An old easy rider rides again

Once upon a time, maybe 15 years ago, in a place far away, Chicago, I used to be an avid cyclist. I would ride to work and back, about five or six miles each way, and most astonishingly, I would do so every morning, regardless of the weather, with a tenacity bordering on insanity.

There were easy,  postcard days when the sun shone, and the breezes from Lake Michigan blew gentle and cool. The ride would be an instant drug-free high. I would meander on the bike paths of Lincoln Park, a huge patch of lakefront greenery on the scale of New York’s Central Park. I’d pedal past the Lincoln Park Zoo and park district greenhouses and gardens, the Cafe Brauer, a cousin of New York’s Tavern on the Green, and for the final stretch, a narrow path between Lake Shore Drive and the emerald water of Lake Michigan. There were showers and lockers at work, and I’d usually arrive at my office late.

On those perfect days, I would occasionally let go of the handlebars and put hands on my hips, maybe even sing or whistle a tune or two. Life doesn’t get much better.

Chicago’s weather, of course, didn’t always make things easy. During hot days, I could take my shirt off. When it got cooler, I always had a smelly sweatshirt in my backpack that I could throw on. Rain was no big deal. I just got soaked.

Then came those bone-chilling days of January and February, when the grey skies seemed to descend to within ten feet off the ground, and there could be hail, snow or freezing rain. The Midwest would unleash the worst weather in its arsenal, and test my commitment to my daily ride. Sometimes I hesitated for a few minutes, but ultimately plunged ahead, driven by the notion that if I gave up for just one day, more excuses would follow, and I might never get back to my routine. My solution was to add layers of clothing, long insulated pants, a bright-orange down-filled jacket, gloves and boots until I was warm enough even if looked like a mummy on wheels.

Ride while the sun shines. 

During one specially hairy return trip, the pavement on the path along Lake Shore Drive was covered with a treacherous patina of ice, and I had to dismount and walk my bike for two or three blocks. Other days when the lakefront paths hadn’t been plowed, I drove on the streets, weaving around rush-hour traffic.

I only had two accidents. Once I got distracted and lost control and landed on my ass, but bruising nothing but my pride. Another time, I got “doored” when I crashed into someone getting out of their car. That sent me to the emergency room for some stitches.

A bigger eye-opener, though, occurred while waiting for the light to change at the corner of Belmont Avenue and Clark Street, a few blocks from my house. I had attended an AA meeting the night before, and listened to someone talk movingly about his umpteen years of sobriety. Then the next morning, around eight o’clock, I spotted the same guy, crossing the street stumbling drunk. There for the grace of God, thought I.

After three or four years of this furious, almost compulsive pedaling, I was as physically fit as I’ve ever been. Dare we say, buff? You would have never confused my butt with that of ballet dancer or a toreador, but it was presentable. No six-pack but no stomach flab either. And my increased stamina sometimes made me feel as if I could pedal on to Milwaukee.

Up to then I’d never had a brush with athleticism. In sports, I was the typically uncoordinated gay boy who ran in the opposite direction at the sight of a baseball. And now at age 50 or so, here I was, fit as a fiddle.

Hello there, my old friend. 

Then we retired to Mexico, and brought down a truckful of stuff, most of it since discarded or given away. The bicycle of my Chicago riding days came down too, but it’s sat idle ever since, as if I had parked on a patch of wet cement that dried around the wheels and turned it into a reproachful piece of metal sculpture.

While living in San Miguel’s centro, my excuse always was that the steep hills and cobblestones of the city were too much of challenge for a returning cyclist, 15 or 20 years after the last ride. But here at the ranch, only a half-mile from a paved, gently undulating road, that denial-cum-excuse doesn’t hold.

In the meantime, my waistline has gone from 32 inches to a snug, aspirational 36. Belly fat has crept in, and most annoyingly, all manner of aches and pains, traveling from joint to joint. If there were a soundtrack of my movements, it would sound like the resentful creaks and squeaks of an ’57 Chevy on a bumpy road.

So Saturday, the old bike came out of the garage. It is in perfect operating condition, thanks to Felix, who uses it periodically when his own wreck of a bike has a flat.

I had to first reacquaint myself with the gears. In its day, this was a fairly expensive bike, seemingly with 50 gears that you controlled with both hands. I climbed on, and much to my embarrassment, for a few seconds, had some trouble keeping my balance. I weaved unsteadily down the driveway and onto the dirt road that goes past our house. On to the paved road about a half-mile down and back. That road in fact has turned into a major cycling and motorcycling venue, particularly on holidays.

And on again, maybe a little farther, this afternoon. If you see me coming, no need to avert your eyes: I’m still a long ways for donning my old red-and-black Spandex cycling shorts. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to look.


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