Happiness is a Red Bicycle

Two years ago I moved into an apartment closer to the town centre. After moving, it was only about twenty minutes away and those weekend coffees and trips to my favorite bookstore where that much closer but the atmosphere was less than inviting. I was toddling along at a foot’s pace while cars pounded past on the Trans-Canada Highway and then only metres away on a busy bridge. I started thinking that a bicycle might be a good idea.

I had been given a second hand road bike the autumn before but discovered that the curbs and gravel between me and my Saturday morning Americano were too much for said bike. It was prone to pinch flats and being stabbed by errant paper clips when in the vicinity of civilization. I mentioned this to an old friend who informed me that one of his colleagues had been fixing up town bikes and selling them to friends for the cost of parts. I didn’t technically qualify as a “friend” and wasn’t sure where I’d store the bike in winter. (My storage locker is roughly the size of a portable loo.)

And what if I never rode it?

I am a slow athlete. I was in university before being liberated by the realization that I no longer had to keep up with anyone else or meet a predetermined number on a stopwatch. I could run or bike or ski and enjoy the fresh air, breathe, and hang out in my body… without the emotional baggage of being embarrassed by my comparative inabilities. It was a great relief from a burden I hadn’t realized I’d been carrying. I was free. But when I contemplated the bicycle I did not relish the battle that would ensue if my 10 year-old self made an appearance and decided that three gears felt too much like junior high phys. ed.

But two weeks later I found myself driving across town to pick up a new bike. The bicycle man was an enthusiast indeed, having set up a pully system over the stairs in his condo to maximize the space available for bicycle storage. We walked outside to find the cycle he’d set aside for me. I knew I was going to take the bike home. I knew I would ride it now and then. But I did not at all expect what happened next.

I fell in love with the bike.

“You don’t have to take it if it’s not what you’re looking for.”

But I was sold. My heart had become a glorious helium balloon as soon as I’d seen it. This was a child’s joy!  The bicycle was a Canadian-made CCM with a red metallic frame, black fenders and a sloping ladies’ cross bar. It had been fitted with a new seat and a wicker basket but still had the original, Sturmey Archer shifter and a few faded patches which were, to me, the charming patina of a particular vintage. It is ridiculous to love an inanimate object but by some alchemy its components – new and old, shiny and worn – blended into a personality that I liked instantly.

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The bicycle man took hold of the handle bars, stood over the front wheel and instructed me to climb on. He speculated that the seat was too high and offered to lower it. I was self conscious about being held upright on a bicycle the way my father had steadied me as a child. But mostly I declined the offer because I liked how tall I felt. I could look the bicycle man right in the eye and because of the angle of the handlebars I also sat up straight. No, the seat would be just fine thank you.

The bike has become a valuable mode of transportation but it is more than practical. I love the delicious feeling of speed when I am in low gear, the ting of the simple brass bell, and I adore the delicate dance of jumping on and off because the seat is, yes, too tall. I’ve rolled all over town and down by the river and have surprised by myself by discovering peaceful paths and clever shortcuts that had gone unnoticed in a decade of driving.

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And then there is the unexpected kinship I’ve discovered with other bicycle lovers. One of my friends has proposed a bicycle date this summer complete with sundresses, dark glasses, and oversized hats. Like me I guess she’s found something freeing about fewer gears. It is – cliché though it may be – not about how fast I get there but about how much I see and feel along the way.

This is the bicycle’s second season and you’ll be happy to know that while my storage locker was much too small to accommodate it I did find a perfect over-wintering spot for it – in my living room.

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9 thoughts on “Happiness is a Red Bicycle

  1. Your delight in your acquisition is infectious! As is your capacity to live Life in the moment. Isn’t it fantastic how much simpler the world seems when we let our child out to play..

    Thank you for a delightful post. I love every moment of it!

  2. LT, my favorite fair-weather mode of transportation is a sea-colored vintage-style cruiser, with whitewall tires and a large, comfortable leather seat. We are somewhat of a bicycle-laden couple (between the two of us, we have six: two mountain bikes, two road bikes, two cruisers), but there is nothing quite like those simple three gears, that upright posture, that necessarily slower speed that comes with pedaling around on my cruiser. I relate totally to what you’ve said here about noticing so many details that you’ve driven by for years for the first time. I feel like biking — being out in the air, no steel shell separating you from your surrounding elements — gets you somehow closer to, more intimate with a place.

    I do admit, however, that I’m incredibly envious of your fabulous basket. I hope you fill it often with picnics and bouquets of flowers from the market.

  3. Oh, how I loved this! I just bought a new bike this year, and it too, was love at first sight. Mine is green and a “hybrid”. It doesn’t have the old-world charm of yours but it is fast and I love it.

