Saturday, July 25, 2009

Through Tough Times

At the outset, Kent said this about Veloquent...

"The idea behind Veloquent is good writing about good riding."

This collaboration of authors has done just that. Still, it appears that the skilled writers who were invited to contribute to this blog have focused recently on their own individual, and wildly popular, blogs. As someone who is not a blog celebrity, I don't have an obligation to an adoring public, so I'll take this opportunity to challenge the other authors to share their skills here. Consider this post a creative writing assignment.

The topic is "How riding a bicycle helped me through a tough time". Most of us have been through some tough times. As cyclists, surely the bicycle, in some form, served as a coping mechanism. Write about it. Perhaps, you'll find you have something in common with others in this community. Maybe, you'll develop a new appreciation for your time on two wheels. Best of all, you might even help someone who is struggling at this moment. Wouldn't that be grand?

The following is my pump primer...

It wasn't the bicycle exclusively. It wasn't even the bicycle most of all. In all honesty it was God and people who helped the most. A network of family and friends were invaluable, and my wife was the greatest earthly comfort of all. That said, my time on the bicycle provided a key ingredient and helped me mentally, emotionally, and physically through my two plus years of hell.

I'll not go into details. That is a another story for another time. I'll simply say that it involved violence, checking a loved one into psychiatric hospitals in the middle of the night, ambulance rides, confusion, loss of sleep, worry, family strife, anxiety, relocating to a different part of the state, and struggling to find ways to love more than I had the capacity to love. Compared to anything before, or since, it is the only truly difficult thing I've ever faced. During this time, my use of the bicycle was transformed.

Before the great turmoil, the bicycle was an instrument of training. During my struggles, it was a coping strategy. When life was easy, I had cycling objectives and I trained my body to meet them. When I struggled to get through each day, cycling was a short reward for surviving a little bit longer. My longer rides were less about a higher average speed or another set of intervals, and more about clearing my head, making difficult decisions, and shedding stress...or tears. I began to grab short pockets of time, even 5 or 10 minutes, to go outside and ride circles in the cul-de-sac in front of my house. In those precious longer rides that came less often, I remember feeling my legs pumping endorphines into my system. When I returned, I figured I could somehow make it through the next real challenge.

The worst of those 2 years is behind me now, but that time taught me something about what love is and the importance of people. I ride my bicycle more frequently now than ever, but it distracts from my obligations to people less than it once did. I'm not as fit and I'm not as fast, but in this more healthy balance I've found, I enjoy the bike more than ever. So when the minor frustrations (or even crisis moments) of life arise, I have learned first hand that the bicycle is good medicine.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Phantoms, Part 6

By the time I started mountain biking, Dad couldn’t follow. He could remember his old Schwinn, but the feeling of that heavy bike under a ten-year old boy was lost. He could only recall the shame of dragging it home, axle snapped, to face a mother’s “wait-till-your-father-gets-home” and the long, punishing wait until that father got off his late shift at the power plant. What he didn’t remember was the instant of silence when sixty pounds of Schwinn steel lifted off from the curb. Who could blame him? On that much bike, time in the air didn’t last. Landings were what stuck in the mind, the splay of the front fork, the crunch, the consequences.

But I remembered. I grew up mountain biking before I knew such a thing existed, cruising my parents’ farm. A downhill chute, four feet wide, ran between the east cornfield and the machine shed, opening in the gap between the shed and the barn, closing down to a green tunnel between barn and field which would spit me out near grandpa’s garden at top speed. I’d veer out of the chute at the corner of the barn, cross the broken concrete of the empty cattle lot, pedal frantically to the two-foot drop at lot’s edge, and lift off, a frenzy of sound meeting the anticipatory silence of flight. Landings in the garden meant flat tires, bloodied elbows, a mouth full of dirt, ringing ears, but who cared about consequences when you were in the air? Were the astronauts, my childhood heroes, worrying about the landing when they saw sky give way to space?

