I am beyond fortunate to be able to ride great bikes, bikes built for me, although I’d hesitate to make that one of the criteria of what makes a bike great. When I was 7, I got my first bike, a purple, sparkly clunker that was a source of laughter for the other kids in the neighborhood. The chain brushed the guard on every spin of the pedals, so you could hear me coming. I sounded like someone with a seizure disorder playing the washboard in demonic zydeco band. But that was a great bike, simply by virtue of the freedom and mobility it afforded me. That bike took me places.
I knew it was a bad bike, even then. In fact, I knew it was the worst bike. Maybe it’s just the passage of time, each year burnishing that purple sparkle and pushing the embarrassed memories of being the kid with the worst bike further back into mist of memory.
The red BMX machine I found in front of the Christmas tree the following year was a great bike. That bike moved me from worst to first in the two-wheeled pecking order. I rode it through pine woods, into far off neighborhoods well outside the bounds of parental permission, over badly made plywood jumps. I was a star on that bike. No. Strike that. The bike was the star. I was the sidekick. It made me incomparably happy.
Of course, it wasn’t the best. There were much cooler BMX bikes to be had at the time. Mine was heavy, lacked mag wheels, and was too big for me in accordance with the great tradition of buying your kid a bike he can grow into. To admit these things now, nearly four decades later, seems disrespectful to the memory of that bike, even if they are demonstrably true.
More bikes followed. Each was a revelation to receive (or buy). Each was fun to discover. They were all great in their way. Each one gave me some measure of happiness, even as I outgrew them, physically or philosophically.
It seems true to me that every bike embodies a contradiction, great but simple virtue of being a bicycle, the original freedom machine, but also insufficient as a static object tasked with being dynamic, growing with our bodies and/or imaginations. The old saw about n+1 being the correct number of bikes to own, where n equals the number you own now, is born of this insufficiency. A bike can make you happy, even as you are not entirely happy with your bike.
This week’s Group Ride asks, are you happy with your bike now? If you are, what are the three things about it that light you up? If not, what are you looking for? What’s next? Is purple sparkle one of them?