Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book Review: Off to the Races

I'm lucky enough to have good friends of the non-bikey persuasion who know me as a bike geek. One of those friends found a blast from my past at a garage sale in the form of the book Off to the Races (copyright 1968) written by Fred and Marjorie Phleger and illustrated by Leo Summers.

I owned a copy of this book way back in my tricycle days, long before I graduated to two-wheelers, and -- now that I see it again and the memories come rushing back -- I think it's probably my favorite kids' bike book, even outstripping the famed primate on wheels Curious George. It's the story of a boy who's told that he's "too young" to make the two-day bike trip with older brother Bob to a bike rally. Undeterred, our hero sneaks a peek at Bob's maps, sees his brother off, then sets off himself in a solo pursuit. Thus begins a trip that cyclists of all ages can relate to -- hills, fatigue, rain, mud, darkness, and even an encounter with a bear. At the risk of minor spoilage, our hero does finally reach the rally -- which includes, among many other events, a "wiggly board race." Let's see Lance Armstrong do that!

With simple full-page colored drawings and just a couple kid-friendly sentences per page, the Phlegers and Leo Summers still manage to convey an epic adventure on wheels. I remember worrying about that kid as he rode alone through the rainy night searching for Bob. I remember wondering if he would ever make it to that rally. Three decades later, I still worry and wonder, even though I know the ending by heart. Best of all, even though the bikes and outfits look dated (it's like Dick and Jane meet The Rivendell Reader) and I've never heard of a rally like the one described ("wiggly board race", remember?), the book rings true to me as a cyclist now that I've finally taken the training wheels off and set out on my own two-wheeled adventures.

All in all, it's a book that bikers of all ages can appreciate. If you can find a copy (it seems to be long out of print, unfortunately, although there are usually used copies on Amazon), I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bob's Bike Shop

Note: the following is an award-losing bit of fiction I wrote for Dirt Rag's literature contest. If you want to read a better story than the one that follows, pick up a copy of Dirt Rag #145 and read the one written by Kevin MacGregor Scott. That fellow can really tell a good tale.

Here, for free, you can read my effort. I'm releasing the story under Creative Commons (see the license at the end) so feel free to pass it around. The story is totally free but if you want to toss some money my way, I won't argue. Any money I get from the story goes into my 2010 Tour Divide Race Fund. The little button at the bottom will let you send any amount to my Paypal account at

Bob's Bike Shop

by Kent Peterson

Steve rolls up, five minutes before closing time with a seriously tweaked wheel and a sob story about a race tomorrow. I try to put him off, but when he offers to buy us all burritos, Tess and the boys out-vote me. Tess takes Steve's cash and the evening's bank deposit, promising to return with burritos for all. I pop Steve's wheel into the truing stand and the boys each keep working on the bikes in their respective stands.

As I turn my attention to the wheel, Steve asks an innocent question, "So, how did you ever get into the bike business, anyway?"

My younger son lets out a groan and his older brother turns to Steve and says "Oh man, why did you have to ask that?"

"What?" Steve says.

"Pay them no mind," I say, "they've heard this story a few times..."

"More like a few dozen times," the one with the smart mouth interrupts.

"Maybe a hundred times," the one with the even smarter mouth adds. "But now you've done it. Did you know Dad used to have a car?"

"Strange, but true." I say to Steve, "I used to have a car. Back when I was your age," I add, addressing my son, "I wasn't that bright..."


It took all winter and the first part of the spring, but by April I'd saved up enough snow-shoveling and lawn-mowing money to buy Tex's brother's old MG. The car was my British racing green ticket to freedom and in my dreams I'd give Cathy rides home after school, her blond hair flowing in the wind, her laughter like music as she chuckled at my latest observation of the human condition.

The car was great, with real dials and an honest-to-god rag-top but it had its quirks. The car had an unhealthy thirst for oil and it spewed smoke like Q had rigged a smoke screen that would let 007 leave any villains coughing in confusion. The electrical system would've been more at home in Dr. Frankenstein's lab than under a car hood. Excuse me, bonnet. When you own an MG, even if you've lived in Wisconsin your entire life, you start dropping British-isms into your speech and you wear one of those tweed driving hats. At least that's what I did.

I drove the car back and forth to school and I got a job where I learned to smile as I asked "You want fries with that?" My paychecks all seemed to go into gas, oil, big checks to an insurance company and fixing the latest and most drastic of the MG's quirks. The only times I got to see Cathy outside of the couple of classes we shared would be when she and big dumb Todd would stop by at Gordy's and I'd ask if they wanted fries with their order. I'd hear her laughter like music as Todd made some obvious observation of the human condition. God, how I hated Todd.

