Journalcalling #17 – The Bikes I’ve Ridden Tell Some Tales

Journalcalling   •   October 20, 2021

My new bike was a shiny, grayish pink with 22-inch tires, and it was my ticket to freedom. It was the summer of third grade, and I had begged my mom to let me ride the four blocks to my friend Denise’s house for the afternoon.

I didn’t have a lot of road savvy, but I had balance and legs that could pedal at a pretty good clip. As I rode back home for dinner, I sailed out of a side street without looking and a station wagon coming down the hill knocked me into the air.

The driver’s three daughters, dressed in tutus for a dance recital, jumped out of the car with their dad and surrounded me as I laid in the street. Looking up, I wondered if I was in heaven with a few small angels.

My mom had heard the squeal of tires and a neighbor had raced to our house to get her. I sat up and was deemed okay, and soon after, my mom took me home for dinner.

While we ate tuna noodle casserole, my parents decided I should go to the hospital to get checked out. An X-ray revealed a mild concussion, and I heard someone say, “Her bike saved her life.” That didn’t make sense to me. I figured I would not have been in the street were it not for the bike. But later, maybe my bike did save me in some ways.

My beautiful pink bike was mangled, and I never saw it again. The next day, some of the neighborhood kids didn’t believe my story, so I walked them over to see the long black tire smear on the street. I enjoyed the notoriety.

I begged my parents for another bike and was finally awarded a blue three-speed. I loved the tick tick tick as the wheels went round, and the way I could click the gear lever on the handlebars with my thumb and easily glide up hills. It became my getaway vehicle. One night after I had been banished to the house for fighting with my brother during a softball game, I slipped out the back door and boarded my wheels. In my first big act of rebellion, I rode off to my favorite spot where the sun set over the reservoir.

When our family of five moved from Connecticut to Texas, I was distressed when our bikes did not arrive on the Mayflower truck with the rest of our stuff. A few weeks later, when it was finally rolled off a delivery van, I hopped on and raced around our new subdivision oblivious to the shallow piles of sand at the road’s edge. Careening around a corner, my bike slid sideways and concrete scored my bare legs, teaching me about the deep sting of road rash.

My gangly 14-year-old self aboard my 10-speed

Later, as a teenager, the 3-speeder wasn’t cutting it. Suddenly, everyone had 10-speeds. My dad had died and we had moved back to Connecticut. At 13, I was thinking mostly of myself and begging desperately for a new bike. My mom was a stickler about us earning our own money and paying half for what she considered leisure purchases.

Babysitting at 50 cents an hour, it took a long time to save up. To keep me motivated, I had pinned a picture of my dream ten-speed to my bedroom wall. One fine day, my mom took my two brothers and me to the Schwinn store and we all got brand new bikes, — a gorgeous yellow 10-speed Varsity for me.

I rode it everywhere — the five miles to the town beach, to friends’ houses miles from home and many other adventures along the scenic back roads of our town. Especially thrilling was sneaking out for night rides with no street lights to meet up with a boyfriend.

We lived on top of a mile-long hill and at the end of the day, I always rode in ravenous for dinner. I’d race through my plate to win second helpings before my brothers.

Once, when I left my bike chained to a rack at a state park to swim in the ocean, a thief broke the lock and took off with it. I managed to report it before he got out of the park, and police officers soon returned it to me. Other than a scratch where the lock had been, there was no damage, but my favorite ride now had the stickiness of trespass on her handlebars.

I rode her less after I got my license at 16, and spent a lot of time finding excuses to use my mom’s red Galaxy 500 and then the silver Monte Carlo to cruise to McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts with friends and pull into secret spots on back roads where we drank beer.

Bike riding fell away further when I got married, had two sons and worked at my first career. I was in my mid-30s when my brother sat at my kitchen table and told me he had AIDS, and that is when it would come back to me.

Lying on my couch feeling scared and hopeless, I opened The Boston Globe and noticed a full-page ad. “Does AIDS have more power over you than you have over it?” It was a pitch for the first charity bike ride to benefit AIDS research and charities — 250 miles from Boston to NYC in three days. Could I do that?

As a young mom, I did not exercise regularly and was pretty out-of-shape, but I desperately wanted to pretend I had some power and control over the disease that would surely take my brother’s life.

Not knowing how to shop for a bike, I bought one that was a little too big for me from a chain store and started to train. I learned about clipless pedals, changing a tire and bonking. I bought a rack for my car, and to get in miles, I brought my bike nearly everywhere I went.

So afraid I wouldn’t be able to complete that big ride, I rode more than 1,000 miles training for the first one. My bike’s odometer turned to four digits as I was climbing a monster hill near my mom’s house in Connecticut. I felt wild and free and a little hopeful, believing for the first time that maybe my youngest brother would not soon be dead.

Riding my friend Jeff Lord’s Bianchi in an AIDS Ride

With no outward signs of the disease yet, my brother Michael pedaled beside me on the first few AIDS rides along with my friend Sharron. Those three days were a spiritual and exhilarating time that became a religion for me. There were 3,500 riders, and we created quite a scene along the main and back roads from Boston to NY.

Along with all of the cyclists spinning along, AIDS activists from ACT UP and other organizations that rallied for a cure in the 1990s lined the route and cheered us on along with thousands of others who had been impacted by the discriminatory and, at that time, fatal disease.

Adrenaline kept us moving long after our bodies burned out as police whisked us through busy intersections with lights and sirens and motorcycle clubs escorted us along the way. It was exciting and freeing and comforting. I went back year after year and would do 13 rides — telling myself the harder I pedaled, the longer Michael would live. And he did.

Though very ill at times, he was somehow able to hang on long enough to be a candidate for each new round of AIDS medicines, and he is still here, healthy and whole, and riding a bike through the streets of Chicago.

After I had completed a couple of AIDS rides on my oversized bike, my neighbor let me borrow his Bianchi. It was my first taste of a well-made bike, and oh, what a difference.

When I was 38, I went to a real bike store and put money down on a beautiful Trek road bike with 21 speeds. I learned about carbon fiber and the Italian parts on my Trek 2120 called
a Campagnolo Veloce groupset. In 1998, it was a ton of money for me.

As it turned out, it was a brilliant purchase. Year after year, I kept training and riding in the AIDS Rides– and those wheels were also sweet respite from the trials of being a single mom and high school teacher trying to find her way.

In 2018, I was about to marry a generous handsome man I had met while riding in my 9th AIDS Ride. When I arrived home the day before our wedding, my soon-to-be-husband told me to look in the back of his SUV. Inside was a gleaming white Fuji road bike, his wedding gift to me.

I passed on my dear Trek to my son who spruced it up, rode it for a couple of years, and then when he bought his own, gifted it to his fiance so they could ride together. I love that it still rolls.

My husband Peter and I rode our last AIDS Ride the year we married. We now have a stationary bike in our den with inspiring instructors that bellow from a screen.

I miss the real thing. Last year, I only took my bike out on the road once. As I write this, it is nearly mid-October and it has been sitting in the basement for more than a year hung with stringy cobwebs.

I got it out and wiped it down, added some oil to its chain and found my helmet. I got winded pumping up the tires. Then, I clipped in one foot and boarded, feeling at first like I needed a seat belt as I rolled out of my driveway. I pedaled uphill and sailed down the other side pushing my legs around to spin the wheels and ride the autumn wind.

It all came back. I felt strong and free, and I was smiling like a kid.