Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Cycling Through Life

Michael Palin said one of the most important days of his life was when he learned to ride a bicycle, and so it was with me. 

And every spring since, there has always been that one day that marks the turning point, when a whiff of freshly thawed earth and new grass hits me, and it's so intoxicating I am as sun drunk as a gamboling lamb. 

As a child, warmer weather meant two things; I could replace the scratchy wool tights under my school tunic with knee socks once it hit 50F (mother's rule, strictly enforced) and I could haul my bicycle out of storage and once again pedal to infinity, and beyond. I remember my first proper two-wheeler in the early '60s. My parents led me into the living room and there, leaning against the white brick fireplace, was a new royal blue bicycle, complete with a bell and long pink streamers. I was so overwhelmed I froze, then sobbed, confusing everyone. They couldn't know, but I understood the significance of this moment. 

This wasn't just a bike, this was freedom, the means to become an intrepid explorer and go far beyond our dead-end street in the suburbs. 

Susan Anthony said, "She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life."And I believed it, even at that young age. I would master my life with that beauty.

My friends and I rode our bikes everywhere, a wild posse bent on adventure. You can't be sad when you ride a bike. It's the human equivalent of a dog hanging his head out of a car window. Nothing dampened my enthusiasm; not when the local bullies stepped in front of me on the road and the leader yanked the streamers from their rubber plugs, not when I wiped out and Zambonied the pavement with my face. I knocked out a front tooth and scraped the skin off my forehead the day before my Kindergarten photo was taken but in the shot, I'm still grinning from ear to bloody ear.

Later on, a bike brought me to my evening job at the doughnut shop across town, and my summer job at the golf course at 4:45 a.m. to prepare coffee for the early birds. It kept me employed and fit. Rolling down hills at dawn with the wind in my hair was as close to flying as a young girl could get.

When I graduated from university and landed a grownup job, I bought myself a 3-speed, black Raleigh with gold lettering, complete with bell, headlight and wicker basket looped on the handlebars. For a while, that bike was my entire social life. Every chance I got, I'd head home from my demanding job at a Toronto ad agency, load a sandwich and Newcastle Brown in the wicker basket, and head down to the island ferry. As we chugged across the water, the bustle of the city was left behind. I'd cycle around the island on those soft summer evenings, eat my picnic dinner on some grassy spot overlooking the harbour, and ponder my future while chilling with the ducks.

Years went by, I moved to Montreal, got married, had kids, and ended up in the suburbs where cars ruled the road, and racing bikes or mountain bikes were piloted by serious sports enthusiasts in matching spandex. The Mighty Raleigh gathered dust.

Now the kids are launched, and I am back in the city where bikes are de rigueur.  People commute to work, meander through parks, or visit farmers' markets on their bikes. Montreal is made for cyclists. I pulled my Raleigh out of storage for old time's sake, and she's still a sturdy, reliable old gal. I replaced the leather seat with a wide gel cushion to accommodate my wide gel cushion. The wicker basket is frayed but still serviceable, and the bell works. It's now a retro bike, dubbed a "crowd pleaser" and revered by hipsters sporting beards and man buns. Where once I was mocked for channeling Miss Gulch, I have circled back to cool. It's the preferred method of transport for artists and poets. When I fill that basket with flowers, a baguette and a bottle of wine, I'm living in a French novel.

I was in the process of booking a full bike rehab when my husband surprised me with a fire engine red electric bike. I'm not exactly sure how it works. It's like a scooter without the mojo. Apparently you can pedal it, or you can let it haul your carcass home if you run out of gas, metaphorically speaking. I'm just looking forward to climbing back in the saddle. My sweet Raleigh will be on standby because old school is on trend right now, and frankly, I need the workout.

Albert Einstein said "Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving." 

Einstein pondered the Theory of Relativity while he rode his bike. 

So maybe it's time to dream big, pedal hard, and enjoy the ride.