Cut the Cake




Every year, I try to give myself a birthday present that I know I’ll like — a bike ride. My birthday is at the tail end of winter and I live in Wisconsin, so this doesn’t always happen.

The tradition began when I was in seventh grade, and my mother gave me what is still the best birthday gift that I’ve received—a Jeunet Franche-Comte bicycle. This was during the bicycle boom of the mid-1970s, and inexpensive, but well made, French bicycles were flooding the market.

The morning of my birthday, my mom told me that we would visit West Bend Cyclery that afternoon to purchase a new bicycle. I had been riding a Sears-brand stingray, which was seriously undersized, so I was definitely in need of an upgrade.

Rows of gleaming bicycles greeted us in the bike shop. My mom told the shop owner our price range — I told him that I wanted a racing bike — and he showed us the selection of bikes that kind-of matched our description. A shiny, red Jeunet ten-speed with drop down handlebars, chrome forks, and impressive pinstripes captured my attention. It was a bit out of our price range, but on that day mom came through and I had the bike of my dreams.

The owner, who rode a high wheeler in the annual Fourth of July parade and was a well-known figure in West Bend, made sure the bicycle fit me properly and was in good running condition. He then jammed the bike into the trunk of my mom’s Oldsmobile. The front tire had to be removed so it would fit, which would prove problematic when we got home. No matter, I had a new bicycle and couldn’t be happier.

After pulling the Franche-Comte (French Comet, in my unschooled mind) out of the trunk, my education in ten-speed bicycle maintenance began. First lesson, how to attach a quick-release wheel onto a fork. I had been given instructions at the bike shop, of course, but my mind was blank as I forced the wheel through the brake pads, jammed the hub into the fork and spun the quick-release in way too many directions. Finally, I had it, or so I believed.

Unsure if I had properly attached the front wheel to the fork, I walked the bike down the street to my friend John’s house. John knew as much about bikes as anyone that I knew, and I wanted him to make sure that the front wheel was on right. I also wanted to show off my new bike.

John, the owner of a Schwinn ten-speed, was all smiles when he saw my new bike. After he reattached the front wheel, John suggested that we take our bikes for a ride. We raced the mile or so on city streets to Regner Park. We pedaled every inch of sidewalk in the park, and then hit the unpaved trails through the woods. Bouncing over tree roots, rocks, and that winter’s downed branches, the Jeunet was thoroughly broken in by the time John and I returned to our neighborhood.

That gift began my cycling journey, and changed the course of my life. I owned that bike for 40 years, and pedaled it at least 20,000 miles. Thanks, mom!

Every birthday, I remember the thrill of that first ride, and when possible, I am out on my bike.

Keep it Clean

IMG_0981Last summer, a mechanic at the shop where I take my bikes reprimanded me for failing to keep my bicycle clean. My every-day bike, an 18-year-old Trek 7200 Hybrid, had been jumping out of gear when I pushed down really hard on the pedals, like when I was taking off from a stop sign to cross the street. This had to be remedied. I thought maybe I needed a new chain—no big deal. I ride the bike to work daily, and it was pretty dirty, so I grabbed a rag and gave it a quick wipe-down before heading to the shop.

The bike mechanic put the Trek up on the stand, and ran it through its paces as I told him the story. The chain was fine, but the crank and rear derailleur were shot. That’s when the lecture began. The components had worn out not because of the mileage, but from the grit that covered the drive train. For a solid two minutes, I was told that nobody likes to clean a bike, but it must be done. I knew he was right, and vowed that I would do better.

Fast forward to early March of this year. Weather in Wisconsin was improving—slowly. High temperatures were nearing the freezing mark, and I was itching to get my bike out. Winter’s snow, ice, and looming darkness had kept me off the road since early December. Too long—I needed to get back on my bike.

The previous week, a friend told me that she had crashed her bike on the Glacial Drumlin bike trail when she gave into the temptation of late-February bicycling in Wisconsin. She fell twice before she reached the point where the trail was barricaded closed because ice made it unsafe. That’s when she gave up and rode home. It was the type of situation that I was trying to avoid. After skidding on my face for fifty feet in a winter cycling crash five years ago, ice keeps me off the road.

But I was thinking that a solid week of above-freezing temperatures should have just about cleared the trail of ice, and it was time for my first ride of the season. When I pulled my bike from the hooks in my garage where it had been stored since December, I was shocked at its condition. Despite my vow, I had done a terrible job of keeping my bike clean. It was filthy. I hadn’t wiped it down after riding through a late November rainstorm. Mud caked the underside of the frame, and to my disappointment, thick, black gunk coated the pulleys in the back derailleur.

I grabbed a rag from the kitchen, filled a five-gallon bucket with hot soapy water, and got to work trying to redeem myself. A good forty-five minutes later, the water was black as ink and the floral rag was streaked with black and grey and looked like an abstract charcoal drawing.

I put some air in the tires, lubed the chain, made sure the brakes worked and the wheels were secure, tightened a bolt on the carrying rack, and was ready to go. I pushed the bike past the idle snowblower in my garage, and was out the door and on my way to the Glacial Drumlin Trail. The city streets the two miles from my house to the trail were clear and dry, though snow covered all but the edges of the grass between the curb and sidewalks.

As I pedaled west on the trail, the asphalt was clear except for ice patches hiding in shady trail edges. Snow remained in the woods that I rode past and ice clung to stands of cattails alongside the trail. As the woods grew thicker, casting long shadows over the bike trail, snow and ice covered the asphalt except for a thin band along one edge. It was time to turn back home.

The trill of red-winged blackbirds in the trees and the rattle of sandhill cranes in a field beyond the trees let me know that spring was on its way to Wisconsin. Even better, I had started my cycling season properly—with a clean bike.