Growing Into High Gear (2000)

Watching my girl appreciate her new 18-speed bike, I thought, with pride: “I told you so.”

EXPERIENCED BICYCLISTS call it “spinning.” You shift down to, say, second gear, and let your legs, well, spin. For Alexa, spinning is a new experience. In the past, when pedaling up our driveway, she’d have to grunt her way up, rising off the seat to stomp the pedals. This time, her nine-year-old butt remains planted on the seat, her gangly legs circling lazily.

Watching her effortless climb, I can scarcely contain my joy. I’ve waited years—three, to be exact—to witness this rite of passage—passage from a winded 6-year-old walking a one-speed up a driveway in defeat to a grinning 9-year-old sitting pretty on a purple 18-speed Trek 220.

Alexa riding her 18-geared Trek 220 in Poolesville, Maryland

Alexa riding her 18-geared Trek 220 in Poolesville, Maryland

The Trek belongs to her big sister, 12-year-old Vicki. But lately, Vicki’s days have been occupied by more urgent matters, such as what to wear to the *N’Sync concert. It’s doubtful she’ll even notice I’ve lowered the seat two inches. At any rate, next year the Trek will pass to Alexa. She can hardly wait.

But wait she must. No matter; when you’re the younger of two sisters, you get used to waiting for hand-me-downs. The one-speed? That was Vicki’s first “real” bike.

Cresting the driveway, Alexa stops, straddles the girl’s frame, and maneuvers the bike in a semicircle. Off she glides, gathering speed toward the street. Brakes! “Left hand’s the front brake,” I call. “Not too strong or you’ll flip!”

“OK,” she calls back.

Savoring the moment, I recall the day we bought the one-speed, five summers ago.

Father Knows Best

At seven, Vicki had outgrown her Toys-R-Us kiddie bike. You know—the aging clunker you roll out to your yard sale at 8:30 am., resolved to hold out for twenty dollars. By 4 pm. you’d welcome any unreasonable offer.

Vicki and her one-speed bike

Vicki and her one-speed bike

Vicki felt ready to step up to a larger one-speed, maybe something with a basket. Oh—and make it pink. 

In fitter days, I had cycled to work. To me, a one-speed’s limitations were painfully clear. Cumbersome to pedal, it would languish in the garage. More serious, in a year or two it would be uncool.

“She needs at least five speeds,” I explained to my wife, “for hills.”

“We don’t have hills,” Lina replied.

“What about the driveway?”

“That’s not a hill.” 

“Since when?” I snapped.

She ignored my challenge. “One speed is fine. She’s seven.”

a drawing of a smiling, helmeted young woman riding a multigeared bicycle

a drawing of a smiling, helmeted young woman riding a multigeared bicycle

What would she know? Born in Russia, Lina had never even mounted a bicycle. She wouldn’t know a derailleur from Deuteronomy. “You don’t understand,” I said. A one-speed—”

“What I don’t understand,” she interrupted, “is why anyone needs a bike that costs more than a hundred dollars. In fact,” she added casually, “I don’t see why any grown-up needs a bike at all.”

That volley was aimed at my increasingly vocal noises about wishing to return to cycling…on a low-riding, bucket-seat, feet-out-in-front, Don’t-I-Look-Ridiculous recumbent. My children were threatening divorce.

My thrills, then, would have to come vicariously. Buy another one-speed? Fine. But another off-the-shelf yawner? Not this time. Vicki’s new steed would be a special bike, from a special bike shop.

Deals On Wheels

On the assigned day, our family piled into Lina’s station wagon and sojourned beyond the suburban chain stores and their cookie-cutter wheels. Destination: Mt. Airy Bicycles. Larry Black, the shop’s charismatic owner, was an enthusiast himself. “Everything for Every Cyclist,” boasts his Yellow Pages ad, “The Usual and the Unique.” Want a tandem folder with a hammock seat? Larry can do that. He’s the Willy Wonka of the spoked-wheel world.

Vicki chose a Hot Rock by Specialized, a respected American brand. “This is what my girl rides,” said Larry. “It’s remarkably stable.” More important, it came in pink.

My turn. Pulling out a crumpled notepad, I asked Larry to make “a few modifications.” Add a caliper hand brake in front. Replace the rear cog with a larger one; the child wants to ride the bike up a grade, not walk it. We’ll need smooth, high-pressure street tires; Vicki’s not an off-road kind of girl. While we’re at it, can you build me a pair of wheels with narrow aluminum rims? They’ll accelerate quicker, brake better. And don’t forget a mirror, headlight, and blinking taillight.

Larry was taking notes. “No problem,” he said. “I can have it ready in two days.”

Daughter and wife exchanged glances. Lina shot me The Look—an accusing glance that asked: Are you really going to tell our 7-year-old she’s not going home with the bike we came for?

Yes.

Did the lower gear let Vicki climb hills more easily? Absolutely. Did the rims and brake let her stop more surely? No question.

Did the bike gather dust?

DUH-uhh. It was a one-speed.

Not so the purple Trek 220.

Vindication

Alexa is spinning the pedals backward, delighting in the click-click-click of the ratcheted freewheel. She twists the left grip. Thunk—the chain hops to a smaller rear cog, slowing her cadence. She twists the right grip. Clink—the front derailleur plunks the chain onto a smaller chainring, and she’s spinning again. Thunk, clink, thunk. She scales the driveway, triumphant.

Harrumph. I told you so. I told you all so.

My little girl dismounts. “Can you help me take off my helmet?” she asks.

“Sure,” I say. Stooping, I unlatch the neck strap. With a firm tug and a shake of her tousled brown hair, Alexa doffs the helmet. “That was fun.”

I squeeze her chin. “Do you see now why I wanted to buy your sister a multispeed bike in the first place?” 

“Yeah,” she says. Pause. “And also why it was nice that you didn’t.”

© 2000 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

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