Peter Shelton

The Freedom of the Wheels

Posted in More Sport, Personal History, Watch columns by pshelton on August 23, 2012

Son-in-law Adam sent an iPhone video the other day of his kids cycling around their street in Bend, Ore. Alex looked super comfortable without the training wheels. I was there a couple of weeks ago, and the training wheels were still on then. Now he’s spinning around curves and over bumps and up onto the sidewalk. He’ll be 4 in a month.

Lily is 2 and a quarter. It was good to see Alex braking and waiting patiently for his sister to turn her tricycle around before he squeezed by on the inside.

Adam had mastered the two-wheeler before his fourth birthday, too. He was a New England prodigy who went on to a sponsored career on the NORBA pro mountain bike circuit. He’s so comfortable on a bike you’d swear he could fall sleep up there. Or make the wheels tap dance. The first time Ellen and I met him, he arrived for dinner at one of Hanover’s tonier restaurants on his BMX bike. He was wearing a nice clean shirt.

He and Cloe met on bikes a year or so before our dinner date. They were both stopped at a stoplight in Hanover. Cloe was in her first year at Dartmouth medical school. Adam was out for a training ride. Cloe was training, too. She had done some expert-class racing in Boulder and had joined Dartmouth’s cycling team (which went on to win the national road-racing championship that year).

They nodded to one another. Adam bolted at the green, determined to outpace the girl up the first hill. Part way up he was succeeding when it struck him: “You moron,” he said to himself, “That was a cute girl. And you are doing your macho best to run away from her?”

He slowed down. The rest is history.

When the pro riders careen down Lizard Head Pass and through the streets of Telluride and Montrose this week, we will marvel at their speed, at the precision-cricket sounds of their machines, at the string-bean leanness of their muscles. We are not in their league. But we will understand completely the feeling they have. Riding a bike is about as close to a universal language as there is.

I remember the first skinny-tire bike my parents got me. It was a single-speed. I was seven. And I couldn’t get over the rush of wind, the effortless momentum when I got her up to speed.

Those distance-gobbling wheels gave me the freedom to ride to school by myself, across whole neighborhoods – an independent soul in second grade. Later, when I had three speeds, the world expanded exponentially. I could circumnavigate Balboa Island. Or take the ferry across to the peninsula, a spit of land we could see from our house but was many driving miles around the bay by car. On these excursions I was master of my fate. I could ride out one of the piers and watch fisherman casting bait between the screeching gulls. I could go the other way and find myself a chocolate-covered frozen banana. I could go wherever I wanted, see what I could see, and still be home for supper.

Ellen and I courted on bicycles on Long Island near the town where she grew up. In dripping early-summer humidity we coasted past the vast lawns of Jay Gatsby’s desire.

We were living in my VW van and were looking forward to riding around Martha’s Vineyard until, after a winey lunch, I backed into a pine tree and crunched our bikes on their rack.

In the 1980s, the mountain bike revolutionized where you could go on wheels. You didn’t need roads anymore. While Cloe and Cecily were learning the rolling balance on the dirt streets of Ridgway, I was following ditches and animal trails to the source of the town’s water supply, 10 miles up the headwaters of Beaver Creek.

Now a new generation is learning to weave and coast. Alex and Lily. (And Boden won’t be far behind.) Feeling the slingshot gravity of a banked turn. The satisfaction of an efficient uphill grind.

Cloe, too, is back into biking now that her work allows a bit of time. She had told me, during the bleakest years of her internship and residency, that the children and the time away from cycling had sapped her desire to ride. But now in Bend, with its buffed single track, the athlete in her has returned.

Adam reported last week that there is a section of trail near where they live that is somehow “wired” (using GPS?) to give riders their time and speed up a certain climb. Other riders who sign up have their times posted on line as well. Adam said Cloe’s competitive juices were flowing and that she had tallied three Queen of the Mountain scores.

He might still be able to best her time, but she’s recaptured that ageless pleasure in flying close to the ground.