Beautiful Machine

One torn up frame amidst thousands, sitting there.

The steel dented and dinged, the paint faded and flaking, and the derailleur dropout was stripped. Its grease, never changed once in its life, was crusty. It rattled and squeaked and was too much of a bother for anyone to do much of anything.

But from the very start, I knew she was mine.

I’ve been biking for years. I’m at home on every end of the spectrum and every place in between: from mashing San Francisco’s most brutal hills to breezily cruising down oceanfronts, from gutting rush hour traffic with demon precision to plodding home from the market, my panniers full of produce, in the blinding rain.

Hell or high water, I’ve loved every ride. But working on a bike, that’s another thing entirely. When you understand a bike to the core, it changes what it means to ride one forever.

When you work on something, you put a part of yourself in it. It ceases to be a tool and starts becoming an extension of yourself.

The gears snap into place just so because you spent an hour taking apart those levers, cleaning every niche with q-tips. The front break has more play in the line than the back because four years ago, bombing downhill from campus, you almost flipped over the bars when a squirrel scrambled in front of your ride, and you yanked the lever in a blind moment of desperation. That back wheel isn’t quite right. It keeps reminding you haven’t had a chance to fit it yet.

I wasn’t always a competent mechanic. Though I’ve always had a penchant for building, my first day wrenching on a bicycle went about as bleakly as anyone could ask for. My front derailleur cable had snapped, making my bike unridable. In retrospect, it was an easy fix, probably 15 minutes in total today.

But on that day, I was destined to sit in the on campus bike co-op for 3 brutal hours frustrated and confused while dozens of pretty girls with flat tires got 5-star service from overeager bike jocks who snidely let you, and the girl they were attempting to pick up, know that they knew how to solve your problem, they just didn’t want to help.

But that didn’t phase me–shoot it’s not always going to be green lights on the road to a new destination.

Sitting there, alone and disoriented, I realized two things. First: I was smart enough to figure it out without them. Second: I didn’t want to need help from people like this ever again. If I was going to keep riding, I had to do so under my own power.

So I did just that. I fixed my bike by looking at the gears, piecing together how they interacted. And then I fixed where it had broken down. I did that with my next problem, and the next, and the next. It became addicting, fun. I searched out problems. When I got stuck, I easily found the answers online or from a helpful local mechanic. It was a puzzle that I got to ride after–what better reward could there be?

And piece by piece, youtube video by mechanic manual, component by component, I grew to understand and love my bicycles entire.

But in all the bikes I’ve owned and loved, of all the pieces of myself I’d put into the rides I’ve had, I’d never crafted one entire. Not until I saw that pink, orange and green pastel frame and said that’s the one right there.

It took months to assemble everything I wanted for a price I could bear. An exercise in willing the universe to deal you the cards you need. And even after I had all the odds and ends and got down to business, it turned out that there were still some finer points of wrenching that I was more hazy on than I thought.

I hadn’t planned everything as carefully as I needed, and it was back to the drawing board. On the maiden voyage one of the break lines slipped–I hadn’t tightened it enough for fear of breaking my new bike. For the first month the cables stretched and groaned and threw things out of sync. It felt like the bike was breathing, growing into itself, getting to know me.

But in the end, she settled into her own, comfortable and confident. She’s fast, a racing frame at the core–torching the unsuspecting spandexed enthusiast down the stretch. But she’s got nothing to prove either. Whereas fussier rides might balk at meandering to get a coffee or a six pack, she’ll shepard you there and back with patience, in comfort and style.

We understand each other perfectly, without having to say a word. Old friends, kindred spirits, we are fundamentally of each other– what other way could it be?

Every ride I’ve ever been on is an ode to freedom, marked by the unique exhilaration that comes from heading someplace, anyplace really, under your own power. The same sense of wildness that cowboys must have felt when they hopped on a mustang and looked at the horizon and said, I want that, and went and got it. Sometimes, on a particularly poetic slice of late night, I imagine myself a modern american gaucho riding across the urban prairie. And I whisper, ‘it’s just you and me old girl,’ and with a crack of my heels I thunder down shafter ave, and I’m free.