“Vell, there they are,” said my beloved Viennese bride, Dagmar, pointing to her left. “Right where Mama said they were.”
“Do you think they still work?” I asked. “They’re kind of, well, old.” We were standing in my mother-in-law’s basement during the course of this particular conversation, looking at a pair of rather old bicycles that happened to be leaning rather pathetically against the wall, nestled in behind a few cardboard boxes. I reached for the closest bike. “You’re sure this is okay?”
“Yes, Mama said we could have them. Look – she even left us the owners’ manuals und everything.” Sure enough, there in a tidy little pile were all the relevant papers – owners’ manuals, receipts (dated 1985), and instructions.
“Well, okay then,” I said. I pulled the first bike out of it’s nest. “Oh! I guess the wheel’s not attached.” Dagmar took the bike from me as I reached back in to retrieve the errant front tire. “That’s interesting.”
“Do you tink they’ll work?” asked Dagmar. “You’ve wanted a bicycle for long time.”
“We should probably take them to the bike shop and have them looked at before we go riding,” I answered, looking the bike over. “It looks like all the tires are flat, and I’m sure some of the gears are probably a bit rusty.” I got the first bike from Dagmar and started wrestling it up the stairs. She followed, carrying the front tire.
With a minimum of fuss we got the bike up the steps and into the car. “We can only fit one bike at a time in our trunk,” I said. “We’ll have to come back for the other one later.”
“Vell, dis one is yours,” Dagmar answered. “I can vait until next week for mine. Let’s take yours to the bike shop and we can vait on mine a little while.” She always talks just a little bit faster when she’s nervous, you know, and her German accent gets a little more pronounced. “That vill give you time to practice on your bike so you can teach me. Ve can wait on mine, dat’s just fine mit me.”
“I have an idea,” I said, getting into the car. “Why don’t we take this one to the bike shop now, then come back for yours right away?”
“Ve can vait on mine,” she repeated quietly, getting into her side of the car. “I’m afraid of riding bikes.” She sat quietly throughout the five-minute trip to the bike shop. Once at the shop, we drug the bike out of the trunk and wrangled it into the store. As we stood there waiting for someone to help us, in a very small voice, my wife said, “The last time I rode a bike I fell over and got hurt.”
“Don’t worry, Snookums,” I said, patting her on the head. “We’ll go over to a big parking lot and practice where no one will laugh at us. I haven’t been on a bike in 25 years either.” We went back to waiting patiently for someone to help us. Dagmar wandered off to look at all the pretty shiny things.
“Oh mein Gott! Vill you look at the PRICE of this thing?” She pointed to one of about twenty-five bicycles all lined up on a rack. I looked. $4,500 for a bicycle. I started to feel faint. You can buy a motorcycle for that kind of money…
About that time, a rather harried-looking gent came up to us. “May I help you,” he said. I explained to him that we had two bicycles and we wanted someone to look them over and fix them for us. “Yep,” he said. “We can do that. Just bring the other bike in sometime this afternoon and we’ll have both of them ready for you by Thursday.” Back to Mama’s we went, then back to the bike shop to drop off the second bike. All is right with the world.
The week dragged by, slower than usual. Every time the phone rang I jumped with glee, hoping it would be the bike shop telling us our bikes were ready. For a couple years now I’ve had it in the back of my mind that I could use a bicycle. I could ride it to work. I could ride it here. I could ride it there. I would have fun if I had a bicycle! I could maybe even lose weight and be healthy again… I’d visit my friends more often if I had a bicycle. You can do LOTS of things on a bicycle!
Finally, finally Thursday arrived. I trudged to work, thinking at every step that things would be much easier if I had a bicycle. By ten in the morning I was on the phone, wailing to Dagmar, “The bike shop hasn’t called yet! I think they forgot about us!” She told me that it was only ten in the morning and that I should really give them more time. I put my cell phone on my desk in front of me so I could answer it quickly, should the bike shop call. At noon I called my cell phone from my office phone, just to make sure it was working. Yep, it worked. By three in the afternoon I was convinced that the bike shop was personally toying with my emotions by not calling.
“I don’t think they have them done yet,” said Dagmar to me at 3:30, a slightly hopeful lilt in her voice. “They would have called by now.”
“I know!” I said. “I know. But I think we should go to the bike shop anyway. Maybe if we go down there in person they’ll have our bikes ready for us!” I could hear my wife rolling her eyes in exasperation.
