For over fifty years, he has served me faithfully. During three decades living in Peterborough, I rode him to work many days across three seasons, rainy weather excepted. In Southampton these past twenty-one years, I would leave my car resting in the garage most days and complete my post office, pharmacy or bank runs astride his worn but comfortable, leather saddle. But now the time has come to dismount permanently.
I hasten to clarify that no blame can be attached to him. I am the problem. With a recent diagnosis of prostate cancer and subsequent radiation, I can no longer entrust my seat to sit on his seat. But what of his future? I am well aware that a bicycle has no personality nor emotional life through personification. But he has long been my primary means of transportation, kind of my own cowboy companion — Roy Rogers and Trigger — if you think of it.
Just as I would never cruelly consign a loyal old horse to some dreaded “glue factory” end-of-days, neither am I willing to dispatch my bicycle to the local dump bin where scrap metal ends up. Unlike a four-legged farm animal no longer useful, I cannot shoot my bike in the crossbar nor call a vet to dispatch him with a fatal injection into a tire.
What about selling him? I once traumatized my young daughter by reading to her the poignant story of Black Beauty. Unwittingly sold to a cruel master, Beauty was wrenched from a loving secure home to toil long days, pulling a heavy cab through London’s cobblestone streets in nineteenth-century England, until she finally collapsed under the strain. How can I be certain a similar fate would not befall my bike if some new owner indifferently leaves him out in the rain to slowly and painfully rust?
What about my grandchildren? Alas, it would not be an appreciated inheritance. “Grandpa, it’s not even a dirt bike? And it certainly isn’t for road racing. Where are the hand brakes? What do you mean it has only one gear?“
Perhaps, I should have already explained that the bicycle in question is a Martian red, one speed, C.C.M. Galaxie, 1971 model, where the rider brakes by gently pushing the peddles backward. The rider tackles those big hills, not by shifting to another handy gear, but by standing up on the pedals and just working harder.
My relationship with bikes goes back a long way, almost as far as I do. I started, like most kids, with a tricycle. Unlike most kids, I never stopped riding it until I was ten years old. If you are trying to picture me and my pre-teen long legs bent painfully under the handlebars, you are gazing at the wrong image. Having outgrown the trike five years earlier, I could stand on its back step between those two rear wheels and by leaning forward, reach the handlebars for steering. Rhythmic pushing with my left foot against the pavement propelled me forward, much like being on a scooter or skateboard.
I eventually did own a real two-wheeler. While in grade seven, I would use my 90-minute break from school to deliver prescriptions for Tamblyn’s Drug store on Roger’s Road in Toronto. One fateful day, in a driving rain storm, I managed to catch my front wheel in a streetcar track and dramatically toppled over in the midst of traffic. I was inevitably late for afternoon class that sad day. I can still recall my horrible feeling of having to quietly open the door and tiptoe into the room as every student stared at my bedraggled, soggy appearance. Mr. Cleland was busily writing on the blackboard, his back turned away from me. I almost made it to my seat undetected, but a few muffled snickers caused him to turn just in time to query my lateness.
Two other random memories float up. As boys, we envied the aggressive male roar of police motorcycles or biker Harleys. We tried to replicate their raucous sound on our own bikes to impress the girls. The best we could manage was to pull an old hockey card from our stash and attach it to the front spokes with a clothes pin. As we rode, the wheel turned, the card flapped weakly. I don’t recall any of the girls paying the least bit of attention to the pitiful sound.
The other recollection centred on a game of winter road hockey. In the midst of our action, an older boy sped through our midst on his bicycle, scattering us out of his way with a derisive laugh. His smugness suddenly evaporated when, in retaliation, our goalie stuck the shaft of his hockey stick into the bully’s front spokes. The rider was instantly propelled forward over his handlebars, but landed fortunately in a snowbank, not on the unforgiving pavement.
By grade nine, I had proudly graduated to a C.C.M. three-speed model with trendy hand brakes. More cycling reminiscences next week.