Jun 12, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 37 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
I HAD MY FIRST BICYCLE when I was eleven, and it was a disappointment. Schwinn seemed the only bike worth having in those days. My father, for some reason, surprised me by bringing home an off-brand bike called a SunRacer. Red and white, it had nothing wrong with it, but it wasn't a Schwinn. I soon removed its fenders, chainguard, and kickstand, and bent its handlebars downward. But there wasn't much else I could do to add to its glamour. Had I had a Schwinn, who can say, today I might be president of the World Bank, artistic director of the Orchestre de Paris, chairman of Disney.
I rode that bike everywhere. I don't remember having to lock it up, unlike nowadays when I lock up my current bike even when parking it in our garage. (I recently read somewhere that the use of the word "nowadays" suggests a reactionary, for nowadays are always understood to be much worse than thenadays. Something to it, I fear.) At fifteen, the age one could then get a driver's license in Chicago, my friends and I, putting away childish things, abandoned our bikes for cars and the wondrous freedom they gave to roam the city.
Bikes for adults didn't come into play until the exercise craze hit. I owned a green Raleigh racer in the late 1960s. In the early '80s at a police auction I acquired a three-speed Huffy. I used sometimes to ride it to the university where I taught; pipeless and suede-patchless, a bike was the only professorial accoutrement I had. Then, a decade or so later, I bought a standard, handlebars-straight-up, three-speed green Slipstream bike, which I used for a while, then forgot about. A young man in our building has recently gone into the bike-repair business, and so, summer coming on, feeling the need for a bit of exercise, and bored with longish walks, I had him clean up my long unused Slipstream, which I take now out for a spin four or five times a week.
By a spin I mean nothing marathon but four or five miles. I don't suit up for these little excursions but wear whatever I happen to have on. I'd as soon put on Spandex shorts for a bike ride as give the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in a Speedo. I eschew a helmet because I look too goofy in one, and nowadays (there's that word again) have just enough vanity left to wish to look merely ungoofy. I do use a clip around my right ankle to prevent my trousers from getting caught in the chain.
I find myself looking forward to these rides, which I do not take at any set time of the day but when the mood strikes. I am a bit tentative on my bike; the thought of a serious fall never quite deserts me. I haven't yet worked up the courage to ride "no-hands," but then maybe one needs a living mother to do so ("Look, Ma, no hands!"). As kids we specialized in trick riding, including riding while seated backwards. The toughest trick of all--accomplished only by my friend Norm Brodsky--was to drive oneself on one's own handlebars, facing forward. I was with a boy named Ronny Harris who, attempting it, ended up with a concussion and several facial lacerations.
My current bike ride always follows the same route. At the beginning it goes slightly downhill, which provides a slight thrill. The return is of course slightly uphill, which leaves me having to work a bit, ending up breathing more heavily, which gives the impression of a workout. I ride through a nearby park, then alongside Lake Michigan. Joggers, young parents pushing their children in the new troika prams, Asians with pastel umbrellas out for walks, are on the same path. I go at a medium pace, every so often pumping hard to build up a bit of speed off which I let the bike glide.
My exercise does not include the element of progress. I do not anticipate going for longer and longer rides, getting in better and better shape. I am merely trying not to fall too quickly into even worse shape. I ride my bike less for reasons of health than for the delight in pedaling along, noting the lake in its many moods and differing colors, and taking in the views. One somehow sees more on a bicycle than in a car or even while walking.
For all the pleasures bike-riding gives, I do have a single regret. Many years ago, I met a man who, having read an essay of mine on juggling, asked if I would like to learn to ride a unicycle, which he would be pleased to teach me to do. I would love to ride a unicycle, I told him. He gave me his business card, but, for some reason, I never got around to calling him. I have long since lost his card, and now, alas, it is too late. If there is a heaven, and if I am permitted entry, you will not fail to notice me there: I shall be the fellow without the helmet tooling around on the unicycle, grinning.