You take the bus (Part 1)

August 15, 2013 § 20 Comments

Before carbon, before brake-lever shifting, before clipless pedals, before  speedometers even, there was just the bike and the wheels and the pedals and the legs.

“I wouldn’t ride my bike if I were you,” said Will.

“Why not?” Turner wasn’t paying much attention as he slung his backpack over his shoulder.

“The bus is faster, for one.  And you’re going to be duking it out with cars, for another. And when you get to school you’ll be sopping with sweat. It’s eighty degrees outside and it’s not even nine o’clock. By the time your eleven o’clock class starts, you’ll stink like an old tennis shoe. Or worse.”

“The bus isn’t faster.”

“Five bucks says it is,” Will grinned.

Turner didn’t have five bucks to lose on a bet, he had five bucks to cover food for the next two days. The $375 he’d dropped on this new Nishiki International was money he didn’t have. “You’re on.”

“But you can’t run the red lights,” Will said.

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t intend to come home from classes this afternoon and see you on the evening news, then spend the rest of my life feeling guilty about having killed my friend over a five-dollar bet over whether his bike was faster than the UT shuttle bus.”

Now they were standing outside the apartment. “Okay,” said Turner. “But we start now.” He jumped on his bike. Unused to the toe clips, he fumbled with his tennis shoe, rolled off the pavement and headed straight for a large oak tree. He swerved at the last second, came back to the pavement, hit the edge of the cement hard, and flipped over the bars.

Will stood over him. “You okay? Bet’s off if you want.”

Turner stumbled to his feet. “Don’t miss your bus,” he snarled.

“I won’t.” Will sauntered off.

Turner jerked at his backpack, which was laying in the grass. He’d forgotten to close the top, and all the books had spilled out. Cursing, he stuffed them back in. Then he checked the front wheel, which had taken a pretty solid whack. It looked fine. He froze as he heard the diesel rumble of the bus, then jumped back on the bike and pedaled down the walkway to the street.

The bus roared down Burton, heading for the next stop. Turner mashed on the pedals. The bike accelerated downhill and in a moment he had forgotten all about the race. This wasn’t a bike, it was a flying machine. What had seemed smooth and fast in the Freewheeling parking lot was like a beast uncaged on the actual road.

As he approached Woodland Drive, he grabbed the brake levers. Accustomed to the sluggish stop of the old, rusty Murray he’d ridden every day to school for three years in junior high school, he almost threw himself over the bars as the racing Dia-Compe brakes gripped the rims with a fury. “Didn’t say I’d stop for the stop signs,” he muttered as he blew through the intersection.

The bike raced along Woodland and under I-35. Turner had found this route on the map. He’d only been in Austin a couple of months and knew that if he was going to commute from way out in the student ghetto on Riverside he’d have to find a different route from the bus, which took the Interstate. The bike leaped with each surge on the pedals. The chain hopped up and down the cogs with the slightest push or pull on the levers.

The bike picked up speed and Turner hit the first small roller. He couldn’t believe how quickly the bike raced over the bump. The second roller was harder, but he pushed harder, too. The bike responded. Now his legs had started to burn. It was a new feeling, and it hurt, but before he could think about it his breath caught up with him. He was panting with the exertion from the first two rollers, and then he saw the third.

It was impossibly steep — he didn’t know it was a 12 percent grade, he just knew there were no hills like that in Houston, where he’d grown up. It was unthinkably long — a solid two or three hundred yards. And Turner was impossibly gassed.

The bike hit the bottom of the roller and he reached to the down tube and madly shifted off of the big ring. The derailleur worked with surprising speed, so much speed that it threw the chain off the ring entirely. Turner came to a halt, legs spinning wildly. He tipped over and banged his ankle. The asphalt tore through his sock and blood poured into the white fabric.

This was the bike’s first full day outside the shop, so the chain wasn’t filthy yet, but Uncle Joe, who had sold him the bike, had lightly oiled the chain. By the time he got the chain back on the small ring his hand was covered in oil. Turner absentmindedly wiped it on his khaki shorts, and thinking only of the bus, remounted his bike.

But since he had stopped in the middle of the small hill, he couldn’t get started, so he turned around, coasted to the bottom, got his feet back into the toe clips, and charged at the hill again. He almost made it to the top before his legs and lungs gave out. Panting and gasping he felt the entire crushing weight of the backpack filled with philosophy and German books and a giant cable with a lock. “I can’t do this,” he realized. “I’m going to fall over again.”

The pain in his bony legs crescendoed. “Ahhh, fuggit. I can’t lose that five bucks,” he panted to himself. Turner drove his spindly thighs once more as hard as they would go and the bike stabilized, then topped the hill. He stopped pedaling. The spots in his eyes receded. His breathing relaxed. The blood in his legs poured through the muscles, carrying away the acid and replacing it with oxygen. A brief second of clarity hit him, so pure and beautiful that it transcended, or rather obliterated, everything that had happened up to that point.

Turner didn’t know it yet, but cresting the top of that hill on his shiny new bike had caused something to happen that would change him forever.

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