A bicycle that has grown old with you has a history. Your history. You turned it into the path and followed the path.
The sun was at a certain angle. The clouds looked like animals or hats. Sometimes they looked like clouds. You looked at them long enough to make sure you didn’t run into them. Sometimes you did. That was when the clouds looked like fog. Because they were fog.
Shapeless, mysterious. Little cat feet. Adrienne Barbeau in a lighthouse. Somewhere, a banjo.
Remember the time you approached the Mississippi bridge at Alton in the morning and only half the bridge was visible? Intellectually you knew the rest of the bridge existed. You had ridden the bridge before. But was the link to the other side still there? Probably. Was it spooky? Absolutely.
There were two ways to find out whether the bridge was intact: wait for the fog to lift or pedal ahead. Into the fog you went. Into the fog you’ll go again.
There’s a story about people suffering from a disease that causes them to go blind. The early stages of the disease involve the progressive loss of memory. The people, realizing they are losing their collective memory, but not yet aware that their vision is next, start writing everything down.
The first notes are relatively simple; as the memory lost becomes more profound, the notes become more complicated, more detailed.
One of the last notes is written on the side of a cow, explaining what the cow is, how to take care of it, how to get milk from it, what milk is and why it’s important, and so on.
I don’t believe this particular note became as granular as how to swallow or read, but the people wrote a lot of notes and then they went blind. And then they got their memory back.
So, happy ending.
A bike we ride and keep through the years is a similar note. It reminds us that we were faster once, that we rode with people who no longer ride, that a brick wall will scratch paint, that stem bolts weren’t always turned with an Allen wrench, that you once borrowed a seat from a friend who never asked for its return, that a bicycle can be fixed, and that they change over time, often because of the way we change over time.
Chicago-built Schwinn bicycles came with super-skinny, super non-standard seat posts. The new seat post is compatible with standard saddle clamps. The Brooks B15 saddle is another junk box find.
Old is paid for
You hear it in the shop. Two thousand for a bicycle? I could buy a car for that. Yes, you could. But then you’d be stuck with the car.
You know when two thousand isn’t a lot of money? When you stop comparing it to other things.
Two thousand for a bicycle? You could buy a couple of good computers for that. You could buy a lot of Hummel figurines. You could hang around a coffee shop for a couple of years. You could buy the Oxford English Dictionary for that kind of money. You’re right. You could. But you wouldn’t have a bicycle, would you?
On the other hand: two thousand? You could buy four bicycles at the back of the shop for that kind of money. But you can only ride one of them at a time. What kind of sense does that make? Might as well spend the two Gs.
By the way, how much did you pay for your old bicycle? Do you even remember? That was thirty-five years ago. What was money worth then? What is it worth now?
Some people remember the price of everything. Some people do not. They spend money and forget about it. Five years down the road they don’t remember exactly what they spent—only that they have a bicycle that works for them.
Old is not broken
Let’s be clear. Sometimes old can hurt you. Steel and aluminum have only so many flex cycles.
Still, if you ride an old bicycle without harm, it’s usable. And if it’s usable, why would you not use it?
Ah, it’s obsolete, you say.
But what does that have to do with anything? Every morning I wind a weight-driven mantel clock that predates the Civil War. It’s absolutely obsolete. But it still works, and it offers a calming soundtrack that my digital wristwatch does not.
Ride your bike. The older the better.
Old is not precious
A new bicycle is a jewel. Everything is just so: the paint glossy, the chainrings unmarred, the chain just as clean as every other part. You park the bicycle carefully. If it has a kickstand, you park it out of the wind. If it doesn’t have a kickstand, you lay it on clean green grass, derailleur side up.
If it’s an old bike, you’re still careful with it. You clean it. Oil the chain. Change the tires. (OId tires are worth nothing; they’ve never been worth anything.)
