1988. My father and I pause outside the door of Mr. K’s Bicycles and Billiards, our first stop in the search for my first mountain bike. Dozens of “Authorized Dealer” decals radiate out in a confetti blast from their point of origin near the Business Hours sign: Cannondale clothing, Finish Line Authorized Service Center, Oakley eyewear, Brunswick pool tables, Trek bicycles, Park tools, Specialized bicycles, GT BMX... I can hardly find enough glass in the door to see inside. When my father pushes it open, there is no bell or buzzer to announce our entrance. A strip of rubber-backed red carpet runs from the door to the counter at the back of the store. On the left stand two new pool tables, fields of untouched green felt broken only by cardboard pyramids touting “Marble Base” and “Financing Available.” Locked glass cases of cues line the left wall like weapons on display. On the right, three rows of new bicycles sit in formation, a fourth rank hanging from hooks in the ceiling. The front windows on both sides are lined with bikes. Nylon saddle bags, plastic water bottles, and shining Lycra shorts fill the gaps in the pegboard walls.
“Here’s what Dale got.” Dad leads me over to a pearl-white Trek 830 mountain bike with teal decals, the exact same bike my cousin bought just two weeks ago. “I love the paint. Not just white. See how it catches light, like a shell?”
Roland, the owner (Mr. K himself) comes out of the workshop, wiping the grease from his hands onto his denim apron. “Afternoon, Gordy. What can I do for you fellas?”
“My son is looking at mountain bikes.” So true. I am looking at them all, awed by the thick rubber tires and shining frames in symmetrical rows. The bikes form an impenetrable line of toughness, of attitude. If internal combustion engines had never been invented, this is what the outside of a biker bar would look like.
“Thinking about that 830?”
I nod, thinking about it a lot, even though the paycheck burning out of my pocket - the first of my working life - won’t cover half of the $350 asking price.
“Did you see the one in the window? The grey one?” He leads me back across the border to the front of the store. At the end of a gleaming row of identical Specialized Rockhoppers sits a lone Trek 830, dark grey, with the same teal decals and a painted-to-match teal stem. “This is last year’s model. Brand new, never ridden. A leftover. It’s on sale, fifty bucks cheaper than the ‘88 for just about the same bike. Looks to be your size, even.”
“We have a trade in,” Dad announces, calling Roland back and giving me time and space to think. My father’s haggling is a warm murmur on the periphery. I’m too busy falling in love to notice. This grey leftover is different, the last of its breed. I decide, without hesitation, that I don’t want Dale’s bike. I want Jason’s bike.
Like any good salesperson, Roland wasn’t telling me the whole truth. After five years of on-again, off-again work in bicycle sales and repair, I now know the differences between 1987 and 1988 beyond paint jobs. The frames were the same, but the ‘87 had lousy brakes, fewer speeds, and oval chainrings designed (in theory) to increase the rider’s power, a theory which has since gone the way of the flat-earth hypothesis. The wheels bolted on instead of using the more convenient quick-release levers, a difference I would come to appreciate with each knuckle-skinning slipped wrench. Color-matched stems were a cycling fashion trend that came and went in the span of two model years, right before neon paint jobs took over. Side-by-side, despite sharing a model number, they were two completely different bikes. Roland was dumping, getting rid of old stock with a customer who didn’t know any better. Having done the same thing, I’m in no position to question the ethics of the sale.
What Roland saw, and what any good bicycle salesperson comes to recognize, is the connection. That’s why I still respect him, despite what my after-the-fact mechanical knowledge tells me. When someone makes a real, visceral link between their identity and a bike, you can talk quick releases and skinned knuckles all day, but it won’t matter. They may not understand the link consciously -- I can only verbalize mine with a decade of hindsight -- but when they feel it, the sale closes. Something about one specific bike meshes with the person they want to be in a way that the other bikes simply cannot. Try to convince a ten-year-old to ride a blue bike when she has her mind set on a red one and you’ll see just what I mean. Kids just haven’t learned how to justify their paint-job instincts with technical specifications yet.
With my decade of hindsight, I know what connection I made at sixteen, what I needed. My old ten-speed was slender, perched on delicate tires, designed for long, meditative journeys down empty county roads. It didn’t fit under an overweight, insecure teenager looking to test his limits, his identity. I was tired of those long, boring rolls through the country watching my father’s back wheel. When a territorial farm dog made its sprint for the property line, teeth bared, aiming for our spinning calves, Dad reached for his Dazer -- an electronic dog repellent which looked like a garage door opener but emitted an ultrasonic squeal dogs couldn’t tolerate. I sprinted, daring the beast to give chase, standing on my pedals, laughing as teeth snapped shut inches from my leg. Dad lagged behind, giving the tired animal a half-hearted Daze once it gave up on me. When we challenged Moonlight Bay Hill, a quarter mile stretch that shot defiantly out of the Illinois plain, Dad shifted to his lowest gear and fought his way up, one painful pedal stroke at a time. I raced past him to the crest, turned back, rode down to where he labored, and raced up again. My young legs could do three laps before he made it to the top. He probably hated me, but he always graciously bought two Cokes at the McDonald’s up the road to celebrate our defeat of the worst hill in the county.
Des Moines, IA