The last time I felt this way about my bicycle I was 9; it was a thick-tired, teal blue Schwinn, and I secretly pretended it was a horse. Not just any horse: The Schwinn was the Godolphin Arabian from Marguerite Henry’s King of the Wind, a book I checked out so often that the school librarian finally had to pry it from my hands and tell me to find something else to read.
On summer nights I pedaled to the end of the block, imagining that I lagged behind the field in a horse race that would determine the future of the breed. Right turn at the corner, right again one street over, and then, heading into the stretch, we kicked into a better gear. My horse and I galloped back toward Ewing Avenue at a dangerous tilt as the crowd came to its feet, cheering the little long shot until we reached the finish line, my family’s house, victorious.
A basic bicycle can be anything you want it to be.
Many decades later, my ride is a Trek 7300 Multitrack, a model that was discontinued in 2012, though I imagine its descendants live on, even as the Arabian’s line still carries riders to victory, somewhere. “Multitrack” seems to be a euphemism for not anything special, or even current: It lacks the sleek lines of the racing bikes favored by men in Italianate jerseys and bike shorts, and it’s not as clever as the electric bikes that shift into power mode if you want to cruise without pedaling. It’s not one of those efficient aero bikes stripped of anything that would slow it down, the cycling equivalent of an Armani suit and about as expensive.
I used to have a thin-wheeled racer, and occasionally I’d grab the dropped handlebar, flatten my back, and reminisce about those made-up childhood horse races. But in truth, I always felt that the racer was more than I needed. I was an occasional urban rider, a nice, solid cyclist. The Trek is a nice, solid bike; we are on good terms.
I left it behind when I moved to New York City from Los Angeles 11 years ago, because I thought I’d be gone months, not years. But I was wrong, and eventually vertical living took its toll on my spirit, so I splurged and shipped the bike east. Early on Sunday mornings we’d hit the West Side bike path to confirm that I could bike the roughly 100 blocks from Chelsea to the Columbia University campus where I taught, if I so chose, and then return home.
When I moved back to L.A. a year ago, done in by homesickness, the bike finished the round trip with me. It has to be about 15 years old by now, but that’s a prime age for a pleasure horse, and there’s something to be said for loyalty.
I ignored it when I first got back, distracted by the move and a new job; it had two flat tires and a pump lost in transit. But this past February I finally walked it over to a nearby bike boutique—cooler heads than mine suggested that it was perhaps unwise to tackle L.A.’s bike paths before a professional could confirm that the brakes had survived the move. I felt a twinge of defensiveness: The bikes in the window were fancier in every way, with price tags to match. I asked the guy behind the counter if they’d mind giving my Trek the once-over.
He shot me an inside-baseball smile. “This is a great bike,” he said, loud enough for everyone in the shop to hear. “It’ll last forever.” Four days later, my great bike and I were ready to hit the road with functional brakes and gears, perfectly inflated tires and a polished frame.
Set aside the cliché about never forgetting how to ride a bike, because there’s a bigger truth here: You never forget how you feel when you ride a bike, never lose the memories tied to the fleeting experience of being more mobile than you really are. Being able to pedal and steer is not much of an accomplishment, but being able to summon your 9-year-old self, to feel not only today’s breeze but breezes from your past? That’s something.
Within weeks, the world as we knew it shut down because of the pandemic, and riding became one of the few things I could do safely, past abandoned beaches and bike paths, on streets that had never been safer because no one was driving. I went from the occasional 20-minute ride to four miles, to six, almost every day. By the time the paths reopened in May, I was riding 10 miles round trip, easy, and only because that was the distance from my starting point to the northern end of the bike path. At some point I’ll add mileage in the opposite direction; maybe I’ll do the whole length.
The folks who pass me on the bike path have their own inner stories to tell. The man-packs in fancy jerseys are clearly in the midst of a race through the Tuscan countryside. The e-bike riders, at least in my Santa Monica neighborhood, are high-speed tourists, shooting videos as they roar past. Some of the people on fancy bikes are famous enough to merit the attention of paparazzi—the standout bike the equivalent, for now, of a red-carpet gown.
And the people on single-speed beach cruisers, let’s not forget them, seem to yearn for the beach vibes of yesteryear, the simplicity of gearless bikes, coaster brakes, a burger, fries and a surfboard.
Me, I just want to move through space at a clip, like I did long ago, on a bike that does what I ask, more than well enough. The wind in my hair—okay, in the ventilation slats on my helmet—and the feeling of being slightly less earthbound than normal are especially nice these days, when we are so dug in. I still ride too fast, sometimes, the legacy of my early dreams, but the Trek handles it without so much as a wobble, and does not sneer when I eventually kick back into a more reasonable speed.
My recent riding began with an imperative: I needed something that involved motion, because I am congenitally incapable of sitting still all day, but would enable me to evade strangers at a moment’s notice. Then the old feelings kicked in, and riding once or twice a week became riding almost every day, whether it’s a coffee-break sprint to the Santa Monica pier or that round trip to the end of the bike path and back. Riding provides temporary release, when there is precious little of it.
The only constant, no matter what route I take, is a right turn at Pico Boulevard near the end of the ride. Pico dead-ends at the beach, so it’s a one-block detour to catch a glimpse of the Pacific and see what color it is at this exact moment. It changes all the time; I like to take note.
Then I circle over to the main street, the ocean breeze at my back, and race myself back home.
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