Saturday, 27 August 2022

Just the Bike

After owning a first-generation mountain bike for too many years I started to dream about a new bike. Now, don’t get me wrong - it wasn’t because I no longer loved my old bike that I started to set my sites on something grander. No, I really started to fancy a new bike, when I quite suddenly began to fancy myself as a bona fide mountain biker.

Maybe I was bored, I don’t know exactly, but for some unknown reason my mind had settled upon a daydream that just wouldn’t let go. There I was, in fine form, hunched over a sleek machine, with legs primed, muscles taut, arms relaxed, peeling down a steep grade, then slowing down just long enough to neatly bunny-hop over a variety of nature’s obstacles. There was just one flaw in the vision. My old mountain bike was not up to snuff. Now what better fodder to stimulate a superlative vision such as this one than a superlative new bike. 

Not prepared to share my adventuresome reverie with my husband at the outset, I opted to take my young daughter along to the bike shop when it came time to “set the wheels in motion.” She could use a bigger bike anyway, I rationalized, and she might just make a handy diversion, should I need one, I thought to myself. Off we set on our mission one chilly spring evening. 

When we arrived at the bike shop, a young man approached us. I asked him to assist us in finding a bike for my daughter. As he focused on the task at hand, I quickly scanned the adult bike section. It didn’t take me long to spot the mountain bikes, looking every bit as majestic on their stands as they did in my imagination. I  sidled closer so that I could admire the 21-gear sprockets and shiny suspension shocks. My old bike was a steel bike. The top bar came up too high for any real hill climbing, and bike shocks were not an option when the earliest mountain bikes came out. These new bikes, by comparison, were all designed with low top bars, and were surely lighter and suppler.

I chose Western Cycle because it had a hook that no other bike shop in Regina had. It had its own indoor track in which to try out bikes. In short order, Emily was given a bike to wheel around the track. I knew she would be happily occupied for awhile, and so came the moment in which to approach the salesman about my own agenda.

For reasons of self-preservation, I tried to appear nonchalant. I wasn’t sure if  this guy would see me as more over the hill than ready for hills. The last thing I wanted was to have him steer me towards a beach cruiser. Thus, with a measured amount of indifference, I asked the salesman if I could try out a mountain bike. I explained to him that I already owned a mountain bike and was thinking about upgrading. The salesman brought a bike over. He mentioned that the bike was a WSD bike, or a woman-specific designed bike. Although I tried hard to listen to as he listed the advantages of a WSD bike, all I wanted to was hop on the thing. 

Tim (we were now on a first-name basis) placed the bike on the track. “Go ahead, give it a try,” he said. I carefully eased one leg over the bike, sat down on the slip of a seat, and started pedalling. As I fiddled with the handlebar levers on the go, Tim called out as I passed him, “Remember to keep pedalling when you shift. And push down on the front shifter to move down a gear, and pull up on the rear shifter to gear up.” Got it. But something still didn’t feel right. I stopped the bike in front of Tim and told him the bike felt too big. Tim wasn’t deterred. He told me he had one other WSD bike that was a size smaller. He brought the bike down from a high rack. It had a two-tone paint job: pearl-white and metallic-blue. It appeared rugged and radiant all at the same time. It was a thing of beauty. I barely needed to ride it to know I wanted it.

“Are you looking for a hard-tail?” Tim asked, breaking up my idyllic thoughts. I struggled for a moment, not knowing how to answer his question. He continued, “Some riders call a bike with front shocks a hard-tail, and a bike with front and rear shocks, a soft-tail.” The names made sense instantly. I decided it was time to let down my guard with Tim. He didn’t seem like such a bad guy. I admitted to him that I wasn’t sure which I was looking for. Tim encouraged me to give the smaller bike a whirl. I lifted my leg over the frame and sat on the firm saddle. My hands easily reached the handlebars, my feet landed effortlessly on the pedals. I had loads of clearance. Everything felt perfect. Except for … I looked down. Half the pedals seemed to be missing. Two puny little pegs jutted out from the cranks. I hated to ask but knew I had to. “Um, what kind of pedals are these, Tim?” Not wanting to sound patronizing, Tim answered cryptically, “they’re SPD pedals.” “Clipless pedals,” he added for good measure.

SPDs. SPDs. I wracked my brain trying to come up with three words that would fit the acronym. First letter, small. Middle letter, pedal, third letter, design, hmm, small pedal design. Not getting anywhere, I dropped my line of thinking. Tim went on to explain that the pedals required specific shoes that would clip in and clip out of the pedals. “Do you want to try riding with the shoes?” Tim asked me. Feeling impatient, I told him that I didn’t need to try shoes. Instead, I rested my runners on top of the awkward pegs and sped off around the oval. 

