Here’s an image for you. A slightly-past prime, slightly Rubenesque geezer in baggy shorts on a bike as battle-scarred as he is, wearing a fluorescent green helmet, wobbles off around the bend, his scrawny white legs pumping labouriously. Just to make sure it works, he pinches his clown horn well before he passes a couple walking on the path ahead. The lady likes the horn and thanks him for it and the old guy on the bike refrains from any rude jokes about horns. Well done indeed! That image of course is none other than meself lurching along like a drunken sailor.
You may not forget how to ride a bike, but there are certainly muscles which do not want to remember. “All those years, and now you want me to spring into action?” Nearby is a newly completed gravel path, a few kilometreswhich are long, picturesque and gentle for walking and cycling between the local areas of Saltair and Chemainus. The fine, hard-packed surface seemed to cling at my tires. A local bumper sticker says, “Ladysmith, where you’re never over the hill.” Too right mate! Everything seems uphill on a bike. But one day soon, thanks to the swimming, the biking, dog-walking and dieting, you’ll be able see right through me like the gossamer wings of a bird.
I already owned a vehicle (Note I didn’t say ‘car’…it was a Vauxhall) when I turned sixteen. My bike went south as soon as I got behind the wheel. That means I have not ridden a bike very much in the last half-century. The feelings of today’s brief jaunt, wind rushing up my shirt and rumbling in my helmet, the sound of the tires as one leg, stronger than the other, always pumps a little harder and then the joy of coasting down a bit of incline. Yesterday, on my first bike outing, that rush was only realized after I pushed the bike up a hill. Well, some folks do call them “Push bikes.” Many cruising sailors keep bikes aboard but I never warmed to that idea. Either you had an expensive silly-looking bike with tiny wheels that you stored somewhere below, and I’m sure always in the way, or you kept a full-sized one on deck somewhere but never in a place where it can’t foul lines into a dangerous tangle. So, I never did bother with going to sea with a bike on board. Not only are they always out in a harsh marine environment, bikes are also unfriendly toward wood work, paint and fibreglass.
One of the happier memories of my dad and I comes from a time he found a discarded bicycle and lugged it home. We removed the old wheels and I bought new tires, learned how to patch inner tubes and adjust spokes. The front forks needed new bearings but because all was seized tight he built a fire and threw the bike into it. Once heated, the rusty old parts yielded to our persuasions and eventually we had a working bike. The only paint available was salvaged from two cans which mixed into a bright salmon colour.
It would be a very cool tone today, but it was an embarrassment back then. All the same, I put a lot of miles on that recycled rig. I delivered newspapers with it and rode it all over Halton County between the local waterfront and the cow-pasture airfield which I haunted.
The bike was a standard single speed CCM. The braking system simply involved applying reverse pressure on the pedals. The handles were angled backward a bit from a long crossbar. If you were trendy you flipped that bar over so that the handles pointed up like cow’s horns. Some kids used a wooden clothes peg to hold a playing card on the frame so that it clattered in the spokes as the wheel turned. With a little imagination, you were on a motorcycle. There were no complex cable systems nor gear-shifting mechanisms requiring complex adjustments. To keep your pant cuff from getting caught in the chain you simply tucked it inside your sock. Bicycle clips were for nerds. For night riding you could buy a feeble head light powered by a tiny generator which flipped over to be driven by the spinning sidewall of one tire. Those generators required a noticeable amount of extra pedalling and the light’s brilliance rose and fell with turn of the wheel. Exotic bikes had three speeds, cable brakes and down-swept handle bars. A Raleigh was the ultimate brand to own.
As I write I am reminded of an older Dutch man from my youth who often rode by on an omafiet (Grandma’s bike) a traditional bike from Holland where the pedalling is nearly all on flat ground. He sat rigidly upright puffing on a big pipe and pedalling slowly. Yet he hurtled along, a stately image I can still see. The heavy bike had a skirt over the rear wheel, a monstrous chain guard and sported a huge wicker basket on the front which was often full of various items. These traditional Dutch bikes are now very desirable. Copies are manufactured in North America. Isn’t it funny how one memory leads to the other? And how what was gross and stupid suddenly becomes the latest trend. There’s nothing new! And all of this blog, so far, comes from spending a few minutes on a bike.
Old Jack is suddenly showing his years. He is bravely affectionate and still thinks intrepidly but there are signs that worry me. Tomorrow the vet is coming. Hopefully there will be the joy and comfort of his presence for a good while yet. He is needed, badly, and I do my best to be optimistic. Surely it is not his time yet. I recall a story about a family sitting around their dinner table mourning the recent lose of their beloved family member. They were discussing why dogs are so short-lived. The little girl suggested, “Maybe it’s because they already know the stuff it takes us so long to learn.”
“When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that God doesn’t work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.” Emo Philips
“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein