The Great Bicycle Fiasco began (not surprisingly) with a single thought. “I should get a bike.” Well, that thought blossomed, and I began to visualize the bike I was hoping to get. I like old bikes. Old bikes have more character than newer designs. I love big fenders, shaky wheels, big springy seats, and handlebars that haven’t any aero-dynamics. The best ten dollars I’ve ever spent in my life was on one such bike. It was a one speed, rusted black, Schwinn. It came with big chrome fenders, and narrow handlebars. It quaked and shook slightly when I rode it. I loved that bike. That bike had an epic demise. It involved a beautiful blonde, a sunny spring day, and a moment of bicycle self-destruction. That story will have to wait for another day.
I found my new bike at a funky antique store in Clarkston, Washington, called The Hangar. Many antique stores are run as a collective- meaning several dealers have banded together to form a co-op that has rented out a space to sell their wares. When I walked into the shop, I asked the sunny woman at the register if she had any bikes. “Yes, just the one out front... Or, I do have an old one.” The way she said it, made it sound like I’d be crazy to be interested in the old bike. I said to her, “I’d like to see the old one, if you don‘t mind.” Since the customer is always right, she smiled and led me on a winding path through a maze of interesting old stuff.
It was love at first sight. I told my host, “Now, that’s a great bike.” She looked at me askance, but seemed mildly amused at the same time. I walked around it, admiring its lines. The bike is that sixties tannish beige color. It wasn’t pale yellow, yet it wasn’t tan, it was a mixture of both of them. It had two solid fenders, wide comfortable handlebars and a boxy triangular seat. It was just what I was looking for.
The tires were both flat, but this didn’t scare me. I’ve picked up some handy man skills over the years and figured a couple of inner tubes would be an easy fix. Beyond that, I’d raise the seat, polish the chrome, and give it a tune-up with tools I had onboard the ship.
I bought the bike for forty dollars. This might sound like a lot for an old cruiser, but I knew I could easily resell this bike at the end of my ship contract. Several of the women I worked with would buy it from me in a second. I pushed it out of the store, saddled up, and pedaled on down the highway. I know that this isn’t good for the bike rims, but I HAD to ride it. After two hundred yards, I stepped off and pushed it another half mile back to the ship.
Author’s Note: The following is a true series of unfortunate events. I offer you the sequence of anguish this bike has caused me over the past week and a half. As you read this, please keep in mind that all I really want in this world is to take this bike on a leisurely ride.
The First Week
On the first night that I “owned” my bike, I set to work seeing what I could improve. I oiled the moving parts, inflated the tires, and chemically scrubbed some rust off the rims. I found from my initial investigations, that one of my tires held air, while the other tire did not. This seemed an easy fix. I decided to run off to store the next day to get a couple of tubes. In my haste, I neglected to measure the size of my tires before I headed off to buy new tubes. Consequently, I bought the wrong size and style of tubes.
I figured this out when I tried to install them on the rim. I had to stretch it like a taut rubber band to get it on the rim. And when I tried to inflate the tire, it remained flat. Then I got the bright idea to patch the original tube. I filled it with air and held the tube to my ear to see if I could hear where it was leaking air. I found a tiny hole near the valve stem. I talked to our Boson who gave me some extremely powerful glue to use to patch the rubber. I went about cleaning, preparing, gluing (nearly getting high in the process) and sealing the hole. The instruction manual informed me that it took twenty-four hours to cure. I was happy with my efforts.
Twenty-four hours later, I happily grabbed my tire, tube and tools. I put the tube and my tire back on its rim and re-inflated it. I watched with excitement as it seemed to be holding air, but after ten minutes, the tire began to get softer and softer, my initial pleasure began to deflate and sag- just like the tire.
A day passed before I had a chance to work on it again. Since I’m working on a ship, I can’t just run to the local bike shop every time I need a new tube. I have to work, and I only have limited free time in which to run into town. However, I knew I’d be at The Dalles with plenty of free time on a Monday afternoon. I found a map to the bike shop online. When one p.m. rolled around, I bolted off the ship to get my tires. I kept a brisk pace as I walked east along Second Street, counting down the numbers on the buildings until I reached Salmon Cyclery. The shop was dark. The door locked. The shop was closed on Monday.
I walked glumly back to the ship. I checked online again and found that my next chance to go to a bike shop was in Hood River the next day. I checked with my supervisor to see if I could run to town for a half hour, and I was ready to go. I didn’t count on the fact that as soon as we dropped our guests off at the dock, we left.
In retrospect, I can’t quite believe my patience. I guess I was still doggedly holding to the idea that I would be riding my bike the next day. “Tomorrow never comes.”
Finally, six days after I purchased my bike, I was in Portland, Oregon. Portland is one of the most bike friendly cities in the United States and I figured if I couldn‘t find the right gear here, I couldn‘t find it anywhere. I speed walked up Salmon Avenue counting the blocks to get to Tenth Street. There I would find the Bike Gallery. This was the closest bike shop to the ship in downtown Portland.
It seemed like my stars were finally starting to align. The shop was open, and well stocked. Before I left, I had measured the tires, and had memorized their dimensions since my first mistake earlier in the week. I talked with a skinny guy at the register, and he helped me find two tires, with matching tubes. I made my purchase, and went back to the ship.
