07 November 2009

My First Bike Ride

Today I took my first bike ride.

My first bike ride since my surgery, that is. Four months to the day after my surgery, to be precise.

Because I woke up late and had a few errands to run--and made a trip to the farmer's market--I didn't get on my Mercian fixed-gear bike until it had already gotten dark.

Now, some of you may be questioning my sanity: A fixed-gear for my first post-op ride? My other Mercian, a geared road bike, couldn't have been too happy about that. Arielle--that's her name--sometimes thinks she's prettier than Tosca, my fixie, whom she accuses of "flaunting her sexuality." Which goes to show you that quarrels happen between those who have the most in common.

So I got on Tosca and reassured Arielle that her day was coming soon. Even though I had no particular route in mind, I figured--correctly--that I would take a flat ride. And I didn't expect to ride for more than half an hour.

So choosing to ride Tosca was probably no less insane than going out as a Saturday night began. But that, in turn, was no less insane than any number of other things I've done. Hey, what's a little traffic and some revelers after you've been through what I've been through?

I opened the gate in front of my place and slung my right leg over the top tube. You never forget how to ride a bike, of course, but after you've been off it for a while, you don't quite know what to expect--especially if you've been off because your body, not to mention your life, has undergone a dramatic change.

Anyway, I'd rolled only a couple of doors down the block when Millie called me from her door. A couple of weeks ago, she told me that even if the doctor gave me the OK to ride, I should stay off my bike until next spring. "More time to heal," she said. "Besides, why would you want to get back on your bike when it's cold?" I could read those same questions on her face even before she yelled, "Goin' for a ride?"

I nodded. She grimaced. "Don't worry. I won't stay out long."



I turned right on to 34th Avenue, then, a block later, made another right to Vernon Boulevard, which follows the river. A couple of blocks after that, I made yet another right turn on to Broadway, in front of Socrates Sculpture Block. A couple of blocks later, I made my first left, to 12th Street, where a bunch of Serbian men were leaving a mosque. On the next block, I made a right turn to 30th Avenue, which one can follow about five miles to Astoria Boulevard, near LaGuardia Airport.

I had expected to feel fat, awkward and clumsy after such a long layoff. However, I marvelled at how light the bike felt under me. It was like a better version of my own legs. And the wheels made it feel as if I were riding on proverbial rails, albeit much more comfortable rails. Plus, that fixed gear was easier to pedal than I would have expected.

A few blocks into 30th Avenue, I stopped to adjust my saddle. I have always liked my saddles level, or tilted ever-so-slightly tilted upward. But I was starting to feel some pressure in my newly-made lower organs. Moving the nose of the saddle slightly downward helped a bit. But I have a feeling I'm going to be fiddling with it--or, perhaps, getting a new saddle. I hope I don't need to.

After making that adjustment, I pedalled alongside cars driven by guys whose girlfriends were in the front passenger seats. I was expecting the worse but was pleasantly surprised at how courteous most of them were.

Before I knew it, I pedalled at least three miles between the traffic lane and cars parked by the curbs. Along the way, I passed small stores, some of which were closing, bars and dance clubs that were opening and rows of small houses where the cathode and neon shadows of TV shows and movies flashed in some of the windows. Young men in flashy jackets and young women in slinky dresses emerged from some of the houses; into others, couples with young children--some who looked like they'd just come from church--were entering.

Without thinking, I continued to pedal. My body felt surprisingly light, and every movement felt like a current of energy that powered my eyes and ears. Not only could I smell the burgers, pizza, gyros, curries and pollo asado cooking in the delis, coffee shops and restaurants; I could taste them. I was as alert as a cat to cars turning and people crossing streets, but it seemed that in spite of all of the Saturday night drivers and some people who were already intoxicated with one substance or another, I felt somehow that, with my senses that seemed to grow more acute by the moment, people were sensing me as much as I was sensing them. So, none of the possibly-inebriated drivers made turns they didn't signal or were careless in any other way, and I didn't have inattentive pedestrians charging mere steps in front of me in the middle of a block. It almost seemed that all those people knew that this middle-aged woman who's had an exasperating week was taking her first bike ride in four months.

After reaching the Grand Central Parkway entrance near Citi Field, I started back home. My feet made smooth, if slow, turns on my pedals. Along 34th Avenue, from about 110th to Junction Boulevard, I saw rows of churches and houses where some of the finest musician/composers to come from this country--Louis Armstrong among them--played and lived during the later years of their lives. That seemed to be a trajectory for jazz artists of that era: they started in Harlem, spent time in Europe and "retired" in the East Elmhurst neighborhood through which I was spinning in slow but steady time.

Then, after crossing Junction Boulevard, those old houses gave way to blocks full of garden apartments--the first of their kind in this country, and possibly the world--in the center of Jackson Heights. Those buildings--some very elegant, others showy in an Art Deco kind of way--cast the sort of light that glistens with silence even when there's no drizzle or light rain filling the air. In other words, no matter who lives in them-- in their history, those buildings have exuded the prosperity of business people, housed working-class immigrants and become dorms for young professionals and havens for single and coupled gay men-- the light that fills those streets in the evening is incorrigibly urban and bourgeois.

After a dozen or so blocks of those buildings and that light, the blocks alternate between the bright neon signs of stores and clubs and the oddly mute shadows of industrial buildings closed for the weekend. Then, after crossing under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway overpass and Northern Boulevard, I was riding down Broadway, past very familiar stores, cafes and shops. I managed to stop at Parisi's, one of my favorite bakeries, before they closed, for a loaf of bread and a sfogliatelle--my favorite pastry. And I got the hearty and delicious "Freddy's Platter" from the King of Falafel down the block.

By the time I got home to eat my Freddy's Platter and chase it with the sfogliatelle, I'd done about ten miles. Not a big ride for me: I used to do more than that before breakfast. And I wasn't pedalling along scenic seashores or among majestic mountains or fall foliage in Vermont or the Vosges. And while my legs felt fine and I didn't feel winded, I could feel some of the pressure in one of those sensitive areas. (I'll definitely be fiddling with the saddle some more!) But no ride could have been more beautiful, at least to me. The way it felt was almost the exact opposite of the climb up le Col du Galibier, which I didn't think about even for a moment. When I finished that climb, which seems like more than a lifetime ago, something--it seemed to come from within and without me at the same time--said, "You'll never have to do this again." I pedalled up that mountain because I thought I needed to, because I thought I'd let down all those people--including Tammy--who seemed to expect such things from me and because I feared "losing face" with all of those guys with whom I rode and to whom I used to boast about exploits like that one. On the other hand, something in my mind seemed to say, "You can do this again--whenever you want to."

Of course, I don't expect every ride to be like the one I did tonight. But it was absolutely fine for this lady's first ride.