Saturday, March 22, 2008

Phantoms, Part 1

Prequel/Preamble/Author's Note
First, many thanks to Kent Peterson for inviting me to this little party. It's quite an honor to be sharing electrons with some of the 'net writer-riders who first made me think that my dual passions for words and wheels might not be mutually exclusive.

I'll spare everyone the "get to know me" initial post and get straight to what I hope will be the good stuff. "Phantoms" was an essay I wrote in a previous life as an aspiring MFA student. It's quite massive, so out of respect for the reader and the rest of the Veloquencia, I'll feed it out in blog-sized morsels. I just noticed that the first one's out of season, as Iowa is just now creaking toward Spring rather than the impending Fall that inspired the original piece, but I hope you'll bear with me in spite of the disconnect. And, like most bike addicts, none of the rides mentioned are still in my stable. "Hello, my name is Jason, and I have a bike problem..."

Bike season just ended. Although I dutifully commute to and from work on two wheels well into the Fall, when daylight savings time runs out I give up. “Too dangerous,” I justify to myself. “Pitch black when I get off at 6:00, isolated country roads, weather getting colder, asthma kicking in.” My road bike now serves a six-month sentence indoors, bolted to a trainer in front of the TV for winter workouts. I can’t stand to look at it. A classic Schwinn Paramount, Italian steel tubes hand-brazed into long, traditional road racing lines, painted in thick coats of pearl white, hung with Campagnolo parts. Decades of racing tradition, rendered in steel, aluminum, and rubber. The bike wants to be on a road, diving through corners, attacking hills, rolling for long hours on endless pavement. It seems offended, immobilized on living-room carpet, propped up and secured like nothing more than a hamster’s exercise wheel.

“At least I’m using you,” I want to say, trying to appease my guilt. “And you get to stay in the apartment.” In the garage, my mountain bike isn’t so lucky. It hangs from an angular black storage stand, abandoned until the spring thaw, waiting impatiently. It is big, loud, modern, ignoring the history of its older, more refined cousin in the living room. Its brash blue paint bears the scars of past crashes, caked with the dirt of the just-ended season. Even on the hooks, five feet off the concrete floor, the bike wants to run things over, deep knobbed tires longing to bite fresh soil. I built it from the ground up, matching each part to my own preferences, choosing everything from the extra-durable wheels to my favorite saddle. A small plastic Chuckie Finster (the redheaded toddler of “Rugrats” fame) dangles from the handlebars for luck, features frozen in his trademark apprehension, splattered with months of mud. The bike’s shifters and brakes are now three seasons out of vogue, but I prefer these designs to their more cutting-edge equivalents, resisting the siren song of “new and improved.” In another two seasons, these parts will be old enough to be called “retro,” and both my bikes will have slid into cycling history, relics of another time. In cycling, obsolescence can be quick and cruel.

When I throw my leg over these bicycles, cleats on my shoes click into retention mechanisms on the pedals. The handlebars rest naturally where my arms fall. The grips show wear in the spots where my gloves rest. After years of bearing my weight, the saddles have shaped themselves to my contours. These three parts - pedals, handlebars, and saddle - are called contact points, the three places where the rider’s body touches the bike. After years of connection - the sound of my cleats snapping in, the shape of my palms pressed into the grips, the relief outline of my pelvic bones on the saddle - these bikes can no longer be entirely separated from their rider. Without their reassuring familiarity under my body, a part my identity seems absent. They are part of their owner, my attempt to define and redefine myself. When I hunker down on my road bike into a low aerodynamic crouch, hammering along an empty country road, I can momentarily forget that even in peak condition, I am thirty pounds heavier and ten miles per hour slower than the professional racing legends I pretend to be. And when I crest a hill on my mountain bike, slicing between trees, my tires sliding through corners and banging over logs, sometimes I forget that I am afraid of crashing.

Jason Nunemaker
Des Moines, IA

1 comment:

Christopher Johnson said...

They do each seem to have their own personality. Sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I see mine move on her own.

Can't wait for the next installment.