Primp my ride

The author with his bike
photo by Jon Elliston

My first bicycle was a “girl’s bike” — 20 pounds of slanted tubes and purple-flake paint. It had a banana seat crowned with a pool of purple glitter and matching plastic tassels, which dangled limply from each handlebar, swishing side to side as I rode.

The bike was a hand-me-down from my sisters. Its name was Miss Buzz Bike, a fact I was constantly reminded of since the words were painted down the chain guard in loopy script. I came to hate Miss Buzz Bike with a singular intensity. My best friend, Tommy, had a blue Schwinn Sting-Ray. It had a black seat with silver stitching that whispered manly virtue. On his Sting-Ray, Tommy could clear even the highest, longest jumps with panache — a pedal-powered Evel Knievel. On Miss Buzz, I would wipe out trying to make it over toy soldiers, sticks. All the playing cards and clothespins in the world wouldn’t have masked the bike’s effeminate swish and creak.

The solution was clear: I had to get rid of Miss Buzz. By accident or theft, my parents would be forced into buying me a more gender-appropriate set of wheels. So with one eye on a Huffy Santa Fe (they sold them at Rose’s) and the other on connivance, one summer night I left the bike behind my sister’s Volkswagen Beetle. The next morning when she left for work, she backed over it. Sayonara, sucka.

I tell you this not as a means of soul-baring (we have ministers, rabbis and bartenders for that), but rather as an introduction to my current dilemma. The bike I ride today — a 21-speed Cannondale of early ’90s vintage — is, yes, a considerable improvement over Miss Buzz. It works fine, but recently I’ve come to regard it with a species of disdain that smacks of Miss Buzz and the early years. The bike is tired. Its frame geometry is antique. The chain rings are oval, not circular, a technology that was headed for extinction about the time Vanilla Ice went platinum.

A few weeks ago, bike envy led me to a local shop, where I drooled over sleek new machines with names like Bianchi, Trek and Giant. The brands alone sounded like a language of possibility. I nearly offered up my credit card with trembling hand, so seized with impulse was I. (So seized, apparently, that I started constructing my sentences like Yoda.) Thank God I restrained myself; I’m already thousands in the hole.

The truth is, I can’t afford a new bicycle; I’m stuck with my current ride. Mind you, I have made some improvements. For one, I replaced the old dry-rotted saddle (the one that threatened to fracture my fanny into a thousand shards) with a new gel affair. I’ve got Kevlar-beaded tires to ward off the broken glass that seems to litter all Asheville roads. I’ve even got new plastic toe clips, replacing a pair that shattered a few weeks ago.

“Old school,” the guy at the bike shop said to me, as he screwed them onto the pedals.

“You know it,” I replied, weakly defiant.

Yet something is still missing. The handlebar wraps are beginning to uncoil like flypaper; the brakes could use new pads; the chain rings are worn to nubbins. What’s a guy to do?

Do I hear a chorus of, “Get rid of it”? Well, where is the voice of resourcefulness? Or sentimentality, for that matter?

After all, this bike has seen me through some good times. I bought it because I was determined to ride across the country (forgetting that my legs have the strength and general appearance of a newborn foal’s). I imagined guileless Midwesterners welcoming me into their homes, the girls getting prettier and the apple pies fatter the farther west I rode, like Jack Kerouac’s observations from a half-century before. True, I never went, but at 36 I’m still young enough to dream.

This is what I have done with this bike: I’ve ridden it from Swannanoa up to Craggy Gardens on still winter days, past steel gates and into a world of frozen silence, through tunnels where icicles hung like transparent stalactites. I once rode it to my grandparents’ house in urban Delaware, skirting the fringes of interstates and dodging death, eventually collapsing onto their front yard, 60 harried miles later.

Today I’m at best a casual cyclist. I ride my old Cannondale to work when I can (in a faint hope of shrinking my “carbon footprint”), and it puts me in a good mood. But I’m certain I’ll never look good in spandex, so I probably ought to give up the aspiration of ever being cutting edge when it comes to cycling.

Aw heck, I’ll probably revive this old bike piecemeal — add a part here and there as they fail or wear out. I’ll spare the horse and let it live to carry me another day.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll scout around for some handlebar tassels. If you hear a faint swishing sound coming up behind you, you’ll know it’s me.

[Many mornings, Kent Priestley can be seen huffing up Clingman Avenue toward downtown Asheville. He edits the Xpress Outdoors section.]

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