October 15, 2007

I Brake for... Years

Oh, Autumn. The reason Michiganders sweat through summer, longing for the leaves to turn—for those three glorious weeks where t-shirts don’t stick to us. When the heat wave evaporates, mornings are frosty and all is corduroy: Autumn has finally arrived. Unfortunately, we forget that it brings winter in its frickin’ back pocket. Last night’s rain carried over into this morning, obliterating the healthy 20-degree cushion between summer and pumpkin-picking weather. Autumn was a one-night only event, and it was Tuesday. I hope you enjoyed it. Please do stay for the snow.

Since I didn’t just move to the mitten yesterday, I seized the opportunity to bike to work for the last time on the very nicest day of the season. Man, was it glorious: leaves, chimneys, a breeze and 75 degrees. No humidity. Absolutely unheard-of perfection. And since I’d recently had my new back brakes installed, it went much more smoothly than last time.

I bought my bike sometime during my tenure as a mall employee, so it’s about ten years old and has all its original parts. I didn’t start using it regularly until three years ago, when gas spiked at $3.45 and I decided that the hamster commute was easier on my wallet and healthy, in that order. Now I actually look forward to hopping on a bike at 7 AM (I know; health fetishists are so misunderstood), but this spring I realized I was taking the bike for granted; I was still spoiling my car with oil changes while the little step-transport was wearing holey hand-me-downs.

Many minor repairs were starting to stack up, but the brake pads needed replacing immediately. The poor little rubber teeth, meant to clamp down on the back wheel and save me from springing headlong like a lawn dart every time a small child circumvents my path,* were worn down to sad old man gums. This makes braking possible only if I have a long stretch of road to coast to a halt—say, the length of Montana, honey coated, with a copse of shrubbery at the bottom. Until I could make it to the shop, I was forced to rely solely on the front brakes.

Now, remedial cycling dictates that “when slowing from high speeds, rear brakes should be used to avoid jackknifing.” Like any paranoid person, I take that to mean “anytime the kickstand is up,” but was forced to amend that when use of the rears caused an emission of sparks. The front brakes were so rarely used I was tempted to think of them as ‘new’… until I used them. Because not only was I courting an Evel Knievelesque death, I was making the world’s loudest, most Godawful squeee-ing noise while doing it.

The written media is a stumbling block in trying to portray sound, but I offer this and leave it to your imagination:

Slowing for stop sign:
“Scrree scree squeak screee squeak squee screeeek…”

Sudden braking:

Futile attempt to stop careering down a hill:

This noise alerts the world that I am either 1) poor or 2) have never ridden a bike in this life. Thus, I’m always in the wrong when someone—say, a woman with a badly-dyed pageboy—peels out of a parking structure, back wheels of her Liberty on the sidewalk before even glancing at oncoming traffic (me). The clamor of my sudden stop, compounded with the fact that my helmet is about two sizes too big and lends me the appearance of the Bic logo, negates any claim on innocence I might have had. I could conceivably have been run over several times by this woman’s not-SUV and still look accountable in some way, because my appearance suggests I shouldn’t be let out of the house unsupervised, let alone able to operate a simple machine when I got there.

But no more. A set of pads from your friendly-neighborhood Two-Wheel Tango and two (two!) new bike lanes running ¾ of my route, and I can’t wait for the (as of 2:00 PM) unfallen snow to melt.

Now if I can just ditch the cantaloupe-y helmet...

* with head turned, always always ALWAYS. If you see a child bearing the mark of my front wheel, you shall know that both he and his parents learned something very important on the same day.

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