Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Rediscovering the Bicycle

I love my new bicycle. It's a beauty. I haven't been so thrilled about getting a new bike since I was a kid. In fact, as I rode home from the bike shop on our local greenway bike trail the other day, I felt a childlike glee come over me and I realized I was riding along with a huge grin on my face. Fortunately, it's still early enough in the year the bugs weren't out...

I've always loved my bikes. My first bicycle was a Huffy, a little red number with training wheels, red grips on the handlebars and a white woven basket on the front decorated with bright plastic daisies. It was a gift from my parents and it was the bike I learned to ride on. After a couple of years my Dad had it updated for me with a white banana seat, a sissy bar and stingray handlebars. I added fluorescent flower stickers and playing cards held on with clothespins that rattled in the spokes to make a chopper-like faux-engine sound. It was very cool.

Of course, I eventually outgrew the groovy red bike and wanted something a tad more sophisticated. My second bike was a brown 3-speed women's bike with fenders, regular handlebars and a comfortable seat. It took me everywhere for the next 6 or 7 years -- across town to visit grandma, down to East Park to play tennis, even to school on a few occasions (with it I got my first combination lock).

When I was in high school I sold a bunch of my childhood toys on a garage sale, took my earnings and went down to the bike shop to buy a shiny new 12-speed road bike. It was a sparkly blue men's bicycle (which all serious riders rode) with drop handlebars and, eventually, toeclips to maximize my power. Compared to my previous bikes, this one was fast. I put a lot of miles on it as my best friend and I crisscrossed northern Iowa seeking out every hill we could find (and that took some looking). No one wore helmets back then, and screaming down a hill with the wind blowing through my hair was pure joy.

But as I matured, the thrill of the whole "go fast" thing wore off. The seat on my bike seemed to get harder, the handlebars more annoying and the skinny tires more dangerous on the sometimes gravel-laden roads of Oregon (in Iowa we used salt to melt the ice, here they use fine cinders or gravel for summer it's a pile right where I want to be riding).

As the years went by my road bike spent most of its time gathering dust. Every so often I would get the idea that I wanted to start riding again, so I'd take it down to the bike shop, get it tuned-up and enjoy a few rides before the winter rains started (I never really got used to the wet stripe up my back). I even rode it to work for a short time. I put on a cushy seat, added some plastic fenders and slightly wider tires, but it still spent more time gathering dust than covering territory. It hasn't been out for a ride since we last moved. It's been five years. Five years in some of the best bike-riding territory in the state. So what's up?

Feeling rather guilty seeing my bicycle out in the garage, covered with sawdust and serving as a makeshift spider condo, I pondered our 25-year on-again, off-again relationship. Was it something about the bike or something about me? I determined it was both. So what would inspire me to ride?

For starters, my mind and body have matured a tad and so have my bicycling desires. Being aerodynamic and going fast are no longer priorities. Being comfortable and feeling stable on my bike are. I always used to think I had to "gear up" to ride my bike...shorts or workout clothes at least (nothing to get caught in the chain), shoes that fit in my toeclips well enough not to cause a minor panic at a stoplight (I had a few close calls over the years), padded gloves (because my handlebars were so hard they made my hands hurt) and, of course, a helmet. Riding the bike was always an event, something I had to get ready to do, and this prevented me from using my bike in a casual way...such as a quick ride down to the post office or to pick up a loaf of bread at the store.

Last fall we had the good fortune to spend a couple of days in Amsterdam, a true bicycle city. There were bikes everywhere. People were riding in their everyday clothes, going to everyday places and using their bikes as their primary mode of transportation. Bicycles lined the sidewalks on nearly every street and at the train station there was a multi-story parking garage filled with nothing but bicycles -- we're talking tens of thousands of bicycles. Rain or shine, these people ride. And the bikes? Nothing fancy. It's almost perfectly flat there, so only one speed is needed. They have chain guards and fenders to keep their clothes clean. They have baskets, comfy seats and ordinary handlebars. They are the kinds of bikes that were so totally un-cool when I was a teenager. Suddenly I found myself longing for one.

The seed that was planted in Amsterdam germinated a few weeks ago as I sat at a stoplight in my car, burning fossil fuel on my way to workout at the local Curves. I was driving my car to a place that's only five miles from my house and 1/2 a block from the greenway trail that parallels the road I was idling on. Suddenly two things dawned on me... 1) riding a bicycle doesn't have to be a production number and 2) #1 is more true if you have an easy bike to ride.

