The International Writers Magazine: Bike Ride
I Ride My Bicycle
I just finished my bicycle ride, and I’m a little winded. I would say I’m out of shape, but the fact is I do have a shape. It resembles an elephant sea lion with two pasty white legs sprouting from its lower end.
I have found that the best way to go out in public as a fat man is to wear a funny little cap like Dom Deluise. My hat looks kind of like a Greek fisherman’s hat. My bicycle is a beach cruiser with back pedal brakes. I’m planning on attaching a basket to the front end. Then I’ll fill the basket with old plastic bottles. I’ll probably have to talk to myself, loudly, as I pedal along. People will expect it.
I’ve got a handful of local streets I cycle around in the shade of maples, liquid ambers, oaks and yellow poplars. In the fall I deliberately run over dried leaves to hear the crunch. Last fall I was crunching along when I spotted a very jagged leaf in the road and steered towards it. Just before my fat tire demolished it, I saw that it was not a leaf, but a praying mantis. It reared up like a kung fu fighter, threatening the tire before I rolled over it with a gratifying scrunch.
My favorite all-time cyclist is Syd Barrett, the founder of the Pink Floyd group. He had no pretensions, and his approach to cycling was pure. His song “Bike” had the lyric:
I’ve got a bike
You can ride it if you like
It’s got a basket
A bell that rings
And lots of things
To make it look good
I’d give it to you if I could
But I borrowed it
He rode his bike without a helmet or fussy uniform until he died at the age of sixty. Contrast him with the homo erotic post yuppies who wear spandex, sunglasses with protruding rear view mirrors and three hundred dollar shoes as they huff and hard-pedal their four thousand dollar carbon-framed twenty speeds. They have made cycling a grim chore. Whenever I’m riding, they shoot past me like game fleeing a predator. They’ll all live to be one hundred and five, at which age they will bitch about the cheese sandwiches served to them in their assisted-living homes.
There isn’t anywhere I need to get to in such a hurry as to cause me to wear spandex.
1962—The American Year. Color TV was the latest rage. An embargo against Cuba was called because of that county’s relationship with Russia. Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” shocked movie goers, and the Beatles released their first single: “Love Me Do.” At schools across the US, students were taught to “duck and cover” in case of atomic attack. They cowered under their desks, knowing that nothing, not even radiation, which can make ants twenty feet long, could penetrate a Formica-topped school desk.
And a five year old boy learned to ride a bike. He simply mounted it at the top of a street hill and aimed the front wheel downhill. As the bike picked up speed, his nerves evaporated, and he forgot about the back-pedal braking. A convenient telephone pole halted his forward progress, and a grassy lawn rose up to embrace his face. He thus received an early lesson in cycling physics. Any object not at rest had better watch out for its ass.
Eventually, by the age of seven, he had gotten quite adept at riding his bike. Of course he left it out overnight, and it was stolen. “You’re not getting another one,” said his father, perhaps with a little too much satisfaction. “You can ride your sister’s bike.”
He was referring to a bicycle that no one would steal. It had a chassis of pig iron, coated with cream and peach colored paint. The seat looked like a fat, flabby triangle on springs. The handlebars had pink handgrips with tassels, and the bike weighed a ton. It was a large, unwieldy thing, and it had that step-through girl’s frame.
So the seven year old boy started riding it. The back tire was low on air. “Go over to the gas station and fill the tire up,” said his father. To think of how useful and helpful his father was brings the boy, now grown up, nearly to tears. “Fill it up!” Other fathers would never have thought to say that. “Fill it up!” the words became a symphony, and the boy started walking the bike toward the Shell station.
He passed the local fire station where his neighbor, Danny, had gone when he’d stepped, barefoot, on a piece of broken glass in the creek. A friendly fireman washed off the wound and bandaged it. Later, Danny’s foot was severely infected with the glass still in it. He almost lost his foot, but the firemen denied any involvement, thus saving the department from lawsuit, and, by extension, the neighborhood from the threat of fires without trucks to respond. It was a win win situation.
After the fire station, the seven year old boy passed Fireside Lanes, the bowling alley with a constant gas flame burning above its logo sign. That flame went out forever in the seventies. The boy’s brother had found a five dollar bill in the bowling alley’s parking lot. The amount of candy that was purchased with five dollars in 1964 staggered the imagination. There were M&Ms, Milk Duds, Heath Bars, Big Hunks, Mars Bars, Mounds with almonds or not, Butterfingers, Jujubees, Now and Laters, Good and Plenty, Chick-o-Sticks, Ranch Candies, Charms Suckers, Candy Cigarettes, Pixie sticks, $100,000 Bars, Paydays, Cracker Jacks, and Dots. The memories of those candies caused the boy to carefully inspect the bowling alley’s parking lot each time he passed by.
