A Boy and His Bicycle

The Link, Summer 2017
| by David Newland |

It must be about 34 years now since I saw the front wheel fall off my bicycle in mid-air. I was riding home from school on one of those motocross-style bikes with shock-absorber front forks. I took every bump in the road – in this case, a ridge formed by a culvert running below – as an opportunity for airtime.

As it turned out, I got quite a bit more airtime than I was looking for. I remember this in glorious slow-motion technicolour: the wheel touched down and rolled away; then the forks hit the ground, compressed and catapulted me forward over the handlebars for about 15 feet. (I measured the distance to the impact crater later.) I landed mostly on my chin. Speaking of technicolour, the following day was picture day at school. An immortal portrait: Grade 8 Kid with Rainbow Chin, 1983.

“An immortal portrait: Grade 8 Kid with Rainbow Chin, 1983.”

From the day I learned to ride my first two-wheeler – a coaster-brake cruiser, spray-painted orange with a ripped banana seat – bikes have represented freedom at its most accessible. But freedom has a cost. I learned that by riding off the road, down an embankment into a blackberry bush before I even got my training wheels off.

Until I could afford to buy my own, I had ugly bikes. First, the orange awesome special, then a big, brown CCM Elite with old-fashioned handlebars – my dad’s idea of a great ride. That was my first experience with handbrakes and also my first experience of landing astride the crossbar with both feet off the ground. On that ungainly monster with its plastic basket, I rode over hill and dale like a paper boy from the fifties, following guys who could pull wheelies and land jumps. I have never pulled a wheelie to this day.

You know about my jumping career. That motocross with its loose front wheel was the first bike I bought with my own money. My buddy pocketed 15 bucks and I got what I paid for. I replaced it with a BMX – a trick bike, super slick. It was small and I looked like an ape riding it. I grew out of it in a summer. I didn’t have a bike for years after that.

Once I got to university, though, the matter of a bicycle became urgent. Anyone who’s ridden the bus in Montreal will understand why. Dad to the rescue: he’d picked up an old CCM Elite at a garage sale, mine for the taking. Good news – not brown! Bad news – burgundy! Dubbed the “Shanghai Rocket” by my buddies, it provided me with years of cheap transportation, decades before old-fashioned bikes became fashionable again.

Which they are now. I know because I have one: a seven-speed, Dutch-made behemoth with sit-up-and-beg handlebars, a seat like a royal throne and a crossbar that would rupture King Kong. It weighs more than a car and it cost more, too. It was my gift to myself during a mid-life crisis. I thought it would make me feel young again.

It did. And it still does!