I was on my way to work when the MG broke down.


This time, some hose cracked and something leaked and a ton of smoke poured out of pretty much everywhere. I coasted to a stop in front of Bob's shop. Of course, I didn't know then that it was Bob's shop. I didn't know Bob and I'd never had any reason to go into his shop. Bob's place was a bike shop and what would I need a bike for? I had a car. Bikes were for kids.

I was still swearing at the car when Bob came out to ask if I need any help or a fire extinguisher or anything.

"A phone," I said. "Can I borrow your phone? I gotta call work and tell 'em I'll be late."

"Sure, sure," said Bob, and I followed him into his store.

The place was packed with bikes and smelled like old tires. There was stuff everywhere. Tires hung on pegs above the rows of bikes and there were baskets and bells and brightly colored shirts and a board with a bunch of gears hanging on it. Wrenches hung, each on their own hook, next to tools I didn't recognize above a workbench containing a vice and some gadget with a wheel clamped in its jaws. Posters advertising brands I didn't know flanked pictures of skinny guys I didn't recognize sprinting across some finish-line somewhere in Europe.

"What's a Molteni?" I asked, pointing to the picture of some dark-haired guy with big legs. I'd read the word off the front of his shirt.

"Molteni?!?" Bob paused, then followed my gaze to the poster. "Oh," he laughed, "some Italian company, I think they make sausage or something."

"Who's the dude?" I asked.

Bob shot me the look you get when you ask a really dumb question and then smiled broadly and said "Merckx. His name's Eddy Merckx. Don't you have to make a call?"

"Oh yeah," I said, as Bob pointed me to the phone. "I'm not looking forward to this. Gordy was so pissed the last time I was late."

"Gordy?" Bob asked. "You work at Gordy's? The burger joint?"

"Yeah, " I said. "I know you... Double Cheeseburger, no mayo, right?"

"Yep." Bob laughed. "I guess it's true, you are what you eat."

"I'm supposed to be at work in twenty minutes. I betcha Gordy fires me this time."

"Ride there," Bob said.

"What?" I said.

"Ride there," Bob repeated. "I'll loan you a bike."

"But - but it's too far," I protest. "And it's up a big hill."

"Geez!" Bob exploded, "Hand me the phone and I'll call Gordy myself and tell him to fire you! It's two miles at most!" Then he paused for a second and added, in a quieter tone, "Look, I ride there darn near every day and I'm an old man. You can certainly do it. You know, bikes have gears these days."

"I dunno." I paused, still holding the phone.

"Look," Bob said firmly. "You're burning time debating this. You can take my burger bike. It'll take you ten min..." he paused for a second, looked at me and quickly amended, "You can make it. At Fourth Avenue cut over to Maple and take it up the hill instead of Pine. It's a block out of your way, but it's not as steep."

"OK," I said, kind of relieved not to have to make the call. "But I've got a dumb question. How do I work the gears on this thing?"

Bob gave a half-roll of his eyes as if to say "Kids these days!" and then patiently explained the two levers that work the gears. "The lever on the left controls the front der... chain shifting thing. Moving the chain over to the smaller ring up front makes things easier. The right lever controls the rear derailleur, we call the shifting things derailleurs, and the back is the opposite of the front. In the back, the smaller gears are harder and the bigger one is easier. Oh, and you shift while pedaling."

"Where's the clutch?" I asked.

"No clutch," Bob replied. "Bikes don't have clutches. But they don't like to shift under load, so downshift before you need to. You'll catch on, it's easy. It's like riding a bike."

We agreed that I'd bring the bike back after I'd finished my shift at Gordy's.

"I'll leave my car as collateral," I said.

"I'd rather have something of value," Bob grumbled in response. "Bring me a burger and we're square."

I made it to work with three minutes to spare.

Riding back to the shop was easier than riding to work. The wind blew through my hair and for a few minutes at least I out-rolled the smell of french fries that clung to my work clothes.

The shop was closed by the time I get there, but I saw Bob inside. I knocked on the glass and held up the greasy burger bag. Bob opened the door and let me in.

He went back to working on a wheel that was clamped in what I'd later learn is called a truing stand. "You're working late," I said.

"I've got a lot to do," Bob said. "It's my busy time of year. So, how are you going to get that car out of my parking space?"

"Oh - I, uhmm..." I hadn't really thought this through.

