Wednesday, September 27, 2006

It?s all about the bikes


Betty Bell

Here's a Rorschach test, but instead of using blotches we'll use words. Quickly—one word for Ketchum's loss of jaunty?

"Banks!" you say in a blink. "Banks!" and nod with certainty.

Sorry, pilgrim, you flunked. Yes, banks mushroomed like morels in a bountiful spring and overnight turned Main into wannabe Wall Street, its blockbuster buildings blocking Baldy from its mission in life—watching over our shoulders, looking out for us.

But look back to before banks and you'll discover our loss of jaunty began with our bikes. It was a bike thing.

Once upon a time all bikes were jaunty, and jaunty was contagious. We were all jaunty.

My peak of jaunty came about the summer my friend Gracie Cassinelli and I ordered English Hoppers from a shop "back east." They were far advanced, our Hoppers, having already dropped the fenders, and offering three speeds to choose from. But instead of being wary—instead of wondering "What gives?" or "What's next?"—we spent those lovely summer days tooling up Galena and giggling at our three-speed ease.

Gracie and I thought 10-speeds attained the pinnacle of bike technology. That's how naïve we were.

I think Gracie and I had the first bikes in town—I know ... I know ... who cares? Anyway, soon our Hoppers were as passé as a Hummer. Ten-speeds hit town, and our Hoppers turned quaint. The 10-speeds had crimped handlebars with radical downward swings, and I doubt it was coincidence that about that time neck Docs started to make a decent living.

Reflect with me for a moment: Remember your best birthday present ever? A shiny, probably red, bike with a fat seat and balloon tires and fenders and coaster brakes and a croquet-wicket, over-the-back-fender bracket that you could lower when you finally got tired enough to park. Remember how that bike pulled the curtain back on a vast and suddenly accessible world?

Alas, even though bikes were perfect, the R&D wizards were at it. First, skinny tires ... then handlebars that made your head hang like a U-turn so all you'd see was squished bugs ... then those three speeds quickly obsoleted by 18. But more—all the niches: road bikes ... touring bikes ... racing bikes ... mountain bikes ... down-the-mountain bikes ... recumbent bikes! Imagine, you can boast of being a recumbent sportsman without committing an oxymoron.

Like the poor frog in water slowly brought to a boil, we didn't notice that things, they were a changin'.

But while we were getting ever-more-serious about our bikes, our jaunty was getting poached.

I bet when your favorite associate in your favorite shop set out to match you with your road bike he listened gravely to your needs: "It can't weigh as much as a six-pack, it's gotta' be made outta' that composite stuff the Pentagon just released, and, don't worry. It's not a deal-killer if the components cost more than my used Subaru."

Pilgrim, you were serious.

Maybe it was a mountain bike you wanted—needed—and you ticked off your gottahaves: "It can't weigh more than a couple six-packs, and the frame must never ever twist away no matter how awesome the corkscrew. The tires gotta' be able to squish armadillos, and if you can order them I'll pop for those tweaky hydraulics that flick you from cruiser to gonzo with only pinky-finger pressure on the sensor in the grip."

Pilgrim, you were serious.

It's been a heady ride on our hi-tech bikes. We hardly noticed jaunty slip-slipping away.

Well, the world's a mess, but here in our little patch things are looking up. We might be in recovery, starting to get our jaunty back. And it's our bikes again. It's all about bikes.

Town bikes are everywhere now, and surely they clutch at your heart as do they mine, these old Luddite rascals resurrected and gone hi-tech. And they aren't just shiny red now. There're rainbow hues and magic marker limes and blues to choose from. And they have handlebars that rise like sprinklers so you'll never notice squished bugs again. They've got fat seats for hearty buns, easy-to-pedal tires with no crush-all tread, gunk-deflecting fenders, coaster brakes that free you to use your dang phone. The only thing to decry is the over-the-fender croquet wicket bracket lost to a toad-stabber kick-stand. But, pilgrim, all hail to the baskets and bags and boxes to enable our consumer passions.

True, we haven't quite put the spandex uniform behind us, but progress is being made. Outfits astride town bikes are uplifting in their frivolity—baggy old things, Gold Mine rejects.

We'll be back to pre-bank jaunty when a loop around town has become one big bike rack with signs every 10 yards: "Vehicles prohibited beyond this point!"

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