Saturday, June 13, 2009

First Mis-Steps: A Fred is Born

I can't say exactly when I became a cyclist, but I do recall first learning to ride a bike. It was London, around 1970, when the training wheels came off my little orange Raleigh. I'm sure I was terrified. Like the pope or an old dog, I've always distrusted changes in the status quo. The order in which I wash my body-parts in the shower has not changed since I grew the full complement of body-parts that come standard with a skinny white kid.
Anyway, it all happened in the usual way: my Dad jogged alongside holding the saddle and then suddenly, unexpectedly I was riding on my own, balanced on two wheels. Our Chelsea street had big, wide sidewalks and wrought iron fences that started flashing by at an impressive rate.
The wind in my face, the tingling sense of speed, the exhilaration of doing something new and hopefully dangerous, the ever-increasing distance from my father... I loved all of these things at once. I transported myself into a Mary Poppins-esque fantasy of pedaling effortlessly through the neighborhood and up over my school, soaring, laughing high above the school-yard and buzzing all the mean kids who mocked my abilities at cricket, but always refused to tell me how the wretched game was played. Then I came to the end of the block.

Certainly I knew how to work my brakes and steer, but that was when the training wheels were still on. My mind, which had already been shown to be unreliable, simply froze up like an old PC running Windows 95. With my elbows locked out straight, a death-mask etched on my face (this, incidentally, describes my riding position to this day), I crashed directly into the light-post that had mysteriously materialized in front of me. I was only 6, but I had become a fully-fledged Fred.

Nearly 40 years later, these moments of acute Fred-dom have become all too familiar. Time slows down, my limbs cease their spastic thrashing and go rigid while the closest thing to anything useful in my brain is a neon sign slowly blinking "What the fuck are you doing?" I don't care. While I've taken a few breaks from it over the years, I've never really stopped loving to ride my bike.

The most recent of those breaks began in 1999 when I was at last able to afford a house. $123k saw the purchase of an elderly North Portland "Fixer", as the Real Estate Agent-bots like to say. For the next seven years and two new mortgages, I was owned by that house. I re-modeled, re-built and removed pipes that had been pooped in since 1910. When I came up for air in 2006, I had amassed a large collection of drill bits, high-blood pressure and 35 extra pounds of Fred. The house was 70% done.

Then one day, with income from a new job, I impulsively bought a road bike I had always lusted after: a Bontrager Road Lite. It had been more than five years since I had been on on my old roadie, an aluminum Trek 1220 so harsh I could have rented it to old "nipple-clamps" Cheney for use in "enhanced interrogations." Almost immediately, I felt buyer's remorse for my indulgent purchase and so to justify it to myself I decided I would get back on the road in earnest. And this time, I would try to to over-come my fredly ways and try to learn to be fast. Well, faster, anyway. 

Is it bad timing to try this at 45? Yes. Yes it is. Bad timing is one of the hallmarks of the unskilled athlete. And I've been displaying my lack of skills since I was first launched down that Chelsea sidewalk and into a life-long affair with poor cycling.