I tolerated the day of work. I was slowly baking away in the hot sun, impatiently waiting to get off my shift. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Finally, 7 pm rolled around and I ran up to my bike. I quickly dismantled the tires in the gloaming of late evening and brought them down to the crew lounge aka Thom’s Bike Shop to put on the new ones. The tire said 26 inches. The rim said 26 inches. They should work, right? Wrong. The tires lied. After many frustrating minutes of trying to stretch the tire over the rim, I finally gave up. They weren’t going on. Upon measuring the tires, I found they were only 25 inches. It was another crushing blow, and I was beginning to lose heart in this futile project. I told the chief engineer, “At this point, I’m hoping I’ll get to ride it by November.”
The next day brought me to Astoria, Oregon. I gathered the last of my optimism and put it to good use. I had the following things going for me: It was my day off, I had a ride into town and Astoria has a bike shop that was open on Friday. I had all day to work on my bike if it came down to that. I was hoping it wouldn’t.
I had some time to kill before the bike shop opened. I put my time to good use by calling my brother. I sat on a park bench overlooking Astoria’s waterfront. It was a pleasant morning. The wind whisked charismatic leaves about the sidewalk. I couldn’t help but set up a few photos. The conversation was great. It reminded me of why I really like this guy.
I walked into the well-appointed bike shop in Astoria shortly after it opened. The owner wore a working man’s apron, spectacles and smile. I asked him if he had any bike tires that would work on the rim I had brought in with me. He said he might, and asked me to follow him to his tires section. He searched through his tires, testing them against my rim. He measured my rim, and tried some more, mumbling to himself while he searched. Finally, he turned to me, and gave me the bad news, “Sorry, I don’t have any that will work. I can order them for you though, and you’ll get them next week.” I thought about it for awhile, checked my calendar, and did the math. I just couldn’t face another week of this. I thanked him for his time and stepped out into the street.
I sighed, and wondered what I did to deserve this kind of run around. I had one option left that I didn’t think of before. What if I put my new tubes in my old tires? The old tires were well worn and cracked. They had sections of dry rot where the supporting mesh poked through. I decided to give them a shot. If it worked, I’d be riding that day, if it didn’t, I‘d be no further along then I currently was on this project. I caught a cab back to Tongue Point where we moored our ship. I went dumpster diving into the trash to pull out the old tires that I had thrown away the night before. I grabbed my tools, rims and new tubes and set to work.
The installation went well. By this time, I had become very proficient at changing bike tires. I had them reinstalled on the rims faster than you could recite Homer’s “Odyssey.” I crossed my fingers, and put air into the tubes. They inflated beautifully. Finally, after all that disappointment, I knew I could take my new bike out for a spin around the dock. I bounded back up to the Lido where my bike lay upside down. I bolted on the tires, and spun the wheels until they hummed. They rolled straight and true.
Down on the dock, I stepped into the pedals and took my baby on our first ride. It was awesome. I kept yelling at the occasional crewmember who walked by, “Look at me! Look at me! I’m Riding, I’m riding!” I was completely happy.
It passed its trial run. I grabbed my adventure bag, and set off down the dock at a comfortable speed. I didn’t know where I was going, but the unknown was calling my name. As I neared the first hill, I built up some speed to help me ascend the slope. Just as I started up the incline, I put all my weight into the downward stroke of the pedal, “POW!” My chain had snapped.
Now, I am blessed with a good sense of humor. At this point, all I could do was laugh. The irony, and comedic timing of this chain snapping was perfect. All of the pent up frustration I had with this bike drained away with my laughter. There was nothing to do about it. I braked to a stop, walked back a few feet to what was left of my chain, and wrapped it around my handlebars. I turned my bike around, and scootered it back to the boat. I hauled it up to its home and secured it to the rail. I put on my walking shoes, and stepped off the boat. I was going to walk to town.
For the rest of the day, I pampered myself, and enjoyed my day off. I went out for lunch at the Rogue Public House. I ate a delicious burger with a Dead Guy Ale. I stopped in at one of my favorite bookstores to peruse their racks. I found a book on writing style. Finally, I bought a new bike chain from the bike shop. I finished my spree by drinking a strawberry milkshake in the shade of a comfortable birch tree.
I caught the bus back to the ship. It was evening, and I decided to install my new bike chain. After tinkering a little on the new chain, I set it on my bike. I would test ride it the next day.
It’s getting dark out. The breeze blows steadily with occasional warm currents from the heat of the day still curl around me. A day past full, the moon is rising steadily over our little harborage. It casts a pale light across the vacant park I’m enjoying. I had just finished a satisfying slack line session. It’s hard to slack line at night, but it was fun all the same. I’m sitting with my back to a fragrant pine tree. I have a cold beer in my left hand. I’m watching the moonlit harbor scene morph around me. Taking an idea from my brother, I talk awhile about where I am in this world. It was a good chat. And it seemed like a good thing to do.
My bike is leaned on its kickstand. I messed up again. I didn’t tighten my rear wheel enough when I installed the chain. I’m completely at ease with the situation. I think there were many lessons taught to me from the last week and a half, and I feel like I’ve learned them.
After I finish my beer, I grab my gear and walk my bike back to the boat. Instead of housing my bike, I decide to wrench on it a bit and get the wheel back in place. This time, I tighten down the nuts with as much force as I can muster on my vice grips. I put my tools away, and push my bike up the ramp to the gravel parking lot. I tentatively try a few slow circles. I gain more confidence with each pedal stroke. Soon, I am flying along the asphalt trail, a moonlit streak in the dark park. The smile upon my face is as large as the moon. I feel young and alive - my skin tingles with excitement. I feel as though I just learned to ride a bike again. Once again, I’ve caught the exhilaration of freedom, and relearned the lesson of balance.