The bike fit nicely. The bike felt right. I was in love with the bike. At this point, Tim knew just what to say: "The bike was actually listed at sixteen hundred dollars, but because it had been on the floor for over a year, the price was reduced to a thousand." Six hundred dollars off the price! Why, the bike was a steal!

As I paused to think everything out, I saw Emily coming around the bend. I watched her for a second, perched atop a pretty blue bike, wheels spinning as fast as the ones that were now spinning in my head. Before I could change my mind, I glanced up at Tim, and said, “I’ll take both.”

“Great,” he said, looking genuinely pleased for me. “I’ll get the repair shop to get the bikes ready. Now, what about shoes?” Tim asked. I looked at him blankly, trying to remember why he was mentioning shoes. Right, the SDP pedals.

“Oh, yeah, I guess I need to get shoes,” I nodded in agreement. Tim showed me the shoes. I peered at the unsightly items. Hard, stiff-soled shoes with Velcro straps. I tried on a couple of pairs, while Tim patiently explained the “clip-in, clip-out” motion that would be required to use the shoes.

I paid for a pair of shoes and the pair of bikes and loaded the bikes into my truck. At last I gave myself permission to feel a small flutter of excitement.  “Wow, we have new bikes!" I exclaimed to Emily. And then I thought back to the conversation I had just had with Tim. He had told me about a local area called Wascana Trails that mountain bikers enjoy. He mentioned that my new bike would perform really well on the technical sections of the hills. Now that had a nice ring to it. I smiled to myself, as I played with the new words: Why, I’d soon be clipped into my SPD pedals, riding my WSD hard-tail over the technical sections at Wascana Trails. How cool did that sound. 

When we got home my husband hoisted himself up into the box of the truck and gently lowered the bikes. Emily  hopped on to her new bike and was off like a scamp. I was left showing Ralph my new clipless pedals. Ralph, being naturally curious, examined the pedals, then the soles of the shoes, and, finally, the adjusting screws. He showed me how to clip my shoes into the pedals, and how to twist my feet slightly outward to free myself. Then he adjusted a single screw on each pedal so that the shoes would be easier to release.

I started out cautiously, resting one foot just above the locking mechanism on the pedal, then slowly engaging it, and just as slowly, twisting it out. Then I did the same with the other foot. Finally, I pedalled around the block a few times. Nothing to it, I thought, after making a few rounds. Why, these SPD pedals weren’t that hard to get used to. Clip in, clip out, clip in, clip out. All I had to do was practice until my feet rotated in and out reflexively.

After riding a few kilometres, Em and I put our bikes in the garage for the night. To help myself unwind, I poured a cup of tea, and then spent some time in front of the computer. I looked up SPD and discovered the abbreviation stood for Shimano Pedalling Device. I looked up Trek, the manufacturer of my bike, and read about my new bike’s specifications, not that they made much sense. Lastly, I looked up Wascana Trails and studied the map for future reference. 

The next morning, I barely took note of my old mountain bike. A fleeting glance told me it looked outdated next to my new high-tech bike. I was already sporting my new shoes, which made no-nonsense clack-clack-clack sounds, as I marched towards my bike. I strapped my helmet on and pedalled out of the driveway. As I cruised along the quiet streets, I immediately noticed something interesting. With the clipless pedals, I could pull up with my legs just as effortlessly as I could push down. It was a heady feeling. It was a soaring moment. Spontaneously and rhythmically, my legs pumped like pistons.

I coasted up to the local cafe to meet Ralph and the other members of our morning coffee klatch. I was already thinking three steps ahead. I was already hearing my friends exclaim in unison, “awesome  bike”, as they stood around after breakfast admiring it, coffee cups in hand. But I should have been thinking about something else right then. I should have been thinking about just one thing. The clipping out procedure that needed to take place at that very millisecond, given that I had stopped pedalling and stopped moving.

My bike leaned ever so slightly to the left as I tried to detach my left foot from the pedal. The shoe didn't budge. In fact, I would venture to say it was firmly stuck! I looked down to see my bike slowly, slowly continue to lean over to the left. I could sense my brain urgently telling my left foot to set itself down on the pavement. There was no way to bail. I was locked in, and I was going down with the bike. There was no other possible outcome. I watched my body slowly fall over with the bike. And then it was over. It was done. I lay splayed out like a chalk diagram, directly in front of the cafe. The antithesis of “cool.”

On a positive note, my left foot had disengaged itself from the pedal. As quickly as I could, I lifted the bike off of me, and brushed my clothes off. I stole a furtive peek into the cafe. Sweet, sweet joy, no heads were turned in my direction. In fact, the group sipped away as if nothing at all was amiss. Oh, what a miracle; they missed the torturous event in its entirety. I rested my bike up against the building. With a pronounced heel-toe motion, I learned I could soften the now disquieting clack-clack-clack of my shoes. I slipped into the crowded booth; all visions of grandeur completely gone.

