02 January 2010

Going (Bike) Shopping With My Cousin

Today I spent much of the day helping my long-lost cousin buy a bike.

OK, I know that was hyperbolic-- but only slightly. I did indeed go bike-shopping with him. And, until a few months ago, he was long-lost, sort of. Well, actually, I knew he was alive and more or less where he was. Still, I managed not to see him for forty years--until late August, just before the semester started.

It wasn't by design that I didn't see him for all of those years--unless, of course, you believe that some power higher than yourself willed it so. I am not saying that there was no Grand Design behind our separation; I simply don't know that there was such a plan.

In any event, finding a bike that he liked turned out to be surprisingly easy. I know more than most other people know about bikes; still, it's been a while since I've guided anyone, through his initiation or re-initiation into the world of bicycling. And I didn't want to do what I would have done back in the day, when I was working in bike shops.

Back in my boy-racer days, I would have found it vaguely distasteful to help someone who knew almost nothing about bikes. Worse still would have been helping such a potential customer purchase a basic, entry-level machine: something I never, ever would ride myself. I also would have tried to get such a customer to spend more money than he or she had earmarked for his or her new steed.

But, of course, Gene is my cousin--or, more precisely my mother's cousin. Some of my relations aren't happy with some things I've done, but I have never tried to hurt or cheat them. Plus, I want him to be happy with his bike, which has meant listening to what he wanted rather than what I think he should have.

And what did I hear from him? Comfort, comfort and comfort, in that order. After that, he talked about taking short rides on weekends and building up to longer daily rides as the days grow longer and warmer. Finally, he wanted a bike that would ride well in a number of different conditions.

And what did he end up with? A Bianchi Cortina, with a bunch of accessories. His choice of bike (He test-rode it and two others.) didn't surprise me; in fact, it was the first bike in the shop that I noticed when he talked about his wishes and preferences. What surprised me, however, was how much he spent on accessories for the bike. I thought they were all good choices for him, given how he intends to ride. I guess I was surprised because I didn't prod him into buying anything: he knew he wanted a rack for the rear, a trunk bag for the top and fenders, and he realized that it couldn't hurt to have lights in case he starts a ride late in the afternoon and continues into the evening.

I probably wouldn't have bought the bike he bought, but only because it's not a bike that suits my style of riding and, well, because I really don't need and can't afford another bike right now. However, the Cortina is, I believe, a very good example of the sort of bike it is: a basic hybrid, which is really what will suit Gene.

He bought the bike at Spokesman Cycles, which is sort-of-near where I used to live. I had planned to take him on the grand tour of bike shops, but I think he didn't want to drive into Manhattan, where we would have gone to Bicycle Habitat. Plus, I figured that Spokesman had, for the small shop that it is, a decent selection of the kinds of bikes that might interest Louis, and its location is convenient for him. And the owner is a friendly acquaintance.

Afterward, we went to Los Portales, a Mexican restaurant in Astoria, where we had a soups that cost almost as much as our entrees. We were happy with both. After that, we had some pastry and coffee in a cafe across the street, where we stayed until closing. We talked about a lot of things, as you might imagine. After all, this is the third time we've seen each other after that forty-year absence.

Now, I know that this experience of helping Louis choose a bike was entirely different than any other experience I've had in guiding anyone else through the process. For one thing, I was doing so as a "civilian," albeit one armed with the knowledge of a former bike-shop employee and relationships with the proprietor of the shop. Also, I was helping a relation of mine who, I believe, may be turning into a friend. (He's been honest with, and sweet to, me.)

But I think the most important difference is that I listened to him more than I had in previous encounters with people buying bikes. Some of that may have had to do with the fact that he's a relation. However, I think it also had to do with the fact that I've developed a more encompassing, democratic view of cycling and cyclists. Once, years ago, I told someone she should "lose weight and get in shape" before she started to ride a bike; now I am happy to see people mount their saddles, even if those seats are not the ones I would ride and the people mounting them aren't shaped the way I and my old riding buddies were when we were in our best shape.

I can't help to wonder, though, whether my attitude also had something to do with my change in gender manifestation. I've heard and read various notions that women are better listeners and more practical thinkers than men are. Perhaps some of us become so, though, I believe, by necessity rather than because of our innate differences from men.

Maybe it just has to do with the fact that even though I'm not the athlete I once was, I'm much happier with myself. People, including students, have told me that they respond to that in me: I'm starting to notice that they do, and perhaps Louis is, too. That makes for more pleasant and productive interactions. Most important, I think that happy people feel, ironically enough, less need to change other people. At least, I know that I don't have to turn Louis into a wannabe racer to enjoy his company.