Read Old Man Scanlon

Hell on Wheels

21 April 2013

bike license plate

No longer having the excuse of a decrepit dysfunctional aortic valve—I have thus far been unable to exceed modern medical technology's ability to fix me—I recently rode my bicycle for the first time in two years. I am 63 years old, and my Schwinn Varsity isn't far behind, but it's OK: there is not a chance in hell that you'll catch me wearing Spandex. With a tailwind and negative grade I might make double-digit speeds, yet real cyclists have the decency to nod as they scream by, at which moments I fancy I can see the blue shift.

The week, as they say, had been crazy. There was the unpleasantness at the Boston Marathon, a heart attack in the family, and three separate bouts of car trouble. But my old friends claimed the birth of a grandson, my granddaughters returned from a week-long vacation absence, and I saw my first scattering of dandelions. It was fine indeed to be alive, moving, blood stirring, face to the wind, pedaling my ass off for a brief lap in the race we all ultimately lose.

The Schwinn had a worthy predecessor, a 26-inch Columbia, manufactured in my mother's home town, Westfield, Massachusetts. It survived my childhood abuse of it, though partially crippled. One day, in a contest of speed with the cur nipping at my wheels, I hit a sunken storm drain. Flat on my back in the road, I watched my bike soar in a graceful slow spin over my head and crash at my feet. The front wheel, my camera, and I all escaped injury, but even after I replaced the mangled fork the bike exhibited a distracting crab-wise tendency. As I write it occupies a shrine in the cellar of my garage, where I offer it discarded lead wheel-balancing weights to propitiate the capricious gods of the road.

The storm drain debacle failed to keep the clunky uncouth Columbia and me off the road. It continued to serve me reasonably well. Still I envied my friend Cav his Raleigh: charming English accent, slim-tired, hand brakes, and a three-speed hub shifter. My friends and I used our bikes to travel to each others' houses where we did stupid teenager things. During the warm months we spent long idyllic hours just riding bikes, all the while talking stupid teenager talk. The bikes gave us a mechanical advantage that made exploring our town feasible, but still not so fast-paced that the pleasure ran out because we'd finished the job. We developed our own personal mental version of Google Street View, then extended it to surrounding towns. We always tried to increase our radius, and thereby recapture the delicious feeling that we were leaving known territory. Even today there's no thrill like getting temporarily lost when I'm responsible for no one else and not in thrall to a schedule. There may in fact be dragons.


We were unencumbered by helmets and cell phones. I like to think, no doubt wishfully, that being under our own power and masters of our fates built character, but probably the severest trial we faced was dehydration. On one long, hot ride, about nineteen miles out, my brother and I used stupid teenager talk to try to persuade Cav, by virtue of his standing in the Catholic church, to get us some holy water to relieve our thirst. He demurred, having a year's advantage on me in the rudimentary common sense department. Yet we did survive, scraping together our loose change and sharing a popsicle—nothing worse than a popsicle in a parched crisp mouth. Near the end of another humid and gritty ride we got caught in a thunderstorm and welcomed it with hosannas. The petrichor was heady and the relief was priceless; we didn't care how sodden and chilled we got. I still recall these physical sensations with pleasure.

It was in college that I met and fell in love with the Schwinn. At first sight. A goddamn racing bike! I wasn't aware of the fine points of bicycle taxonomy, nor of the bike's renowned tonnage, but it wouldn't have mattered. Ignorant of so much, and with an impulsive "Just Do It" lack of caution, I decided to ride it forty miles home one Friday afternoon after classes. Perhaps recalling Cav's Raleigh hub shifter, my intuition told me there'd be hell to pay if I tried to shift while I was pedaling; but, of course, you have to be pedaling to shift a derailleur. Before I even reached the city limits the rear derailleur cable broke, the revenge of a Columbia scorned. I wedged a twig into the parallelogram to get myself into a reasonable middle gear and limped home.

For the next couple of years I rode a lot, weekends, vacations, and summers, tens of miles at a time. On my best day I did 80 miles, visiting friends at the beach, and it was no big thing. I rode home from school once or twice more. One evening I broke a couple of spokes on a rocky dirt road two towns over, shanties crowding the road, chickens running amok, a little Appalachia now paved and encrusted with McMansions. To attend a Saturday night party, in the vain hope of getting lucky, I once proposed to ride twenty miles in the dark. Mom was horrified, of course, but Dad quietly managed to calm her, acknowledging that I was crazy. Yet he insisted, in such a way as didn't feel backhanded, that I was certainly old enough to make my own choices and live with the consequences. And so I pointed the bike south and rode, holding a flashlight to warn cars and augment the moonlight. I didn't get lucky.

When I graduated, my faithful bicycle companion joined me in a last-ditch attempt to stave off the real world: I would become a bicycle racer. I said it out loud. There are witnesses. As if a degree in math had prepared me for this, as if anything had prepared me for this. As if merely having the equipment guaranteed success. As if this had the slightest connection to reality on any known planet. To this day my monumental, shameless, preposterous mixture of ignorance and cheek makes me shake my head in slack-jawed embarrassment. You might expect even a twenty-two-year-old with only a half-jelled brain to have enough self-awareness to grasp the towering absurdity of that ambition, but you'd be wrong.

The plan to prepare for my glorious racing career was simple and elegant: get on the road as much as possible, or at least as much as I felt like, and that's what happened that summer. Gradually the reality sank in: my riding was really only casual touring. Distance was the thing; I'd never even tried to ride for speed. I never did enter a race, and my plans died with a whimper.

I began to experience the ineluctable acceleration of time, and years flashed by. Even after the real world seduced me, I continued to ride, just nowhere near as much. I learned my crotch was never going to be tough enough for serious riding, though I'd replaced the hard crusty leather saddle with a wimpish Avocet gel number. And I put on a larger freewheel to minimize my effort on hills. Granny gear may be an abject moral failure, an abomination in the eyes of God, yet it's still legal, and these days especially I'm grateful for it. Occasionally I even wear a helmet.

Untold gallons of water go under the bridge in 40 years. Columbia makes school furniture. Schwinn is just a brand name, and I see its multinational parent company has produced a new Varsity 700c, available in Walmart. I have a pretty good idea it's not made in Chicago. Things do in fact change, but the Varsity has outlasted all of my cars and my first marriage. It helped me outgrow for good my quaint juvenile notion that a body was just a machine for moving my brain where it wanted to go. I may have been invincible in youth, but not now, and it's worked out so that the Varsity liberates, at least to a degree, my creaky body—sheer joy. It's good to get reacquainted with an old friend.