The stories included herein are all true. Well, mostly all true.

The funny thing about this story is that it ended much differently that I had expected. Though as I was writing it, I could see the road it was taking.


September 26, 2010

Early last Saturday, I was riding my bike to work in a light rain. Traffic was light, and the road quiet as I pedaled westward peacefully at a good pace. Along much of that stretch of the route between Cicero Avenue and Ridgeland Avenue, 95th Street is a nice, safe, two and a half lanes wide and very smooth. One of the sections where 95th Street narrows down to two lanes is where the train tracks intersect 95th Street near 52nd Avenue.

Now, train tracks are generally rough on bicyclists in any situation. There are gaps, bumps, slick rails, and, naturally, trains. Flats and falls are not unknown. These tracks in particular always give me some concern. As I said, the road narrows – not much room for the cars to pass me. Much less room for me to try to maneuver for a better crossing angle. (Or for an escape route as the situation may develop.)

And then there is the angle of intersection. Ideally, the tracks should be approached at a perpendicular angle. That way, there’s little chance that the bike tire doesn’t accidentally start following the tracks instead of the road. Well, these tracks intersect at about a 30 degree angle. So I can never be quite sure which way my wheels will decide to go.

And, as I mentioned, there was a light rain. The steel rails are particularly slippery. And the new rubber track “aprons” that cushion the sections between the rails are “more particularly” slippery. Wet rubber tires rolling on wet rubber apron , then wet steel rail , then wet rubber, then wet steel, then wet rubber, then wet steel, then wet rubber, then wet steel, and finally more wet rubber – with two inch open gaps between each “wet”.

Finally, and most importantly in my mind, is the very real possibility of an actual train!! Most of the train traffic on these tracks are Metra passenger trains, which always decelerate as they approach the Oak Lawn Metra Station there. But several times a day large, long freight trains come rolling through. And these trains do not decelerate as they cross.

So, there I was, daydreaming about how much riding a bike at a nice steady pace must be similar to the flight of bird – peacefully soaring on the winds with only a minimal output of energy necessary to maintain the progress.

And abruptly the railroad crossing bells started to clang. And the crossing gate started its inexorable descent – too late for me to attempt to halt my progress. I took a quick glance down the track, risking what little control I had over my crossing. Through my raindrop splattered glasses (always a hazard while riding in the rain), I saw the huge headlight of an even huger freight train barreling out of the early morning gloom less than three blocks away.

I think I muttered the “s” word, and out of sheer terror, locked my hands and wrists and elbows and shoulders and closed my eyes.

And, as I began to cross the tracks, I remembered an episode my Dad had told me of a similar situation he had encountered in his bike riding days.

It seems he too was riding in the rain. His bike – an old styled “track” bike, lacked brakes - among other things. The idea behind it was that the rider would use his hand to slow down the bike – by rubbing, or even grabbing, the front tire. (Honest! I know – I rode the same bike for some time before Dad told me how to stop it). Hopefully the rider had remembered to wear some gloves before he attempted to do this.

Anyway, in Dad’s incident, he was heading home after one of the hundreds of solo bike trips he took around his childhood home in Berwyn. It was getting dark, and as I mentioned, it was raining. And he was on a through street – one which had no stop signs. All the intersecting streets had the stop signs. Well, he was maintaining a good pace, going downhill. And all of a sudden, a car pulled out less than a quarter-block ahead of him.

Dad said that he knew he couldn’t stop in time. There was a curb to his right. And the threat of traffic coming up behind on his left.

“So,” he said, “I just grabbed my tire and yanked it to the right. And closed my eyes as I fell down and the bike and I slid sideways toward the car.”

Dad says that he really expected to die.

Instead, he ended up lying beneath the car. The bike tires and his legs were directly under the car frame, between the car’s tires and under the car’s doors. Fortunately, the car’s frames were higher then they normally are now. And the driver had stopped when he saw what was about to happen. I think Dad’s devotion to St. Christopher (whose medal he had on the bike) increased ten-fold that day.

And that story flashed through my mind in the three short seconds it took me to get from the descending railroad gate to successfully across the tracks. I heard the train blow it’s whistle loud and felt the rush of wind as it passed behind me, less than 50 feet behind me. I’ve got to get me a St. Christopher medal!

About every dozen years or so, I spend a summer riding my bike to work.