“Okay,” she said. “Ve can go to the bike shop after work and pester the nice man.”
So, promptly at 5:05 we were at the bike shop. “Yes,” said the man, a different man than before, “I think we just finished your bikes. They should be done now.” He went into the back room. Dagmar wandered around the store. I fidgeted, hopping from one foot to the other. After what seemed like three weeks the man came back, wheeling our two bikes out of the fix-it room. “Are these yours?”
“Yep!” I said. “Those are ours. Do they work?”
“Of course they work,” said the man. He looked at Dagmar. “You might want to lower your seat a little,” he said. He looked at me, then back at Dagmar, then back to me again. “And maybe you might want to get more comfortable seats.”
“We’re that old?” I asked. He nodded apologetically. I sighed. “Okay, how much are new seats? We don’t have much money left.”
After a minimum of bickering and dealing, the man sold us two used seats for $7 each and a chain without a lock for $2, and taught me how to change a seat and adjust the bikes for height. Back out to the car trotted Dagmar and I, each one of us wheeling a bicycle.
“Ve can only put one bike in the car,” observed my wife. “How are we going to get them both back home?”
“We’ll put your bike in the car, and I’ll ride my bike home,” I said. “The bike trail is just a block away from here, and it goes almost all the way to our house.”
“That makes me nervous,” she said. “I don’t like the idea of you riding a bicycle.”
“Honey, I ride a 1500cc motorcycle every day. I think I can handle a little bicycle,” I said, putting hers in the trunk of the car.
“I don’t like this,” she repeated.
I kissed her on the nose, patted her on the backside, and watched her get in the car. I waited until she drove off before I got on the bicycle.
Words of wisdom: If you haven’t been on a bicycle in 25 years and are hoping to start riding again, DON’T get on the bicycle for the first time in front of a bike shop full of 22-year-old men who ride $3,000 bikes 50 miles a day. Don’t do that. It’s embarrassing. After Dagmar left in the car, I stood there for a second trying to remember just how to get on a bike. Do you flip your leg back and over, like a motorcycle? Or do you tilt the bike down and sort of slide onto it? With a mental shrug I decided to do the “flip your leg back and over,” just like on my motorcycle. Unfortunately, the seat on the bicycle is about a foot taller than the seat on my motorcycle. Combine that with the fact that I habitually wear engineer boots, and a person watching could well think I had decided to attack my bicycle seat utilizing a bizarre form of karate. Up back WHANG kick thud down DANG I hope no one saw that. As I bent over to pick the bike up I couldn’t help but see about ten guys in the bike shop trying very hard not to laugh.
I got the bike back up on two wheels and gave it a cursory examination. About all I could tell was that the seat was still attached, despite my effort to kick it off; for all I knew it may have been on backwards. I walked the bike down the sidewalk a little so I wasn’t standing right in front of the bike shop window and tried again.
Success! Wheee! I was now on a bicycle, for the first time since junior high school. Well, not “on” exactly, but I was straddling it, and had every intention to hoist my tuckus up onto that seat somehow. (I really don’t remember the seat on my old bike, 25 years ago, being that high.) Well, they say you never forget how to ride a bike, so… One foot on a pedal, push down and UP I go, landing on the seat. Hands on the bars and ZOOM away I go! By the time I got about half a block I could tell something was wrong. Is my @ss supposed to be sticking up in the air like this? Is the seat really supposed to feel like a sharp stick? Are the handlebars really supposed to be that low? Searching my memory banks didn’t help, all my brain could come up with was “this ain’t natural,” and “your butt is sticking up in the air, dummy.”
I didn’t dwell on my lack of comfort, however – I had bigger things on my mind, like traffic, an upcoming intersection, and brakes. Which one is the front brake, and which one the rear? Is there a difference? Which one should I use? Has anyone checked the brakes? Do they work? Why are all those cars going so fast? How do you stop this thing? ACK! I grabbed both brakes at the same time and squeezed. The bike screeched to a VERY abrupt halt. Not being able to touch the ground whilst sitting on the sharp stick they refer to as a “seat,” I rather gracelessly sort of slumped over. I didn’t fall all the way over, thankfully, but I’m sure I brought a smile to someone’s face… “Hey, did you see that hippie just fall off his bicycle? Oh look! He’s getting back on again!”
