The Unintended Consequences of Freedom
When I was 14, my Uncle Sid, who made a career out of owning hotels in Las Vegas, gave my brother and me a road bike each. These were magnificent gifts. Until then, I'd been confined much of the time to our ridge-top neighborhood in the Santa Monica Mountains of Los Angeles. My new bike set me free.
Our house sat on a dead-end street, a few miles above UCLA, adjacent Westwood Village and the rest of West Los Angeles. Until I was ten, my family had resided in those flatlands; we moved when the state of California decided the build an offramp to the I-10 freeway through our property.
By the age of eight, I rode the bus and walked and rode my bike wherever I wanted to, alone. The distances I traveled wouldn't seem very far the standards of an adult, but as a child, walkng four miles to Culver City and back made me feel like Magellan or Columbus. Of course, that was a different era, and when I became a parent, my wife and I never allowed my own daughters to go anywhere by themselves, although both have grown up to become savvy world travelers.
For me, though, the move to the Santa Monica Mountains made it difficult to explore the larger realms of L.A. Of course, with a deep, rugged, chaparral-covered canyon beyond my back door, a canyon filled with rattlesnakes and deer and raccoons (and poison oak), I didn't lack for diversions. There were plenty of kids to play around with, too. I had my bike, an old three-speed clunker that could take me as far as Mulholland Drive, a few miles away. The bike, though, teamed with my skinny legs, couldn't handle the steep climbing necessary for a return trip from the flatlands to our ridgetop home.
Our new bikes, made by Follis, a French company, came with "10 speeds;" two chainrings were up front, and five cogs in the back. My dad picked them up from Ed Lynch's bike shop, on Westwood Blvd. Ed was a former Olympian who played a part in the history of bike racing in the U.S. (By the way, if anyone has more information about Ed Lynch, please send me details). The bikes cost $114.00 each, quite a bit of money in 1962. (I blogged more about the bike a while ago, here.)
The bikes also came equipped with extra-low gears. My dad knew nothing about bikes, so I'm guessing Ed Lynch made the suggestion to supplant what must have been the standard gearing with "alpine gear." This meant the substituting the original inner chainring with one that had several less fewer teeth. This made pedaling uphill much easier. However, there was a drawback: while I could easily shift from the larger to the smaller chainring, the front derailleur wasn't able to handle the switch jump up from the smaller to the larger chainring without multiple attempts, often accompanied by a few choice cuss words from me.
I don't know why I didn't think to question Mr. Lynch about this. After a while, when everyone else had 10-speed bikes, I came to realize the derailleur on my bike was of an antiquated design. Eventually, rather than junking the derailleur - I'd become rather fond of it - I switched out the inner chainring for a larger one, as well as the outer chainring for one with less teeth. The front derailleur, after 13 years, became functional.
That bike, with its "alpine gears," gave me the freedom to rove from my hilltop home, and freed me from my parents, especially on weekends. I could easily coast down to UCLA or Westwood or the home of my best friend, Steve Gurwin. Alone or with friends, I'd find my own way to the beach, the Natural History Museum, or out into the San Fernando Valley. I'd even ride down to my high school for summer school classes. And as I grew stronger, I rode up and down every street in the Santa Monica Mountains east of Sepulveda Blvd. As I would one day learn, though, freedom isn't free. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
I must have visited Mr. Lynch's bike shop on occasion, at least early on. For I recall one warm Saturday morning, cycling down to the parking lot of the Veterans Administration on Wilshire Blvd. at Veteran Avenue, where Mr. Lynch had set up some cones. With 9/11 and state budget deficits decades away, the parking lot was open, empty, and free.
There were a few kids – maybe half a dozen – who had gathered, at Mr. Lynch's urging, to race some laps around the course of cones he'd set up. It was the first time I'd raced, and I wouldn't do so again for more than another decade. I did win my first heat, and came in second in the finals. It was possibly a three person race. After climbing off my bike, I wanted to vomit, I was seeing spots, the world was going black, and I almost passed out. Oh, if I'd only known then what I do know: the efficacy of steroids, of testosterone, of blood doping. I could have been somebody. I could have been a contender!