"It's got a blown head gasket," Bob explained, "I checked it out after you left. You're not driving it anywhere for a while. You got money for a tow?"


"That's what I thought. OK, I'll help you push it around back. I've got some space back there and you won't get ticketed. When is your next paycheck?"

"Friday, no, a week from Friday. Crap."

"You're burger-based career plan seems to have gone slightly awry, my friend. How are you getting to work between now and next Friday?"

"Maybe I could bike there?" I ventured.

"My generosity has its limits, kid," Bob grumbled, but then he went on. "Look, you need wheels and I can use some help, so here's what we do. You keep the burger bike for the next couple of weeks, but you come here before and after your shifts at Gordy's. You don't seem that bright but you can probably get the hang of sweeping up and putting away parts and things..."

And so I rode for the next couple of weeks. I swept and shelved and Bob decided that maybe I could learn a few more things so he showed me the differences between brake and derailleur cables, how to adjust brakes so they don't squeal, how to lube chains and true wheels. I listened as he debated the merits of drilling out brake levers and derailleurs with various customers.

"How much is Gordy paying you?" Bob asked one day and when I answered he followed up with "Heh, I guess the burger business is every bit as lucrative as the bicycle business. If you want, you can keep working here and I'll match what Gordy's paying you. Your hands will still get greasy, but at least you won't smell like fries."

"But - but," I protested, "Cathy never comes here."

"Cathy?" Bob asked and I told him all about the goddess with the golden hair and the lilting laughter and that someday she'd see that she would be much better off with me than with big dumb Todd.

Bob nodded sagely and said "Let me see if I have this straight: you're working at a job you don't like, to pay for a car you can't afford, to impress a girl with an established track record of liking big, dumb guys. Right?"

I admitted that it sounded kind of stupid when he put it that way.

"Oh no," Bob countered. "The plan will work. You've got the dumb part down and you just have to shoot up another six inches and she'll fall for you like a ton of bricks." He dropped the sarcasm from his voice, shifted gears with just the slightest pause and went on, "Look, kid, I'm sure she's a looker and hell, maybe she's the one for you. And when I was your age I was probably twice as stupid as you are now. But there are lots of gals out there, some that are pretty and some that are smart and a lot that are both. I'm sure you don't believe me, but it's not worth settling for a woman who will settle for dumb. And you know," he added, "some cute gals come into bike shops, too."

I gave notice at Gordy's the next day. When school got out for the summer, I started working full time at Bob's.

I learned a lot that summer and some of it was about bikes. Bob helped me replace the head gasket in the MG and then I sold it to Todd's little brother. I used the money I got out of the car to buy an old Peugeot PX-10. "Oh God," Bob said, "going from a British car to a French bike. You must be one of those guys whose not happy unless he's got something to tinker with."

Bob taught me how to tinker with a lot of stuff. Sometimes in the busy season we'd stay late, after we'd closed up the shop just to catch up on repairs. At night the skip off the ionosphere would let the shop radio pull in the blues station from Chicago and we'd listen to B.B. King and John Lee Hooker and Billie Holiday.

One night after work Bob popped a tape in the VCR and we watched a documentary about Eddy Merckx. The guy came in second in some race and we watched as his shoulders dropped and he looked sadder than any blues song I'd ever heard. He wasn't pissed, he was just sad. And then he went and rode. In the rain and on rollers next to his washing machine. And he rode and he rode and he rode. And he won. "See that?" Bob said. "You keep going."

And Bob kept going. He was twice my age and twice as fast on a bike. As I got to know Bob, I learned his story. He talked about his wife a lot, even though she'd died a few years before, a victim of a hit-and-run. I thought maybe that was why Bob hated cars, but that turned out to be one of those simple and wrong conclusions that kids jump to some times. Bob kept talking about Martha because he still loved her and he didn't stop loving her just because she was gone. He told me that she was pretty and smart and that she'd been worth waiting for. And he didn't work all those hours in the bike shop because he hated cars, he did it because he loved bicycles. You find someone or something to love and you stick with it. Bob didn't hate cars, he really seemed to enjoy himself when we were working on the MG, but he never loved cars the way he loved bikes. I think Bob was one of those guys who was happiest when he had something to tinker with.

"You should go make something of yourself," he told me. "It's a big world, check it out." On Saturday mornings, before the shop would open, we'd go down to the long, flat Sawmill Road with bikes and a stopwatch and we'd time-trial. Thursday nights after work, we'd do laps out by the Airport. And at least a couple days a week, I'd do burger runs up to Gordy's. I no longer needed to go a block out of my way and go up Maple. I'd punch it straight up Pine, just like Eddy Merckx.


