Seven years after I wrote this, I ran into Jorge in the parking lot of the velodrome on an autumn Saturday morning, and he was getting ready to go for a ride with four kids he was coaching. He pulled a bike from the UHC team van, and I asked him if it was his. He smiled. He laughed. His shook his head. No.
At my worst, I had eleven bikes at one time, back there in the Nineties, which wasn’t really all that bad compared to some of my friends. Which in itself is kind of sad.
I didn’t need eleven bikes, of course, but “need” isn’t the point when it comes to bicycles. The problem for me was that I didn’t want eleven bikes, either. It was too many for me, for a lot of reasons.
For one thing, keeping eleven bikes rolling takes a lot of wrenching time. I wasn’t riding any more than I do now — in fact, during some of those years I know I did fewer miles; but somehow, in terms of mechanical woe, spreading mileage across all those bikes was like setting fire to eleven gas cans at once instead of lighting up eleven of them one at a time.
The bikes also took up too much space, which, whatever, I know, makes me sound fussy, prissy, wound up and spoiled — like most of us should be so burdened by life that we can whine about where to store our eleven bikes. I get it. But it wasn’t the physical volume itself that pained me. All that occupied space was, like, whatever, a metaphor for, I guess, all the space I found myself suddenly occupying. At some point in my life — as my alcoholic poet friend Mandible Jones once said — my possessions had come to possess me.
The man’s a poet. A drunk poet. But even so, he got it exactly right. My bikes owned me.
There’s this idea in cycling that we are not complete unless we can confront the many challenges of the world with what’s popularly called a “quiver” — a bike for every purpose: the crit bike, the climbing bike, the plush century bike, the cross-country bike, the DH bike, the hucking bike, the singlespeed, the fixie, the townie, the cyclocross bike, the singlespeed cyclocross bike, the old-school steel downtube shifter bike, the funny goofy trike you just can’t wait to show off at the pub crawl so all eleven of you there can have an uproarious laugh at how outside the box you are.
“Remuda” is a much better word in my eyes — none of my bikes are weapons. But no matter what the term, I don’t want a big bunch of bikes anymore. I want the fewest number possible that still lets me ride through my life the way I want to.
Until this morning, I thought the perfect number was one. I’d been there in the past, when I was too poor to own more than one truly great road bike — first a red Schwinn Paramount, then, after I had to sell it to pay for my last semester of college, another one in black, then a Klein Quantum just before mountain biking became popular, which was the last time I owned just one bike.
I’ve known for a long time now that I’ll never get back to one, but it gives me something to aim for. About a year ago, I started flowing my bikes out into the community. Giving away some of those bikes turned out to be more fun than owning them. I love the sense I get of the relentless power that improbability has to come true when when I see Duane, the guardian of messenger cool here in backwater Emmaus, riding the race bike Laurent Jalabert sent me. The other day I was driving through town and almost crashed into a line of parked cars because I couldn’t stop staring at some guy doing a trackstand on my old fuschia-white-chartreuse triple fade.
I’m down to a road bike, a backup road bike, a cyclocross bike, a pull-apart for travel, and a townie. Yeah, one of the road bikes could go: But Indy Fab XS or Pinarello Paris — you tell me how to make that choice. The townie is a luxury. I know it. Same with the travel bike. I can never give up cross.
So I’m looking at three bikes, maybe two with the next round of cuts. I can do that. I can get there.
But whenever I started thinking seriously about getting down to one, to take that leap of faith that would let me achieve what I considered perfection, I entered such an overwrought state of spiritual angst and handwringing that I had to run right out and buy a new Castelli jersey to soothe myself. I mean, come on, what could that one bike possibly be that would let me do the lunch ride and the crit and the centuries and the cross race and occasional commute to work? Can you imagine the compromises in bottom bracket height I would have to endure? And what would the Thursday Night Crit cognoscenti say if I showed up with cantilever brakes right there in plain sight?
“Impossible,” I was moaning this morning over a double espresso at SMC.
“I don’t own a bike,” said Jorge.
“I’ve seen you at the Derby,” I said. “I’ve raced the training crit with you this year.”
Jorge is a coach, trainer, holder of clinics and camps, directeur sportif, former almost famous pro racer — one of those guys who becomes known as a local personality, which is to say that he’s a piece of work. At Corestates this year — or whatever the big race in Philly is called now — he directed the Caico team from his tiny, 4-cylinder clown-car Suzuki Swift which announced, on the door decal, the coming of the Caico CICYLING team. (“The decal maker made a mistake,” Jorge told me, “but most people think it’s a foreign spelling, so we left it on.”)
“It’s true,” said Jorge. “I don’t own a bike.”
“Seen you riding,” I said, a little quivery in voice and limbs, as if I were a kid sensing some impending revelation about Santa Claus, or mortality, or a Tour de France racer’s hematocrit.
“Oh yeah,” said Jorge. “If I show up at a ride and someone gives me a bike I do the ride.”
“You show up and people give you bikes?”
“All the time.”
“From where? Who has spare bikes at a ride?”
“I don’t know. But it happens. All the time.”
“All the time?”
“Enough,” he said.
I sat. I drank my espresso. I thought about the sudden immensity of the formerly infinitely receding number one.
I said, “Do you show up with riding clothes?”
“Yeah. But once I showed up with no shoes and no helmet and no bike, and three different people took care of me.”
The man has found the perfect number of bikes, and set himself free. He rides without regard for the physical laws that govern the rest of us, every ride a monument to his own faith in himself, and to the generosity of our species in the cold vacuum of an uncaring universe.
I think I could use a Waterford track bike.
Originally published in the September 7, 2007 Sitting In