A few days later, humility in check, I was ready to embrace my vision of mountain biker once again. time. This time, I gathered up my son, Patrick, for moral support. We headed out early Saturday morning with Wascana Trails being our destiny, forty kilometres from home. At last, I would fulfil my quiescent dream of riding up and down some mountain trails (okay, hilly trails; being I was still in Saskatchewan).

When we got to the valley, I looked upon its peaceful splendour. Then I looked upon my bike, and the first thing that got my attention was those vexing pedals. As I positioned myself on the bike, I rested my feet far forward of the inauspicious lock-in mechanisms. The mere thought of being yoked to the bike if it were to tumble down a hill was too much for me to bear.

Patrick was a good sport in spite of his lack of experience. He cheerfully set off down the first hill on his nondescript bike. I watched carefully. He made the ride look graceful and effortless. I decided the trick was to just let the bike do the work. Let the bike choose the path. Don’t over-analyze. And so, I set off. After just a few seconds, I could tell that I wasn’t comfortable.  No, there was nothing wrong with the bike. It’s just that the hill was too damned steep. I looked ahead at Patrick. How the heck did he get down that hill without putting his brakes on? On my descent, my hands stayed wrapped around my brake levers. As quickly as I released the brakes, I feathered them back on. It was a perfectly automatic response - how else was I to get down the hill without going over the handlebars? I had a strong desire to get off the bike and walk it down the hill, but that idea didn't jibe with my image of colossal mountain biker. Too cautiously, I lumbered down the first hill. When at last it levelled off, I stopped to watch Patrick climb up the other side. Hell, if he could do it, so could I. I was becoming annoyed with myself.  I looked down at my pedals once more. If I clipped in, I reasoned, I would have an easier time getting up the hill.

With fresh determination, I locked my feet in, geared down, and started to pedal madly. “Seize the day” I commanded, to myself. “Push, lift, push, lift, push, push, wha’ the …,” I muttered in alarm to myself. My bike had stopped. With no warning, no gradual letdown, no fanfare of any sort, it had ceased moving. Halfway up the hill. With one pedal in the upright position and one pedal in the downward position, the bike started to lean left. I already knew what would happen next. And so I simply waited. It was too late to clip out. I knew the landing was coming. All I could do was wait. For. The. Thud.

I couldn’t believe I had done it again. At least landing in the dirt wasn’t so bad. It seemed absurd that I actually had a comparable. I peered ahead to search out Patrick. I could barely see my son ahead as he was just entering a bushy area. I decided to catch up. Although I was finished with clipless pedals for the day, I was not finished with my test-ride. Give me those technical sections, I’m coming for you!

Patrick shouted out, “Mom, come this way, it’s really great in here.” He proudly proclaimed that he had just jumped over two monster logs. “Try it, Mom, come on, it’s easy,” he said, breathlessly.

I followed Patrick along the meandering trail. As I edged along, I watched him bounce up and over a tree stump and continue on. I stopped to examine a measly little log set squarely in front of me. How was I going to get up and over that thing? I looked towards Patrick. Hs path was blocked by a double set of logs. Undeterred, he sped up, pedalled with purpose and attacked the logs head on. I looked again at the lowly log in front of me. With conviction I rode up to it, and gave it a little bump, first with my front wheel, then with my back wheel. In the time it would take to blink, my bike had rolled up and over the log. “Woohoo, I did it!” I whispered to myself, proudly. 

Patrick and I continued to wend our way through the narrow, winding trails of the barren valley. I rode cautiously; he with abandon. The difference in our approaches was acutely noticeable to me, and perhaps not at all to him. For hours, we continued to tackle the valley terrain. To me, the entire ride was one seemingly endless “technical section.” To Patrick, forty years my younger, the ride was simply made up of dirt and grass, bumps and dips. 

My new bike is a little older now, though none the worse for wear. I still ride almost daily, at least during the months when there’s no snow on the ground. I never did get the hang of clipless pedals, and never did understand why they were called clipless. I set the pedals in a box one day along with the shoes, and placed the box high on a shelf in the garage. I was happy to go back to trusty cage pedals. 

I think back to my mountain-biking dreams where no descent was too daunting, no boulder too large. In the real world, I am content to jump over a branch here and there or a small rock now and again. I am content now to just ride on gravel or dirt. I still challenge myself with the occasional hill, but don’t beat myself when I get off the bike and walk the steep parts.  

Somewhere along the path, I I learned that I’m not too old to dream, but that I might just need to tweak my dreams a tad. Use an adjusting screw, so to speak. Ease off on the tension a little. Keep it a little more relaxed. 

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