    I must admit, though, I do have a place in my heart for the bikes like yours.

    What is it about bikes? Yes – the sense of slowing down, taking the world in. But it’s also true, as you’ve said, that our inner children love them. Maybe bikes represent that first taste of autonomy? Of being able to go anywhere in the neighbourhood? Perhaps.

    I too hope that you fill the basket with veggies and flowers – and spend the summer at many bike parties.

  4. I’m so glad there are a few people out there who identify!

    WWS, you would not be the first person to remind me of the pleasures of letting my inner child out to play. I have been encouraged to do so.

    LZ, if you lived here you and your husband would fit right in. My neighbours have converted their spare bedroom in a gear room for six bicycles, two kayaks, and multiple sets of skis. I love sea-coloured vintage anything! My Grandmother’s house was sea-coloured with crisp white trim. Send photos!

    Your comments and yours too, BH, about autonomy and becoming more intimate with a place are spot on. I think there is part of me that equates cycling to the expansion of my childhood world which became bigger with my banana-seat bike but I knew that bigger world well. It is a different kind of expansion than the one I experienced as an adult which gave me several lives in different places but left gaps in between those lives. I am richer for all of it but also grateful for the nourishment that comes from knowing one place well (https://mothersugar.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/wanderlust/).

  5. In Belgium, children get a bike when they are 10, and that is the bike for the rest of their life. You see tiny little things navigating enormous beasts of aluminum. It is very impressive. Me, I insisted on an adult bike with a lower frame, because if I couldn’t put my feet on the ground, I just knew I would fall off and break my face.

    People do not wear helmets here, but biking is very very common as a substitute for a car. In fact, I don’t drive here. It’s bike or foot for me. But then, I’ve never liked driving – and to your comments above- maybe I’ve always liked having the world revealed at a slower pace. I have to ride along a very busy road to get to the train station. I talk outloud and give myself a pep talk the whole way. Stupid things like, they see you, they’ll make way for you, this is what you do. I’m alive! I’m alive! Sometimes I think that should be a mantra for life.

    I would like a pretty bike, a sit up bike, as they say here, but I am not very fast or strong and would never be able to keep up with hubby who bought him self a triathlon model with cool handlebars. And I’d never make it up some of those bridges we’ve got. They have electronic bikes here, that keep your speed a healthy 25km. But even though I was not 10 when I bought my bike, I think I am supposed to keep it for life now.

    So, my bike is blue and not pretty, but apparently very good and at risk of being stolen if I don’t lock it up. I have to pretty it up by putting funky saddle bags on the back and stuffing it with bouquets of flowers from time to time. I am not a comfortable rider, but I have finally realized I can hold the handle bar with one hand and scratch my nose if I need to. I’m not quite at the point where, like the teenagers here, I can ride with no hands and talk on my mobile, but it’s a vast improvement.

    I like that idea of your heart being a helium balloon.

  6. LT – I love that you love your bike! Your post makes me re-think my decision not to have one. People keep trying to give them to me, as if I won’t be complete until I own one, and I have said no again and again.

    I’ve never really thought about why I don’t care for biking, but I think it might lead back to childhood trauma. Perhaps it is time I faced it. The only bike I have ever owned was a bright green one, with a sparkly green banana seat, which my father found in the alley by someone else’s garbage cans. There was nothing wrong except for the ugliness of it. Even though it was the 1970’s and I thought toe socks were the height of fashion, I knew an ugly bike when I saw one. It had a yellow and white basket on it was well and I used to carry around my favorite stuffed animal – a balding squirrel – in it. One day someone stole Mika the balding squirrel … and left the bike. There are some advantages to ugly I suppose.

    Yes, I’m definitely inspired by everyone’s enthusiasm about their bikes. Ooooh, I just remembered there is a company that sells souped up Dutch bikes here in Vancouver (souped up so that they can make it up all the hills). Bikes with non-purgatorial seats and baskets big enough to carry dogs and children around in. I am inspired.

  7. I’ve never thought of a bike as something to love – but you’ve opened me up to a whole new world! Bikes for me have always been a little bit painful; you see I was bullied as a kid. When we didn’t have a lot of money, my father had fashioned a kind of a bike together for me to get to school and had painted it bright yellow. The older boys in my school used to throw rocks at the spokes in the wheels when I rode to school in the morning and chant, “we all live in a yellow submarine”. Since then, sure, I like riding but finding myself falling in love with a bike is a bit of a foreign concept.

    But just like dogs, and cooking, and working, and playing, we all seem to have rich and varied experiences with bikes and hearing yours has opened my mind to the possibility of knowing that a bike can indeed, be a friend. And yours looks like a pretty cool friend, too. One that would kick ass in the playground.

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