Well, it’s winter. There’s no denying it. For me, winter is not so much a season as it is a time of affliction. Its influence is too pervasive and malevolent to be caused by something as trivial as the earth’s tilting axis, or floating point unit or whatever they call it. So while I’m not particularly religious (technically, I’m a completely reformed Jew insofar as I’m an atheist), when it comes to winter I am willing to believe in gypsy curses and/or the malevolent power of desecrated Indian graveyards.
As a psychic force of life-sucking malevolence, so far this winter has been Giant Marshmallow Man and Floating Sigourney Weaver-grade.
To wit: Two days after returning from our amazing trip to the Sierras, I caught my first in a series of colds. A nasty, dripping, damp, sucking cold. Wrapped in sweaty blankets on the couch, I watched the last gorgeous week of the year slip by. Sure enough, as my health returned, the rains came, cold and hard. For ten days I didn’t ride much. By the time the infection was done my bronchial system was more like the NYC subway system. My hard fought, end-of-season fitness, complete with high altitude lungs, melted away like an alcoholic’s New Year’s resolution.
When the rain let up a little, I made a few timid steps into getting my winter on. Though I’ve lived here for more than 10 years, I’ll never be one of those robust Oregonians who dive confidently into the dark, damp mess that is a Pacific NW winter like they’re Tony Montana in front of a pile of coke. It takes me a while to screw up my motivation and point my handlebars into the 43 degree sideways sleet I’ll be riding through until April. Just getting out of the house is an ordeal, I hem and haw about which bike to ride, change my jersey a dozen times to "get the layers right", and for some reason I always have to pee six times in 30 minutes which, given bibs, tights and the all the layers of jerseys, is itself a lengthy, technical procedure.
But now it’s mid January. Despite being sick 25 of the last 50 days, I’ve managed to lash myself hard enough to log a few 100+ mile weeks, so maybe I’m over the hump and getting in the winter groove. Plus, I’ve remembered that in winter it’s okay to go hiking and snow-shoeing instead of biking.
This is a decision based in part on basic instincts of self-preservation. Riding out to Crown Point a few weekends ago, L and I took the back way out along Woodard Road. Climbing out of the saddle in a shady section, my back tire spun out on a patch of ice, almost propelling me onto my top-tube for the kind of involuntary tea-bagging I’ve been practicing on my bike since quite early on. In fact, it immediately put me in mind of the early BMX experience I wrote about awhile back.
Since it was cold, and we still had about 30 miles to ride, it was pleasant to think back on those early days in sunny, smoggy Southern California when I was just discovering the joys of mangling my bike and personal parts…
After that fateful day in 1974 when I destroyed my Raleigh folder, I had to explain to my parents that I needed a moto-cross bike in order to participate in the neighborhood activities. Since I had only learned about moto-cross in the last few days, and since my parents were intellectuals who had been living in London for the last eight years, they had absolutely no idea what I was on about. They deduced I wanted a bike that looked like a motorcycle.
To this day, I dislike motorcycles and I’m sure that’s in no small part because of the bike Santa brought me that Christmas. An off-the-rack number from Montgomery Wards, it was built with all the quality and refinement for which mid-seventies American manufacturing is noted. It had a large plastic gas tank, fake springs (bad suspension forks had not yet been invented) and number plates. It weighed about 45 pounds. It lasted me one day.
A stubborn child, I had immediately ridden this creaking monstrosity over the jump that had killed the Raleigh. The results were nearly identical: bent frame, crowned fork, “personal” injury. The other result was that this was the last bicycle my parents bought me. I started walking around the neighborhood and saving my allowance.
Time passed. My savings accumulated slowly, especially after I discovered two more Southern California staples: pot and LP’s. My parents' fortunes similarly dwindled (possibly for the same reasons) and we had to move to Topanga Canyon. Walking around my new neighborhood, I noticed all sorts of intriguing trails leading into the Santa Monica mountains. There were bike tracks on those trails leading deep into the scrubby yellow and brown wilderness.
I took a job assembling circuit boards for a friend’s dad who ran his medical electronics manufacturing business out of his garage. In retrospect, it seems questionable to sell hospitals cardiac-monitoring equipment assembled by a weed-addled 13 year-old, but that didn’t matter since I quickly earned enough to buy a decent used BMX bike. I started combing the classifieds and eventually my eye was caught by a blue chromoly Schwinn with a sweet set of Lester Mag wheels.
The ad said the bike’s seller could be found on Jupiter Street, in a questionable neighborhood in L.A. Surprisingly, my parents had failed to generate any increased appreciation of BMX, so I conned my friend’s mom into driving me there. Mrs. H. was a large, Roseanne Barr-style woman, whose outlook on life had not been sweetened by the slow growth of her entrepreneurial husband’s garage-based, teen-staffed electronics business. She drove her baby-blue Dodge Charger as if making up for all her lost time. Riding with her was more fun than puttering about in my parent's Volvo wagon anyway.
We got to L.A. in short order, but then ended up driving around the neighborhood looking for the street. After a time, Mrs. H pulled the Charger over to ask for directions. I rolled down my window and inquired of the young black man, with just a residual trace of British accent, “Pardon me, where can I find Jupiter?” He stared at me, silently. For a long time. Once the discomfort reached Larry David-esque proportions, Mrs. H. peeled out and we resumed our search.
Eventually, we found the address, where a bunch of gangly black kids were riding bikes around and doing tricks. I got out and after more awkward inquiries, I found the kid selling the bike. He fetched it from the house. Mrs. H stayed in the car, working on her scowl and her gum.
The bike was gorgeous: metallic-flake blue paint, cro-mo diamond frame and those sweet mag wheels gave the bike the air of an airbrushed, custom van. If the saddle had been covered in orange shag, the look would have been complete. I rode the bike up and down Jupiter street, spastically popping tiny wheelies and swooping about in a manner that I felt would make it look like I knew what I was doing. Kindly, no one laughed. They simply stared at me like the guy I had asked for directions. I stopped riding. I handed over my cash. We loaded the bike in the back of the Charger and drove off with hardly another word. All in all, for a young Fred, I considered it a very successful cross-cultural social interaction.
Given its provenance, and the time it had taken me to save up for it, I loved that bike like an autistic kid loves his blanky. When I first got it home, I just sat in the garage cross-legged and stared at it, heart pounding. I’m not sure when I first got up the nerve to ride it out into the neighborhood, but I do know when I did, a new chapter in my life began.