March 9, 2012 | Feature
War of the Wheels
how bicycles wreaked havoc on my life in a single semester
article by anita badejo
We pulled up to Mike’s duplex and headed straight for the backyard, as he had instructed us. On the left, a row of bicycles stood like dominoes. Directly across from them, a shed contained bicycles hanging from the ceiling in various stages of repair, like metal meat carcasses in a butcher’s shop. I spotted the gold Dunelt in the far corner of the yard, leaning against the weathered wooden fence.
“Hello!” we called out.
Through the screen of the duplex’s window, I could see the silhouette of a figure rising slowly from a sofa. Mike came outside. He was not a particularly big man, perhaps 5’8” or so, with short, wavy hair the color of faded straw and small eyes with soft creases around their edges. He wore what I call “90s jeans,” the kind with a pre-faded, grainy sky-blue wash, and his white t-shirt was smudged with what I assume was grease. As Grac had promised, he was nice and I got the sense he was an old soul. The slow cadence I had heard in his voice when we spoke on the phone made me think he would be older than the thirty- or forty-something who stood before me.
As I had already told him I was interested in the Dunelt, Mike directed me toward the corner where it waited.
The bike wasn’t as much gold in person as it was brown, years of rust having caked on its surface, and the handlebars, which probably had been white once, were a urine yellow. It reminded me of shots of the Titanic sitting forlorn at the bottom of the ocean. I also realized from eye-balling the seat that it would be too high for me. Nearly toppling over after attempting to get on it soon confirmed this.
“Maybe I should look at something else…” I said, my eyes scanning the rest of the yard. They finally rested on a small, baby blue ladies’ bike sitting at the end of the domino row.
“That one’s cute.”
Mike, having followed my gaze, nodded and shot me a look of remorse. “Yeah, it’s not finished yet, though.”
I glanced at a couple of other bikes. And then I saw it: a vintage, burgundy-red, ladies’ Schwinn 3-speed. The seat was an original: leather, half-red, half-white, with a big, curvy “S” in the middle. The bike had a chain guard with some faded lettering on it. I remembered having seen it on the website and thinking it resembled something Pee-Wee Herman would ride—tacky, cheesy, gaudy. But in person, it was perfect. As I walked towards it, I realized the handlebars were red, too. And they were sparkly.
“I LOVE this one!” I exclaimed, bypassing Grac.
“Oh, that one’s for the fashionable girl,” Mike said.
I didn’t need to be told twice. With a quick adjustment of the seat, I was on the bike and in the street, testing it out. Jeremy and Grac stood by the car and watched.
“Isn’t it SO CUTE?!” I yelled, whirring past them.
“Yeah, have you checked the brakes?” Jeremy called out.
“The handlebars are SPARKLY!”
“…Did you make sure the gears shift properly?”
I clutched at the hand brakes a couple of times and clicked through the three gears. The bike braked. The gears moved. Seemed fine to me.
“I think everything’s good!” I beamed as I got off and walked back into Mike’s yard. “I’ll take this one.”
“OK, cool,” he said. “Was that you that was squeaking down the street? Sounded pretty loud.”
“Oh, I hadn’t noticed anything.”
“Well, did the brakes squeak when you squeezed them?”
“Maybe, not really sure…”
“Let me just oil them up for you before I leave.”
A few minutes and $90 later, we left. I was giddy the whole way back to Providence.
“It’s. Just. SO. CUTE.” I sing-songed for the millionth time from the backseat.
When we arrived home, I began checking out my new ride more closely as Jeremy hauled it out of the Pilot’s trunk. I read the words on the chain guard: “Columbia SportsStar.”
“That’s strange,” I said to myself. “Isn’t Columbia another bike manufacturer? I thought this was supposed to be a Schwinn…” I looked at the seat again, making sure I wasn’t imagining things. Yep, the letter on it was still an “S.”
It would take me a little while to realize I’d just bought the Bike of Frankenstein.
My first day with the bike, I took it for a spin around the block and down to India Point Park, growing more and more confident in my cycling abilities with each push of its pedals.
Because it was a Monday and Legend Bikes was closed, I couldn’t purchase a lock for it right away, but instead kept it tucked away behind the door of the landing to my house. I darted in and out of the stairway every hour to make sure no one had stolen it. “Did you see the red bike downstairs?!” I asked every friend who stopped by. By the end of the day, I had exhausted myself of excitement and explanation so much that I’m pretty sure the last person to set foot in our place was greeted with a proud and princess-y “MINE!”
The next morning, I went to Legend. I needed the lock, as well as lights. I also needed a basket for a place to put the enormous, burnt-orange bag I use to carry my books everyday (I call it “Pumpkin.” I don’t do backpacks.).
Upon arriving at the shop, I was directed toward the rack of Kryptonite locks by a friendly, soft-spoken man in his mid- to late-thirties. I balked as he listed their prices: the cheapest one was $25.
“The Keeper 12,” he noted, handing me the U-shaped lock. It was surprisingly heavy.
“This should be fine, as long as you are locking your bike somewhere relatively safe.”
“Well, what do you use?” I asked him, curious.
“Oh, me? I have this huge, metal chain that I can wind around my bike several times when I need to lock it. I wear it around my waist while riding.”
