The summer after I graduated from college, I bought my first car. I’ve written a handful of posts about him; in August of 2012, when I drove Hazza off the lot, I assumed I would always need a car to commute to work. Last year when I moved to Rhode Island, I realized that if I ever wanted to live in a proper city, having a car wouldn’t be practical at all. It’s expensive, for one, and difficult, for two. It’s hard to find parking that isn’t on the street or outrageously overpriced. Driving in the city is Not Fun.
As I mentioned in a recent post, I had a quarter-life crisis in the spring and ended up selling my car, among making other major changes. Once we moved into the city, I started walking to work. It’s not a bad walk: 45 minutes one way, give or take, and a little less than that if I hustle. Since I sold Hazza, though, I’ve repeatedly said that I want to try bicycling again.
A few weeks ago, my partner acquired a new-vintage bike, rebuilt it, and turned over their five year-old Trek bike to me. Its name was Blue Steel and it was a little too short for me, had a quick-release seat that liked to fall as I rode (not necessarily because I’m heavy, as AR explained to me after a crying jag where I nearly convinced myself I’m too fat to ride bikes, but because quick-release seats just do that), and had a very, very heavy steel, step-through frame. I didn’t mind riding Blue Steel, though. Biking cut my commute time down, made me feel like I was accomplishing something with my under-exercised body, and re-introduced me to biking after over a decade of not touching a bike at all.
Last week, AR acquired another new-vintage bike, this one a 1970s Motobécane with all original parts. It had sat in a shed in Connecticut for two decades and needed some serious love and attention, so AR took it to a local nonprofit where they had rebuilt their own bike and took parts from Blue Steel to replace parts on the Motobécane. (They called the process “Frankenbiking”, which is both appropriate and horrifying.) Last Tuesday, I rode the Motobécane for the first time and crashed thrice. Because I wasn’t there for the rebuilding process, AR had to guess on what height to set the seat at, and it was about an inch too high. You wouldn’t think that would make a huge difference, but I could barely touch the ground. It made riding really difficult and I reacted really poorly. I said I didn’t think I could get used to a bike with drop handlebars, that I didn’t want to seem ungrateful but I didn’t know if this was a good choice for me, and some other pretty rude things. Basically, I totally flipped out because I couldn’t immediately fix the seat height. Yikes. (I’m a drama queen. It’s a thing I’ve been trying to work on.)
The next day, I took the Motobécane — which I’ve affectionately named Bee — to a local bike shop and asked one of the employees if he’d mind lowering the seat. He did, at no cost, and also sold me a tea kettle-shaped bell to put on the handlebars so I can make noise at parked cars with drivers who try to open their doors as I’m about to ride past. When I rode Bee home from the bike shop, the difference was like night and day. I was no longer afraid of crashing, felt significantly more comfortable using the brakes on the drop handlebars, and had a whole new level of excitement. It was the first time I’d ever felt genuinely thrilled to be riding a bicycle. That feeling hasn’t gone away. Over the last week, I’ve grown more and more comfortable riding Bee around Providence, learning how to balance and speed up and slow down and react to high-traffic situations. I’ve ridden up major hills! It’s been one adventure after another.
Today I took Bee back to the bike shop and had brand new yellow handlebar tape put on. For those wondering, I chose Deda Elementi padded foam tape for extra comfort (it’s so comfy); the tape that was on the bike when I received it was thin and black and falling off, and it hurt my hands to ride. I’ll admit some of that pain came from the first few days when I didn’t know how to grip the drop bars and still feel safe. That’s changed now; I’m making it a personal goal to get comfortable enough riding this bike to be able to actually get down and use the bottom parts of the drops and the front brake levers by the end of the summer. So far, I’ve just gotten comfortable resting my hands on top of the bars and using the inside brake levers. We’ll see how long it takes for me to move beyond that.
Riding this bike is a totally different experience from riding a modern bike, not only because of the drop handle bars but because of the gear shift. At AR’s advice, I’ve left the bike’s stem shifters alone for the last week. AR put the bike in third gear for me — a gear that’s comfortable for me almost all of the time — and I’ve just been pretending it’s a single-speed. But today, the stem shifters were jostled while handlebar tape was put on the bike. I was forced to balance enough to shift on my ride home and actually managed to do so successfully without panicking, stopping, wobbling, or crashing. I feel incredible.
Transitioning from a driving commuter to a walking commuter to a cycling commuter has been really, really hard. I have a hard time adapting to new situations and until even a few days ago, riding a bicycle terrified me. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable, but there are still things I need to learn and situations I haven’t yet encountered. I’ve learned that the main thing is that I just have to get on the bike and go. It’s okay to take breaks and to have doubts and to be worried and to react. But then I have to put my feet on the pedals and ride. It’s a very liberating thing, cycling. Now that I’ve learned how fun it can be, I’ve started to develop a passion for cycling and its history that I never would have expected to have. I feel like a new person. It’s awesome.