Hell on wheels

Art by Kevin Carter

I was dead last and undaunted. Being passed by everyone didn’t bother me in the slightest. I was pedaling hard on a hot summer day about 15 miles outside of Wilmington, NC on my beach bike. The cyclists whizzing past me were bedecked in aerodynamic brand name cycling clothes and sleek $100 helmets. Many wore bicycle shoes that locked into their pedals for maximum push even on the upward cycle of their legs. I had no dream of winning the 50-mile road race, only finishing.I liked the idea of cycling on the long flat country roads among other cyclists.

I had some vague notion of being part of the cycling scene. I also wanted to push myself to see how far I could go under adverse conditions. The miles rolled by. I sat upright on the bike holding the high-up handlebars proudly. The bike was designed for leisure. Not speed. Geared for maximum wind resistance, I got exactly that. Other cyclists passing me with more aerodynamic helmets and tight-fitting cycling shirts and pants hunched over their bikes, gripping the lower-placed handlebars and making minute adjustments in their gears. I had just the one gear, no hand brakes and a $15 helmet a local superstore that I imagined cracking open like an eggshell if I fell off my bike.

I saw miles of countryside, a beautiful river and none of my fellow cyclists after the first 15 miles when the last of them disappeared over the horizon. But it was nice. I pedaled on doggedly. I stopped briefly at a country store at a desolate crossroads to buy a drink. Other riders had water bottles lodged on their bikes or drank from complicated contraptions that included a tube that ran close to their mouths. This reminded me of astronauts drinking in space and invalids in hospital beds who had lost the use of their hands. I had no use for such expensive efficiencies on my beach bike.

I eventually finished the race, thankful that a crash car had not been sent out looking for me because of my late arrival at the finish line. I made the 50 miles. If I had any feeling left in either hand, I might have pedaled further. But 50 miles felt far enough. I felt a little invincible. I was made of something a little harder or crazier than anyone who knew me suspected. Maybe I’d be a different person when I got back home. A sweaty and tired person who knew that if circumstances called for it – maybe a nuclear war destroying civilization and the use of all motorized vehicles – I could pedal through.

I eventually upgraded to a $600 fitness bicycle with all the gears, handbrakes and hard, thin tires. It was not quite a racing bicycle, but it was as close as my budget allowed. I imagined myself as a late-blooming competitive cyclist. I went on a few 25-mile rides with a local bicycle club. But somehow it wasn’t the same. I had been a renegade – a two-wheeled buccaneer of the open road on my retro beach bike. Now, I just another desperate poseur with fancy cycling gloves trying to fit into the pack. Plus, the new bicycle was supposed to make me super fast. It didn’t. My speed, according to the nifty bicycle speedometer on my handlebars, was roughly the same somehow.

I used to be able to get my son Avery to ride his bicycle with me from our home in Carolina Beach to the movie theater about a mile and half up the road. Or just to get a sandwich at the sub shop and go to the boardwalk. When I found that sand burrs were lodging in the wheels and puncturing them on a regular basis, we bought expensive puncture-proof bicycle tires, which were, more or less, actually puncture-proof.

Living in New York City these days, I don’t ride my bicycle much. I’d never dare riding it fearlessly down the fast-paced city streets. I value my life too much. I saw one cyclist grab hold of the back of a passing truck on a snowy street in the dead of winter and let himself be pulled along. He grinned at me. Craziness. I make it out to the green way along the riverfront once in a great while when the temperature is just right, and the wind is momentarily calm.

The wide Hudson River goes on forever. Giant cruise ships pass slowly. Ferry boats chug across to the New Jersey shore and back. A few people in kayaks paddle in between a set of piers. Joggers slap their fancy running shoes hard on the pavement. The city seems peaceful on its watery fringes on days like this. People lie on the rare public grassy lawns within sight of the water trying to get a tan. Most look like they’ve never been out in the sun before and are more likely to get a severe sunburn, but I admire the fact that they’re trying to get close to nature. We have to remember to do that here. We must make the effort.

I miss my old beach bike sometimes. It’s not built for speed. But neither am I, really. I am built to go slow and see things, trying to absorb them. The particular way the sunlight shines across the water. The comforting sound of the river slapping against a dock. The sense that the City that Never Sleeps can sometimes slow down on a sunny Sunday afternoon and just be.



Hell on wheels

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