Ready to ride once again

September 22, 2001|By Rob Kasper

Maybe it is the golden weather, or the lure of the autumnal equinox, or my personal need to lift what President Bush eloquently described Thursday night as "a dark threat of violence" from daily life. Whatever the reason, I am looking forward to the weekend, its rhythms, its rites and even its chores.

From trekking to Camden Yards to holler for the struggling Orioles, to squirming in the bleachers while watching my kid play high school football, to puttering around the fading garden, I find myself anticipating routine weekend duties. I have even added a few new ones, involving bicycle upkeep, to my regimen.

Last weekend, for instance, I cleaned and degreased a bicycle chain and its attendant cogs. This was maintenance first for me, and I must say it was a strangely satisfying experience.

I hesitate to call this bicycle - a mountain bike of unknown brand - "my bike." It is a "family bike" and like most family possessions, it has been around the block a few times.

When it rolled out of a shop some five years ago, the bike was used primarily by our younger son, then 11 years old. He mastered the mysteries of its gears and even installed a battery-powered speedometer on it. One fall his older brother borrowed the bike and slapped on a pannier, or saddlebag, for a three-day excursion into the wilds of Pennsylvania with his high school class. The older brother returned from the class trip with stronger thighs and an improved appreciation of the importance of not getting lost. The bike returned none the worse for wear.

Over the years the bike had often been carried on the back of the family station wagon over to the Eastern Shore to traverse its flat, inviting paths. But when the younger kid turned 16, the lure of motor car travel won him over, and the bike sat idle in the basement.

Then a few Saturdays ago, feeling the need to let off some steam and to reduce my thickening middle, I wheeled the bike back into action.

The cliche, "like riding a bicycle," implies that once you have mastered a skill, you quickly can pick it up again, even years later. I think that cliche, like the kind of bicycle I rode as a kid, is outdated.

The bike of my boyhood was a simple mechanism; you pushed the pedals forward to go forward. You pushed the pedals back to stop. This mountain bike, by contrast, has two sets of gears, a derailleur or two, and hand brakes, which I kept a firm grip on. Speaking of firm, the bicycle seat seems to come from the no-pain, no-gain school of design.

Adjustments, both in my brain and on the bike, had to be made in my riding style. I consulted with a couple of serious cyclists, guys who wear body-hugging shorts and those cool, Star Trek-type helmets. They told me to put more air in my tires, to adjust the seat until my legs are slightly bent at full pedal extension. And they told me to clean my chain.

Cleaning and lubricating your chain is, I learned, a ritual with cyclists. It begins by spraying politically correct degreaser onto your bike parts. The aerosol can I bought for $10 at a bike shop was filled with biodegradable, nontoxic, non-corrosive and non-flammable foam and made by an outfit in California called "Sunshine." The foam, which I gather is the bicycle equivalent of the "scrubbing bubbles" that scour bathrooms, attacks grit. An old toothbrush and a retired, thin baseball sock assisted in removing grime from hard-to-reach places. An odd feeling of accomplishment came over me when I looked down at once-sooty gears and saw glistening, immaculate metal.

The cleaning and subsequent anointing of the chain with lubricant is not only supposed to make a cyclist feel better, but I gather, it is also supposed to make the gears on the bike work smoothly.

If the gears are working correctly, the journey up a steep grade, like the Hollins Avenue hill near Robert E. Lee Park or the one leading up the Carrie Murray Nature Center in Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, should be a graceful and relatively quiet ascent.

I went up those hills recently and, even with my clean and freshly lubed bike, it was a struggle. I don't know what made more noise: the rattle of my bike chain as I tried to find the correct gear or the wheezing of my lungs as they attempted to get a breath of air.

But after the hard, sweaty trip up, there was the cooling ride down. Rolling down a road with the sweet autumn air rushing over your skin is a simple solace, a tonic of nature, the kind of weekend relief that a lot of us thirst for.

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