By Matt Gordon
Is there anything quite like the beauty of a bicycle? Sure, the shape of our beloved, a glistening perfection is a wonder to behold. As is a fine piece of art or delicately conceived bit of landscaping. But each holds differing complexity—relational or developmental in nature. No, a bicycle is a simple creature: two wheels, handlebars, and a seat. Maybe you add a basket or compartment, maybe not? Perhaps a kickstand or headlight? Beauty is in the eye, and quads, of the beholder, I suppose. But the opportunity for beauty is there nonetheless.
My own bike, for instance, is lovely. Elegant and gray, it is not a thing to be raced, but rather one to be enjoyed . . . a carefree canter rather than a derby. And it was a gift, as all the best things are. My wife sent me to our laundry room, but it was a ruse. I should have suspected such, as I am of little utility in that room, but I trudged in unawares to her tender birthday schemes. There it was before me: two wheels, handlebars, and a seat—love at first sight. It was winter and wet outdoors, so I removed our vehicles from the garage and rode tight circles, the same as those of my youth in the grimy space—tight circle after circle, a humming coming from my pursed lips, smiling face.
At age four, it was much the same, round and round, tight circle after circle. The training wheels had been thrown off without fanfare, like the death of a tepid villain, and off I rode, a blue-and-boy blur. Riding had been without issue, I zoomed from my applauding parents, my grin surely evident even from their backside view. Through the grass and over the hills I zipped, into the gravel drive and back again. I pretended to be on a motorcycle, then some flying contraption, swerving to and fro, evading enemies euphorically. A kid on a bike with no place to go—is there a better picture of freedom at its most wholesome? It is a restrictive freedom, as freedom must be to be good: a rider free to stand or sit, brake or pedal, but bound by gravity and inertia and the imperative to keep things moving.
Which I did. I had to. For all my natural proclivity for riding, I had no such skill in stopping. So I’d ride and ride and ride, ignoring the fatigue and other childhood allurements. It is really what we all do, I think. And we learn young. We mask our deficits or hide them in deeper-than-deep buried places. No vulnerabilities. No weaknesses. To the world we are brisk, energetic, active, flailing onward, ever onward.
But also true to life, one can’t ride forever—he must learn to stop. Or, in my case, oxymoronically crash as gently as possible. I would use our front lawn’s willow tree to accomplish this task. The tire-on-grass friction would slow my approach, and I’d wheel my way into the tree and tip whichever way momentum chose to place or fling me, a blue-on-boy mess upon the earth.
The tree, like me, was little then. But it grew and grew and grew, and when we moved from that house in my pre-teen years, the forever-marks my collisions had made on the tree were five-feet high. The tree had grown and grown and grown. Trees do that. Humans much less so.
We moved to a house in a subdivision then, without a dad and without a willow. Fortunately, I had learned to stop by then. Life does that to us too, if we let it. If we don’t, we go on crashing till we can neither crash nor ride anymore.
The bike I had in that house was a blue mountain bike, the type of obnoxiously overdone and cheap thing that appeals to a young person, especially a poor one. Sure, it still held the beauty that all bikes hold: the promise of mobility and energy and hard work. But it was a big box store monstrosity, and though cumbersome and pointless—I was a six-month-long bike ride from the nearest mountain . . . and such a trek would take much longer on that beastly thing. But I loved it, as we do, because it was “mine,” a made-up word at twelve, or any age truly, but an important one nonetheless.
We’d form up in a group and take our bikes through the nearby construction zone. We’d ride to the Family Video up the road to rent video games. We’d glide to the nearby golf course for big fountain sodas we’d spill in giggly, blissful transit. Circle after joyous circle.
Then we all got our licenses and the bikes were put away and the joy turned to happiness—a prince back to a frog; the beauty lain down to slumber. In our cars we were alone and still, our sodas in cupholders; our cup did seldom runneth over.
Cars are good and efficient and necessary. Perhaps it is their inherent usefulness that separates them from bicycles? It is the difference between a plane and a hang glider. One gets you somewhere while the other is the mode and destination all in one.
In college we reverted back to old ways in the way that collegians tend to do—vintage clothes, pipes, old songs and older books, neither truly understood yet. In trying to find ourselves we first look back, it would seem. We did this in a number of ways, bikes among them.
Our campus, small and religious, was awash with them. One night we stole them all. Four of us. Every bike that wasn’t chained was taken and parked on the university’s softball field—in the various fielding or umpiring positions, dugouts, and bleachers. We called it the “Bicycle Passover” and it took all night. Freedom tethered to the clock, to our age, to our foolishness, to the boredom attached to attending a small, religious college. We rode bikes great and small that fateful night—the bikes belonging to the children of dorm parents were not spared. We rode and rode and rode, circle after circle, born back ceaselessly and all that.
I went to Europe for a season and bikes were present, but drowned out by the droning of motorbikes. Upon returning stateside, I fancied myself enlightened by seeking one of my own. A friend had a small motor scooter she loaned me for a week while she was off in Florida visiting family. The first day upon “Charles”—for it was fashionable, like a guitar or ship, to name something so precious—I zoomed here and there, pretending to be an artsy European. Still attempting to find myself, I looked to some other continent for some precious identity to stick on myself like a beret. And then, promptly, I crashed, no willow to ease me to earth. No, I skidded on the asphalt to a painful halt—the only thing more painful would be to keep going, I guess.
I limped home as in the days of old. We all do, I suppose.
Then, just like that, I was grown up. Then married. Then familied. And bike-less. My pace was slower so my feet would do. They’d have to.
Oh, and the cliché, “like riding a bicycle.” One can’t forget that, can he? It is easy to remember how to ride a bike, sure, but it is easy to forget what can be learned from bicycles—about freedom and falling and seeking and finding and losing and crashing and hills and effort and burning-churning and coasting and smiling; and then circling and smiling and circling and smiling and looking, finally, for some acceptable place to try to stop. Then taking the thing up again and going for a ride.
When the bicycle rode back into my life, it did not sweep me off my feet. Epiphanies and tattoos and a tribe didn’t come with it. Nope, just a little compartment for my keys and phone. I also keep a small bag for a book and snack and a bungee cord to affix such to my person or the bike frame. Then I ride off like I have so many times before, hearing the wind but listening for the lovely voice of truth: elegant and gray, it is not a thing to be raced, but rather one to be enjoyed.