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My life on wheels

Like most American children born in the 1970s, once I was able to pull myself up standing, I was plunked into a “walker” and allowed to cruise the house under supervision. This meant, apparently, that I importuned customers in the restaurant and attempted to stalk the dogs as they motored around, minding their own doggy business. When I was bigger yet, and able to walk and run around under my own power, I was presented with a knock-off BigWheels trike, with a blue chassis, orange wheels, and yellow handlebars. I remember this little vehicle with little enthusiasm, as it was not really very easy to ride. Since the front wheel was the one you pedaled, and your weight was over the powerless back wheels, one spent more time burning out rather than getting anywhere, and anyway, I outgrew it rapidly.

Now my first good set of wheels came to me when I turned 5. I remember my mom hinting that I’d be getting something really cool for my birthday. At the time, I thought I was getting a replacement for my pull-cord operated “talking” telephone which had broken some months earlier, and which had been a cherished posession, as I harbored a secret hope that someday it might magically connect to my grandma’s phone so I could talk to her whenever I felt like. On the morning of my 5th birthday, my mom ushered me out the front door, and there, chrome handlebars sparkling in the sun, was my very own tricycle. It was a real beaut, too. Metallic red paint with white accents, white spokes on the high wheels, and two steps behind the back seat, so my sister could stand behind me, white-knuckling my shoulders, as I pedalled furiously around in front of the house.

The little red trike was a lot of fun for a lot of years Even after I’d outgrown it to ride, it could still be turned upside down to be Sleeping Beauty’s spinning wheel, or hung over the edge of the retaining wall like Indiana Jones’s grappling hook.

By the time I was going for 8, however, the trike was thoroughly outrgown as a riding vehicle. My knees connected solidly with the handlebars if I tried to pedal too fast and lost my sense of caution. I knew I needed a new ride, but I was ambivalent about the prospect of a bicycle. It just didn’t seem physically possible that one could balance on just two skinny tires.

One night Dad came home from work and told my sister and me to come out to his car and see what he had in there. The back seat of his old ’65 Beetle was laid flat, and a befuddling jumble of steel tubing, chains, gears, and banana seats filled all available room. A friend of his who had an astonishing 10 children was now an empty-nester and was trying to clear out the detritus of nearly three decades of child-rearing, including a buttload of old bikes, and my dad, knowing that his own two could use something bigger to ride on, said he’d be glad to take a few of the old bikes off the man’s hands. In all, there were 5 bicycles in varying states of repair. They were all knockoff versions of the famous Schwinn Sting-Ray, coaster-brake bikes with banana-seats and ape-hanger handlebars. My sister’s started life as a yellow “coast king” but via my dad’s and my tender ministrations, acquired a glossy red paint job, white vinyl seat, and gnarly ergonomic hand-grips. The plan was that Dad was going to teach me about sanding and prep work, then I’d be doing my own bike. I wanted to convert a little old blue boy’s bike with a denim seat (with a real back pocket!) and sparkly blue handgrips to a kelly green beast with a green glitter seat, but somehow, I never could make myself give up a week of riding in order to disassemble my bike and paint it, so it’s still in its original trim, though now the seat fabric is deteriorated mostly to nothing and the handle grips have darkened and gone crispy and the glitter no longer shows.

I rode that little bluejean bike through the pasture, up dirt roads, through the lawn, jumping it off the little ridge where the driveway ended and the yard began, and generally acting like a little hooligan on wheels.

Learning to ride was a slow learning curve for me. I got the hang of balance fairly quickly, but could only manage so long as I was going fast. When I slowed down for a stop, I was liable to wobble and topple, so I came to the conclusion that stopping before I got off just wasn’t an option, and so I’d simply bail off my bike and let it crash on its own. I guess it was a good thing my parents hadn’t indulged me in a brand new “Powder Puff,” or whatever was the going girly bike of the day, as it would have been a sorry sight in no time. During this same period, I ran into a number of things, including my dad’s juggernaut of a 1951 Ford 1-ton pickup (parked) and the large tree stump in front of the house. Bloody noses both times, but obviously it didn’t set me back very far. Eventually, however, I got the hang of stopping respectably, and then it was as though the entire world opened up for me.

