all of the selves we Have ever been
Bicycles have made a big comeback
in the age of the coronavirus. They seem to be everywhere—a freedom ticket, a legitimate exemption from the shelter-in-place, social distancing orders.
I step outside and notice a mom supervising her toddler. The child is seated aboard a tiny new red and white tricycle. The little girl beams her pride in my direction. Two stubby ponytails bob like small pom-poms on her head cheering on the short legs and chubby feet that tackle the pedals.
As I progress down the street, I notice a family coming down the bike path. They are like the gaggles of geese that sometimes bring traffic to a halt on our busy urban road. Dad is in front leading the way. A boy and a girl make up the middle. Mom brings up the rear, keeping a watchful eye on her goslings as they approach an intersection. They are all wearing helmets and obeying traffic rules.
I turn down a neighborhood street and notice a driveway cluttered with bikes. There are too many to count. A matching number of boys and girls stretch out on the adjacent lawn—one for each bike. They practice social distancing even as their bicycles mingle and touch on the pavement. Parents chat with their neighbors across the shrubbery.
On the return trip home the sun is blazing. An unsupervised six pack of shirtless school age boys zooms past me. Not a one is wearing a helmet. There is probably not a milliliter of sunscreen between them. They are various shades of tan like the rotisserie chickens spinning on the rack at my grocery store. They don’t seem worried. Helmets and sunscreen are things that keep parents awake at night. Children don’t read from the catalog of things that can go wrong. If they did, they would return to the womb and not the bike path.
These boys jockey for position on the narrow, two-lane shared-use path. It might as well be the Tour de France sans helmets and uniforms. They keep their eyes on the leader. You can see the look of determination in each sweaty face. Their arms are tense, hands clutching the handlebars. They lean into the wind, wiry legs pumping hard. They are focused!
I look at that six pack with envy and think back to the days before exercise became a chore, before we were assigned a number of steps to be tallied at the end of a day—too often a discouraging score. I remember when moving was as natural and vital to existence as breathing. It was freedom. It was fun. I realize that I have not been on a bicycle in years.
My life as a pedaler began as toddler too. I received a small red and black train engine called Casey Jones. It was pedal-operated. It didn’t go too fast or too far—up and down the driveway mostly, but I loved that thing. I was as proud a pedaler as the tike I witnessed this morning; I just didn’t have the pom-pom ponytails cheering me on.
I soon advanced to a more standard tricycle. While I was mastering my small-fry vehicles, my older sister, Mary, moved up to a very large tricycle. Practically a bicycle built for two. One of us could occupy the seat and the other ride by standing comfortably on the metal sheath that covered the rear axle. Being older, Mary was the first to get a real two-wheeler. It was a teal colored Schwinn, the Gucci of bicycles at the time. I was envious and later followed by acquiring a red Huffy as a birthday present. I was fascinated by the tiny headlamp and the rear rack. My younger brother would later be the first to get a ten-speed with hand brakes. Might as well have been a Lamborghini.
Throughout my youth, no one heard of helmets. Often, no one wore shoes. Bicycles were a freedom ticket then too. If you didn’t have a bike, you had to walk. Boring! Parents weren’t about to drive us around in the evening. By day, the cars were at work with our dads. Bikes provided initiative to get out into the world on our own. They were essential to existence. You lacked standing in the world of childhood if you did not have a bike.
All was well in our two-wheeled world until the incident.
My friend Cindy lived up the hill from us. It was a very steep hill, and she lived one house from the crest. One day she got onto a bicycle in her driveway. She had not yet learned how to ride a two-wheeler. I am not sure if she intended to make her inaugural ride down the hill that day or if the bicycle got away from her. But it happened…she and the bike began moving down the hill gathering speed by the nanosecond. In her wake, Cindy left a trail of screams. We all stood frozen with terror, gravity holding our feet firmly to the pavement. It was not slow motion. In an instant the bike crashed into the guard rail at the bottom of the street. Thankfully, the rail protected Cindy from sailing through the picture window of the house that waited there. When Cindy’s bike collided with the guard rail, she flew into the air coming down hard with her face to the ground. That thump released the force field holding our feet immobilized. Somehow we managed to run and hold our breath at the same time.
Today, someone would have called 9-1-1. There would have been an ambulance and a police report. We would have made witness statements. The neighbor into whose yard Cindy flew would be contacting his homeowner’s insurance carrier. But back then, there was no 9-1-1. No dads were home, so no cars were available on the street. We all ran to her, kids and stay-at-home moms alike. When Cindy got to her feet, she dusted herself off. Able to walk, she went on home. Maybe the doctor made a house call. I don’t know. And I don’t know if Cindy suffered any life-long trauma as a result of the incident.
I also don’t remember if I rode bikes with Cindy after that day. We did continue to jump rope, play tag, catch lightning bugs, and swap Nancy Drew mysteries. I can’t recall if that day changed my view of bike riding, reduced the pleasure, or increased the fear. Perhaps that was a turning point in my childhood. Maybe it was the day I started my own catalog of things that can go wrong, tucking away my memory of the incident to become “the prime example” I would call upon years later as a parent—on that later day when I would ruin bike riding for my son by insisting he wear a helmet.