The first time was when I transferred from the Loop Post Office to my present station in Bridgeview. It felt so good not to have to deal with and hour and a half commute on a crowded bus or in congested rush hour traffic that I took joy at the ability to pedal to work and enjoy the commute.

The second time was when my daughter Joy needed a car, and we only had one available. Since it was easier for me to commute to work then for her – especially since she had her young son Andrew to care for, I took to riding the bike to work again. And again found myself enjoying the commute.

This time, I’ve been riding my bike to work since late July, when my trusty, rusty 2001 Dodge 2500 passenger van broke a ball joint on the way to work one morning. I had been neglecting van repairs for some time, so the problem wasn’t unexpected. One repair turned into two, then three, and a few more neglected areas have come to the surface, and I figured I’d try to get them all fixed before winter.

And riding my bike to work is a cheap and healthy alternative. It’s free. (Well, except for the three bike tubes and two bike tires I’ve had to replace.) And since my present mail route is almost entirely “mounted” – I’ve been sitting in a truck and bouncing from mailbox to mailbox to mailbox five or six hours a day. Five or six days a week. Not much chance to move or stretch. So my knees and back have been getting stiffer. And my waist and butt have been getting thicker. Since I’ve started riding, I’ve lost fifteen pounds, and my butt is so small that I can’t keep my pants up. (Jeff Foxworthy calls them “froggy butts” – usually occurring in older men whose hips are tinier then their waist, and look like a frog’s hips when the frog’s legs are pulled straight.)

Additionally, I’ve got the advantage of local (and frequent) bus service. I can get on a PACE bus about every 15 minutes about six blocks from home. And this past year, they’ve rearranged the route so that it leaves me off right in front of work. And about two years ago, they added bike racks to the front of the buses, so I can combine the bike ride and the bus ride. At $1.75 each way, it’s not as cheap as riding the bike, but it’s cheaper than van, which guzzles about a gallon and a half of gas for the round trip.

Normally when I ride my bike to work, I stick to the side streets. The side street route is a little longer, and takes more time than my 95th Street route. But I feel safer without having wave after wave of packs of cars, trucks and buses continuously assaulting and overtaking my frantically pedaling frame while they compete amongst themselves to get to their destinations as quickly as possible.

I live in Evergreen Park, about a mile north of Little Company of Mary Hospital, and I start work as a letter carrier at the Moraine Valley Post Office in Bridgeview, near the Walmart at 102nd and Harlem Avenue. The most direct route is a distance of just over 7 miles each way. That route, however, requires one of two less-than-desirable choices. Either I have to survive the adrenaline rush of a high speed sprint over the chaotic merging traffic on the hilltop cloverleaf at 95th and Harlem. Or I have to “portage” my bike over a double set of freight train tracks at 99th and Sayre. (And about 20% of the time that portage point is blocked by long stationary trains, so I end up having to take a long detour back to my safe route, or a short dangerous detour onto Harlem Avenue going against the traffic.) So my normal, “safe” route is a little over eight miles, which I can make in about 45 minutes of casual pedaling.

My present bike is a Raleigh “touring” bike (narrow tires, downward curving handled bars.) It was a gift to me from my friend Russ Niemann. When he gave it to me, about a year before he died, he said that he knew that I enjoyed bike riding, and that he had gotten “too old” for the bike. I argued that “You’re never too old for a bike.” And he answered, “I’m not too old for a bike. I’m just too old for that bike.” I asked him what he meant, and he grinned, and “Just wait a year or two.”

Well, I rode it on and off for the past four years, and found it an almost perfect bike for me. Russ was a tall man, about 3 inches taller than me, and he bought a Raleigh that fit him well. And all of the bikes that I had previously were “standard-sized”. I didn’t realize it, but they were all a little shorter and narrower than was comfortable for me. On Russ’ bike, I can stretch out from the seat to the handle bars without having to keep my back arched. And my legs can extend a little straighter from the saddle to the peddles. It’s not a perfect bike, however. Let’s just say that when I’m straddling the cross bar with both feet on the ground, my bone clears the cross bar by about a quarter inch, and my “bags” don’t clear at all!

And this year, I found out about being too old for the bike. I didn’t realize it at first, because my normal biking attire is a t-shirt and a pair of Spanex biking shorts. (Not because I want to attract admiring glances from the ladies, but because they happen to have cushioned gel padding in the butt, something which my froggy butt appreciates.)