From time to time there would be bicycle ralleys which would use Highway 385 as part of their route, and I’d thrill to see those grown-ups on their slim 10-speeds whirling along the road. I saw clips from races like the Tour D’France on TV, and came to know and idolise a young teacher from Chadron who came to student-teach at our country school and who would ride from Chadron to Alliance in the summer, stopping at my parents’ place to refill her water. I could see that having a bike was a big ticket to freedom and adventure. I’d ride up and down, up and down the dirt road between our house and the next nearest neighbor’s, trying to build up lots of endurance, daydreaming all the while of cutting loose on a Huck Finn-like adventure on my bike, cruising to places unknown and generally having a good old time.

I grew some more, as children are wont to do, and by the time I was 12, I was once again finding my knees becoming far too familiar with my bike’s steering apparatus. Now many, many years ago, my mom had been given a secondhand Schwinn Continental men’s racing bike. The frame was designed for a tall man, and the bike was really too big for my 5’4″ mother, and monstrously huge for my 12-year-old self, but I was determined to ride it. I dropped the seat as low as it would go, then dragged it over to one of the planters in front of the house, climbed up on the planter, flung a leg over the seat, and shoved off, hard, pedalling as fast as I could manage. That skinny old jackrabbit of a bike responded willingly, and I zoomed down the driveway toward my usual dirt-road riding path, where I promptly discovered that those skinny racing bike tires SUCK on uneven surfaces. I got clearance from my mom, however, to start riding on the Dam road, so long as I wore bright colors, and so I did. It was 5 miles down to the corner, and I regularly rode that twice a day, getting good at running the old 10-speed through its gears, and braking without launching myself over the ram’s horns. Though the bike was ridiculously too big for me, I became good at riding it, devising a running leap that would have done a circus-pony rider proud. Now that I had wheels under myself again, I could take myself to my babysitting gigs, and thus, via a summer of watching the Anderson kids, I earned my way into my first brand-new bike, a $109 Huffy from K-Mart.

The old Huffy was, as they are, a cheapass bike, a 10-speed set up to look something like a mountain bike. It was the correct size, however, and the wider, knobby tires were fine for the pastures and dirt roads. That bike took me through junior-high, highschool, and my first year and a half of college, when I’d worn the teeth off the gears, and it would throw off even a brand new chain, and no further tweaking of the derailleurs would render it functional.

I kept talking about how I needed to get a new bike, but never got around to it…I’d have the money, then something would come up. I knew I needed something better than my old Huffy, but I didn’t really know how to go about bike-shopping and felt kind of intimidated when I went to our local bike shop. This is where Todd stepped in. Around November he told me he was going to Rapid City alone because he wanted to do his Christmas shopping for me and not have me see it and spoil the surprise. I thought, “okay! girl’s day in,” and rented a bunch of movies I knew he wouldn’t want to see. When he got back later that day, I asked him if I should leave the apartment for a little while while he hid whatever he’d gotten, but he said that wasn’t necessary, he’d hidden it at my parents’ house.

That year, we celebrated Christmas with my parents, and as the gift-exchanging got underway, Todd told me to close my eyes. I did. I thought I heard the clicking of a free-wheeling back bicycle wheel, but I didn’t quite believe my ears. Then I got the word to open my eyes, and behold! Before me stood a shiny silver Trek 800. Much bouncing, squealing, thanking, and general carrying on commenced.

For the past 8 years, this bike has been my preferred method of transportation. It took me to and from work in college, all around the campus from one class to the next. I considered having it shipped to me when we were living overseas, but in the end didn’t, and missed it almost daily, especially considering the 2+ mile walk out to the university campus which would have been speeded up greatly by the presence of a bicycle. When we got back to the USA and settled in Kansas City, MO, I promptly got a job downtown, and one of the first things I did post-employment, was do a dry-run of the route from home to work, to see if it was bikeable, and to see what would be the safest, yet most direct route. A two-wheeled commuter was truly born. From March through November, I Trek from home to work, work to home, plus cruise around town when the free time and mood strike me.

Next Friday, I’ll be joining the Critical Mass riding group for KCMO, and hope to hook up with some people who just plain want to go riding from time to time, not necessarily as part of Critical Mass, but just for the general hell of it.

I’m also now working on saving up the dough to get a road bike, since this old quasi-mountain-bike isn’t really ideal for hauling ass around town. It’s just not quite as fast as I’d like…I’m thinking when I get a different bike for commuting, I may work on re-tooling the Trek for off-roady stuff. I’m given to understand that steel-frame bikes like my Trek are actually more comfortable and pleasant to use on rough terrain because they absorb the abuse of the terrain more gracefully than aluminum-frame bikes will do.

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