I decided I’d keep the Keeper.
He then led me to the lights, and, having sensed my earlier distress, wasted no time in showing me the cheapest ones: $20.
Finally, we arrived at the baskets. After attempting to decide between a front one or a side one, I settled for the side: $35.
“There’s also an installation fee.”
I paid for the lock and the lights and left, promising to be back for my bike, avec basket, before the shop closed at 6 p.m. When I came back, the receipt had already been printed for me. The total? $110.97. I stood in front of the cash register, refusing to believe my eyes. I quickly ran the math in my head:
Lock&Lights: $48 (with tax)
However, trying not to dwell on the serious dent I had just put in my September budget, I instead decided to focus my thoughts on the East Bay Bike Path ride I had agreed to go on with Grac the next day.
The ride started off well enough. Grac and I found where we needed to get on the path and rode side by side, eventually marveling at Narragansett Bay. Approximately 20 minutes in, Grac shot me a quick look over her shoulder.
“Do you hear that?” she asked.
“Is that…your bike?”
I was hoping no one would notice, but the further we got into our ride, the less I could deny that my bike was, indeed, making a noise that I can only describe as…unique. Half-screech, half-squeak, I imagined it lay somewhere on the spectrum between a whale song and a hyena’s cackle. And it was loud. I began to realize that the noise only occurred when I pedaled so, for the next 10 minutes before we turned around and the subsequent half-hour back home, I switched between pedaling furiously for a few seconds at a time and then coasting as long as I possibly could, before I would nearly topple over and pedal again out of necessity. I called it “interval training.”
When we arrived home, I tried not to feel dejected, reminding myself that there are worse things than having a bike that squeaks when you pedal.
For instance, having a bike that doesn’t pedal at all.
It was two weeks into the semester, when I’d finally learned to stop cringing with embarrassment each time I squeaked my way to class, that it first happened. I’d be pedaling as usual, listening to the soft click-click-click of the bike’s chain, when all of a sudden it would just stop catching, my legs meeting no resistance and spinning fruitlessly. For a while, I would steer myself toward the sidewalk, hop off, and make the chain catch again. Yet, after a couple of days and numerous lack-of-catching conundrums, I realized it probably wasn’t the safest thing for me to consistently lose control of my bike in the middle of the street. I emailed Mike, who suggested I come back out to Warwick to let him take a look. I knew I’d have to borrow Jeremy’s car and pay him for gas, but that seemed like a small cost when compared with what I might face at Legend.
“Oh yeah, this shouldn’t take long,” Mike said, surveying my bike after I wheeled it into the backyard.
I ended up staying for 3 hours. The problem apparently had something to do with the wiring in the hubcap, so he had to replace my entire back wheel. He also greased the pedals, since I mentioned the noise.
“You really shouldn’t have any problems with it from now on.”
That is, until the next day when, as I was biking to the gym, it happened again. Click-click-click-click-click-SPIN-SPIN-SPIN-SPIN-SPIN. I nearly ran into one of the orange construction cones on the side of the street.
I emailed Mike again who, this time, offered me a new bike altogether.
“I’m getting the sky blue 5 speed you so admired ready, sound ok?”
He was referring to a baby blue bike I had also mentioned was “cute” the first time I saw him. And he was nice enough to offer to re-install the basket I had already paid to have installed on my burgundy bike as well. So, the next weekend, I borrowed the Pilot again and shelled out some more money for gas. Mike was just taking the new bike off his work stand when I arrived.The seat was plain black, as were the handlebars. And they weren’t sparkly. I looked down, wistfully, at my burgundy Schwinn.
“I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Now, if this were anything but my life, it would be impossible for me to write that, two hours after bringing my new blue bike home, I realized the brakes squeaked. That two days after that, I took it to Legend Bikes, where I paid $25 more to have both of them as well as a couple of metal parts replaced. That, one week after that, my foot accidentally caught on the right brake cable mid-ride and subsequently ripped it out. That, a couple of weeks after that, I fell off my bike in the park and was left with a scar. That, a couple of days after THAT, my tire went flat and a friend of mine had to pump it up for me. That, the day after the friend pumped it up, the tire went flat again, indicating that my tube needed to be replaced.
No, if this were anything but my life, none of these things would have happened, because most people just get to buy one bike for $90 at the beginning of their senior year and call it a day. But here I am, about $300 short of where I should be this semester and scuttling to class at times because I still forget I have to walk.
For the remainder of last semester, my blue bicycle stayed locked to the fence behind my house, where I could see it from my bedroom window. My friends chastised me for leaving it out over Winter Break. They also conducted an emergency rescue mission on it upon learning that a city plow had buried it in snow when we arrived back in PVD. Today, it’s locked inside the house behind the front door.
The bike’s lights are gathering dust on my desk, as I never did get around to putting them on after Mike took them off the Franken-bike for me (actually, scratch that—I never even put them on that damn burgundy bike in the first place). Its front tire tube still needs to be replaced, as does its right brake cable, which is wrapped haphazardly around the frame so it doesn’t hang off too much. My roommates don’t even bother to ask me when I’m going to take it to Legend anymore. I have neither the money nor the time. I do, however, have two feet. And they are doing just fine.