I have a punctuated history with bicycles. The earliest one I can recall owning is lodged in the amorphous mists of my first decade, a period of my life from which I can access only disordered fragments. I think I remember it was mostly black, with padding Velcroed around the bars, and some kind of branding that put me in mind of the SR-71 spy plane–its most salient feature to my young mind. If I ever rode it, I doubt it was more than around the driveway or up the block.
The first bicycle I ever really used was a blue Diamondback, eighteen speed. It was my main mode of personal transportation from around ages thirteen to sixteen. I used to ride through the neighborhood, down drainage ditches and around “private property” signs, scouting hidden paths to the corner store where I could binge on Tic-Tacs and Bubblicious. I would also ride across the street to the karate school, where I met my friend David Fernandez. Soon we were on bikes together, heading down to Blockbuster every weekend for a video game or three that we would try to beat by Monday. Those years were Peak Bike in my life, a high water mark I’ve never hit again.
That tide rolled all the way back and dried up when I turned sixteen and started driving. I got a car, and the blue Diamondback got a spot in the garage and gathered dust. Some years later, during a brief window when he was the right size to ride it, I gave it to my younger brother. He either destroyed it, outgrew it, or (likely) both.
My next notable bicycle experience was in 2009, when I borrowed my father’s bike (the one he bought at the same time he got me that blue Diamondback so we could ride together) as a way to strengthen my emaciated legs after spending ten months bedridden with Crohn’s disease. I bought a saddle soft enough for my still-tender posterior and resumed my childhood practice of riding up to the corner store and back. This time it was an eight or ten block roundtrip that took me most of the afternoon.
Eventually my lower body strength returned to me, and I returned my father’s bike to him, though I kept that nice, soft seat. I moved, worked, moved, and eventually found myself living in Iowa City, a midwestern college town so bike-friendly that I started to feel like I needed an excuse not to have one. It was the summer of 2012, and I had never personally purchased a bicycle before. “But this is easy,” I thought, “I’ll just get online, research what the experts say, and pick the perfect one.” After about fifteen minutes staring into the infinitely deep well that is online cycling culture, I thought, “This is easy. I’ll just go to a store and have a salesman sell me a bike.”
I ended up at World of Bikes, where after some discussion of my needs and experience level, a helpful employee sold me a Trek 7.2 FX hybrid. This is the entry-level bike that reviewing site The Sweethome would later name the best hybrid bike for two years running. It certainly did everything I asked it to in Iowa City, where the streets are mostly flat and mostly empty. I did struggle on what hills there were, but I’m someone who’d digested all the muscles in his legs not so long ago. That was surely to be expected, I figured.
In 2014 I moved to Austin, which is very bikeable as cities go, but a nightmarish deathrap of traffic and hills when compared to Iowa City. The bicycle culture here is strong, and I wanted to take part, but every time I got on the saddle I would chicken out after a few blocks. Realizing that I would never make it out of my neighborhood without a push, I enlisted the help of my friend Meghan McCarron, a cycling badass who I knew used to commute between Austin and San Marcos–towns separated by more than thirty miles–during grad school. Knowing that the streets of Austin wouldn’t seem scary after a day with Meghan, I told her, “I want you to take me on a bike ride that will kill me.” And so, the day before my 31st birthday, she took me on a leg-melting trip, disappearing into the distance up hills she could barely feel that I crawled up in lowest gear. Twenty-four miles later, I was no longer afraid to bike around Austin.
I started riding my bike a lot. I rode to see friends’ gigs. I rode to restaurants to meet dates. I rode to bars with my laptop to write. But I never got much better at the hills, which remained brutal. This was especially troublesome since I live on one of the steepest hills in the city, a straight shot down to the river. Riding down that hill is breezy, but the way back up is a nearly two mile incline that would frequently find me walking my bike instead of riding it. And this hill is also where my cycle anxiety returned; while heading downhill to a coffee shop with my computer, my front brakes locked and sent my flying over the handlebars to the pavement. I denuded my shoulder, broke my wrist, and banged up my knee. It took about ten weeks to heal up enough to ride again, and even longer to do so with any confidence. To regain my courage, and to have a last athletic hurrah before she moved to Los Angeles, last weekend I went on another long ride with Meghan. This time, while we were out and about, she let me try riding her Surly Cross-Check, a steel, drop-handled “super commuter.” I’d never ridden a bicycle with drop handlebars before, and was impressed with how much more power I had in my pedal. Having outsourced responsibility for choosing a bicycle to World of Bikes three years earlier, this was my first time really thinking about how the details of the vehicle were affecting my experience. Maybe I wasn’t destined to always struggle up hills. Maybe a different machine would make my life easier.
I decided it was time to start actually learning about bicycles. I began at Austin’s largest bike shop, where I had staff take me through the showroom, explaining types, features, options. I figured out that what I wanted was probably a road bike, a light-framed bicycle made for riding on smooth pavement. The employee I spoke with there told me that, for the features I wanted, I was probably looking at a bike in the $1200-$1700 range. At that price point, I wouldn’t be changing rides any time soon. My Trek worked well enough that it wasn’t worth a thousand bucks to do better. But just for a second opinion, though, and because I happened to be riding by it, I decided to stop in at one of Austin’s newest cycle shops, Bikehaus. I met the owner, Eric Hess, who let me know that (a) he thought the folks at the previous store had overstated how much I would need to pay, and (b) he was offering some impressive deals.
Bikehaus isn’t only recently opened, but in a newly-built building. Apparently there were building delays, and while Eric had expected to be doing business in 2014, the doors were barely open before 2015 came around. That left him with a surplus of 2014 models he needed to move before the 2016s came out. He let me test ride a couple of bikes he thought might suit my needs, and told me he’d sell me my favorite one, a 2014 Jamis Ventura Comp, for $550. That’s 42% below the MSRP, and much better than the used prices I was able to find online. (Also a good deal based on the information here.) Even if it wasn’t for me, I figured I could turn around and sell it for little or no loss. With his discount, Eric turned me from a guy planning to get a new bicycle someday into one struggling not to impulse buy. I sat on the decision for two days, then got the bike. Eric spent an hour with me explaining things and adjusting it to my body.
That was four days ago. I love this bicycle. I’ve been riding it every day, and getting home afterward excited to ride again. The very first night I was cresting hills I would have had to walk before. It has eighteen speeds, an aluminum frame, and a carbon fork. It weighs seven very noticeable pounds less than my Trek (more when you consider I rode the Trek with a rack and basket). The shifters are silky-smooth, and it has quick-release breaks that makes removing the wheels much easier for those times I need to put it in the trunk of my car. Between the experience and the price, I’m head-over-heels for this thing. (Thankfully, only figuratively so far.) If the enjoyment lasts, my life might just reach a new Peak Bike.