincinnati to meet my girlfriend, to ballgames, company picnics, parties, the grocery store, the laundromat. When I moved to Pennsylvania, I ended up with a car but kept to my bike-commuting ways, riding to work on a riverside towpath then, when I moved closer to the office, cruising less than two miles each way.
When my daughter was born I figured that would be the finish of my utility cycling, but it turned out that her daycare was a mile from our house — downhill. Come summer, my wife and I would debate each other for the privilege of the morning coast to daycare, leaving the after-work uphill slog in 90-degree, 90-percent humidity to the loser.
For the past couple years, though, almost all of my cycling has been for sport and fitness. I know enough bike-at-all-costs transportation purists that I won’t say that shuttling Nat between school, soccer, dance, swimming, art, birthday parties and playdates requires a car; the truth is that I don’t want to go through everything it would take to do all of that on my bike.
I still ride a townie around Emmaus, taking a mid-day break to grab coffee at the SMC bike shop, or pedaling to the pizza joint for lunch. But I leave my commuter at work, so rare is my need for it at home. So when I get a chance to do something like swap a lunch ride for an 11-mile trip to retrieve the car from the shop, I almost always take it.
The kid looks back, then throws himself at his bike again, as if he and the bike are in a schoolyard fight. I’m gaining on him.
His T-shirt, faded, tattered, once green, I think, worn through in places, says, “Marlboro.”
His twists his neck around again, and sees that we can make eye contact and snaps his head forward. His next fusillade against the pedals is cartoonishly fast and exaggerated on the downstrokes, giving everything he has to punch his power into the road.
I’m going to catch him.
My hands are still off the bars, my feet doing maybe 85 rpm. I am a trained, fit, smooth roadie entering the long prime season of the year. Of course I’m going to pass the kid.
Before I know I’m going to do it, I drop my hands to the hoods, and with the index finger of my right hand I click the Campy lever up and up and up, until I’m in the easiest gear, absolute granny, 39×25.
The kid is some kind of tornado now, raging over the road, casting a dread wake of sweat and spit and dirt and grease and — what is that? tears? hair? the physical manifestation of sheer willpower? I put my hands in the drops, and keep my feet at a steady 80 — I don’t want it to look like I’m slowing — and when the kid’s face appears from deep within the maelstrom of his body, he is ten feet farther from me than he was the last time he looked.
Then he’s twenty feet up the road. Then thirty. He cyclones into a driveway and, as he turns onto a crackling sidewalk that leads to the ornamental porch of a tiny white house, he goes through a series of flickering dead stops like a DVD movie freezing.
As I approach, he watches me in that peculiar, aggressively shy adolescent way that kids have, swiveling his head to track my progress. He is panting, heaving. When I have passed the driveway and am directly across from him, with only the space of the ragged little lawn between us, he accidentally looks right at me, and in that moment I take my right hand off the bar and flick my fist out, thumb up.
It’s not until I’m out of sight that I shift back to the 16, sit back up, take my hands off the bar and whistle along, happy to ride my bike when something besides myself matters.
Originally published in the June 19, 2007 Sitting In