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First Person No more castoffs: It’s time I bought myself a brand-new bike

Illustration by Adam De Souza

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A brand-new bike. There are not many words that sound better. Henry James argued the words “summer afternoon” were the most beautiful in the English language, but I think “brand-new bike” is up there, too.

How does a bike rate this much of a thrill? I can buy a car if I need to, so getting this excited about a bike seems a little ridiculous. It’s a gift, though, when something brings this kind of joy – childhood joy, like planting the first tracks in fresh snow, or jumping through sand-diluted warm waves; things that make you want to throw yourself in.

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I admit I may have lost perspective, because there is a bike in my past that could be called the one that got away – a lost opportunity I may be trying to make up for. My first and most clear-cut regret is not buying myself a certain important bike.

Bikes were a very big deal when I was a kid (are they still? I hope so). My first bike was a hand-me-down from one of my sisters. I felt lucky to have it, because boys got new bikes as gifts; girls, not so much. And what a bike it was. Pink, low-slung, with those high-curving handlebars and an iridescent purple banana seat. I added long tassels, in a rainbow of colours, to the handles. Serious cool.

A bike wasn’t just a bike. It was freedom. It’s like the tether between you and those who’ve navigated for you every moment up until now is stretched and then, with a heady snap, broken. I think I was 7 when I was allowed, on the first day of summer holidays, to bike alone around the nearby pond. As I came close to the bank, a mother duck darted out of the rushes, followed by eight tiny, fluffy ducklings on their first adventure, too. Days upon days of freedom stretched in an infinite line, filled with rides like this one.

Of course, not all the adventures were solo. That bike took me on a thousand trips along the shortcut to my cousins’ house, through hundreds of games of cops and robbers around our country block and tens of times up and down the gravel roads to the trailer park on the days they offered free admission to their swimming pool. Spending our days on bikes wasn’t without hazards though. We fell off, a lot. The scars on my knees have never completely disappeared. Once the boys built a ramp, more serious injuries resulted from the imperative to hit it at full tilt and land it. Then, there was the never-to-be-forgotten time my cousin, coasting downhill, got her swim towel caught in her front spokes. Her bike did a full aerial flip with her on it. This was before we wore helmets, so she was lucky to come out with only bruises. Falling off was part of the price we paid for freedom.

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But all eras come to an end. The day my friend, with the money he’d saved up from bailing hay, got his first 10-speed, was that day. Shiny and white, with gears, hand brakes and skinny tires, it put him in a class so far above us we couldn’t keep up. My cousins followed shortly after and I was the only one left in the dust, still riding a kids’ bike.

As a girl, I was not the first choice for farm work, and although I tried haying, it made me sneeze. But my dad gave me a big patch to grow pumpkins. It was hard work cutting the pumpkins from their prickly vines, washing them and lugging them to the road, but my prices were right and I sold out. Within one season, I had the funds to buy the coveted bike. I wanted a white one, just like my friend’s.

Oh, why didn’t I buy it? I can still see it in the catalogue. But that spring my older brother gave me his 10-speed, fairly worn, a little rusty from sitting out in the rain, but still with a lot of use in it. Meaning well, he coloured it green for me with some paint meant for a barn. I was becoming a teenager, and I spent the savings on clothes. I think I believed it would be wasteful not to use what I had, and money did not grow on trees. I rode that bike all through high school, but I still sometimes regretted the bike that never was.

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Then there were a few years of living in the city, taking buses to school and subways to work. It wasn’t until I owned my first home that I got another bike, a gift from my in-laws – and what a perfect gift! That bike took me on new adventures: It inspired a mountain-biking phase, then it wore a baby seat and then it pulled a trailer for more. Eventually, it died of old age, having lived a full life.

You would think that much-loved bike would have made up for the lost one. But somehow it didn’t; not quite.

I started riding my son’s cast-off bike left behind when he went away to school (there is a theme of thrift here.) Recently I rode it quite a long way to a bike shop for a desperately needed tune-up. The owner wouldn’t touch it, declaring it a piece of junk (note, I then rode it all the way home). Thank goodness, for some things at least, it’s never too late.

I didn’t find it in a catalogue, but online. It’s not the 10-speed I dreamed of. It’s a retro hybrid urban cruiser just right for a grown-up me. It’s a pretty, light mint green, not white – but with white pedals, a white seat and white leather handles. It’s got a rack where I can strap on a basket to carry groceries or library books or childhood wishes. Excuse me now. Adventures are waiting.

J.E. Hewitt lives in Elora, Ont.

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