Beyond the parking lot was the Shell service station. With a sigh, the boy pushed his sister’s bicycle to the air hose. There was a man attending the station who looked like Lon Chaney Jr. He could turn into a wolf simply by forgetting to shave that morning. This was disconcerting to the boy, so he quickly attached the air hose to the bicycle’s inner tube valve and put in a lot of air. “Fill it up!” he remembered his wise father crying.
When it looked like Lon Chaney Jr. might approach him, the boy jumped onto his sister’s bike and pedaled madly home. He set the bike down and entered his house. Within minutes, there was a loud bang like a shotgun report. The bicycle’s tire had exploded from over-inflation. His father derided him, and the boy felt that he knew what it must feel like to be a tennis ball, batted from one side to the other, without care.
Those are the basics, but there’s more to learn about cycling.
1972—Eastern Oregon. Ten years had passed. I went from a little boy to a teenager without any sense of transformation. I became fourteen without forethought. My father had a ten speed Peugeot he never used. For my thirteenth Christmas, he had given me two new inner tubes. So I rode that bike around town.
Whenever the wind was at my back, I could just stand on the pedals and be propelled like a sailboat. We lived in a depressed rural area, well out of town, and it helped to have a means of transportation. My father was too self-absorbed to drive anyone into town, so a bike or a good pair of hiking boots were indispensable. Jesus, but there wasn’t any money. I pedaled that bike past some of the meanest dogs in creation. The worst by far was Ajax, a rottweiler and bulldog mix. Before I cycled past the house where Ajax lived, I would always stop and pick up a handful of gravel. Then I would throw the gravel in his face as he came at me, snarling and slobbering at full tilt. “Ajax!” his idiot owner would yell, as if surprised by the dog’s behavior. That’s how I knew his name.
I often rode the old bike into town to visit my friend, Randy. He lived in a sensible suburban neighborhood with regular yards. I liked that his parents had dropped out of “the church” and no one in his family gave a damn about religion. His parents smoked and drank Black Velvet whiskey, and I was jealous. Of course Randy and I went out and smoked outside of the house. We rode around the town together on our ten speeds, and sometimes we stopped for coffee in a local café, which was a huge sin, according to the church.
Those were good times, but I eventually got into serious trouble. Apparently, coffee was a gateway drug for me. How many innocent teens have succumbed to the evils of Java? I was arrested for truancy and, gasp, using marijuana. I was sent to a boy’s ranch in the central state area. By the time I got out, my father had relocated the family to western Oregon. It was a moldy place of rain, pain, and more pain. The locals could have been cast in the movie “Deliverance.” Did I mention that it rained a lot?
But it was very green there, with rolling hills and country lanes. Every thorn has a rose, I guess. I made friends with another guy named Randy, and we experimented with psychedelics. One day we took acid and rode up and down over undulating hills in the sylvan countryside. The late afternoon sun slanted through the overhead canopy, breaking through here and there, providing a stroboscopic light show for a couple of hippie boys on bicycles. Coincidentally, it was at that time I was becoming a Syd Barrett fan. I loved the album “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”
Within two years, my father was run out of town. He was good for about eighteen months in any given place. Once people got know him, well, they didn’t like what they saw. They murmured against him, and he claimed to have “the Lord” on his side. That only made it worse. He’s been booted out of more places than a drunk with bad credit.
“Let’s play Wheel of Address, the game for losers who have to move once they’ve burned out everyone in town. Our contestant is E. Robert Bagley, a man so hated in western Oregon, that his son was beaten daily by redneck larvae. After being ridden out of town on a rail, he needs a new address. How are you doing, Bob?”
“They hate us saints.”
“You’re scaring the straights, Bob. Just spin the wheel.”
Bob spins the wheel.
“Look at her go, people. Bob put a big spin on that one—tickety, tickety. It’s slowing down. Wait a minute. There it is, Roseville, California. You’ll move there, Bob, and your friend Ken will help you get a job. You’ll buy a house that’s too small for your family, so you can pocket the money you’ve saved on mortgage payments. You can use that money to get cheated in a series of Ponzi scams and investment schemes. Your boys can live in the garage; that will solve the overcrowding problem. Every time one of your sons reaches the age of eighteen, you can throw him to the curb and save money on cheese and crackers. What do you think of that?”
