Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Bikes And Gravel: An Embellished Rite of Passage

The other evening while nosing around the 'net I came across an old photo of a tough-looking Stingray bicycle. For those who remember life before grape-flavored Tang (I heard that, Marsha), the Stingray was THE baddest thing since the days of Peter Gunn. As my mind wandered back to summers preceding Watergate and Mr. Whipple's Charmin-squeezing compulsions, I recalled endless afternoons filled with two-wheeled misadventures. Aptly named the "Lemon Krate", it was optioned with a shifter that looked like something swiped from a GTO, shock absorbers propping up the seat, and sweeping, chopperesque handlebars. Its combination of chrome and yellow was responsible for temporarily blinding Mrs. Simmons' dog whenever I gleamed by on a sunny day. My friends were jealous.

Aha, but isn't the grass always greener on the other guy's front lawn? Sure, every kid on my street wanted to ride it -until they discovered what a heavy bike it was. I mean, heavy. Forty-nine pounds heavy. That bike should have been delivered via a crane. 

It was approximately half of my weight. As an adult, I'd achieve parity pedaling a one-hundred forty pound bike to work. Looking back, I don't wonder that my thighs were huge for a kid. I do wonder how my heart didn't blow out a valve in the process of drag-racing Billy and Mitch up Wyndale Drive. A street known far and wide for both its gruelling incline and vast straightaway, Wyndale was responsible for eating more bicycles than any other drag strip in the subdivision. One didn't simply race on that particular avenue. No, sir. One worked his way up by first conquering nearby Picadilly and Kentland Drives. Only then did one do the 'Dale.  Following that, of course, one had his mom sew on the neato STP patch that came with the model car he bought with his allowance. That was the sign that you had arrived

Having spent several summers prior building our legs racing uphill began paying off in dividends like Bernie Madoff; having built up our leg strength, we were becoming overconfident and heading toward a precipitous change of plan -namely, reversing course and racing (duh) downhill. Indeed, we had learned that going downhill was a lot easier than going up. We also discovered that putting such a massive bike in top gear while pedaling as quickly as one could downhill usually led to keeping up with Mr. Pericles's '68 Cadillac. Our confidence swelled faster than our bruises.

By now one can sense a disaster in the making. As you know, gravel was routinely dumped on the roads here during the winters. By the time summer rolls around, that gravel accumulates at the bottoms of hilly streets. In this case, Wyndale becomes Buckingham Drive. And we, the kids who now had Charles Atlas-caliber legs from our constant uphill pedaling, were determined to see who was the fastest around. With heavy bikes and powerful muscles. Downhill. Into a former cul-de-sac littered with years' worth of gravel. About the time my dad's carpool entered Buckingham, Mitch, heroically, elected to lay his Pea-Picker (like mine, but green) down in the gravel and wear some of it home rather than face-plant himself into the deck lid of Mr. Griffith's '66 Marlin. Wisely, Billy cut a hard left across the Freeman's, Blair's, and Banks's front yards that still bear the divots.

And I, for all of my quick reflexes, attempted a twenty-five mile per hour grip on the door handle of the Marlin for a white-knuckle-terror trip home and a chewing-out from my surprised dad that gives me flashbacks to this day.

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