With the shorts on, I can get on and off the bike with little trouble. Just swing the leg out and over the seat (which is about belly button high.) One day recently, however, I was wearing jeans. And try as hard as I could, I couldn’t swing that old leg up high enough. Either leg. Then I tried getting on the bike the “girly” way – bending the leg at the knee and putting the bent leg directly over the cross bar. That worked okay with my left leg - barely. And I almost fell on my back while trying it, pulling the bike backward as I tried to keep my balance, much to the amusement of the local tots. (“Look at the old man!”) The best way of getting on the bike when I’m wearing jeans is to meekly walk the bike over to the nearest curb, and use the extra height to boost myself over. And then search for a convenient curbside when I’m trying to dismount. (I’ve since added a nice milk crate (literally) to the back rack to make it easier to carry my gear (i.e., “stuff”). The crate adds another inch or two to the height that needs to be clears by using the “swing the leg around and over” method - and even more when the crate is heavily loaded. Which makes mounting and dismounting even more difficult – and unsteady.

I guess the time is coming (“Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise”) when I too will be too old to ride that bike. But there’s no sense worrying about the future when I can spend my time enjoying the present. So for now, I’ll keep trying to get back on it and ride.

I’ve enjoyed biking since I was a kid. Always enjoyed it. Mom and Dad encouraged it. (Actually, with all the kids in the family, I think they encouraged any activity to get us out of the house.)

Dad and Mom met while in their early twenties while on separate bike trips to the same location.. They were in different bicycling clubs. I think Mom’s group was through Chicago’s American Youth Hostel organization, through which she participated in several trips to National Parks. I believe Dad’s was a more informal blue-collar group in his local Berwyn neighborhood.

Dad said he was first attracted to Mom because she had a St. Christopher medal on her bike. (I’ve seen pictures of Mom at the time, and I think her bright smile and great legs might have helped St. Christopher!)

Mom and Dad met through a shared love of biking. And they spent much of their short courtship on bikes - I remember Dad’s stories of riding his bike and guiding Mom’s empty bike between his house in Berwyn and her home in Roseland – a distance of about 20 miles, to return her bike after she took the train home from visits. Repeatedly during their courtship.

But the funny thing is, I don’t remember ever seeing either of them on a bike except for a couple times on a tandem that we kids bought them for their thirtieth anniversary. I don’t know why they never took up riding again. Too much else to do, I guess. (I still have that tandem. The last time I used it, I was trying to get Dad to give it a try late in his life. He was willing – almost eager, to give it a go. But after several failed attempts, he kept falling off the back seat, and complained each time that “it isn’t working.” I figured that he meant the his “effort’ wasn’t working. I was very sorry to find out much later that the seat wasn’t working – it kept tilting backward or forward, dumping the rider off. But in the meantime, Dad gave up on the idea.)

I remember my first bike – a 12” red bike with fenders, chain guard, and a headlight. (In a recent conversation with friends, it seems that almost everyone remembered their first bike. And one common childhood “tragedy” among these friends was the experience of having their bike stolen.)

By the time I was in Fourth Grade, I was riding my bike to “cruise” past the house of my first crush – a cute little blond who lived about 3 miles away. (I never did spot her. She probably spotted me first!)

By Fifh grade, I was heading out to Dolton – a good 10 miles away, to visit with a school chum – Danny Zahara.

As a freshman in high school, I was woken one morning by Mom, who asked me if I wanted to join my cousin Frankie Pater and his friend on a bike ride up to the cottage – a hundred miles away! It seems that they had stopped by our house earlier in the morning as their first rest stop on their trip. (They had started from their homes in Hillside, making their trip over 120 miles!) I don’t know if Frankie actually asked if I might like to join them, or if it was my Mom’s idea. But it wasn’t until a good half-hour after they left that Mom asked me. I said “Sure!”

There was a three-fold problem.

First of all, I realistically wasn’t in shape for a full hundred-mile trip, having never gone over about thirty miles before then. No problem. At 15, ignorance is bliss.

Secondly, my own bike was broken – or stolen - at the time. All I had was my Dad’s old bike. It had been long neglected in our garage, painted in a weird gray with multi-colored polka dots. But Dad had let me paint it glossy gray, and though it was probably the most “primitive” bike I ever rode (and that was putting it kindly), for some reason that old bike was used quite frequently over the next 8 years or so.

