Mainly, I was hoping my boss would be hosting a meeting when I got to work so for comic effect I could open his door and give him back the borrowed leaf blower in front of a bunch of important corporate people. I wasn’t thinking, at all, about the fact that I was riding my bike while dangling a Toro Super Blower from one hand—until, at the sight of me, a bewildered motorist swiveled her head in a stare so overlong that only with a screeching halt that smelled of melted rubber did she avoid a fender bender at the stop sign closest to my office. I braked with my free right hand and, steering mostly with my hips, faded left past the flummoxed driver then with a crisp snap of the wrist signaled my turn with the nozzle of the blower and rode on.

Like just about anyone who has spent on a bike some portion of life that lies between significant and ridiculous, I have found myself in—and, to be honest, sometimes fostered—situations requiring me to carry items one ought not to while bewheeled. I am not referencing those times when I’ve had a messenger bag or backpack or rack or basket or trailer or even bungees to deal with the lading. In terms of transporting cargo, the bicycle is an exemplary machine, easily able to support—depending on the source you cite—50 times its own weight or more. Jenga-stacking 500 pounds of bananas atop a Flying Pigeon? Moving a sleeper couch across town on a Metrofiets? You’re supposed to do that. I am talking about those instances when, on my everyday bike, I’ve freighted harrowing loads with only my hands and arms and, sometimes, balanced as well on alternating thighs or across the handlebar or top tube, or else on one shoulder or both.

I have climbed while clutching a 30-pack of beer. I have carried three wheels at once, and another time two frames. I lugged across town part of a lawn-mower engine (as much as I know about bikes is as little as I know about motorized things, so I can only tell you it was the big part). I rode back to its home a wandering kitten that I did not trust to stay in a rear pocket and which, when cradled in the front of my partially unzipped jersey, unsheathed its tiny claws. I managed to ride from a vintage furniture store to my apartment with a secondhand bookshelf. I battled into submission, at speed, a rolled-up, hundred-foot garden hose that was much heavier than I anticipated and, once it began unraveling, seemed as slippery and alive as a python. I successfully rode a few miles with only two turns from a grocery to my driveway with four paper bags so fully loaded I could not roll down the tops to form handles but instead had to cradle two between my chest and each forearm—only to have them burst upon a soaking by a sudden and violent downpour.

Of course, through the years I have paid penalties worse than claw marks and broken eggs. I was once hauling two nested empty garbage cans up my sloped driveway when the mouth of one of the bins touched my front wheel just as I was delivering a power stroke to the drivetrain. The handlebar instantly whipped sideways. I got bucked forward and landed face-first on the macadam, then speared my bicycle down onto the small of my back with my still clipped-in feet, and, as a finale, I rolled over and took an edge of a can across my top lip when my flailing arm yanked it into me. Another time, I was carrying a boxed pizza in one hand and decided because I was real good at riding no-handed I could indulge in a slice before I got home. My shoulder slamming onto the street hurt, but not as memorably as the scalding sauce adhered to my face by the melted cheese.

The learning curve for this particular aspect of cycling is like the edge of some exotic blade that slices off your weaknesses. It’s painful but, ultimately, purifying—to the extent that, after a couple decades of lessons, lugging around a leaf blower seemed ordinary to me.

And I felt pretty good about that ordinariness, once the astounded motorist drew my attention to it. I felt like I just might be, after all, the kind of cyclist who through long dedication to increasingly arcane aspects of the practice knows how to ride a bike in a way few people can, in a manner that amazes those who don’t ride and is appreciated by those who do. Sure, I wasn’t racing at the edge of my ability and nerve, or pulling off some personally improbable feat on a high mountain road, but that was part of the sense of accomplishment: To be a complete cyclist, not just a speed seeker, or just a commuter or just some greened-out utility biker. I was on my race bike, pedaling to work, carrying a leaf blower.

We met in a sporadic spit of rain before sunrise, my friends and I, in arm warmers and embrocation against the chill, sipping at coffees still hot, breaking off pieces of banana, fiddling with a barrel adjuster or pressing a palm against a tire to check pressure. Our cleats crunched on the tiny rocks of the bitumen, and in the dim empty parking lot the sound was loud. The train that had been howling the news of its arrival for minutes finally tore past us, clattering, screaming, pushing air toward us then sucking it away. I watched it, something about the tumult, and the griminess, and the power, and yet the restraint and orderliness of it all reminding me of a pack. I was about to remark on this when a guy on a bike rode into my line of sight, racing the train.

He was in raggedy jeans and a hole-pocked T-shirt that showed no regard for the weather, and gym shoes, on a beat department-store mountain bike dwarfed near to disappearing under a load of plastic bags filled with other plastic bags, with plastic and glass bottles, with cans, with balls of twine and string, and crumpled fast-food bags, and what appeared to be orphaned shoes and boots, and other salvage beyond recognition. His cadence was smooth, and quick, and his lean, long-limbed body sat on the bike with the special kind of ease that must be refined with long practice but cannot ever exist if it does not at birth. And in the intersection of motion and posture, this beggared man possessed the jauntiness of the rarest and finest cyclists. He carried his burden in a way that was so much better than I ever could.

I never did say whatever I was going to say about the train to my friends. I didn’t speak much of the man, either. We all clicked in and rolled out for our ride.

Something in that down-and-out cyclist made me ache high and deep in my chest. It wasn’t the reminder I’d gotten of the truism that in any part of any endeavor there will always be those who are better, or the mildly fresher recognition that better comes in strains that are not just out of reach but out of the question. It was the revelation that any one of us might carry within the ability to astonish, to inspire, to ride beautifully at least for a moment in the eyes of someone, and that, for that moment, there is no difference at all between appearance and reality. I would never stop wanting to be what I thought of as a real cyclist. But sometimes I was one anyway.


XI You Ride Like You   XIII The Long Way
Originally published in Bicycling magazine, August 2012