I still have that bike, or most of it: the frame, the handlebars, stem, the brakes, that front derailleur are original. The rest of the bike I upgraded over the years, with an odd collection of parts. The crankset is Suntour, from Japan, along with a Japanese-made Sakai seat post. The wheels include a prized pair of U.S. manufactured Phil Wood hubs and French-made Super Champion rims. The saddle is a legendary Brooks.
There were a few important bike accessories I purchased. A water bottle and a water bottle holder, for example, and clips to keep my jeans away from the greasy, outer chainring. And though my racing career was on a serious hiatus, I saw that Mr. Lynch carried a French-made racing helmet (sometimes referred to by cyclists as a "hairnet"). The hairnet helmet in Mr. Lynch's shop consisted of several stitched leather tubes, filled with some sort of cushioning material. The hard shell helmets we have today wouldn't arrive until years in the future.
Saving up some of my allowance each week, I finally had enough money to purchase that leather helmet. And for a while, I wore it. But as much as a nerd as I was then - if not now - I decided that wearing my helmet made me look even more nerdy. Often enough, then, I simply attached the helmet, not to me head, but to my handlebars. I should have thought about the potential consequences of not wearing that helmet.
I also had an aquarium, filled with zebra fish, angelfish, a catfish, and an ugly, alge-sucking Plecostomus. One afternoon after school, I added some fresh tap water to the tank. Then I discovered the bottle of fluid that would neutralize the supposedly poisonous effects of chlorine was empty. I called my good friend, Doug Hargrave (whom I still see on occasion), who confirmed he had a bottle of anti-chlorine potion that wasn't empty. I hopped on my bike and began riding toward his house as fast as I could turn the cranks.
The next thing I recall is staring out of some sort of dream. At first it was like looking out of a large, black tube at the world beyond. Occasionally faces of people I knew were staring in at me. They were saying something, but I couldn't make anything out. Then the world would go black again.
The leather hairnet had, some minutes before, slipped off the handlebars as I pedaled towards Doug's home, and slipped down between the front brake and the rotating wheel. Instantly the bike, with me on it, flipped over. I must have put out my left arm, because my wrist was broken. Apparently someone in a truck narrowly avoided hitting me as I skidded, on my face, along the pavement. That helmet, meant to protect me, almost killed me.
I went in and out of consciousness. When conscious, I found myself confused. What had happened? Groggily regaining my senses, I saw a police car pull up, with my mom inside. "What happened, honey?" she asked.
"I don't know," I answered, looking down at the sleeve of my green jacket that was covered in blood. "I don't know!"
At some point an ambulance pulled up, too, and soon I was transported to the UCLA emergency room. I thanked the medics in the ambulance. When they asked me what happened, I still couldn't remember. Not until a few hours later would bits and pieces of the day come back to me.
At first I could remember my art and crafts class; that was fifth period at Emerson Jr. High School. Then I could summon up images of sixth period. Then the ride home on the school bus, and finally I could remember cleaning my aquarium and then making my mad dash for Doug's house.
The moment of the accident, itself, though, was lost forever.
The damage to me: some serious road rash on my face, including the proverbial split lip, a dead front tooth (which, despite the odds, I still have under a cap, all these years later), a broken left wrist, and a concussion. The bike and the leather helmet seemed none-the-worse for wear.
That night, after returning home, Doug and his dad came for a visit; Doug brought the bottle of dechlorinator. My dad, who was as interested in discovering a good a practical joke as I am, had earlier tossed me a gorilla mask that he pulled out of my closet. As he headed down the hall with Doug and his dad, I heard my dad say, "I want to warn you, he looks pretty beat up."
As my friend and his father entered my room and spied my lying in bed, gorilla mask in place, a look of shock passed across their faces, replaced moments later with a look of mild annoyance.
When I took the mask off, a look of horror washed over their faces.
I was young and the young heal fast. In a few days, I was back in school. Except for the cast on my left arm, I was, like my bike and my helmet, none-the-worse for wear, still a free man, and one who would be a little more vigilant about his bike.