I do not remember learning to ride a bicycle. It was a long time ago. One forgets details; yesterday can be difficult to recall, let alone the decades past. I do know that we lived on Keenan Street, and that the bike was a Schwinn with 20 inch wheels. It was a girls frame, my father being a practical man and realizing that having, at the time, one son and two daughters, the girls’ frame would be more useful. It was dark blue, the Schwinn. That is all I remember about the bike; small, girls frame, blue.
But I learned to ride it back then, on the narrow sidewalk on Keenan Street. That was back in the day when Schwinns were built in Chicago, and they were the epitome of quality bicycles. The bike was in our family for nearly 20 years, the first bike for five Mode kids, and perhaps for a few neighbors. We all learned on it; we all rode it.
They say you never forget how to ride a bicycle, and it may be true. How old are you when you learn to ride? Not very old. Four? Five? I can’t remember the details, but I do remember how to ride. It’s been ages now since the summer days on Keenan, and I still ride. There are very few things I learned then that serve me well today. Two of them, skiing and riding a bicycle, are still with me (for I do recall skiing down a neighbor’s side yard on a slope that, when I see it today looks nearly flat, but back then was a precipice).
I rode bicycles as a kid, in my teens, through my college years. In college I had a single class on Friday, Spanish, and I hated it with an intensity that I still hold today. I also owned a bicycle, a road bike, light-weight and narrow-tired. It was my freedom machine, for when I was on the saddle I felt alive and free. On spring days on a Friday if I woke to a sunny, warm day I’d take it as a sign that I should blow off the Spanish class and ride my bike.
I’d pump the tires, settle onto the saddle and pedal into the wonder of a May morning. I’d pedal past the building that held the Spanish class, ride down the main streets of Madison to the outskirts of town and then turn down back roads and ride for hours in the hilly country. Today I have little recall of the Spanish language, but vivid memories of riding my bicycle on Friday mornings. I consider it time well spent; I do not miss having a command of Spanish, but I would very much miss bicycling.
The riding season started early this spring; the heat of March had roads clear by the middle of that month and I, like a fool full of the high spirits of spring, rode early and hard. I pushed big gears and strained against the pedals because it felt good, and the bicycle rode like a magic carpet, like the freedom machine. I knew better. I should have taken it easy. After a week or two of riding hard my knees ached too much and I had to put the bike up for a while.
In late spring I was riding again, the scent of lilac in the air. On a long, steep uphill I heard a ticking in my chain. A minute later it snapped. I stood at the side of the road, eight, maybe nine miles from home, and held the broken chain in my hand. It reminded me of a limp, dead snake. I wondered what to do.
A truck crested the hill, pulled over, a friend leaned out and asked what I was doing. I told him. He gave me a ride to my door.
A week later, same hill, same chain, now repaired, same sound of chain failing and once again I stood forlorn. This time nobody came by, and I got home by alternately walking the bike and, on downhills, coasting down. It was not a happy evening.
I spent July riding an older bicycle just to see what it felt like; the newer model hung in the garage. I have several bicycles these days, not because I buy them frequently, but because I cannot bear to part with those that I own. So several decades-old steel frame bicycles reside in the basement, rarely coming out for a ride, but important to me nonetheless.
The old bike, 30 years or so old, still handled well and I felt good on it. It is heavier then the new bicycles, and the components ancient by current standards. But it’s still a good ride; I can still enjoy it.
We rode a group ride a month ago, in Land ‘O Lakes, a fund raiser for their new bike trail. We rode back roads, looped near Sylvania, rode past mighty trees and cool forests. It was a mild summer day, sunny and beautiful. We finished the ride with brats and beer and conversation. A week ago Sally and I rode the Bearskin Trail, a mostly-flat trail that winds through the woods and over streams and bogs. We saw dozens of riders on that hot day, families with children, couples (date rides?), small groups. And on an evening after work this week I did a quick, sweet ride on county roads near town.
All fun, all those rides. And more to come, for September is a fine month to ride.
I sometimes think that when I got on my little Schwinn bike on Keenan Street that I never have gotten off, that Keenan Street sidewalk became city streets that became county roads that stretched from town to out west and around Lake Superior. That the same streets led unbroken to Friday mornings with a stultifying Spanish class traded for freedom on two wheels that continued to the Bearskin Trail last week, and that the same road continues today into the future.
I know that when I rode my first bike helter-skelter down the sidewalk with the wind in my face and my dad running behind to hold the bike that I felt like I was going about 90 miles an hour, and that I was having as much fun as a kid could possibly have, and that riding around the block was an exploration of my world.
I ride farther today than I did when I was a kid. I ride faster. And I do so with the knowledge that both the distance and the speed are, in the end, unimportant. But I ride with more certainty of the one fact that is important: Once you learn to ride a bike, you never forget. But, equally important, the fun you discover as a kid can stay with you for your life.
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