I was 6 years old when I got my first bike. My parents paid $25 for it—no small sum for them at that time. They bought it from the Postman, and had a neighbor help repaint it on Christmas Eve. I had no idea at the time what kind of financial commitment that bike required, but it was substantial. I think my mom and dad were as excited as I was when I discovered the bike on Christmas morning.
Near our house was an empty lot. We lived in a cul-de-sac, and so that lot became our playground. We played sports there. Built BMX tracks. And created forts from nail-laden sheets of discarded plywood. It might bave been the most effective babysitter the neighborhood ever had. It was a great place to ride that bike, despite the frequency with which nails and thorns would puncture tires. And feet*.
*But that’s another story.
I don’t know how long I had the bike. But one day my mom was there to pick me up from school. It was a bright, sunny day. And it was unusual for her to drive me. Normally I walked. As I climbed into the car I could tell my mom was upset about something. It only took a moment before I realized why.
“Did you put your bike away last night?”
“I think so. I can’t remember.”
“You didn’t put it away.”
“I think it’s in the spare lot.”
“It was. And Ray Vincent ran it over with his tractor.”
Ray Vincent’s tractor was a full sized backhoe.
I don’t remember how I felt just then. But I do remember laughing when I saw the bike. The wheels were mangled and the frame bent. It was completely destroyed. And for some inexplicable reason the site of it was comical. I don’t remember being punished or scolded. I probably was. I should have been. But I do remember that day. It was not until years later, after I had kids of my own, that my mom told me the story behind the bike. About painting it late into the night on Christmas Eve, and buying it used for more money than seemed prudent.
I felt terrible.
That bike might have faded into the dark hole of forgotten memory, had I not developed a love, and a lifetime commitment to bicycles. I think of that bike often now. Especially as my own kids are now experiencing their own ages of discovery and freedom that two wheels can provide. The bikes they ride are infinitely more advanced, more high-end, than what I had. A result of technological and economic progress has made those possible. And I hope that they—the bikes—will help my kids learn the same lesson I eventually did. That is, to take care of your things, all of them, but especially your bike.
A Bicycle is freedom. Mobility. Fitness. They are tools of adventure and discovery. And most importantly, as I am learning now, bikes are a tether to childhood. A thread connecting the otherwise cynical, grouchy, reality-burdened adult with a time of innocent optimism and forward-looking energetic anticipation.
How many cyclists do you know that are truly pessimistic about the world?
Of course, the world can be a cold and cruel place. And sometimes hard lessons come to those who are not prepared, or who are unwilling to be taught. There is injustice, and pain, and brutality. But there is also hope, and light, and the ongoing possibility of beauty and success. And redemption.
And redemption is what Christmas is. Certainly the spiritual, Christian redemption, but also the simple promise of a new day. Another chance.
Perhaps I am stretching, but bikes seem to be a worthwhile expression of that optimism and redemption. From the literal—next lap, next race, next year—to the more figurative, bikes represent that pursuit and quest of brighter, better days. Indeed, riding a bike can be a redemptive exercise. Cleansing the mind, spirit, and body of the dross that clouds the lucidity and brilliance that each of us possess. There is a reason that year after year people ride, and race, and explore. Pedal circles. Pedal forward.
My parents rarely mention the destroyed bike. When they do, it’s in a nostalgic light-hearted tone. Never a guilt trip. Never angry. I know that in the moment it must have hurt to see me treat so carelessly something that came at a significant price. But since that time—that Christmas—I’ve grown to love the bicycle and the simple pleasures that it readily provides.
That $25 bought far more than just a bicycle.