My father doesn’t mountain bike because it’s marketed as an “extreme” sport. He doesn’t understand or want to understand all this “extreme” nonsense. As if on schedule, exactly thirty years after leaving Kent State as an idealistic liberal, he has become a grumpy old bastard. “What’s this Mountain Dew commercial about? All these mountain bikers screaming at me... what’s the point of that? Stop screaming. Go get another piercing.” He puts on a good show, but I can see the fear and bewilderment. In a span of time that must seem sudden to him, the counterculture has gone from peace signs and pot to nose rings and heroin. The new teachers he hires at his school are younger than his own children. A stomach which once tolerated morning pizza heated over a dorm desk lamp has become delicate. On his forehead, the hair has gradually crept away at the corners leaving only a narrow peninsula in the center. After fifty-three years and two heart attacks, he is just starting to accept the possibility that he might be getting old.

Schwinn first reissued the Black Phantom in 1995 to celebrate both their centennial and their return from the ashes of bankruptcy. The company had gradually cashed in on the growing rush for “retro” bikes with some less-expensive replica cruisers, but the ‘95 Phantom aspired to much more than these novelties could ever hope for. It was to be an exact copy of the original, top to bottom. The project was to create pure anachronism, bicycles designed from crumbling original blueprints, constructed with tools that had not been used in almost half a century. Where original tools could not be found, they were built, created from history and memory to fabricate one small production run at an astronomical cost. The 1995 Phantoms were born of human touch in an industry dominated by computer-controlled robot welders. The project cost a fortune, well beyond what the company could recoup from the sale of the bikes, even at almost three-thousand dollars each. It made no sense. It was beyond business. It was irrational. And it was beautiful, all the way down to the tiny ridge across the bottom bracket replicating a flaw in the original casting process. I imagine the idea taking root not in conference rooms, but during a ride. A group of true bicycle nuts pause after a long, hard climb to catch their breath, and in the dizziness of oxygen debt, someone jokingly says, “why don’t we build a Phantom?” After the ride, over coffee and donuts, someone else starts drawing on a napkin, tracing the chromed curve of a springer fork, a design Schwinn hasn’t built in decades, and something in that curve sticks in the imagination.

However the concept was planted, it slowly grew from silly idea to fully-realized rubber and steel, history rendered in metal. The company had faced death, become an industry joke, and come screaming back to legitimacy. What better way to announce its return than with a piece of the past, a bike that, like its parent, would surprise the industry simply by existing, enduring? So Schwinn created the 1995 Black Phantom reissue, a small pocket of 1950s America, a testament to durability, to timelessness. At work, when I walk past the reissue, I cannot help but pause, awestruck. The bike is 1955 made tangible, a blend of deco design and car culture lifted into another era. It is graceful. It is brash. Ridable examples of the original Phantoms still exist today, and I don’t doubt that this reissue will still be begging to be pedaled forty years from now. The bike laughs at time, dares aging to touch it.

Those original Schwinns would eventually become the first mountain bikes. In the early 1970s (while I was busy navigating sidewalk cracks on a green tricycle) a group of riders were resurrecting big Schwinn cruisers from California junk piles, driving them to the top of mountain roads, and riding down at top speed. Each run burned most of the grease out of their antique coaster brakes, forcing the riders to repack their hubs with fresh lubrication. To most of the 1970s cycling world, this new kind of riding made no sense. In a bike culture enamored with slender European road racing machines, the very idea of riding down mountains was laughable. Yet, each weekend, a group of accomplished road racers donned jeans and flannel shirts and did just that, sliding through switchback corners on their sixty pound relics. They fell. They drew blood. They broke bikes. They broke bodies. Then, they laughed, went back to the top, rode again, fell again, bled again, laughed again. And those bikes, those abandoned, rusted relics raised from the dead refused to act their age, taking flight just as they had under exuberant ten-year-olds in 1955.