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My Life in Bicycles

My Life in Bicycles
September 25, 2014 Jennifer Boylan

Here’s a column of mine that appeared in the New York Times on August 17, 2014.

BELGRADE LAKES, Me. — MY Uncle Clarke woke me before dawn with a shake to the shoulder. He gave me a look that asked, You in? I nodded. I was in all right.

Ten minutes later, we were on bikes riding through the gray light. We pedaled past sleepy summer homes with hammocks in their side yards, towels hanging from porch railings, inflatable rafts stacked up like pancakes. This was Rehoboth Beach, Del., August 1968.

Uncle Clarke (not my real uncle, but my father’s best friend from high school) rode every morning at dawn. He had one of those “English” bikes that were all the rage in the 1960s, a Raleigh three-speed with the gear shift on a tiny lever near the rider’s right thumb. I rode a borrowed Sting-Ray belonging to my cousin Martha. Usually Uncle Clarke led an army of us kids on those morning rides, but that day it was just me.

We rode over to the bay side and then to the boardwalk, its Skee-Ball parlors and salt water taffy machines closed up at that hour. We looked at the ocean and listened to the surf. The poet Matthew Arnold once called it “the eternal note of sadness,” but it sounded all right to me.

T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock laments that his life has been measured out in coffee spoons, but I think I could take a pretty good measure of my own life in bicycle tires. There was the orange Huffy of childhood that I transformed into something I called Tiger Bike, complete with a furry tail given out at the Esso station during its “Put a Tiger in Your Tank” promotion. Later, there was a 10-speed I took to college, where it was stolen from a friend’s house. In my 20s, I owned a Lotus racing bike. Once, I got my shoes so hopelessly entangled in its toe clips that I spilled right onto the asphalt of Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C.

Now, in my 50s, I have two bikes — a Specialized Secteur for the road, and a hard-core Trek Fuel 70 for the fire roads and logging trails of Kennebec County. Me.

When my sons were in elementary school, there were weeks in summer when they’d jump on their bikes in the morning and disappear down our dirt road with a crew of other boys from the neighborhood. “Bike patrol,” they called themselves. They’d head off to the lake, or to one another’s houses, or — who knows? — to secret locations that I, as one of their mothers, will never know.

I have several friends who partake in something called “spinning,” which is the health-club version of cycling, involving a group of women on stationary bikes who pedal fast, then slow, then fast, as the instructor blasts the kind of music you usually hear in stores that are trying to get 16-year-olds to buy pants, and yells things like, “Feel the burn!”

I prefer exercising at least two miles away from any other human being. For me, biking is a solitary activity. In the Kennebec Highlands, on my mountain bike, I pedal past Kidder Pond, up to the blueberry barrens high atop Vienna Mountain. From there, I watch bald eagles and ospreys, and other birds, whose poop, owing to their diet of berries, stains the gray rocks purple. Sometimes I’ve run into deer and porcupines, and on one memorable occasion, a moose. Another time, I lay with my back against a tree, watching a beaver build a dam in Boody Pond.

Stephen King writes of a solitary childhood encounter with a deer in his story “The Body”: “My heart went up into my throat so high that I think I could have put my hand in my mouth and touched it.” Later, the narrator decides not to tell his friends about what he has seen, to keep it for himself. “The most important things are the hardest to say, because words diminish them.”

These are the gifts that I will most miss when, some day in the not-so-distant future, I have to give up biking alone. At 56, I’m really too old to be hopping over rocks and fallen trees, an hour or two from help, should anything terrible happen to me, which, odds are, it will. Recently, I encountered a bunch of young men who were climbing a mountain trail that I was riding down; one of them looked at me, mud-spattered, sweat-covered, and said, “Whoa! Hard-core!” It wasn’t clear whether he was saying this out of admiration, or concern.

A couple of years after that bike ride with my Uncle Clarke, he and my father had some kind of falling out, and I didn’t see him again. I don’t think about him very often, except on summer mornings in August, when I’m climbing onto my bike.

That morning in Rehoboth Beach, I saw the first sunrise I can remember. My uncle nodded at me, and I nodded back, and we got on our bikes. The air smelled like salt, cotton candy and tar. When we got back to the house, my mother was making pancakes.

“So,” she asked. “How’d it go?”

My uncle looked at me with what might have been love. “We had a good ride,” he said.


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