A knock at the window puts an end to my story. I slide the deadbolt and give my wife a big kiss as she rolls her bike through the door.

"Finally!" says Eddy. "We're starving here."

Tess shakes her short brown hair free of her helmet, her laughter filling the shop like music. "It's up a big hill!" she says, repeating one of our oldest family jokes. "Actually," she adds, "I've never seen the taco truck that busy. I guess the word has gotten out." She hands Steve's change to him along with the first burrito and passes a second one on to Eddy. Turning to grab his supper, Eddy notices for the first time that his older brother is getting red in the face while pushing on a big wrench.

"Hey, College Boy," he says "you'll never get it out that way. It's Italian. Right-hand thread on both sides."

My eldest son gets that "Doh!" look on his face and Tess and I exchange a half-roll of our eyes as if to say "Kids these days!"

My lovely wife hands me a burrito. "Miss me?"

"Every time you go," I say, "but you're worth waiting for." Turning to our son I add, "Take a break, Bob. It's burrito time."

Creative Commons License
Bob's Bike Shop by Kent Peterson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lapsed Veloquentia Meet on Start Line

First I was on the starting line at SSWC09 in Durango.

Then Jacquie coalesced next to me.

Me and Jacquie

Then I said, "you know, we both sort of blog on veloquent."
And she said "whats veloquent?".
And I was all like "that blog that Kent set up."
And she said, "oh yeah, I should write more for that."
I said, "me too."

Anyhow, it was a pleasure meeting Jacquie for real. I think we had met 13 years ago at the Marin Fat tire festival, but she was busy playing the Banjo and selling naked posters of herself and I was busy saying, "holy shit that's Jacquie Phelan." But that was then. This time, she was busy being fabulous and I was busy saying, "holy shit that's Jacquie Phelan."

My SSWC09 race report
Jacquie's SSWC09 race report

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Corn Country

Aside to Christopher: I'm working on my assignment, honest! But in the meantime, this came to me on tonight's ride.

I'd forgotten what an August ride in corn country really smells like until tonight, that thick humidity hanging over the fields, rich with pollen. Here on the flatlands, you'll never ride up out of it, so you just wade through, breathing in what the corn exhales. It takes me back to so many places... standing in the front yard shucking the sweet corn grandpa just picked, peeling back the thick husks to expose the delicate white-green silk over the plump yellow kernels. Or spinning down a country road on my dad's wheel, hypnotized by the drone of our breathing, our chains running over the cogs, and the cicadas.

Out in the sunlight, the smell has a spicier edge to it, almost a garlicky overtone, but when you ride into a rare patch of shade, it mellows to something mildly sugary -- maybe it's just an illusion, the perception of sweetness that comes from that sudden cool respite from the sun. I can almost taste sweet corn right off the cob, even though I know that what I'm smelling is nearly-inedible field corn destined to become cattle feed or high-fructose corn syrup.

In a week or so, the ragweed will overtake me, and my allergies will prevent me from smelling just about anything on these evening rides. But for a brief, blissful moment, I'll suffer through the heat and humidity just to enjoy this scent from my childhood.

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.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

unsteady states

As the weather finally warms up in the Pacific Northwest, I am finally past the worst of my allergy onslaught and am able to ride my bike more. And as my distances and the number of bike trips increase, I find myself wavering back and forth between two very distinct cycling states. 