Eventually I managed to get through the intersection and onto the bike trail. (Sioux City had once been flooded when Perry Creek rose over its banks, so they’ve been re-working the entire Perry Creek area, widening the channel, building new bridges and putting a bike path along the creek. No one knows when they’ll finish – they’ve been working on it for ten years now.) Breathing a sigh of relief that I was now out of the public eye, I let the bike coast down the hill to the creek.
Now this isn’t bad! Zip zoomy wheee! The wind blew my hair back as I coasted along, barely touching the pedals. I reveled in the moment! Down the hill I went. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the water in the creek glistened, the flowers bobbed their heads, the nice man driving the bulldozer waved hello to me, the butterflies wafted gently in the breeze… Wait. Bulldozer?
Again I grabbed both brakes as hard as I could, slamming to a halt just inches from the barrier they put across the path to keep morons, idiots and hippies from riding their bikes through construction zones. Evidently I’d missed the five signs they’d put up telling people the bike trail was closed… With a sigh I turned my bike around and started back to the intersection.
Where did this hill come from? Boy, it sure didn’t seem that steep when I was going down… And just how did I manage to go this far already? Up the hill I pedaled. And up. And up. Farther and farther… Gradually, as I worked my way up the hill, I grew aware of a peculiar noise. THUD thud thud THUD thud thud. After a bit of thought I came to the conclusion that either it was my pulse whumping away in my ears or it was the blood vessels in my nose bursting. I never did figure out which it was…
A couple months later I was half a block farther along. The THUD thud thud THUD in my ears was now accompanied by the rattle of small rocks on the sidewalk as I wheezed up the hill, sucking air like a Hoover on methamphetamines. For a while I was afraid I might actually inhale a pebble.
A few years after that, as I was nearing the top of the hill, the THUD thud rattle rattle wheeze THUD was enhanced by a high-pitched screeching sound. It was the sound of my legs screaming.
With a pant and a gasp and a wheeze I finally got back to the intersection. I had to look down to be sure my legs were still attached. I stopped and looked back. I had, in all this time, managed to go FOUR BLOCKS. Two downhill, and two back up. And you know what, it’s not even really a hill — it’s more of a knoll. A bump, maybe. I’m half-dead, and I’ve gone four blocks, and to make matters worse – I was back where I started! I still have a couple miles to go before I get home.
As I stood there, waiting for the feeling to return to my legs, my phone chirruped politely. It was Dagmar. “Vhere are you? I’m at home; I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting…”
“I’m about half a block from the bike shop,” I wheezed at her. “I’m making good progress, though…”
I started off again, this time on normal streets as the bike path was closed. After a block or two I started to get back into the hang of things a little. But boy, did my legs hurt! I sure wish there was a way to make this easier…
Wait… This is a ten-speed. It has gears. GEARS! Doh!
Once I got the bike into the proper gear things went MUCH easier. I was still confounded by some strange noises, though. The one that took me the longest to figure out was a sort of “whap whap whap” sound coming from right below me. It took me a block and a half to figure out it was my knees slapping my flabby, drooping belly. Whap whap whap. I’m hoping that noise will eventually go away.
Covered in sweat I finally pulled up in front of our Little House in the ‘Hood. The love of my life was waiting for me at the front door. “Vell? How did it go?”
I have to admit, I let out a string of heartfelt curses so foul I think I stunned a poor innocent bird who happened to fly by. “So,” said my wife once I’d wheezed to a halt in my tirade, “not so good, huh.”
“This thing hurt me,” I said, getting off the bike. “It hurt me. This was a dumb idea. I hate bicycles.”
“I vant to try mine,” she said, ignoring my staggering lurches about the yard (my legs had quit screaming and were reduced to pathetic little whimpers). “Can you help me get it out of the trunk?” I’ve learned long ago that there’s no arguing sometimes. Manfully I flopped my way over to the car and got Dagmar’s bike out for her.
Up she hopped and down the driveway she went. “WAAAAAA how do you stop this thing?” Out into the street she went. “WAAAAAA how do you turn this thing?” She put her feet down and stopped, 20 feet from where she stopped. She looked at me. “I don’t like riding bicycles,” she said, matter-of-factly.
We put the bikes in the garage. After a while my pulse had slowed down to about 746 beats per minute and my poor legs were feeling like legs again, so I went outside, hammer in one hand, wrench in the other. I was going to fix those bicycles one way or another…
Within a few hours I had replaced Dagmar’s seat with a more comfortable one (we got it from the bike shop for seven dollars, used), lowered the seat, replaced my seat (twice actually), lowered my seat, and (a few days later) put water bottle racks on both bikes.