I started looking at bicycles -- not road bikes this time, something more urban and more ordinary. I looked at mountain/road hybrid bikes and I looked at so-called flat foot "cafe racer" kind of bikes (the ones that look like shiny American versions of the Amsterdam bikes). I even tried a Bike Friday folding bike, which was pretty cool and pretty expensive. I'd seriously consider the investment if I were traveling with my bike, as it folds into a standard hardside suitcase. But for day to day use, I just wanted something nice, comfortable and low maintenance.

I started asking myself the tough questions: Do I really need 24 speeds? Probably not. I won't be climbing the Col du Joux Plane any time soon. Do I need more than one speed? Yeah, especially here in hilly Oregon it would be nice to have a few lower gears to help these non-bike-habituated thighs make it to my destination. Do I want speed or comfort? Comfort wins...I never found the drop handlebars and teeny seat to be very comfortable and I know I'd be more likely to ride if the experience were pleasant.

I asked a colleague who formerly owned a bike shop for his recommendation. He got a faraway look in his eye as he pondered the possibilities. He mentioned several makes and models, but became clearly excited at the notion of one bike in particular: the Bianchi Milano. He extolled the virtues of this well-designed bicycle, saying it sounds like just the bike I'm looking for and that it is probably one of the best all-around town bikes in its price range. That price range was a bit beyond the price range I was targeting, but he thought it was well worth every penny. He mentioned it several times and got that faraway look again when he talked about the beautiful "celeste" blue-green color.

Finally, last week, I went to a local bike shop to check out the Milano. While they didn't have any in my size in celeste, (which is pretty darned cool, I have to admit) they did have a 120th anniversary edition in a sleek silver and gray with celeste and red trim. Looks are nice, and this had both form and function.

The Milano 120 comes standard with front and back fenders and a blinking light integrated into the back of the all-leather seat. With only eight speeds and slightly wider tires, I wouldn't expect to do any serious road riding, but because the rear gears are enclosed in the rear wheel (excuse my lack of technical terminology here), there is no derailler. This means it looks like a single-speed bike, with a chain guard in the front to protect my pants and nothing to rattle or get caught-up in the back. Perfect. I looked it up online: everyone who has one seems to love it and they go for years without needing tune-ups (though it's probably a good idea to get one occasionally).

From the second I started pedaling, I liked this bike. Once the guy adjusted the seat for me, I loved the bike. The seat was pretty comfortable, surprisingly so for not having all the springy suspension posts of the mountain and hybrid bikes I'd tried. Changing gears was a snap (my old bike always required a bit of finesse to find the gear and it had a perpetual rattle) and even with only eight gears, the low ones made going up hill a snap. I found I could get a pretty good cruising speed going on the flat (fast enough for me, that's for sure). The cushy leather grips on the handlebars felt like Italian leather gloves. There were no toe clips to reckon with and it had a kickstand for easy parking. This was a bike I could ride any time, any where without making a production number out of it. After a few spins I was hooked. And when I saw that the 120 model was on sale (about $100 off the original price) I was sold.

I am now the proud owner of a Milano and I love it. I've been riding every day, even in the rain (love the fenders!), and rediscovering the joy of riding. I get on my bike in my sweats and ride to the Curves. I get on my bike in my jeans and ride to the post office. The only extra gear I put on is my helmut.

Of course all this bike riding is much to the chagrin of the dogs, who probably feel like they haven't been getting anywhere near enough walks as it is. But I'm sure the excitement will wear off eventually and I'll find a nice balance of both walking and riding. But for now, I'm reliving my childhood just a wee bit and realizing that with a good bike trail running through town, I can get some places just as fast on my bike as I can fighting traffic in my car. And I enjoy the trip a whole lot more.


Anonymous said...

Stumbled across the post about your Milano -- do you still have it? Do you still like it? I'm considering a 120 myself.

ScruffyDog said...

I still have my Milano and I still like it very much! It's very comfortable, easy to ride and versatile. Just the right bike for getting around town and I feel much more stable on it than my old road bike when confronted with gravel, rocks in the road, etc. I was concerned about only having 8 speeds, but they're spread out enough that I always find a comfortable gear to ride in.