On my eighth birthday I received my dream bike.
The decadent purple beauty had a banana seat without a sissy bar (since my mother thought they were ugly and dangerous) and long streamers from the handles. Preparing for the first ride, I pulled two fresh playing cards, securing each to a wheel, so they would snap precisely as they waved past the spokes.
As I picked up speed, my long hair blew behind me with the cards thrumming a perfect pitch. My eyes closed against the setting sun as wild joy oozed into the deep crevices of my being.
Over the years that bike got tossed, but others followed. Eventually, I arrived at the “mom bike” that’s mainly used on vacation.
At ten-years-old, my bike is put into motion for our family’s annual visit to Madeline Island. Our family spends much of each day biking roads which wind past shoreline and forest and then cooling off with a plunge in the frigid Lake Superior water. On a Wednesday, it’s a tradition for us to drive into the only town so that a visiting repairman can give our bikes a once over. This particular trip, I decide not to have mine checked because I’m thinking about biking to work, which will require a different ride.
The four of us leap out of the car to interact with someone other than a blood relative. Tom the bike man is tall and lean, with white blonde hair and vivid blue eyes. Just past the age of 60, he commutes eighteen miles to work, putting the wheels up in the winter when the snow sticks.
For him, cycling is not something done while living—it is something he lives to do.
As we make the bike handoff, my husband says that I’m considering a new ride. Tom sells bikes so it’s not surprising when he turns to me to continue this conversation.
“What kind are you looking for?”
“Um, something comfortable and light, so it’s easy to put on the rack. I guess.”
Tom unfolds from a crouch, wiping his hands on a towel.
“Are you planning to ride long distances or commuting around town?”
“Commuting, I think.”
Smiling garishly, I look left then right.
“Are you going to commute to work or just to the store once a week?”
His blue laser beams stare directly into my eyes.
“Work. It’s just something I’m thinking about. We live off a busy street, so I’d have to find a safe route or drive and park. So you know, it’s kind of complicated.”
In other words, I’m already getting lazy.
“Oh. Well if you get to the point of deciding, come by the shop on the mainland.”
As we head back to the car, I feel like I’ve just watched a plane depart without me. Over the next few days, I think about missed opportunities until a screw rusts off my bike seat and my son wants thinner tires. He and I ferry over to Bayfield to see Tom at his repair garage.
We are met with a sight reminiscent of Floyd’s from that fictional town of Mayberry, only it isn’t a barber shop with a bunch of old guys chatting during haircuts. Instead, it’s a variety of ages drifting in to ask Tom about a bike, a route or even his opinion on the junk food diet of a youngster assisting with the bicycles.
I wait for Tom to notice us as my vacation mode mindset of “what will be, will be” shifts into “how long have we been waiting?” My son, who has come on the off-chance ice cream will be involved, grows irritable.
“Geez, Mom, we’re gonna miss the next ferry and I want to get back to the house.” Translation: a DVD he’s watched forty-two times is sending smoke signals to drag him back to oblivion.
Rather than risk him getting louder, I inch closer to the nucleus. Tom looks over the heads of his avid apostles.
“What can I do for you?”
Clearly he’s forgotten who I am.
“Hi, um, I need a new seat, my son wants thinner tires and I’m thinking about getting a new bike to commute to work…I mentioned that on Wednesday over at the island?”
The laser beams are back, along with a small smile.
“Saddles are on the wall. Why don’t you take a look at the new bikes while I throw tires on your son’s Schwinn?”
Weaving between bikes I try to appear as though I know what I’m looking for. Tom loudly offers his opinion.
“You’ll need a bigger frame, since you’re on the larger side.”
Cringing, I try not to imagine the guy checking out my size ratio. I move further away as my son faux-whispers: “Wow, he doesn’t hold anything back.”
Tom suggests we take two for a test ride while he finishes with the tires. We meander the neighborhood while my son asks “when are we going back?” several dozen times. Peddling in, Tom meets us at the driveway.
“So how did it feel?”
Stepping off the bike I attempt to nonchalantly pull my shorts from my tail crease.
“Good, but my knees come up pretty high and the handle bars seem low.”
“This bike is too short for your legs. I usually build them for a more custom fit, but you’d have to come back for it in a couple of months.”
“Do you have anything used? I’d like to get started on this commuting thing when vacation is over.”
My idea simmering has mysteriously shot up to a serious boil right now.
“There are some used frames out in a storage shed. Let’s go see if anything will work.”
There are hundreds of mounts hanging from the ceiling, the walls and covering the floor. Tom edges through the crowd, picking up bikes, giving them a once over and then discarding.
I point to a purple Trek. “Hey Tom, what about that one?”
“That’s a great bike, but it won’t work for you. The frame’s too tall.”
“Really? It’s probably okay. I’ve got longer legs than you think.”
Shrugging he reaches and plucks the bike up, holding it while I straddle the frame.
“It’s perfect Tom. The bar is just at my crotch.”
“Let’s put some wheels on her and have you ride around.”
Within minutes Tom has wheels, brakes and gears connected. I leave my son to introduce himself to bike man followers. As I pick up speed a remembered sense of peace arrives. Returning to the garage I’m ready to write a cheque. Tom is inserting a tube into a tire.
Without looking up he speaks unconcernedly. “How was the ride?”
Eagerly I move closer.
“I want to buy this one, Tom.”
His hands continue working the tube into the tire, but his eyes decisively stare up into mine. “I’m not sure I want to sell you that bike.”
I am silent the length of time it takes for my tongue to reel itself back in from my chin. “What? Why?”
These are the only words I say because the others in storage would have made a pile of Tom worshippers escort me to the curb.
“Well Deb, that’s a special set of wheels. That bike found me and I rode it until I needed something different. I want to make sure whoever has it will not leave it sitting unused. This is a bike meant to be ridden.”
I mulishly stand my ground.
Tom parlays. “Are you going to ride her?”
I look over at the purple vision. “Tom, that’s my bike.”
Equally determined, he repeats himself. “Are you going to ride her?”
Holy sh*t, does he want a blood oath?
“Yes Tom, I’m going to ride her.”
“You’re committed to a lifestyle shift?”
“If you stop riding, will you bring the bike back?”
“If you decide you want a different bike we’ll work out a trade or I’ll buy her back?”
Tom writes up the ticket.
I now pronounce you husband and wife.
Taking my cheque, he smiles. “My motto is change people’s lives one bike at a time. You bought a great bike Deb. Use it.”
The followers begin harassing Tom about the tequila he consumed at a recent dinner. My son and I leave, heading in the direction of an ice cream cone.
On a quiet stretch of my first bike ride, I take my hands from the handles to raise them overhead. A breeze rustles through my hair, as that long ago sound whispers in from the past.
Tom is impressed when I bring the “Purple Queen” in for her yearly check-up. He smiles. “She looks well ridden.”
I smile back.
“She’s changing my life.”
Author: Deb Lecos
Volunteer Editor: Keeley Milne / Editor: Caitlin Oriel