Monday, July 5, 2010

The Bicycle Race

I am not homeless (yet), but that's what this zippy fellow calls me whenever he passes me on the bike trail. He calls out, "Comin' through, Homeless," while he zooms past in all his colorful spandex glory. He has a red, white, and blue official-looking jersey, matching skin-tight pants, a swoopy red helmet, and those shoes that clip onto the pedals (which, I assume, help the rider go faster than us "homeless" people). He zips by so fast that I could never hope to catch him and remind him that his name-calling is an unwelcome addition to my day. I'm certain he imagines he's Lance Armstrong and I'm just an encumbrance on his way to some sort of imaginary victory.

That all changed the other day when we both happened to be stopped at the end of the bike trail, getting ready to make the 13 mile return trip. Here's our exchange, to the best of my recollection:

--Me: How come you call me "Homeless" every time you pass me?
--Imaginary Lance: Because your bike looks like the kind a homeless guy would ride. It's old and decrepit; the kind of bike you see at the curb on garbage day.
--Me: I got news for you, Lance, this bike has done its duty since 1972, long before you were born and has plenty of miles left in it.
--Imaginary Lance: My name's not Lance.
--Me: My name's not Homeless.
--Imaginary Lance: I don't have time for this. I'm meeting the members of the Evanston Bicycle Club at the other end of the trail.
--Me: Think I could join the club?
--Imaginary Lance: That hunk of junk couldn't keep up with us, besides, we require all members to wear helmets.
--Me: Oh, so it's a fascist organization.
--Imaginary Lance: What do you mean?
--Me: I have a club. It's the Condom Club. Everyone who joins must take an oath to wear condoms.
--Imaginary Lance: That's crazy. We just want to protect our members from harm.
--Me: Same with us at The Condom Club. Maybe we could join forces and have a great big club called the Evanston Bicycle and Condom Club and tell everybody how to run their lives. How about we race the entire length of the trail, and if I win, I'm in your club?
--Imaginary Lance: Are you kidding me? My bike has Trek's best carbon fiber racing frame. I could ride circles around that junk-pile of yours.
--Me: I think you're afraid.
--Imaginary Lance: I'll even give you a five minute head start.
--Me: I'm probably twice your age, but I'll only need 30 seconds, one second for every year difference in our ages.
--Imaginary Lance: You're on. Get goin', Homeless. I'll wave to you when I pass.

The trail takes a winding route through a forested corridor that follows the North Branch of the Chicago River. For the first couple of minutes, I pedaled with everything I had, leaning into every turn, running through all five speeds and breaking into an unbecoming sweat. It was reminiscent of the day in 1973 when I was pedaling past a construction site on the outskirts of the Loop, and a pack of guys wearing hard hats, yelled out, "Hippie on a bike! Get him!" They might as well have been chanting, "Kill the hippie, get his blood," but it wasn't likely they were familiar with "Lord of the Flies," though the intent was the same. It confirmed the stereotyped notion that this group of men remained steadfastly resistant to social change. A chase ensued, and that day, my escape from the lunch-time lynch mob might very well have qualified for a place in the Tour De France.

So now, with barely a mile into a 13 mile race, sweat pouring off me, and puffing like a chase-winded gazelle, I ran my bike off the asphalt path, straight into the woods and let it fall among the underbrush. Ducking behind a big oak tree, I waited, trying to catch my breath. Imaginary Lance came swooshing by, his sparkly red helmet tucked low over the handlebars, and his pricey shoes whirling like an eggbeater. He was out of sight within seconds.

Go West, was all I could think of as I dragged my bike out of the brush, off the trail and onto the street. Again, I began pedaling, but this time, a bit more leisurely, and headed straight for the train station which was only about a mile from the bike trail. The train runs somewhat parallel to the bike path, and at one point, crosses it. The good people who run the trains are gracious enough to allow bikes in the coaches during non-rush hour times. Fortunately, the conductor waved me aboard just as I arrived at the station. It was a scenic trip, and a real pleasure chatting with several passengers who were kind enough to comment on my eco-friendly method of travel.

The train stops within a block of the end of the bike trail, so I had time to pause on the platform, thank the conductor for a most comfortable ride, wave to my new-found commuter friends, and get a couple of raspberry ice cream bars before pedaling over to the path and wait for Imaginary Lance. When he finally showed up, I was on my last bite. I handed the other ice cream bar to him and said, "It's raspberry, the same refreshing flavor Bernadette Peters enjoys after a performance. It's a little melted, but I thought you'd be here sooner."
He was out of breath and could hardly speak. "Thanks. I don't know how you did it," he gave a suspicious glance at my bike, "On that thing."
"I make do with what I've got."
Still panting, he said, "About the club..."
"Never mind," I said, "I'm not much of a joiner."
He paused for a moment while inspecting his bike. "Maybe I should get better tires."
"Oh yes," I said while getting back on my bike, "Definitely look into that. And if you're in the neighborhood, drop by my cardboard box one evening and we'll talk strategy." He watched in silence as I gave a hearty wave while pedaling home, wobbly wheels and all.