The final problem was that Frankie and his friend had already left the house a full half-hour before Mom woke me, and I had to get ready and packed into the station wagon, and then Mom had to figure out where they were. (No cell phones back then.)

Well, after about an hour of searching, we finally spotted them just east of Gary, Indiana, near the point where US Routes 12 and 20 split up. This was about 45 miles from where they had started, but still about 75 miles form our cottages on Paw Paw Lake in Southwest Michigan.

They didn’t seem to mind my joining their expedition, and we enthusiastically bade Mom goodbye and headed on our way.

We had no problem for most of the next 25 miles. The road stretched nice and evenly, with few hills and only gradual grades. The next 25 miles were more trying. Part of it was my lack of conditioning, but the more apparent problem was Dad’s bike.

Remember, I said that it was a “track” bike. At the time, track bikes were meant primarily for going around and around oval bike tracks. Meaning that there was no need for gears. Dad’s bike had no “low” gear or “high” gear. Only one gear. There was no changing gears to make going uphill easier, and no changing gears to get more speed while going downhill. Going downhill wasn’t too great of a problem. My riding partners would zoom ahead, and then slow down while I struggled to catch up. Going uphill, though, got to be increasingly difficult. This problem wasn’t too apparent yet, since Frankie and his friend had already ridden almost 75 miles, and weren’t too upset at the slower pace.

During the last 15 miles of the ride, though, the situation became unbearable. I was so fatigued, I had to walk up every hill. Much to their credit, Frankie and his friend did not desert me. We rode when I could. We walked when I couldn’t. Frankie knew the route. I didn’t. (I had only ridden it as a passenger in the crowded back seat of Dad’s station wagon, never paying too much attention.) Luckily, we rode during the summer, when the sun doesn’t set until almost 9PM.

I’ve made that trip at least twice since then, but that was one by far the most memorable.

There were many other memorable trips.

My younger brother Jim and I went on several when he was in high school. I remember one to Appleton, Wisconsin, where we camped and rode our bikes around High Cliff State Park. We found out why it is called High Cliff when we rode our bikes on the road that goes down the Cliffside – and abruptly turns ninety degrees at the bottom of the cliff.

We managed to turn our bikes about seventy-five of those ninety degrees before going off the road and into a field.

I believe it was on the same trip that we encountered an unchained farm dog that gave us chase, and Jim told me a lesson that Dad had once told him. “Jim,” Dad said, “When you’re being chased, you don’t have to be the fastest guy in the pack. You just got to be faster than the slowest guy in the pack.”

It was also on that trip that I realized a third deficiency in Dad’s old track bike. It had no coaster gear. Once you started pedaling, you had to keep pedaling. (In fact, putting back pressure on the pedals was “supposedly” the second method of slowing the bike down – the fore-mentioned “gloved hand” being the first method.) The only way to keep from pedaling was to stick your legs out to the side and let the pedals revolve on their own. I remember on this trip, I was riding along “no-hands” and suddenly lost control. Afraid to try to grab the handlebars for fear of wiping out completely, I ended up helplessly riding several dozen yards into another field unable even to stop pedaling onward to my demise.

And there have been scores of happy bike rides with my son Jeremy over the years – usually long rides like “The Apple Cider Century” in SW Michigan, and the annual “MS 100” which raises funds to fight Multiple Sclerosis. (Dad was always a strong financial contributor to any trip that required any kind of dollar cost. I think many times Jeremy was sent along on these trips by his mother to “Keep Dad from getting himself hurt.” But they were terrific times of bonding. Times when we were both bone-tired from the heat or the wind. And yet each time, Jer would still manage to entice me into a final sprint for the finish line. (We both knew the sprint was coming, but the secret was not to start too soon, or risk burning out. Jer would inevitably start the sprint, and I think youth always won our over old age and experience, but I like to think I gave him a battle.)

My daughters have only gone on a couple shorter trips. Each time, one or the other admits to having entertained thoughts of driving off road in the hopes of damaging her bike enough to prematurely shorten the trip. But I’ve enticed (entrapped?) my oldest grandson Andrew into a few bike trips. A twenty-five miler when he was a mere seven years old, riding a bike about the same size as my first bike – though his had ten speeds. And a few glorious trips up and down Chicago’s incredibly enjoyable lakefront bike paths. And a thirty mile overnight camping trip from the cottage to Van Buren State Park. (My youngest grandson, Avi, is only seven months – still a little too young to accompany Grandpa on any bike trips – but God-willing, someday he will.)

