Why I Ride: Until Next Time

One year, growing up in the recently paved over prairies and peat bogs south of Chicago, I got a birthday bicycle. Someone may have thought I was too old for training wheels; maybe I was that someone. I learned to ride that bike, a red J.C. Higgins with fenders and big tires, through pure dumb gravity-assisted trial and error. I fell down a lot. After a couple of weeks of coaching and cajoling from my dad and mom and other adults on the block, I had wobbled around and toppled over so many times that both sides of the leather-like seat had been worn down to metal.

Then late one afternoon, after Dad had retreated to his living-room chair, a perch from which he could see the street, something came together. I climbed on the bike on the very gradual slope just up the way from our house and started to roll. I kept the bike up, avoiding the lawn on my left and the ditch on my right. I started pedaling. In a second, I was really moving. That’s what Dad saw when he glanced out the window: me, not just riding, but seeming to streak down the sidewalk toward mishaps unknown. He was alarmed and excited enough that he went out, got in the car, and followed me. He pulled up alongside me just as I dodged a light pole. I think he asked if I was OK. I don’t know what I said, but I remember the feeling: I could ride. I can still feel the sharp zap of amazement at my sudden ability to move so freely.

But when I first managed to keep my bike up and rolling, I wasn’t thinking about anything highfalutin like freedom. Riding was a way to get to the park, and then across town, and then all over hell and gone.

Romance was a good motivator: I can still see the meandering suburban ride to try to find the grade-school girlfriend who had moved far away; or the first night I rode out into the country outside town to visit a girl who lived on a farm out there, even though it meant racing down a gravel road in the dark with no lights to get past a couple of barnyard dogs; or riding to my first date with someone in Berkeley–25 years later, we’re still seeing each other every day.

Adventure was a lure: We lived about 12 or 15 miles from the Indiana border, and just the idea of riding across the state line made the journey seem like an epic. One of my brothers and I came back from that one and my mom asked us where we had been. “Indiana,” we said. You know, Mom, right over there by Mount Everest and the Amazon and Ethiopia. The summer I was 15, the summer my hometown team, the Cubs, was writing the most heartbreaking chapter in its century of woe, I started to see places on maps that I might get to on a bike. I would set out on 90-degree days with no water or sunscreen and innocent of any notion of proper bike attire and ride 50, then 75, then 100 miles and come home sunstruck and beat and ready to try it again.

Danger lurked: When I was 11, the day after a tornado hopscotched over our house, I rode with friends toward a suburb a few miles away where the twister had touched down. We were riding up the left side of one street when I decided to move to the right. Without looking. I veered and instantly tires screeched behind me: so long and so close I waited for the unseen car to hit me. The screeching finally stopped. I stopped and turned around to look at the driver. You can imagine his anger and the lecture I had coming. But he looked stunned–shocked, maybe, that he had not hit me. Our eyes locked for a few seconds, and then he drove off without saying a word.

On those roads and beyond, the prosaic and sublime; but let’s stick with the sublime: For all the days I’ve ridden, the all-day rides, the double centuries, the quick sprints to work, the long switchback climbs above the snow line (OK–I’ve done one of those), the grocery runs, night riding stands apart like a sort of sacrament, like something that lives in a rarely visited alcove of a cathedral. You shouldn’t ride at night, of course. You should be home in bed. You shouldn’t be on the road after midnight, when bars are turning their denizens loose and you can never be absolutely sure that even the sober drivers will see you. You shouldn’t depend on your bike lights to keep you safe. You can never see everything that the dark hides on the road.

But out there at night, when everyone else is following all that sensible advice, something happens: Everyone else is in bed, but you’re out there trying to understand the world in that little pool of light your headlight casts. Everyone else has turned in for the night, and you hear only your breathing and your tires on the road. Everyone else sees midnight on the clock and wonders how it got so late, and you’re getting to stay up with your friends to do something wacky and strange.

I’ve been lucky: I’ve been shocked by the brilliance of predawn stars in windy plain. I’ve navigated through a thunderstorm on Wisconsin backroads by lightning flashes. I’ve led a group of exhausted all-night riders through banks of freezing fog in California. I’ve sweated out an endless midnight climb and have heard mountain streams roaring in the dark. I’ve seen the single taillight way up ahead that assured me I wasn’t alone. I’ve gotten so lost I’d swear west was east and north was east, too. I’ve watched the dark come down after a long day of riding and watched dawn come up after spending the night in the saddle, and I’ve sworn I’ll never do it again. Until the next time, anyway.

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