I like most bikes in this world, especially my friend Jenn Ruskey’s. Hers is green and quite stylish and still works after two years. Most bikes are a-okay. But in my two and one-twenty fourth years at Princeton I have owned three bikes and I hate each of them, a lot. Here’s why:
In September, 2003 I was a freshman. The verdant lawns and sun-drenched promenades of the north campus; the stucco walls and crisp, leather chairs of the boathouse on Lake Carnegie; the graceful, echoing vault of the chapel—I’d heard of all these places, had seen them in pictures, but had never visited them in person. That’s because I lived in Forbes, that residential college afterthought about a fortnight’s walk from any of these places. To strike east into the heart of Princeton I needed a bike.
Early in Freshman Week I walked into one Jay’s Cycles, of Nassau St., and asked the clerk (Jay himself?) for a “crappy bike for less than a hundred bucks.” He looked mildly offended, but offered to show me the discount stock. He lead me to a vast heap of rusted metal beside the shop, a heap that at first glance I’d taken for some kind of post-modern sculpture of dead bicycles. But some of the bikes still lived. From the pile I picked a ruddy red one with curved handlebars and skinny wheels. It looked real old. It might not have been built during the nineteen-oughts, but certainly during a decade when people still said “nineteen-ought.” But the bike was about a hundred bucks so I bought it, and also a helmet (just in case I took’er off-road). When trying on said helmet, Jay asked me if it fit “good.” I answered, instructively, “Yeah, it fits well.” I swear it just slipped out. He really didn’t like me after that—had the bike shop been a restaurant, and Jay a waiter, he would have spit in my food.
Ol’ Bessie—I named her this after Archie Andrews’ red jalopy—worked like a dream for at least three and half minutes. Then I got a flat, which Jay fixed grudgingly, warning me not to ride over curbs or manhole covers or pebbles or unhappy thoughts, none of which I had done. Eight seconds later I got another. Jay repaired it, hating me with every skillful turn of his socket wrench. And—honestly—Bessie got another, third flat within two days of the second repair. This being too much to bear, I decided to keep riding her till the tires disintegrated. After which I would return to Jay, defeated, hoping that by then he would have forgotten about the first two repairs and also his dislike for me. I rode her for a solid month, pumping up the flat tire twice a day just to keep the front wheel turning.
Bike tires need air like cars need oil, and the strain of the flat killed Bessie in the end. She died on a Tuesday just like, if you’ll remember, Forrest Gump’s girlfriend Jenny. I was riding to crew practice, passing through that roundabout at Faculty and Elm. As I turned uphill onto Faculty Rd. the front wheel, protected by not alotta tire, hit a grain of dust or an amoeba or something that substantial. I skidded, stopped and peered at the front wheel. The wheel—the metal wheel— had folded in half like a paper plate loaded with too much cake. Folded. In. Half. I carried Bessie to the boathouse, and from there back to Forbes, where I chained her to a bike rack. Let no one accuse me of leaving the dead behind.
Sophomore is Greek for “wise fool.” In September, 2004, after a long, bikeless drought, I decided I needed another one. Bike savvy from the Bessie fiasco, I skipped Jay’s Cycles, and instead went to Kopp’s, the self-proclaimed “Oldest Bike Shop in America.” With Bessie, I had paid the price for slumming it—this time I sought quality. I met the clerk, not Mr. Kopp himself but a helluva guy. After hearing my plight he directed me to a silver-and-blue, 21-speed Raleigh with big, fat tires and wheels unlikely to bend when struck by moonbeams or hard stares. I paid $225 for the bike and a new lock.
I didn’t get a flat for two days. Whatevs, the Kopp’s crew fixed it. But three days later I got another one. (That’s five flats in two years, if you’re counting. I think the average, if you round down, is zero). So moody was I when I went to have it repaired that they fixed it on the spot, for free.
Six months then passed of what I like to call the Golden Age of my Princeton biking career. High performance, no problems. I, astride that bike like a colossus, could travel from Forbes to McCosh in four minutes. But nothing gold can stay, as Robert Frost—who may or may not have been an avid cyclist—once wrote.
One day in March (the Ides, I think) the right gear-shifter fused, cracked, and then fell off. And so back to the shop, where would begin another miserable chapter in my biking history.
I dropped off the Raleigh and returned the following week to collect the bike. On this happy day I got into a near-violent fight with the boss over the cost of the repair. I forget the exact price, but it was a sizeable fraction of what I’d paid for the entire bike. I sputtered, whined, and made a scene. To the Kopp’s employees my psychotic episode might have seemed a tad unreasonable. But they didn’t know about Bessie. They didn’t know my history. I turned red. I fidgeted with my sunglasses. I threatened to buy my next bike at Walmart, telling the boss that I was a poor student who couldn’t afford this unrelenting deluge of bike-related bullshit. At this the boss interjected that, because I go to Princeton, I must be rich so why the hell should I care about the cost of a piddly bike repair. The gall.
I locked that bike to the rack at Forbes. I went to look for it when I returned this fall but it wasn’t there. Even the racks were gone.
I just bought the fucking thing a week ago at Walmart. I hated bikes so much by then that I wanted the cheapest rolling metal frame available. I found it: $53 for the bike, plus 88 cents for a set of twenty Allen keys. How Walmart makes a profit on anything beggars the imagination. The bike I bought was called a “Mt. Fury Roadmaster.” What a handle! There’s no doubt that I expected great things from this—vrrmmmm, vrrmmmm—MT. FURY ROADMASTER!!!
Well, we all know what’s going to happen, don’t we? Here’s Bike Three’s biography, from birth to time of writing: Gear shifter broke within two pedal-strokes; handle bars turn independently of front wheel, rendering steering impossible; bike too small for me; left pedal fell off while I was riding, cutting me badly on the foot. What happened? I can only guess that the treacherous passes of Mt. Fury are in fact much gentler than Princeton sidewalks. The bike just plain sucks. I wager that it isn’t even made of metal but of hardened tofu or jute or maybe even my own delusions. Maybe—gasp—there is no bike, just my own sense of inadequacy.
But there is a bike. The Roadmaster is now locked up by East Pyne and I never want to see it again. The combination is 1720. Please steal it.
Those still reading are probably thinking, “Dave, stop whining—you brought all these minor inconveniences upon yourself.” You are exactly right. Nearly all of the above is my fault—I blame neither Jay, nor Mr. Kopp, nor Mr. Walton, nor the Faculty-Elm roundabout. Yet, I still hate bikes, loathe them with a deep, Achilles vs. Agamemnon loathing. Gladly, there are no more chapters to write in my tragic farce of bi-wheeled misadventures, since I’m never riding a bike again. But how to end? Have you noticed that many polemicists these days (think Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 911), desperate to shelter their own dubious argument under the umbrella of some universal authority, conclude their ravings with a George Orwell quotation? So will I. As George ought to have said, “Four wheels good, two wheels bad.” I’m buying a car.