David Feel: Writers on the Range
July 7, 2011
After riding for 25 years atop my old English 10-speed with the skinny steel wheels and tape-wrapped handlebars, I finally bought one of those fancy, 21-speed mountain bikes.
When I got the new bike home – they don’t call them bicycles anymore – and leaned it against the wall in my garage – where did the kickstand go? – I sat and pondered this new world.
Hanging upside down by two hooks in the ceiling, my old bike stared at me reproachfully, cobwebs glistening. If rusty spokes could speak, they might have intoned, “Grasshopper, are you ashamed of your teacher?” In fact, I was. Ease had become my religion: Quick-release hubs, gel-foam seats, rapid-fire shifting, aluminum frame, all a technological stew simmered by corporate executives and served up as a modern bicycle. Bike, I mean.
The owner of our local bike shop will happily talk your ear off if what you want is information about riding. But when I asked him how expensive a new bike could run, he pointed toward a muddy specimen leaning against the counter and said, “That one runs about $4,000.”
I looked at him again and swallowed hard. If a support group for naive mountain bikers exists out there, I had blurted out the words that qualify me for membership: “You must be kidding.” He was not. I then toured the shop, trying to make sense of all the nouveau bike stuff.
A few labels showed I was in the province of a subculture, if not a cult. One pair of sleek black shorts reasoned, “This features the capillary action and the fast moisture-transfer capabilities of microsensor and ultrasensor fabric.” A simply jersey postulated, “We designed an innovative 50 cm zipper that eliminates the bulky look of exposed zipper teeth.” Clearly, this was high-tech wear with a jargon all its own.
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Back in my old bicycling days, I never had to worry about what to wear. If the weather felt cool, I wore a jacket. If the sun was out, I wore my cutoffs. If there was thunder and lightning, I pedaled like hell and felt lucky to get home with just a muddy stripe up my back. I had no image to defend; I was simply a guy out for a ride.
Riding back then brought to mind the image of John Wayne, cowboy boots, blue jeans and cowboy hats; no Ultrasuedefleecechamois shorts with Hydrofil Lycra liners.
It’s all changed. I stood in the bike shop and stared into the vortex of complexity, wondering if those olden times were somehow better. Was it more genuine when I borrowed my mother’s clothespins to attach baseball cards along the fenders that would flap against the spokes as I rode? To think today of how many collectible baseball card fortunes I squandered back then makes my head buzz.
No, it wasn’t better, just different, and now it was past time to join the modern world. So I chose a specialized brand. It cost as much as my first car. As I gingerly led it out of the store, I could envision the entire line of mountain bike equipment that yearned to follow me out to the street: A roof carrier for transporting my bike into the mountains, thorn-resistant inner tubes to reduce the hassle of flats, an air pump for emergencies, some better pedals and biking shoes, insulated water bottles, a light-weight indestructible helmet, gloves with the fingers amputated at the first knuckle, mirrors for assessing the traffic, lights, “panniers,” as bike baskets are called, maybe even a kickstand, and not least, a pair of those pricey little bike pants with the padded bottom.
What had started as a simple desire to adapt to the modern world wanted to bloat into a major investment. I could have gone right back inside with my credit card and joined the legions of cyclists who take their equipment oh-so seriously. Instead, I stuffed my shiny new machine into the trunk and cinched it down with good ol’ bungee cords and headed for home. Perhaps I am still cheap.
That was last week. What I haven’t done yet is go for a ride. So today, I rode. But rather than head for the miles of rugged Western mountains or canyon trails, I initiated my new bike by putting on my jeans and boots and riding it a half-mile to the county dump. There, my bike and I paused before those enormous steel gates and gazed into that final place where all new things eventually rest. The view was chastening, but I have to confess that the ride seemed effortless.