“Okay,” I said to Dagmar. “Let’s try this again. Things should work better now.” She nodded affably and followed me out to the garage. I explained the changes I’d made.
“Do you think it vill work?” she asked. “I don’t like riding bicycles.”
I assured her that things would be much more comfortable now, and the bike would be easier to ride. “I just want to go down to the bike trail,” I said. “It’s closed over by the bike shop, but it’s open here.”
“How do ve get onto the bike trail?” asked my Hunny-Bee.
“There’s an ‘on-ramp’ just over the bridge, not half a block from here.”
“Are you sure you vant to do this? You’re still walking kind of funny…”
“Let’s give it a try,” I said.
With that, my beloved wife hopped up on her bicycle, rang her little ding-ding bell once or twice and off she went! “Wheeee!” she hollered. “This is MUCH better!” Down the driveway, onto the sidewalk, and into the alley she went, headed for the street. “But how do you stop?” she yelled. Then, “WAAAAAHHH!” I looked up, just in time to see my wife sheepishly wave at the big four-wheeled truck she’d pulled out in front of. The mean-looking man in the truck glowered at my wife as she walked her bike past his hood ornament. “I’m sorry,” she called. “I haven’t been on a bike in twenty years.” The man broke out in a big smile and waved. Dagmar has that effect on men.
We continued our journey. Over the bridge we went, and then onto the bike path. “Oh, I like this!” Dagmar said. “Now THIS is fun!” And it was indeed fun. With my padded seat at the right height things went much better for me, too. We smiled at each other and pedaled off down the trail, wondering where it led. We swooped up and down hills, over neat footbridges, and eventually wound up miles from home, breathless and smiling.
“Vhat a beautiful trail!” Dagmar said. I nodded. And indeed it was, for the most part.
“Yep, I really like the way they’ve done things,” I said. “The footbridges are really neat, and the trail is nice, and the streetlights and park benches… It’ll look really nice when the trees grow a bit more. Too bad we live in ‘Gangland’. The graffiti sucks.”
As nice as the trail was, you couldn’t help but notice the gang symbols and signs spray-painted on almost every flat surface along the trail – mostly under the bridges. What really bothered me is that this section of the trail had only been open for a day or two and it had already been tagged. It seems that our happy little bike path is ground zero for a turf battle between the Vice Lords, West Side Locos and MS-13. Fortunately, the police have just recently declared that they’re creating a new gang task force to deal with the issue. (I don’t know why they don’t simply put hidden cameras up under the bridges, wait for twenty minutes, then go arrest whomever is holding the can of spray paint.)
In any case, we’ve truly enjoyed exploring the bike paths the past week. My posterior has gotten out of the “flaming red baboon butt” stage and is starting to get used to the bike seat, and the hills are getting a bit easier to navigate. From our house, we can get on the bike path and go all the way to the grocery store and bank without having to deal with any traffic at all, and if we go the other way we can get to the Barbeque joint, the Art Center, and nearly to Historic Fourth Street. If we cut across a parking lot, we can go from “our” bike path to the Riverfront paths – we don’t even know how far those go yet, but Dagmar thinks we can get to Riverside. I’ve heard rumors that they’re going to build a bridge from Riverside to Dakota Dunes, but to be honest I have no desire to go to the Dunes.
Parts of the trail near the downtown area are six years old now, and are beautifully developed and landscaped. (I have some better photos – I’ll put a link up soon.) Streetlights that actually work line the flower-strewn path as it meanders along.
In the past few days the city has painted over the graffiti in our neighborhood, only to have the vandals spray their inane, juvenile crud over everything again. (“Why can’t the city afford to finish the bike path? Because they’re spending all their money cleaning up vandalism.” Sucks.) But, as of yesterday, the city had come out yet again and had repaired most of the damage.
All in all, we’re VERY happy with what Sioux City has done with the bike paths. They’re going to be a benefit to the city for a long time, provided the gangs don’t take over, and the police chief is taking care of that problem. Dagmar has been biking every day for the past week, but she’s still afraid to go some places on her own due to the thugs that hang out under some of the bridges… But again, I have faith that the police will get a handle on the situation soon.
Now… does anyone know how to fix a front dérailleur? Mine doesn’t seem to want to shift for some reason. And I gotta figger out how to raise my handlebars a bit.