State One: I wear padded bike shorts, a jersey with rear pockets and stiff-soled bike shoes, and take the drop-bar road bike out for a longer ride. This ride is often done alone, though occasionally with faster friends who need a "rest day" ride and are therefore more willing and able to match my pace. We average speeds of 13 to 14 mph, which is on the speedy side of things for me. The reason I know how fast we're going is because my drop-bar bike has a computer on it, something I added when I started riding populaires a couple of years ago and needed a computer that was accurate enough to sync up with the cue sheets. On days when I feel limber and fluid, my pedaling is effortless and smooth and I enjoy the feeling of fleetness, even as I struggle to keep up with my faster friends. On the days when I'm wrestling with my perennially bad knees and my breath is wheezy from allergies, or I'm beset by too many bathroom stops, my pedaling slows and I feel frustrated. In this state, trying to be an athlete reminds me precisely that I am NOT one. 
State Two: I wear street clothes, occasionally with special, padded cycling underwear but more often not, and I am more inclined to ride my city bike with its upright bars, racks and heavy U-lock. Although there is an old-school mechanical cyclometer on my front wheel, I usually have no idea how fast I'm going, and most of the time don't care. My flat-soled sneakers push BMX platform pedals with toe-cages bolted on, the toe-cage a holdover from my teenage years that I cannot let go of even in street clothes. I still wear a helmet -- I like my brain too much to take chances without it -- but the rest of my ensemble seems to give me permission to putter along, spinning in low gears and not worrying in the least when I am passed by every other rider on the road. I make many stops, at yard sales and gardens and friends' homes, and don't pay much attention to the clock. In this state I don't mind looking -- or riding -- like a non-athlete, a "schlub", a regular person with no pretensions to athletic greatness, and no concern about it either. 
The odd thing is that I am unwilling to give up on either kind of riding. And so I waver back and forth, seeking out a new "athletic" cycling goal each year and trying it on for size. For the last two years it's been long-distance riding, hanging out with the Rando crowd. The rides, mostly on the west side of town, have been beautiful, and I've enjoyed -- or suffered -- my way through each. With distance rather than time being the primary goal, I've surprised myself and achieved things I didn't think possible. Now I know I'm capable of metric centuries (100k/62.5 miles) and have completed several of them. Will I try going for a 200k brevet? It's not clear, and lately it doesn't seem to matter so much. The fact that I've ridden SIX metric centuries in the last two years is amazing enough for someone like me, and knowing that I can go out and do it again feels good. 
I have observed many lovely days in which I ride my bike just to ride it, and wonder if ultimately I can give up the desire for athletic "greatness" and just settle into a steady diet of State Two and stop worrying about being a jock already. 
But in truth, I can't just let things go. This year, in what feels like another grasp at athletic greatness, I've decided to try my hand at cyclocross, that crazy sport where people buy fancy, knobby-tired bikes and run through the mud while carrying them over their shoulders. Why on earth would I even attempt this? 
The awful truth: I grew up in an extended family of schlubs, super-ordinary people who did not engage in anything athletic and who in fact were so sedentary that most of them grew fat and slow and horribly unhealthy. I came from people who were known for mental calisthenics, not physical feats of strength and agility. While I was certainly smart, I was also the odd child with the short attention span, the one who could not sit still long enough to read a chapter in a novel -- or even sit all the way through a hourlong TV show -- before I got itchy feet, "shpilkes", and had to get outside and just move around, climbing trees, wading through creeks and riding my bike all over town. Short and skinny and plagued by the recurring fatigue of a disorder -- Crohn's -- that would not be diagnosed until I was in my thirties, I sometimes nearly killed myself trying to do crazy stuff that perhaps I shouldn't have done, and never stopped dreaming of being a real athlete. I marched in drum and bugle corps, wilting in the heat and staggering under the weight of an enormous drum my wiry frame had no business carrying. I went out for track, ran the middle distances and sometimes collapsed from fatigue while trying to keep up with bigger, stronger kids. A running injury diverted my path towards bicycling, with twenty-mile rides in the country and Breaking Away and still more dreaming. And that dreaming is what has kept me coming back for more; more of State One and the lycra and the helmet that makes me look like an angry insect, more of the 60-mile rides and now this venture into the insanity that is cyclocross. 
I come from a people with virtually NO history of athletic prowess; Hank Greenberg and a few other stars aside, Ashkenazic Jews are generally known for their brains rather than their brawn. My father was a child prodigy who studied piano at a conservatory; my mother was a writer, singer and would-be fashion designer. P.E. class was something to be suffered through, the only class in which a "C" would be a perfectly acceptable grade, and nothing more. When my physicality expressed itself my parents looked on in confusion, not really knowing what to do with their active younger child except to let her be. They never came to my drum corps or marching band contests, or to my track meets, but they did let me go for those long rides in the country and gave me money to bring back treats from the farmers' stalls. I grew still more wiry and tan and became a weird object of both admiration and envy for my parents, both of whom smoked, ate badly and were sedentary; and neither of whom lived to see 70. 
When I look back on my beginnings, it is sometimes amazing that I have made the choices I've made -- to ride my bike as much as possible, to try my hand at unlikely things that make no sense and to see what I can do with this body before it gets too old to find out. 
So this summer it will be short-track mountain biking; and in the fall, look for me out on the cyclocross course. I'll likely be in last place, schlepping through the dirt and mud and dragging a cheap mountain bike behind me, stutter-stepping and hoping that, if I don't finish before getting lapped, I'll at least get filthy and have a grand time breathing hard and being among people who understand my need to get out and move.

(graphic designed by J. Edgar; t-shirts available at