When I was a kid, a boy's bike was an extension of his body and his personality. Our bikes took us everywhere. We loved them and modified them to express our inner selves. Sissies rode Schwinns with cheesy features, such as plastic streamers extending from the handle grips. If you were a boys' boy, you removed the fenders - never mind this meant a streak of mud up your back after a rainy day. A playing card or piece of cardboard, stuck where it was smacked by your spokes, made a satisfying "motor" noise. Not even the wimps wore helmets.
Grown-ups didn't ride bikes in those days. Neither did teenagers, if they could get their hands on a car. By contrast, I've learned on my travels that adults in many other countries rely heavily on bicycles. From Copenhagen to Shanghai, I've encountered flocks of them cramming city streets. Men and women are represented equally.
In the U.S. adult bicycling usually has been confined to "working out." Serious bike athletes buy all sorts of expensive accessories to go with their carbon-based, ultra-light machines. Color-coordinated latex shorts and shirts, matching helmets, water bottles, repair kits and pumps… if a serious bicyclist can think it up, someone is selling it.
Lance Armstrong was the serious biker's hero, until he was stripped last month of his seven Tour de France titles due to doping. Cancer-survivor and philanthropist, Armstrong's downfall is nothing short of heartbreaking for the competitive bicycler. Many of his acolytes are in denial. Unfortunately, the evidence looks overwhelming that he not only used performance-enhancing drugs, but he also bullied and cajoled his teammates into using them, too.
Personally, the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong means little or nothing to me. My bikes have always been close companions, not competitive weapons. I've owned one or more almost my entire life. They get me where I wanted to go, while giving me some welcome exercise. The pleasure of coasting down a long hill remains as pure as when I was ten.
In Philadelphia, many in the younger generation now seem to share my enthusiasm for the bike as pleasant and practical conveyance. The City of Brotherly Love has responded by creating bike lanes all over the metropolitan area. New ordinances punish drivers who encroach on those lanes or "door" a biker.
Recently, I gave one of my bikes to Claire's boyfriend, Corey. The gift was none-too-soon, since his '99 Explorer has since ceased to explore - due to a dead transmission.
The only time I even remember bikes existing is when I'm trying to avoid hitting one on the streets of Philadelphia.
While I don't begrudge anyone their bike lanes - and I appreciate the attempt at being environmentally conscious - the streets of Philadelphia are small. Very small. They are narrow and congested and though the cars continue to grow in size, the streets do not. Now we've added bike lanes, which further narrows those streets. All I can say is: eek. And, I'd rather walk.
I am not a biker by nature, you see. One might even go so far as to say that I'm bike-challenged. So I suppose I'll just go ahead and admit it here and now, the secret I've kept all these years: I still don't know how to ride a bike.
Not really, anyway. I was never interested when I was a little kid; I lived in a safe, walkable neighborhood, and both of my best childhood friends lived within blocks of me. There was no need for bikes. When we finally got to that age - the age of wanting to go places faster - we were in the midst of that totally 90s obsession called rollerblading. I pity the children who will never get to experience the thrill of 'blading, now that it's become abysmally uncool.
But when I was fourteen, the jig was up. My friend invited me to go on a trip to the beach with her family, and she casually mentioned that we might ride bikes down the boardwalk.
Well, shoot, I thought. This is probably why I should have learned to ride a bike when I was six and apparently soaking up new skills easily and sponge-like.
I was tremendously embarrassed, as most fourteen year olds are of everything, so of course I couldn't admit to my friend that I didn't know how to ride a bike. Thus, my poor dad spent two days (all the time I had) running around behind me in the parking lot of my old elementary school, trying to teach me to balance and brake and do whatever else you fancy bike riders do on your magenta two-wheelers with streamers. Not that I'm bitter or anything.
Technically, I did learn how to ride a bike that day. Which is to say, I learned how to sit on top of one and go forward in a vaguely purposeful direction. But please don't confuse that with actually being able to get anywhere on a bike; I couldn't go straight down a sidewalk, and sitting on the bike without falling over was a real trial. I went on vacation with fear in my heart that my secret would soon be discovered.
Luckily, we never road bikes down the boardwalk (the rentals were too expensive), and my secret was safe for another ten years. Until now.
Now, I'm coming out. Because biking has recently become extremely popular with the young hipster crowd, all those twenty-somethings riding around the city on their powder blue Schwinn Cruisers, wearing their "ironic" t-shirts and Elvis Costello glasses. Biking is what the cool kids are doing now, again, and it's likely I'll have to turn down some biking-related activity in the near future. So I may as well say it now: no thank you, I'll just walk.