Doris the explorer

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A BEAT-UP BIKE INSPIRES A CYCLIST TO GET BACK IN THE SADDLE.

Every weekend, Doris and I head out and ride 30 or 40 miles. Despite my affection for biking, I have absolutely no special gear—no slick biking shorts, no fingerless gloves or wraparound sunglasses, no boldly colored shirts with pockets all across the back. I don’t even have a special rack for a squeezable water bottle I can use to quaff my thirst mid-pedal. I bike in gym shorts and old t-shirts and carry my water in a small messenger-type bag slung across my chest.

And don’t get me started on Doris—she’s been wearing the same thing for nearly 30 years, although her exact age is unknown. Doris—my bike–and I were united a few years ago. She came from my town’s bike library, where hard-working, good-hearted bike mechanics take various aged parts and unite them in a brand-new bicycle. When I got Doris, it was like picking out a mutt at the pound–she was a little tattered and worn, but her bold red frame seized me, and I could not wait to take her home.

Until I got Doris, I hadn’t ridden a bike in nearly 20 years—my last bike had a banana seat. But I had a new job that was an irritating two miles from home—a little too long to walk and a stupidly short distance to drive. When I first began commuting by bike to work, I felt like an idiot—I had no cool bike gear, and merely looked like a deranged shlub puffing up the last hill to the parking lot as cars whizzed by, windows rolled up, air conditioning blasting. But very soon it got easier, and I came to enjoy listening to the birds and nodding to the other morning bikers on my way in. I also came to dread rainy days, which meant a quick, boring drive, squished in with all the other cars.

As pleasurable as bike commuting became, the idea of serious miles seemed foolish–that, I knew, was for the guys in the fancy jerseys, the ones with the massive, hairless calves. But I started doing leisure rides on the weekend, and every week they got longer and longer, till finally one day I realized that both Doris and I had 40 miles in us easy, maybe 50 or 60 if we could get out of bed earlier…

More miles meant increased maintenance (previously Doris had survived on little more than a seasonal squirt of WD-40), which brought another new biking encounter: the snooty bike shop employee. Every bike store I go into, the same thing happens: a 25-year-old dude with aforementioned giant, smooth calves, tilts his head at me and says something to the effect of, “You’re riding that?” Immediately, despite needing only a new inner tube or brake pad, I am steered toward the floor, toward the shiny row of bikes with big white tags hanging from them, bearing big black numbers that are often more money than I make in a month.

“No thanks,” I always say, knowing as I walk out that they are snickering, making fun of me and Doris as if they are football players and we are mathletes. I understand being passionate about something, and wanting to have the right tools for the job. But not everybody needs a fancy, perfect bike. For most of us, any old thing with a chain and tires will do. When I went to the bike library, I paid $35 for Doris. That’s the only time in my life I have ever gotten a stress reliever, mode of transport, exercise device, and all around happiness generator for such a low price.

The Food Network bombards us with images of shiny, tool-filled kitchens, but Mark Bittman points out that if you really want to cook for yourself, the least you need is a hotplate, some sort of pot or pan, and maybe a knife. These days we own laptops worth thousands of dollars, but to write a recipe, a report, or even a book, all you need is a pen and some scratch paper. I’ve made do with napkins many a time. Do fancy things help us do better? Sometimes they definitely do. But sometimes the world encourages us to buy the Porsche when really we’d be fine in a Smart car. They both get you from A to B, don’t they?

I am aware that there may come a day when I grow out of Doris. But until then, I am proud to ride her, and not at all ashamed of her stem shifters or rusty spokes. Bike store dudes, scoff all you want. Your disdain does not bug me because it’s obvious that we are so not on the same level—you guys probably do crazy miles, barreling up hills that Doris and I piddle along on. I’ll never need your thousands of dollars of bike. But the other day, while stopped at a street that crossed the lakeside trail Doris and I were exploring, a woman not much older than me was squirting water into her mouth. As she leaned over to put her bottle back, I got a good look at her padded butt pants. She took off and I came out of my saddle, pumping my legs to get going again while also giving my tush a quick rest, and suddenly I understood there was at least one piece of gear I could imagine fitting into my life. •

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