And there are still a few of Dad’s old lessons that have resurfaced during the past two months of cycling. Like “You can only get so wet in the rain, and then you can’t get any wetter” (It rained on six of the first 13 days I rode to work. During the first outburst- on my first day of riding, it rained so hard that several cars ahead of me were stalling out in the deep water that flooded the streets.)

And, “Brakes don’t work when their wet.” (How he knew this, I don’t know, since his bike had no brakes. But I remembered this lesson when my brakes failed in the rain, and I had to try to stop my bike by dragging my feet on the street while a car and I both approached the same intersection at the same time. Fortunately, the car stopped. And remember what I said earlier about how high my bike’s cross bar is.)And, “Car doors are as dangerous as cars.” (He told a story of his most creative bike stop – a front wheel hand stand when he grabbed the front wheel of his bike to brake and avoid a car door that had just opened in a parked car he was passing. His feet were still clamped in the bike clips and he and the bike were suspended vertically, nose down, for several complete seconds to the open-mouthed amazement of an elderly woman as she watched them slowly fall over into the street. I had a similar experience on one of my first rides – feet in clips, but no hand-stand. I’ve gotten rid of the foot clips, and I give parked cars more clearance.)

And, “There are nine four-letter words in biking. FLAT. BUMP. HILL, RAIN. TRAX. HOLE. AUTO. DOGS. And WIND. Especially WIND.” (It’s such a nice thing when the wind blows behind you. But you seldom really appreciate it, because, as Dad said, “All the hills are up, and all the winds blow in your face.”)

And “Be prepared, or be prepared to be creative.” (I’ve found that getting my gear ready the day before makes a big difference in punching in on time. And that carrying $1.75 around in my saddle bag saving me the frustration of realizing I have no money – or only a $10 bill, as the bus passes me by.)

One more story, and then I’ll end.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve had to replace three tubes and two tires in the two plus months that I’ve ridden. There’s a lot of broken glass on the roads, so I’m surprised that I’ve only had that many repairs. But the biggest problem I’ve had is bent rims. I bent the first one when my bike overturned while in the library’s bike rack. The front tire was still in the rack, while the rest of the bike flipped on its side, weighted down by a load of books strapped into the milk crate. And I bent the back tire rim when I tried to flip the bike upright after repairing a flat – it was dark, and I was tired, and I was just careless when I tried to get it upright.

Normally, to fix a bent rim (I think it’s called “true-ing” a tire), one should get a spoke wrench and carefully tighten or loosen each of 32 spokes until the rim is spinning without a wobble. This takes time and patience, and Dad told me of the time he tried to teach one of his younger brothers (John or Paul) how to do it properly. He told him all it took was time and patience. He went back to check on his brother’s progress about a half hour later, only to find him flailing at the spokes in frustration with a full sized wrench, muttering “Patience! Patience! Patience!”)

Me?? Well, I found out that if I stuck the rim in the gap between the gate and the post on my backyard chain-link fence, I can just sort of bend it back and forth, one portion of the rim at a time, until finally it spins kind of smoothly.

Of course, my front wheel wobbles a little in one tempo.
And my back wheel wobbles a little in another tempo.
But at least my little white froggy butt has got some rhythm.
In stereo.

Dad’d be proud of me.
(Well, at least he’d be laughing.)

Post script. One day, when I was in college and the rest of the family was gone on vacation, I decided that I’d be useful and clean out the garage. I figured Dad would be proud of my initiative. One of the things I got ride of was the old bike. I didn’t realize at the time that it was Dad’s bike. Not just his bike, but his “bike.” The one that he was riding when he met Mom. The one that he let Mom paint that weird grey-and-polka-dots while they were courting. The one that he kept throughout years and through moves. The one that he gave to me, to enable and encourage me to enjoy the same sport that had given him so many wonderful memories (and which had already given me so many similar memories.)

It was Mom who told me, many years later, how deeply the loss touched him. And even when I finally realized what that bike must have meant to him, it took me many more years to appreciate the fact that when he did see that I had thoughtlessly tossed out one of the few “treasures” that he had kept from his childhood, he never said one word of anger or disappointment.

Never let on that I goofed up.
Just said “Thank you for cleaning the garage.”
What a great man.
What a good father.