Summer is finally here – this is Montana, people! – and with the advent of mild weather, clear blue skies and concomitant sky high gas prices, I have been longing to join the legions of Bozemanites toodling around town on bike. Oh, the freedom to peddle over to Borders to read a book or to the mall to catch a flick or to the grocery store to shop for dinner. Most of all, I daydream about hopping on a two-wheeler and using Sue-power to pick up my weekly vegetables from Towne’s Harvest.
Did you know the average American opts to drive at somewhere between four and five blocks? (When I find the link for this research, I'll post it.) For me, I nearly always walk if the distance a mile or less. If it fits into my daily 5-6 mile walk, I’ll walk to more distant destinations. This morning a friend and I hoofed it to the Saturday Farmer’s market, probably about a mile and half away. But the kinds of places I want to go on bike are further than that, often by roads that do not have good sidewalks the whole way. They are made for biking.
But I had a conundrum. Although I want to bike, I don’t want to ride my bike, a 16-year old Giant 10-speed. Don’t get me wrong: I love this bike. For about 3 years, I lived without a car in California and biked everywhere I needed to go: to Stanford’s campus, to work at the Menlo Park VA, to shop, to meet friends for breakfast anywhere from Redwood City down to Mountain View. Transportation-wise, it was the best three years of my life.
In April of 1992, as I was biking on Stanford’s campus, an elderly man who had just finished playing tennis rolled through a stop sign and hit me square on, looking at me all the way. When I realized he wasn’t going to stop and I couldn’t get out of his way, I started screaming wordlessly. My life did not flash before my eyes, but I do remember thinking, “I’m going to die.”
I did not die: He was only going about five miles an hour. I wish I could say, “I did not die because I was wearing a bike helmet.” I can say, however, that it was the last time I rode without a helmet. I will not tempt the gods.
I ended up half under his vintage 1960-era’s Corvair. Later he told me that he saw me and just couldn’t find the brake. Although I had the right of way, I was not able to summon much anger at him. He never evaded responsibility and was terribly sorry. His tennis partner gave me a ride home, and later the police called because the driver had reported the accident.
Somehow, I escaped serious injury – cuts and bruises aside – but I wondered if for him it might not be a painful wake-up call: How much longer could he drive if he was mowing down bicyclists on quiet roads in broad daylight? Maybe he should not be driving, but the loss of that profoundly American form of independence seemed sad to me even then. Today, having seen my grandfather and father swear off driving, it still leaves me a bit melancholy.
And my bike? It was crushed, unrepairable. The driver called me later, and we made arrangements for him to replace my bike with another just like it. And that is the bike that has lived in my garage since I left California in 1994.
Despite painful moments, this bike connects me to a beloved time in my life. I don’t want to throw it away. But it’s a road bike that forces me to hunch over the handlebars and its tires are too delicate for some of the roads I want to travel. So while I don't want to toss it, I also don’t want to ride it.
What’s a girl to do?
When the longing became too great, I took my confused self down to my local bike shop – Summit Bikes – located a couple blocks from my house. A nice young man named Ben, apparently the only sort who’s allowed to work at Bozeman’s bike shops, asked if he could help me.
“Well, I don’t know what I want but maybe you can talk me through it,” I responded. “I want to be able to ride about three to five miles from home, just to get around. I need to be able to ride on some unpaved roads. I have an old road bike but I don’t want to ride it. Do you sell used bikes?” I asked, revealing my distaste at buying a new bike.
He said they did not sell any used bikes. Then he showed me their lowest end mountain bike, which cost $319. And he said, “What kind of bike do you have?” When I described my 16-year old ten-speed Giant road bike, he said: “We can change that bike out for you, if you want.” My ears perked up.
Turns out, they aren’t selling as many new bikes these days as they are converting people’s existing bikes to something they can use today. They can change out handle bars to give you a more upright ride. They can switch brake levers and gears to work with the new handlebars. They have more comfortable seats for an upright ride.
I was sold! I brought my bike back this morning and left it with Ben. A different Ben. I wasn’t kidding: Apparently only nice young men named Ben are allowed to work in Bozeman bike shops.
Ben and I worked up my wish list for my bike: handle bars that will let me ride upright, new brake levers so the bike will stop when I want it to, a new saddle, low-end toe clips, knobby tires and a bike rack upon which I will be able to bungee cord a milk crate to carry vegetables home from the farm. Ben described the milk crate as ‘ghetto’, but I told him I loved it. The more makeshift, the better, as far as I am concerned.
And all of this, on the base provided by dear bike. Trick my bike!
I spent a good part of the morning gathering pieces for the bike project. Summit didn’t have the gear levers in stock. But Ben called Ace Hardware’s bike shop, where he used to work (continuing the theme of bike shops only hiring Bens), and they put them on hold for me.
Summit also did not have the 27 x 1 ¼ knobby tires in stock and Ben worried that they were on backorder. So I after I picked up the gear levers and learned that Ace didn’t have the tires, I walked to a couple of other bike shops and found the tires at Bangtail. I forgot to ask if Ben worked there too but I was more aware than ever of how wonderful it is to have four local bike stores within about 6 city blocks.
My bike should be ready later this week, in time for me to pick my veggies up from Towne’s Harvest on Friday afternoon. I’ll let you know how it turns out. But I am hoping for a transformation of a dear memory into something my middle-aged body can use today.