But you don’t expect an old bike to be pristine. You expect it to support you when you go for a ride. The scratch from year two that use to nag at you no longer rules your attention. It has become part of the bicycle’s geography of use. Grant Peterson calls it beausage.
It is what is is. You are what you are. Together, you go just as fast, though not as fast as you used to; just as far, though not as far as you once did.
You both have your scratches, your geography of use. If anything, you and your bicycle are more compatible than when you first met.
Time plus absence plus rarity sometimes increases the attractiveness of a bicycle.
I would like a Reynolds 531 frame with a full Campy Nuovo Record group. I had a bicycle like this in the late 1970s. It’s no longer made, and most of the originals have disappeared. I put in a lot of quality miles on such a bicycle.
At the same time, however, I can remember replacing the Italian rear derailleur with a much less expensive Japanese mechanism in 1981 and enjoying a huge improvement in shifting.
If I ever get another antique Campy-equipped bike, I’ll go into the purchase with my eyes open, not because of the allure of the way things used to be, but to see how forgiving I’ve become.
Sometimes a bicycle, perhaps a machine from a builder who no longer builds bicycles, turns into iconography, something to be hung on a wall— roped off from the road, roped off from usability.
A painting hangs on a wall; it may even be art. A bicycle so displayed is not the same. You might even contend that once divorced from the road it is no longer a bicycle.
Old is a habit
Off the bike, you’re a pedestrian. If you’re lucky you have two legs that terminate in feet, two arms that swing in stabilizing rhythm. You’re like any pedestrian so equipped. Some might even say you are unremarkable, but maybe you know your mother loved you and so you are special in the universe. Sure. Whatever gets you across the street.
Before you ride, you’re still a pedestrian. You walk across the basement floor to retrieve your bicycle. But your bicycle has made you a different sort of pedestrian. Now you’re the person walking to a Bianchi, to a Nishiki, to a Peugeot.
The bicycle you walk to is different from other bicycles. You have become the sort of person who rides a Trek with a water bottle, a Kona with lights, a Giant with a seat bag, a Speedvagen with GPS, a spray-painted bicycle with a milk crate zip-tied to the rack.
Your bicycle changes your expectations. A blank wall is now the support system for your Motobecane. You know how the handlebars turn as the bicycle settles into its parked position. You know when it’s really parked and when it’s about to roll.
Back on the road, you know how much lean it takes to turn to the right, to the left. You don’t think about it; you might even think you’re controlling the bicycle when all you’re doing is correcting the bike as it falls to the right and left.
Old is inevitable
A new bicycle is interesting because it provides an apparent contrast to the linear nature of time. Sometimes it’s an improvement; sometimes it’s this year’s marketing effort. But when that new bike gets old, the contrast disappears, replaced by another confirmation that everything gets old.
If you’re always riding a new bike, the joy of riding it soon turns into a hunt for the next thrill. It takes money to pursue this form of serial mechanical monogamy, but you can’t take it with you.
[I have decided not to mention the 1987 movie Moonstruck here. It would take too long to make a convincing link between Cosmo Castorini and the person, maybe you, who always has to have a new bicycle. It might be an unfair comparison. But it is a good movie. By the way, if you’re a fan of Trek bicycles, here are the cutting-edge machines you wanted to buy in 1987.]
You might not understand why someone would gladly ride a three speed with fenders, or a fixed gear without hand brakes, or a beach bike with a rusty chain.
That’s because old bikes aren’t about you, except they are: Old is the path you travel. Every step forward, every pedal stroke, you age. Likewise, everything you make, everything you own, ages.
Geez, Sam—does that mean it’s all downhill from here?
Not at all. Whether you’re riding a new bike or old, you still pedal into the wind and climb the next hill. You still sweat.
But if you like speed and the wind rushing by you while you roll faster and faster, there will be plenty of downhills ahead as well.
Not as metaphors of decline—which never make sense to someone who rides a bicycle—but in the sense the world will tilt in your favor, at least part of the time.
And that part never gets old.