An old African proverb I’ve always admired goes like this: “If you want to go fast, walk alone. If you want to go far, walk with a friend.” Now I should probably leave well enough alone, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. I want to add a third condition to the proverb: “If you want to go fast and far, bike with friends.” There, I’ve said it.
Like everyone else, I started out on a tricycle but soon graduated to a two-wheeler with training wheels. When I finally could ride without the extra wheels, my first cool move was to clip a playing card between the spokes of my front and rear wheels to make my bike sound like a motorcycle in the Fourth of July parade. I decked it out with red, white, and blue crepe paper so it looked pretty cool, too.
When I turned ten, there was a vague understanding in my house that I was allowed to ride my bike around the block. One day near the end of summer, I broke free and (with a friend) rode several blocks across several busy intersections to visit my aunt. When I arrived on her doorstep, she asked me if my mother knew where I was. I lied and said, “Of course she does.” Well, of course she didn’t and my older sister was soon dispatched to come collect me and my friend and bring us back home.
My sister was leaving for Europe the next day and had better things to do than pick up her little brother and his pal; she threw our bikes in the back of the family station wagon and drove us home in angry silence. Once there, I got the “wait-til-your-father gets-home-now-go-to-your-room” speech from mom. When dad finally got home after work, I met my fate with a hairbrush but I had the distinct feeling his heart wasn’t in it. I think he was secretly impressed with my exploit.
After college, I joined the Peace Corps. For my first year, I rode a bike to the school where I taught physical education and English. For my second year, I decided it was time to step up my ride. I somehow talked my Country Director into letting me get a motorcycle—probably not the best way to demonstrate my willingness to live like my Tunisian counterparts. That said, my 500cc Triumph did give me ample opportunity to explore the far-away corners of my adopted country and I took full advantage of my new freedom. When it came time to return to America a year later, I sold the motorcycle. On the day I was scheduled to depart, I saw the new owner riding by on my old bike. The sight brought me to tears, but I wished them—bike and rider—well.
Fast forward a decade or two. I’m riding a fancy hybrid bike; too big and bulky for any serious road racing but with enough gears to make peddling relatively easy and fun. Just like the kid in “Breaking Away,” I got all the necessary accessories: a fitted racing jersey, padded tight cycling shorts, the right shoes, wrap-around sunglasses, and of course, a helmet and gloves. The gloves were probably not absolutely necessary, but I thought they finished off the ensemble. I even contemplated taking Italian lessons, but figured that was one turn of the wheel too many.
But as time wore on, I began to quarrel with that bike. The seat was uncomfortable; the brakes squeaked; the tires always needed air. It didn’t occur to me that I was changing: spreading out, getting shorter of breath, losing my will to go on long weekend rides in the country on spring afternoons or when the leaves were worthy of peeping in the fall.
When older folk think about downsizing, it’s their homes that get all the attention. When I began to think about downsizing, I had my bike in mind. Now all I need is a beach cruiser for getting around town. Its name is Jack. It has a big wide seat, a built-in bottle opener, and a rubber horn that squawks like a duck.
Not to be outdone—she never is—the wee wife got her own beach cruiser. It’s bright pink with a basket and bell. We call it the Pink Panther. It will never be stolen because no thief in his right mind would ever be caught dead on it.
Next week, she and I are taking off to Rehoboth for an overnight excursion with some good friends. We’re thinking about taking our bikes. While I sometimes struggle with the bike rack that attaches to the car, it’s probably a good idea. We’ll all be able to go farther, faster.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with a home in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com