Some of my best friends have been bikes

We’re on our own adventures this week, so enjoy this lovely piece from 2015, written by our good friend Brendon Leonard. It’s a story about… well, you saw the headline. – Red.

I recently walked up the stairs of my apartment building with five $20 bills in hand, pausing for a second halfway up, thinking I feel like a kid who just gave away his favorite teddy bear.

I sold my old Raleigh bike to a guy who really wanted it for the bars and stem, whose wife told him she would kill him if he brought another bike home, but he did it anyway. It walked out my door at the same price it came in at the end of 2009, $100.

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There are plenty of people who don’t get sentimental about things like steel bikes that they’ve owned for nearly six years, but I’m not one of them. I think at best bikes can become part of your family if you stick with them long enough and don’t get distracted by the shiny new ones that come out every year to potentially replace yours. My Raleigh, a 1988 Team USA, had some issues: mismatched wheels, mismatched tires, mismatched brake levers, mismatched shifters. Even the front and rear derailleurs came from different Shimano groups.

If you were honest about it, which my friends never were to my face, it was kind of a crap bike. That was the truth. But that was it mine piece of crap bike. Last November, my friend Brian borrowed it for a day of running errands around town, and as a man who knows a quality bike that doesn’t shine when he sees one, he later reported to me, “It’s a real nice bike.” And that was also the truth.

In 2009, I committed to a cross-country bike ride with my friend Tony and thought I had the perfect bike for it: a surly Cross Check I’d bought for $300 used. Then one evening, in a rush to meet a friend for dinner, I was pedaling as hard as I could through the alley behind my office, probably going 18 mph, when a car backed out of a blind parking lot, and before I could even touching the brake levers BOOM my front wheel hit the rear right side of the car and I flew over the handlebars, into the trunk and onto the ground, miraculously unscathed. The driver and I both apologized, sorry, I couldn’t see behind me when I backed out, no, no, I was going way too fast like an idiot, my fault, you okay, yes, I’m, okay, no problem, gotta you don’t worry about the dent in the car. It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed the downpipe was bent, rendering the bike useless.

I scoured Craigslist for a week, frantically looking for an acceptable touring bike, and then, one Sunday, I refreshed the results and saw “1988 Raleigh Team USA – $100” pop up at the top. It was too much. I needed a bike to ride across America. What’s better than a Team USA? Red, white and blue, complete with white stars on the fork and dropouts? I rushed out to the suburbs, rode the bike 100 feet down the block to make sure it actually rolled straight, rode back, gave the guy five $20 bills and drove it home to strip it and put all the parts on my Cross Check it out. The fit was a little off until I replaced the stem and added a couple of mustache bars.

Then I drove across the country towing a BOB trailer, hoping it would say something about old bikes or durability or steel or something, and no one really cared except Curt Kremer, who seemed pretty into it, when we stopped in Phoenix. Everyone else just wanted to know how tall Tony was (7ft 0in, sir) or what we ate all the time (everything).

I cycled 3,000 km on that trip and probably another 2,000 in the years after, in short trips around Denver and Seattle and Portland and Iowa when I went home to visit my parents during the summer. “Fastest bike in Denver,” I was only half joking – at least a third of my love for that bike was how much fun I had racing cars on 15th Street during rush hour. Anyone who knows anything about getting around a crowded city knows that a road bike pedaled hard enough is much faster than a car. It added hours to my life that I would have spent driving around looking for parking spaces or waiting behind a wheel to get out of crowded grocery stores.

After several years of meritorious service, one of the Easton wheels finally bit the dust and I replaced it. Then the bike fell off the roof rack of my boyfriend’s Subaru on a drive through Nebraska, held on only by the rear wheel – I must not have strapped it down well enough. I pulled it off the roof to find one of the dropouts on the fork bent almost 90 degrees. When I rolled it into Chocolate Spokes to see if Gregory could do some steel magic and make it usable again, he suggested several options for rebuilding it. In the end we decided the safest thing to do would be to put a new fork on it. A boring, plain chrome fork. This was the beginning of the end.

I started thinking about getting another bike. But what would I buy? New bikes just seemed so…boring. They didn’t have a story. I mean, I’m not destitute. I have enough money to buy a bike. I just don’t want to. I want my old bike. This isn’t rational, but I guess most of the best things in life aren’t.

A few months ago I met my old bike friends at 4 o’clock on a Sunday morning to ride the length of Broadway. Everyone was on a black bike except me. Nick said, “I can’t believe you’re still riding that bike.” I laughed and said Yes, it’s a good bike. The next week, on my way home from the UPS Store, I noticed that the right shifter was a little loose, and when I put my hand on it, it fell off in my hand. The screw holding it to the frame had fallen off. That was it, I thought. It is over.

While I was off on a ride, Hilary took the bike to a shop and one of the techs found a miracle screw to hold the derailleur on and the USA team was rescued from the Great Bike Graveyard. Or so I thought. The screw loosened after half a dozen trips around Denver, and when I pulled over to the side of the street to tighten it, I turned an allen wrench and felt the soft pop that meant the hole had been removed. The ending. I’m not a singlespeed guy. If I was, I would have saved it. Maybe someone could have done some steel surgery on the bike and repaired it. But I was done.

As an adult, I’ve made bad choices that have resulted in me never having a garage or even a spare room to store bikes in, so I’ve never owned more than two at a time – one for trails, one for streets. I never had to decide which one to drive to the grocery store or to the coffee shop. There was my bicycle and my mountain bike. I rode that Team USA all over Denver, locking it to a hundred different bike racks, street signs, fences and trees with the same heavy duty chain lock, and never worried about chipping the paint.

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Things have their time and I imagine plenty of those 1988 Raleigh Team USAs were never ridden after 1992 or 1993, let alone through 2015. In human years, that bike was old enough to drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and rent a car. He saw more of the country than many people his age had. The one thing it never did was collect dust.

I don’t really consider myself a bike guy, but I can name just about every bike I’ve owned in my life, starting with the little baby blue steel thing my parents put training wheels on so I could learn to ride in the driveway, all the way to the brand new full suspension mountain bike I bought in 2012. I think anyone who loves bikes can probably put together a timeline of their life according to the bikes they owned, a sort of cycling autobiography. And my years with Raleigh Team USA are just over.

I told the guy who bought the bike that if it helped he could tell his wife that the money was going to a good cause because I was donating it to my friends movie about the women in Afghanistan who risk their lives to push for social change by cycling. I appreciate the poetry of buying that bike for $100, riding it for almost six years, and then selling it for $100, and I think it makes me feel better that I immediately passed on the money in something meaningful. After all, I suppose you never really own anything, whether it’s money or a bike – you’re just going to hang onto it for a while.

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