Just last week, a good friend of mine was rear-ended. He was okay, just a few scrapes and bruises, and the guy who hit him apologized profusely, offered to pay for the damage, and even took him home.
The thing is, the guy who ran into my friend – let’s call him Dan, since that’s his name — was driving a pickup. Dan, on the other hand, was riding his bike, by which I mean “bicycle,” not “Harley.” The back wheel was badly bent, and before accepting the ride home, he asked his assailant to first put his bike in the truck bed and take him, and it, to the bike shop.
I can understand. I used to ride my bike everywhere. One of my most gleeful memories is my 10th Christmas, when I found that Santa had wheeled a Schwinn Stingray into the living room, just for me. Remember those? They had high handlebars and banana seats, the very coolest bike. I could hardly wait for winter to end, so I could take it out on the road.
Of course it took me a while to get the hang of it, even with training wheels. (Oh, the humiliation.) Although I believe it’s true you never forget how to ride a bike, you do have to first learn how. It wasn’t long before Dad removed those baby wheels, gave me a push, and I coasted down the street, took two rights, and pedaled madly up the alley and into our back yard.
For a kid, a bike means freedom. Sure, little tykes ride poky trikes up and down the sidewalk, or circle round the driveway. But once they master two wheels, it’s hard telling where they’ll end up. As soon as I got a big bike – a 10-speed Peugeot for which I saved my pathetic paychecks – I would ride for miles, sometimes all the way downtown, which in Davenport, as in Dubuque, meant a grueling haul back up the bluffs of the Mississippi.
I rode to the book store. I rode to the pool. I rode to my boyfriend’s house. I would have ridden to school, but we didn’t stage the coup that broke the girls-can’t-wear-pants rule until my senior year. I had thighs of steel before women began obsessing over such things. In my early biking years, I dreaded the first rides of spring, when the roads were littered with cinders the city scattered over the snow, before the advent of street salt. That which made the road safer in the snow made it treacherous after it melted, for cyclists, anyway.
Once my friend Jo and I rode to Fejervary Park, a beautiful place on an insanely steep incline. We decided to play a trick on any drivers who might pass by on its interior roadway. Placing our bikes on their sides, we set the wheels spinning as we lay sprawled on the grass, hoping someone would think we’d wiped out and rush to our aid, at which point we would sit up and giggle. Alas, nobody fell for it.
When I went to Cedar Rapids for college, my parents sold my Buick and I took my bike along. My hair reached my waist by then, and in nice weather, I loved to jump on my bike after washing it, using the wind to dry it instead of a hot, noisy blow dryer. Once again, I would ride my bike downtown, even though the trek back involved major hills.
In graduate school, I still had no car. The only hill I had to contend with was the one from the library, which was on the same level as the Iowa River, up to the main part of town. What IS it with bodies of water and hills? Oh, right. Yes, I have seen the Grand Canyon, and I know how that little river carved it out.
I was getting older, and some of those city hills were starting to feel like they belonged in a national park. When I married and moved to Colorado, we lived in a perfectly flat little town, so even after my daughter was born, I figured I’d keep on riding. We put a baby seat on the back, and, well, I nearly killed her. My legs had lost some of their steeliness, and I was barely able to stop the whole bike, with Allison attached, from crashing onto the cement. A baby with no helmet; a mom with no sense. That was the end of that. Now I see kids in trailers pulled behind their parents’ bikes, and can only wonder about all the exhaust they’re inhaling.
For a while after our move to Dubuque, I rode in the early morning, taking Grandview from University to Mt. Carmel and back. Did you know that road slopes gently downward going south, and – funny how this works – less gently upward on the way back? Same thing on the Heritage Trail. No maniac cyclist would notice, but I sure did.
Now my Peugeot hangs in the garage, next to my husband’s Nishiki. My son, the off-road cycling ace, has cherry-picked some of the parts off my bike. One of these days, I’ll donate what’s left of it to those great people who fix up used bikes for kids who can’t afford them.
Dan, my friend, has told me about his early-morning rides, the red foxes that cross Pennsylvania and the skunk families he narrowly avoids in the country. I remember that peace, that feeling of sailing like the wind. I hope the new debate about “free-ranging” kids doesn’t stop parents from allowing their kids that kind of joy. With a helmet, of course. Ride defensively, kids. But ride.
This one goes out to Dan Boice, who will soon be pedaling down new roads far from Iowa. Fare thee well, my friend.