Growing up in the suburbs with a big field full of climbable trees, a fishable pond and ample hiding spots quite literally in my backyard meant I didn’t have to travel far for most of my fun. Always preferred that seemingly “wild” setting to the playgrounds in my neighborhood. The proximity of the field, a painfully small social circle, and a mom who seemed to be overly afraid that John Wayne Gacy was out lurking for her sons combined to mean I didn’t really need a bike. Everything I needed was nearby, and when we wanted to go to the pool or playground, mom or dad would throw us in the car and we would all drive there. I could count on 1 hand the amount of bikes I remember having after my training wheels came off. One of those bikes was stolen out of my backyard before I ever really got a chance to ride it, if I recall correctly. So, while I have a few fond bikecentric memories, like the first time I looked back at my dad and he realized wasn’t holding onto my seat anymore as he was teaching me to ride a 2 wheeler and the wildly steep dirt trails near my cousin’s house in Elmburst, most of my bike memories are far more nefarious. Black Widow pedals digging into my shins after missing the landing on a homemade ramp. Tattered jeans getting caught in my chain and – literally – walking home dragging a bike that was caught in my pants behind me. The jealousy of riding Wal*Mart specials when my friends had Dynos, Diamondbacks and Haros (with pegs!). The time I rode my bike too
close to a neighbor’s car and the metal end of the handlebar, which of course had poked out of the plastic hand grip, left an 18 or 20 inch gouge in the the paint. Even later in youth, when skateboarding became the biggest passion in my life and I was supposed to harbor nothing but animosity for rollerbladers, the fact of the matter was that…at the skate parks…the BMX guys were the assholes…not the “fruit booters.” To me, bikes were just something that people who got their drivers licenses taken away because of DUIs needed. An inferior source of recreation and transportation. A last resort.
So it came as a surprise to me when so many of my fellow suburbanites whom had defected to the big city became so entrenched in bike culture. Like myself, I remember these people desperate to obtain their drivers licenses and their own cars. Driving a car meant adulthood and meant freedom. You got a job so you could buy a car. You kept your job so you could keep your car. You kept your car because your car meant you could drive to the best skate spots, whenever you wanted. It meant you could drive to the punk and hardcore shows that, of course, took place nowhere near your house. It meant you could drive to Kenosha, a heavenly place where porn could be purchased by 18 year olds. And, although I certainly never learned this until I was way too old to learn this, you could use your car to take ladies out to the movies, which leads to, I’m told, other things. So when all my fellow drivers not only stopped driving, but started bragging about not driving and even getting rid of their cars…I was confused. Sure, driving in the city was no fun. I knew that first hand, but riding a bike in the city just seemed annoying and dangerous to me. And what about winter? Surely you couldn’t ride around the streets of Chicago on a bike in the fucking winter, right? Why marry yourself to bus and train schedules when you could just keep your car and come and go as you please?
Suburbanity is bliss, and I am about as suburban as it gets, now that I think about it. If you dropped me in Chicago at a random intersection and told me to meet you somewhere, I not only wouldn’t know which bus or train line to take, I wouldn’t know how to get there. And, even if you told me…I wouldn’t know, like, how to even fucking board and pay my fare. Is it cash only? Do I need exact change? I’d end up walking just out of sheer awkwardness.
Suburban life is not without it’s need for bikes, I found out last year, though. We are a one car family, and with me working days for the first time ever and my daughter in preschool for the first time ever, I realized that I could avoid having to wake my wife and daughter up at 7 AM to drive me to work if I just rode a bike to work. Sure, it’s hilly terrain out here, but it’s also only 5 miles or so. I’m sure I could manage. So, I borrowed my brother’s big Schwinn mountain bike and started riding to and from work twice a week. It turns out, after those first 3 or 4 treks, that I really started to enjoy it. Contrary to what I expected, I showed up for work feeling good and energized (albeit a little bit sweaty), and once I had gotten into a nice rhythm and routine, I even found myself leaving the house early, tossing my ultralight and some tackle in my backpack so I could stop and fish the ponds I passed on the way to work. Even landed one of my bigger basses on one of those days. And I had the forethought to strap my ipod to the handlebars and have video proof.
So, as the school year pressed on from the end of summer to the beginning of fall and the weather grew colder, my enjoyment grew a little colder as well. I adjusted the layering of my clothes, but the bulkier my pack got, the more I had to strap to the bike with bungee cords, the more I found myself laboring. The more I found myself laboring, the more my glasses fogged up from my breath as I rode, the sweatier I got under my layers and, consequently the less and less I enjoyed what had only 3 weeks ago been a purely enjoyable experience.
The bike itself wasn’t doing me any favors, I began to realize. A big burly mountain bike with a busted gearshifter that only allowed me access to gears 8-21. Apart from the shortcut I take out of our apartment complex and my various fishing spot detours (oh…and an grass-field shortcut I discovered on my last ride of the season), my entire ride to work is paved. So, after I finally tapped out to riding in the colder weather and the wife and kid began shlepping me to work and back on school days, I began to consider my options for a new bike of my very own. On my myriad trips to places like Wal*Mart and Target I began looking around at the bikes and noticed that, yeah, bikes ain’t the same as I remembered. There existed in my mind two kinds of “grown up” bikes when I was a kid. “10 speeds,” the tall bikes with the curved handlebars and skinny tires, and “mountain bikes,” which were obviously meant for ”trails and jumps.” I still saw plenty of mountain bikes, but the 10 speed demographic was not represented at all, as far as I could tell. Instead, there were cruisers and hybrids and road bikes and fixed gear bikes. They all seemed to take bits and pieces of the 10 speed and repurpose it for more specified use. Confusing to a bike n00b like myself. What is it I need? Fixed gear and road bikes didn’t seem like the best choices for me. With all the hills I encounter, I need more than one gear, and the road bikes look uncomfortable and more for speed. I am just riding to work…not racing. So that leaves the so-called cruisers and hybrids. The cruisers look awfully comfortable, and their bigger frames and tires would be NBD on my shortcuts and allow me to pedal right up to the water’s edge when I want to fish. The hybrids looked lighter and faster, though, which should probably be the biggest selling point for me, as that is where the bulk of the use will be, even if it means having to walk it over the rough gravel and grass I occasionally must traverse.
So, I tentatively determined that I think I wanted or maybe needed a hybrid bike. Talking to a few of my bike friends (whose car aversion I now totally understand, btw) reaffirmed this conclusion. So, not wanting to be saddled with the cheap department store bikes of my youth, I decided to start looking around at “better” bikes. Turns out, this is a daunting task when you know nothing. I pulled up craigslist and just searched “hybrid bikes.” Everything about the results was confusing to me. I didn’t know any of the brands, the terms, the measurements. I tried not to look at the prices, seeing as I had absolutely no way to make a value judgement.
So I snarfed my brother’s copy of BICYCLING magazine, as it proclaims to the the “2012 BUYER’S GUIDE” issue. Turns out the cheapest bike they recommend in the category I am looking at is $500. The most expensive is $1,700. There is a racing bike in here that is $15,000. When my friend Karen asked me “what will your price range be,” I didn’t venture a guess. Not just because I have no idea how much I will be able to set aside for a new bike, but also because I had no idea how much bike costs these days. Holy shit, though. I could quite literally buy a crappy car for the price of some of these bikes.
So…I ask you, the insane reader who has made it through the preceding 16oo fucking words…how the fuck do I pick out a bike? What size do I need? What should I look for/avoid? What should I expect to spend, and why? Please help.
Here is another iPod/handlebars video. This of the first hill on my ride out of my apartment complex.