“I, I think I might display an emotion.”
“Folks, it’s clear that Bob is overwhelmed with his prospects of personal gain. Let’s give him time to take it all in. Until next neglect, this has been Wheel of Address!”
By the time we got to Roseville, the natural lifespan of the Peugeot had sadly ended, relegating the remnants of the bike to landfill. How do you say goodbye to a piece of fine French engineering? If you’re Bob, you do it by purchasing a shiny new Asian-made ten speed, painted in brilliant white, with a speedometer mounted on the handlebars. You buy it for your youngest son, because the two older boys are a couple of complainers. 'It’s a hundred degrees in our garage room, Dad. We can’t sleep'. Crybabies.
Baby brother didn’t ride the bike all the time, so I got a lot of use out of it. It was great to have a working speedometer. In the summer I took a cycling class in which I achieved my zenith of craziness on two wheels.
My first encounter with cycling madness was on a street that ran down a steep ridge that defined the western border of Rocklin, a small town just north of Roseville. The teacher had taken us up there to see how we could handle the steepest downgrade in the area. The street was Sunset, and it had a cross street at the bottom of the hill, but traffic was very light. There were no traffic lights there at the time. So I started pedaling down the hill, shifting up as I gained speed. The speedometer read 45 mph, and I shifted up to ninth. Now I was doing fifty plus miles an hour on a budget bicycle. The landscape blurred, and I shifted up to tenth speed. Soon I was pedaling as fast as my legs could move. The speedometer hit sixty-five, and I zipped through the intersection, lucky to find it empty. Ahead of me, a small Toyota sedan was going about fifty. No way was I using the handbrake at this velocity. I lifted my left hand to signal passing, and the front wheel began to oscillate. I put my hand back, steadied the front wheel and swept around the Toyota like it was parked. A couple of faces in the car pressed against the side windows to regard my passage.
Farther down the road I slowed down, and the car passed me. It had been quite an episode and was never to be repeated. I had the feeling that I had marked a point in my life that could never be equaled, and in a sense I had. I was seventeen and at the peak of my physical prowess and foolishness. But I had one more crazy incident to experience.
The cycling class was riding toward downtown Roseville on Vernon Street. We were challenging one another to keep pace with the car traffic. So we were going about twenty-five to thirty mph. I had to get out ahead and show off. I would cycle into downtown ahead of the pack. When we got to the intersection where Folsom Street connects with Vernon, the light suddenly turned red. I grabbed at both front and back brakes, but the back brakes slipped. The bike threw me off the front end like an unwanted cowboy from a Bronc’s back. The funny thing was that my tennis shoe-clad feet cleared the handlebar, and I hit the ground running. I ran real hard for several paces and then tucked in my shoulder and rolled on the sidewalk. The other teens cheered and told me to do it again. I didn’t know how I did it the first time; I sure as hell wasn’t going to tempt fate. My madcap antics ended there, and I finished the cycling class without injury.
“I can’t believe what a fraidy cat he was.”
You know, that’s not fair. Every time you see a stunt motorcyclist jump his bike over ten trucks lined up side-by-side, just remember that there was a pioneer who jumped Tonka trucks. You’ve got to start somewhere. I’m the kind of guy who jumped off of a garden tool shed and inspired other fellows, decades later, to bungee jump from bridges that reached dizzying heights.
For the time, my cycling prowess peaked and ended at the tender age of eighteen. Decades would pass before I re-engaged the rigors of the sport.
I didn’t own a ten speed again until I was in my thirties. It was a Schwinn. Once I wore out the tires and inner tubes, I couldn’t replace them. It’s really hard to refit skinny tires. So I figured that the next time I got a bike it would be a fat tire beach cruiser. This brings me up to date with my Huffy cruiser, a simple bike that’s hard not to like.
And when I roll down my street on my Huffy, I imagine Syd Barrett riding alongside. The rush of cars passing hushes the voices in our heads. So I can hear only one voice, that of Syd’s, singing:
You shall be it if you wish
Without the mourner’s kiss…
© Don Bagley June 10 2010
I’m standing in a long line on the verge of a panic attack, and the guy at the front of the line is trying to pay for his groceries with a Blockbuster membership card
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