It was shortly after another holiday eat-fest that I felt too flubbery to stand it any longer. As much as I savored the food on the table and the brews from the fridge, all that consumption and sitting around had finally worn me down.
I needed to get out.
I guess I could go run. Or take a walk. But I looked in the corner of the sun room by the front door of my house and saw it there, like an expectant puppy, just waiting to be taken out: My old 1998 Trek, a mountain bike built in the days before mountain biking got fancy.
Let’s go, it beckoned. Let’s take a ride, feel the wind in your face, and breeze by some scenery before the sun goes down…
It didn’t take much convincing.
I come from a family of cyclists. All the kids learned to ride at an early age, usually on some sort of entry-level machine with a banana seat and a place to fly a flag. We’d clip playing cards on the frame so they’d make that cool sound on the spokes, helping us imagine we were on a motorcycle, getting ready to jump over a row of buses like Evel Knieval.
My dad was a little more serious about it. He had this big, steel-frame Schwinn 10-speed that weighed a ton but could fly with the right sort of rider in its saddle. My dad was that sort of rider. He could make that lime-green chunk of metal go, and whenever he wished to take a break somewhere along his route, he’d dig into a little leather pouch attached below the seat, light up a Kool menthol and soak in the day.
My oldest brother Mike also made cycling a lifelong habit. As an adult, he’d do epic rides from his house in suburban Denver all the way into town and back, cruising up and down sizable hills that most of us weren’t ready to handle.
As for me, the bike was a tool to get me from my house to a friend’s place — fast transportation that would expedite whatever childhood hijinks was on tap that day.
Beyond that, it was also an escape pod of sorts. Imagine some sci-fi movie where people need to get off the ship and onto the surface of some strange, alien world. They step in, buckle up and jettison themselves straight outta there and into whatever adventure awaited. The bike’s not much different: Wheel it out on your driveway, hop on the saddle and go.
Where you go doesn’t really matter. The fact that you can zip your way down the street toward whatever destination awaited is the real trick, cruising as fast as your legs and its gears will take you.
In that way, a bike is liberating: A simple, go-anywhere tool to take you somewhere else on the spur of the moment. When you think about it, it’s pretty liberating.
A bike is freedom.
My road bike is in a bad way right now, so if I want to ride anywhere, it’s on my seriously outdated mountain bike, knobby tires and all. I definitely don’t look like one of the cool kids in their $5,000 road bikes, decked out in skin-tight cycling uniforms bedecked with company logos and whatnot. Not that I care. My bike’s got 21 speeds, is mechanically sound and does the job. And unlike the cool kids and their pricey get-ups, I can take mine across grass, rocks, pavement, mud and anything else and not fear a thing.
But we all hold this one thing in common — we can get places quickly, kind of like a car, but we can also stop and have a look around on a moment’s notice, just like you could on foot. It’s rather frowned upon to stop your car in the middle of the street to gawk at something you find interesting.
Anyway, I found myself in such a spot barely a mile into my ride. I was crossing a bridge over the Arkansas River, the sun sinking lower and giving the sky that soft, low-light glow of approaching dusk, right when the shadows are getting long. The river was fairly full, surrounding a small, tree-covered island. High-rise apartments and commercial buildings towered over the river in the distance. Reflections off the water were a rippled, tinted orange. Most of the trees still held on to their fall colors, matching the sun’s mellowing glow.
I lingered for a bit, taking it in. I wish I had a camera, but in my rush to ride, I left the electronics behind. No matter. I hopped back on the seat and pedaled on, crossing the river and ripping by a group of apartments overlooking the Arkansas’ west bank.
Some of my fondest memories growing up surrounding fishing. When I lived in Colorado, it was for trout. For the one year I lived in rural Illinois, it was bass.
And what a sweet year that was.
An 11-year-old kid in a small Illinois farm town has no excuse to be bored. None. I know this because I found plenty to do. Sometimes that involved getting into trouble, but most of the time, when the weather was good, it started with me grabbing a pole, a tackle box and a red 10-speed and jetting out of my wooded neighborhood down dusty farm roads to a friend’s house where there were a few well-stocked farm ponds.
I cut my angler’s teeth on those ponds, reeling in small bass and bluegills by the dozens during the summer months. Sometimes I’d meet up with friends, other times I’d go by myself. That suited me just fine.
I reeled in my first “big” bass on one such trip, happily riding home to show off the trophy I hauled out of that one-acre pond. A few weeks later, I bested the feat, coaxing a fat largemouth out of the weeds with a carefully retrieved plastic worm. I felt like an expert that day, that maybe there was a long-term future in this fishing thing for me. That’s what 11-year-olds think, anyway. I know better now, but no matter. The memory is a sweet one.
But getting to that prized fishing hole would have been a whole lot harder had I not had that steel-frame 10-speed. Without it, I might have been tempted to sulk around the house during those long summer days, waiting for the next thing to happen. Who knows? Maybe life in that small town would have been pretty boring after all, if not for the escape I found on two wheels.
I must admit, I fell out of love with the bike for many years. As soon as I got old enough to drive, I didn’t see the point.
I can remember a couple failed attempts at mountain biking. It seemed cool, and the people who were doing it seemed cool. I guess I wasn’t. Being out of shape and riding a borrowed (and rather crappy) bike didn’t help.
But moving from my apartment to a new place farther away from work got me thinking. I used to be able to walk to work, which I loved. I spent more than 20 years driving anywhere from 70 to 100 miles a day on my daily commute, so spending a few minutes walking to work was an eye-opener. Leaving that luxury behind left me a little blue.
But what if I could live close enough where I could bike to work? Surely, I could find a cheap ride that would do the job. I found a place close enough to my job to do just that, and within a month, I purchased two used bikes for dirt cheap, fixed them up, and became a bike commuter.
Bike commuting is sort of a pain. Walking to work is far simpler, and driving to work is more convenient. But a year later, it’s become normal.
But something else happened. I rediscovered what I’d lost when I got my driver’s license, that simple pleasure of feeling the wind in your face and the smell of fresh air on a casual ride around town. Or the satisfaction of being able to hop on my ride and go pretty much anywhere, and do it without spending a dime in gas money. People ride around town, on trails, across the country and even over frozen wildernesses and high mountain passes on bikes, you know.
It was nice to ponder that as I rounded out my loop, riding a few miles in the cool autumn air, then climbing the big hill toward home, out of breath but feeling good. No, not just feeling good. Feeling right. I’d gotten reacquainted with a long-lost love, and discovered that even after such a long time, things could be good again.
It feels good to be free. To go on a whim. To ride for miles, wondering what I might see, how much ground I might cover. To escape lethargy and feel the burning in your lungs and legs, payment for seeing how fast I could rip the straightaways in a high gear.
We often wonder what it would be like to go back in time, to be a kid again, with a chance to start anew.
Well, get on a saddle, point your ride down the road and find out.