My life as a two-wheeled contrarian

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

I’m always out of step. In the ’80s, I was all about craft beer, berating Knoxville for its embarrassing dearth of ales of a hue and bite and alcohol content suitable to my palate, that of a young man who had spent two months in Europe and wanted to talk about it.

Now that craft beer is roaring beyond my wildest dreams, on every other street corner, it gives me a headache, sometimes even before the check arrives. Now I drink Rolling Rock from a can on the back porch.

Back in those hoppy-ale days, I rode my bike everywhere, and wondered why nobody else did. My bike and I were so conspicuous, people always knew where I was. My conveyance was chained to a signpost outside.

Me and bikes go way back. We’ve had our ups and downs.

In boyhood, a bike was like a pair of shoes. From age 6 I didn’t go out without it. Maybe even more common than shoes; I often rode barefoot. My little red Schwinn and I went to the ball park, to the school, to the drugstore for a Coke or bubble gum, to friends’ houses, often for more bike riding. I was also happy to ride alone. My bike was an agreeable companion.

There followed an awkward spell called junior high. Bikes seemed childish, even though I wasn’t old enough to drive. Still, at 13, I got a paper route, and the only way to accomplish it was with a bicycle. So cool or not, I was on a bike again, riding every day of the week for work, not for joy.

That bike then was a big sturdy black one-speed Schwinn Typhoon, with rear baskets like saddlebags. Every day after school I’d ride it down the liquor store where the distributor dumped my papers, load them into the baskets, evenly so I wouldn’t wobble, and I’d start. My 80 customers included three liquor stores, two drugstores, two barber shops, and a golf club. I had poor hillbillies and people so rich they never came to the door when I tried to collect.

I quit my route when I learned to drive, and put bicycling behind me, forever I thought.

Then 10-speeds were the big thing. They seemed complicated and ridiculously expensive, more than $50, some of them. The neighborhood millionaire pedaled one fiercely past our house every evening. I saw nothing to envy.

Still, at 20, I got a Fuji 10-speed, blue, with the little volcano emblem. It was light and easy to ride. It had such perfect balance, I could take my hands off the handlebars and steer it by leaning.

I rode it to college, to football games, to work at the Daily Beacon. Part of the fun was that bike-riding was rare. I’d go to parties, and people would recognize me right away. Oh, you’re the guy on the bike. In my apartment in Fort Sanders, like any beloved pet, my bike lived in my living room, which was also my bedroom.

Life shifts its own gears, and then I was living out in the suburbs, with a family, and forgot about bikes. When I was almost 29, I got a job I could ride my bike to. This time I got a Raleigh, a 21-speed. I never loved that bike, but I rode it to work almost every day for the next 25 years.

I owned no Lycra, no special shoes, no water bottles, no accessories at all. I never rode recreationally. I’m not sure I even liked bicycling, in itself. I just liked it better than driving a car.

It was my transportation, 12 miles a day, round trip, for thousands of days. I didn’t always ride in the rain, but sometimes I did. I avoided riding on ice, but sometimes rode in snow.

I rode that bike about 50,000 miles, all of it within a 6-mile radius of downtown. I rode it downtown, through neighborhoods, and down bike trails, which were pleasantly lonesome. The bicyclists I met were recreational cyclists who wore athletic gear and rode much faster than I did, and with a grimmer sense of purpose. They didn’t have time for bike trails. Automobile drivers and recreational cyclists seemed equally different from me. A bicycle commuter was a freak.

I was happy with that persona. I met herons and turtles on my way to work. I contemplated ruins. I found quarters and nickels on the street. I developed a respect for the edgy topography of a city built on a river bluff and the creek valleys surrounding it.

Of course, the funding for bike trails passed legislatures and city councils based on the premise that it’ll get cars off the road, use less gas, cause less pollution. I wondered how long they’d keep paying for all that just for me.

About 20 years ago, I heard there was going to be a Bike to Work Day. Swell, I thought, I’ll have some company. That morning I was alone on the bike trail, as usual. When I got downtown, police had blocked off some highway lanes. Dozens of people in athletic togs were racing their recreational bicycles downtown. They’d brought them downtown in cars equipped with bike racks.

Having already biked to work, of course, I wasn’t in the mood to keep riding around. And I would have been the odd duck on Bike to Work Day, because I was dressed for work.

About five years ago, on my way to work, I had a wreck. I’m not sure quite what I did wrong. A beautiful day, a quiet block, no traffic, cruising at low speed, my bike wobbled, and I went down. I spent the next two days in the hospital, spending more than my annual salary to get a broken arm fixed.

My arm’s better, but my derailleur’s frozen in the position it was in when I went down. I’ll get it fixed someday.

Now lots of people ride to work. Even though I’m not one of them, it feels liberating.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville’s cultural heritage—not to mention publishing the Knoxville Mercury. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville’s life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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