Our 21st birthday is considered a red-letter event. It is alleged to be the transitional pause in the continuum of child to adult. Memories of my twenty-first birthday included an abscessed tooth and a hangover. But 21 reversed becomes 12. That was my red-letter year. As with everything regarding my childhood, perspective is required.
For starters, I transitioned from the Hardy Boys to John Steinbeck, held hands with a girl, and entered an uncomfortable relationship with puberty. A ferocious bad temper finally became an asset. I started at linebacker on a midget football team. It was the dawn of political awareness. I rocked a Barry Goldwater button for several weeks after his crushing defeat to LBJ. Politics or sports; I knew how to support a loser.
This was the year that I became a true bicyclist. It started with a trip to a bicycle shop in Trenton, New Jersey. I picked out a black Schwinn Typhoon. My father peeled 26 bucks from his ever-present wad of cash and the bike was mine. It had balloon tires and coaster brakes. (My brother Ken had an English 3-speed. I didn’t care. He was always more sophisticated.) The Typhoon was perfect for me. It was durable and could accommodate a basket. It was my freedom machine.
I rode everywhere. It was a 7 1/2 mile round-trip to Brookside Swim Club. I made that trip at least twice a day. A McDonald’s opened nearby. Burgers were $0.15. Living large took a buck. And I was flush with money due to the hardest job I ever had. With my Schwinn, I became a paperboy. My route was a winding 5 mile circuit. It was not easy. In the winter, the sun set at 5 o’clock. I normally got home at 6 o’clock. That is one hour in the darkness at rush hour. No lights, no helmet, and no parent driver. How did I survive?
For high school graduation I received a Schwinn Varsity 10-speed. This was my commuter bike. I had a life-guarding gig several towns away. It was a 15 mile round-trip in heavy suburban traffic. I road like a maniac. Eighteen-year-olds ride with a sense of immortality.
At age 35, the triathlon bug grabbed hold. I was back on the bike, this time peddling with a mindless sense of purpose. Once again, I rode everywhere. Back-and-forth to work, training rides over local hilltops, and to secluded ponds for a swim. After a mile in the water it was back on the bike. For all the speed and purpose something was lacking. The pure joy from the Typhoon days was absent.
Somewhere around 1990, mountain biking hit the scene. I was on fat tires once again. This was a return to boyhood. Trails were discovered and mud holes were tested. With 21 speeds, no hill was unassailable. The sport required bloodletting, bike-breaking and getting lost. It fit my spirit.
No…. It redefined my spirit.
I entered my first race in 1998. I won the novice class. Within a few years, racing started taking over my life. I was pretty successful racing against other older fellows. It was during an ambulance ride that a realization of identity emerged. First and foremost, I was a cyclist. The ambulance trip was attributable to a heart attack. The identity realization was fleeting.
Riding took a mellower form. Mastering technical rock piles, slimy roots, and tight trails were forms of expression. Buying new gear was part of the same game.
Then I started falling.
Suddenly, muscles didn’t have the old giddy-up. Now I was landing on the rock piles I used to clear. It was a mystery until it wasn’t. I had ALS. My immune system was attacking my motor-neurons with the same intensity that I attacked hills. But the nasty fuckers were relentless.
Biking remained my salvation. Nimble, high-tech machines were traded for stable riding “fatties”. Allison and I rode the Northeast Kingdom. My friend Tim and I went on an epic bike-camping trip in Vermont. My grandson Wyatt and I camped and rode around Glacier Park. I left my bike behind when I headed back east. It was over.
1964 – 2017. RIP, bicycling.
But, hey. My wheel chair is pretty agile. I still have some moves.