Cedar and Pearl

First love (two-wheeled variety)

By John Piotti | Mar 14, 2018

Susan loves her bike. Granted, it’s a beauty: a classic black Raleigh with upright handlebars and a dark leather saddle and shiny chrome in all the right places. When not in use, it sits like artwork inside our Washington, D.C., apartment — and no doubt Susan loves looking at it as much as I do. But mostly, she loves riding it.

There is something wonderful, almost magical about riding a well-engineered bicycle around city streets. A motorized vehicle will clearly travel faster; but in a city, cars and buses move in fits and starts when they move at all. On a bicycle, you enjoy a fluidity of motion. You glide and float. You at times soar and bank, more like a swallow than the lumbering terrestrial creature you really are. A bicycle allows you to rise above yourself. (It is any wonder that the Wright Brothers were bicycle builders?)

A bicycle is a marvel of efficiency. It’s phenomenal how little you need to push against those pedals to propel yourself forward. They say the wheel is one of civilization’s greatest inventions, but I’ll extend higher praise for the series of innovators who first put two wheels together, and then developed and refined the chain drive.

Bicycles remind me of that other great example of precision gearing, the clock. Susan grew up in a house full of clocks, beautiful old clocks that require careful winding and frequent adjusting. We brought with us to D.C. an antique steeple clock, because it wouldn’t be a home without that comforting rhythm. Every few days, I catch Susan tinkering with the strike, or timidly moving the hands to correct the time; and once a week she winds the clock with the lightest possible touch, careful to not hurt the mechanism.

How different the bicycle! You grab the handle bars firmly. You throw your leg over the saddle and let your full weight fall on it. Then you push on those pedals — often with all the force you can muster. A bicycle is a machine built to be used, actively and forcefully.

Now Susan, like most people, learned to ride a bike as child — and has been riding bikes now and then throughout her life. But this love affair of hers is new. She has never before owned a bike like this new one — so simple, efficient, and beautiful. Nor has she lived in a place like Washington, D.C., where a bike is less an instrument of play or exercise than a quick and fun means of transport.

In Susan’s case, she can easily bike from our apartment to the grocery store, or the library, or the National Museum of Natural History where she volunteers, or either of the two schools in Georgetown where she has been substituting. And now that she’s finally fought through the bureaucracy of getting her D.C. license and accredited by the George Washington University Hospital, she will once again work as a PA — and she can easily bike there, too.

Washington is well-suited to the bicycle. First, the city is relatively flat. Although bicycles are incredibly efficient machines, the principles of physics still apply — and it’s so much easier to not have to counter gravity. Second, Washington accommodates bicyclists with a network of designated bike lanes on city streets. Here, you ride alongside the motorized traffic, with few worries about cars (although the Metro buses do pull into your lane to pick up passengers).

Washington is full of bikes, and this, too, makes it easier and more enjoyable. When you’re one of many, you feel safer. And then there’s the camaraderie of fellow riders. There’s something wonderful about gliding alongside other bicyclists, like birds in formation. Usually, no words are spoken, but there are at times opportunities for a telling glance or even conversation.

Early on in her travels in D.C., Susan rode alongside a bicycle policeman who chatted about his favorite places to stop for a snack. (I don’t want to read too much into this, saying that police officers who ride bikes prefer tapas to doughnuts, but Susan’s one experience does suggest that.)

In Washington, you don’t need to own a bike to ride one. There are countless “ports” across town where you can pick up a “city-bike” for a quick ride, returning it to any of the other ports in the city. Then just this winter, after the District enacted a new ordinance allowing the practice, several companies began operating a service with bikes scattered everywhere in the city: You can find a bike via a GPS app on your smart phone, unlock it and ride it wherever you want to go, leaving it wherever you want to stop.

These systems may be convenient, but the bikes are subpar — weighted down with gizmos and sized not for an individual’s optimum efficiency, but to meet an average person’s needs well enough. Susan will often tell me how she effortlessly glides past some guy in a business suit huffing and puffing on one of these bikes-to-go. She tells me this with a certain smug satisfaction. She has become a bit of a bike snob.

But it’s far less about Susan feeling superior to others, than feeling good about herself. She’s like a child who has discovered something new.

I share in her joy, but not in the novelty of her experience. That’s because my love of bicycles began years before. My first and only real job until I completed graduate school was at a bike shop. I began there at age 14, working my way up from gofer to mechanic to manager. I grew up in that shop, which mostly rented bikes — a fleet of 300 vintage Raleighs stretching back to the 1955, when the shop first opened.

As a teenager, I remember proclaiming that there were only three things worth spending money on: bicycles, boats, and books. Over the years, my priorities changed, and I had not spent money on bikes — nor done much cycling.

Then, almost immediately after I decided to take the new job in Washington, I ordered two new bikes. At a combined cost of $900, this was an extravagant purchase for me. And I’m sure that Susan (as the thrifty daughter of a Vermont banker) questioned what I was doing, though she never mentioned it.

For years now, I had been keeping my eyes open for a simple yet elegant bicycle of the sort I remembered from the shop. I could find old models I admired on eBay, but they had too many scratches and too little shine. Only recently, it seems, have some of the classic styles come back into fashion, and are being manufactured anew. Then, with our move to D.C., with what I knew would be new opportunities for messing about on bikes, I had the justification for buying them.

My own bike rides like a dream. Last year, when Susan was still living in Maine, her bike sitting idly in our barn, I had mine in D.C. — and I put in a few long weekend rides. But never did I think that, with us now together in Washington, it would be Susan, not me, who would be riding so much.

I had forgotten the pull of a first love.

John Piotti is president of American Farmland Trust. He splits his time between Waldo County and Washington, D.C.


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