We’re on our own adventures this week, so please enjoy this lovely piece from 2015, written by our great friend Brendon Leonard. It’s a story about…well, you saw the headline. -Ed.
I walked up the stairs at my apartment building recently, five $20 bills in my hand, and paused for just a second halfway up, thinking, I feel like a kid who just gave away his favorite teddy bear.
I sold my old Raleigh bicycle to a guy who really wanted it for the bars and the stem, whose wife told him she’d kill him if he brought home another bike, but he did it anyway. It went out my door for the same price it came in in late 2009, $100.
There are plenty of people who don’t get sentimental about things like dinged-up steel bicycles that they owned for almost six years, but I’m not one of them. I think at best, bicycles can become a part of your family, if you stick with them long enough and don’t get distracted by the shiny new ones that come out every year to potentially replace yours. My Raleigh, a 1988 Team USA, had some problems: mismatched wheels, mismatched tires, mismatched brake levers, mismatched shifters. Even the front and rear derailleurs came from different Shimano groups.
If you were honest about it, as my friends never were to my face, it was kind of a piece of shit bike. That was the truth. But it was my piece of shit bike. Last November, my friend Brian borrowed it for a day of running errands around town, and as a man who knows a quality non-shiny bicycle when he sees one, he later reported to me, “That’s a really nice bike.” And that was the truth too.
In 2009, I committed to a cross-country bike ride with my friend Tony and thought I had the perfect bike for it: A Surly Cross Check I’d bought for $300 used. Then one evening, in a hurry to meet a friend for dinner, I was mashing on the pedals as hard as I could through the alley behind my office, probably going 18 mph, when a car backed out of a blind parking spot and before I could even touch the brake levers BOOM my front wheel hit the back right side of the car and I flew over the handlebars, onto the trunk and onto the ground, miraculously unharmed. The driver and I both apologized, sorry, I couldn’t see behind me when I was backing out, No, no, I was going way too fast like an idiot, my fault, you okay, yes, I am, okay, no problem, don’t worry about the dent in the car. It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed the downtube was crumpled, making the bike useless.
I scoured Craigslist for a week, frantically looking for an acceptable touring bike, and then, one Sunday, I refreshed the results and saw “1988 Raleigh Team USA – $100” pop up at the top. This was too much. I needed a bike to ride across America. What better than a Team USA? Red, white, and blue, complete with white stars on the fork and dropouts? I sped out to the suburbs, rode the bike 100 feet down the block to make sure it actually rolled straight, rode back, gave the guy five $20 bills, and drove it home to strip it and put all the parts off my Cross Check on it. The fit was a little off, until I swapped out the stem and added a pair of mustache bars.
Then I rode it across the country dragging a BOB trailer behind, hoping it would say something about old bikes or durability or steel or something, and nobody really cared besides Curt Kremer, who seemed pretty into it when we stopped in Phoenix. Everybody else just wanted to know how tall Tony was (7 feet 0 inches, sir) or what we ate all the time (everything).
I rode the bike 3,000 miles on that trip and probably another 2,000 in the years that followed, in short trips around Denver, and Seattle, Portland, and Iowa when I went home to visit my parents during the summer. “Fastest bike in Denver,” I would only half-joke-at least a third of my love for that bike was how much fun I had on it racing cars on 15th Street during rush hour. Anybody who knows anything about getting around a congested city knows that a road bike, pedaled hard enough, is way faster than a car. It added hours to my life that I would have spent driving around looking for parking spots or waiting behind a steering wheel to get out of crowded grocery store lots.
After several years of meritorious service, one of the Easton wheels finally bit the dust, and I replaced it. Then the bike flipped off the roof rack on my girlfriend’s Subaru on a drive through Nebraska, held on only by the rear wheel-I must have not fastened it down well enough. I pulled it off the roof to find one of the dropouts on the fork bent almost 90 degrees. When I rolled it into Chocolate Spokes to see if Gregory could do some steel magic and make it usable again, he suggested several options to rebuild it. Eventually, we decided the safest thing to do would be to put a new fork on it. A boring, plain chrome fork. This was the beginning of the end.
I started thinking about getting another bike. But what would I buy? New bikes just seemed so…boring. They didn’t have a story. I mean, I’m not destitute. I have enough money to buy a bike. I just don’t want to. I want my old bike. This is not rational, but I guess most of the best things in life aren’t.
A few months ago, I met my old bicycling friends at 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning to ride the entire length of Broadway. Everyone was on a black bike but me. Nick said, “I can’t believe you’re still riding that bike.” I laughed and said Yeah, it’s a good bike. The next week, on my ride home from the UPS Store, I noticed the right shifter was a little loose, and when I put my hand on it, it fell off in my hand. The screw holding it to the frame had fallen off. That’s it, I thought. It’s over.
While I was gone on a trip, Hilary took the bike to a shop, and one of the techs found a miracle screw to hold the shifter on, and the Team USA was saved from the Great Bike Graveyard. Or so I thought. The screw loosened after half a dozen trips around Denver, and when I pulled over on the side of the street to tighten it, I turned an allen wrench and felt that soft pop that meant the hole was stripped. The end. I’m not a singlespeed guy. If I was, I would have saved it. Perhaps someone could have done some steel surgery on the bike and fixed it. But I was done.
As an adult, I’ve made poor choices that have resulted in never having a garage, or even an extra room, to store bikes, so I’ve never owned more than two at a time-one for trails, one for streets. I never had to decide which one to ride to the grocery store, or to the coffee shop. There was my bike, and my mountain bike. I rode that Team USA everywhere in Denver, locking it to a hundred different bike racks, street signs, fences, and trees with the same heavy-ass chain lock, never once worrying about chipping the paint job.
Things have their time, and I imagine plenty of those 1988 Raleigh Team USAs never got ridden after 1992 or 1993, let alone through 2015. In human years, that bike was old enough to drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and rent a car. It saw more of the country than a lot of humans its age had. The one thing it never did was collect dust.
I don’t really consider myself that much of a bike guy, but I can name almost every single bike I’ve owned in my life, starting with the little baby blue steel thing my parents put training wheels on so I could learn to ride in the driveway, all the way to the brand-new full-suspension mountain bike I bought in 2012. I think anyone who loves bikes can probably put together a timeline of their life according to the bicycles they owned, a sort of autobiography by bike. And my years with the Raleigh Team USA just ended.
I told the guy who bought the bike that if it helped, he could tell his wife that the money went to a good cause, because I was donating it to my friends’ film about the women in Afghanistan who risk their lives to push for social change by riding bicycles. I appreciate the poetry of buying that bike for $100, riding it for almost six years, and then selling it for $100, and I guess it makes me feel better that I immediately funneled the money to something meaningful. After all, I suppose you never really own anything, whether it’s money, or a bicycle-you just kind of get to hang onto it for a while.