Bicycle used to be only a bicycle. Now it's a statement.
I get singled out for biking to a lecture on conserving oil, while the other guests are twitted for arriving in their oilnivorous SUVs.
Our 1976 diesel is tut-tutted by an environmental activist until he hears the other family vehicle is a bike. He smiles, and says we average out pretty well.
"One less car on the road!" is some current bikers' slogan.
"Lighten up," says this refugee from an earlier cycling generation.
Yes, I'm happy to use up my fossil fuel, so to speak, and save the world's. It's nice to think I leave the air a little cleaner as I ride by. And that I leave a little more oil in the ground for future SUVs.
But the state of the world was the last thing on my mind when I bought my first single-speed in about 1940. It was for such simple purposes as riding two miles from my hometown to mow the lawns of summer tourists.
I had missed the small-boy bicycle stage, which may be why I never did wheelies, swung a leg over while already in motion, or stood up and pumped as easily as breathing. I also missed the balloon-tire bike, an ancestor of the mountain bike. I remain a stodgy rider, even though I have advanced to a three-speed.
Once I wobbled around on a then-state-of-the-art five-speed with dropped handlebars and my seat aerodynamically high. It was not what I needed.
Now at stoplights I see the 10-speeders, with their special gloves, Spandexed thighs, and stirruped pedals, endlessly wheeling back and forth so they don't have to dismount.
I dismount. When the light changes, I walk smartly through the intersection and get the extra exercise of remounting.
Exercise is another thing that makes a bicycle a statement these days. "That's really good for you," people say about my biking, omitting the words, "old codger."
When I started pedaling, goodness had nothing to do with it, as Mae West said in another connection. Everything didn't have to be good for you. It could just be fun or practical.
My biking is intended to get me somewhere. I recall an Amish farmer friend who was advised to do more walking but couldn't imagine it without a destination such as the barn.
For several decades, my destination was the office, five miles from home. Among other commuters on my route was a financier who always stopped to pick up coins in the street. I think he was usually ahead of me.
Now, in a period of retirement, I seize on any excuse to get on my bike. Going to an ATM. Picking up a pizza. Delivering a check to the cable-TV company. (I suddenly realize my first bike knew none of these goals.)
Once I was felled by the bicyclist's bte noire: a door opening from a parked car - only this one was a car at a stoplight, and it was on the passenger side. Eternal vigilance is the price of, etc.
Fortunately, I was wearing a helmet, something I had done without during my first 20 years in the saddle. Now, tots in bike back seats lurk under helmets as big as they are.
I didn't ride in the winter until the Boston blizzard of 1978, when another stodgy cyclist showed how he could get through partly plowed streets closed to auto traffic.
ONE spring, an unexpected torrent loosened my brakes as I was approaching a college campus, and I slid to a halt behind a parked car. I looked away when I saw the couple inside were necking, as we used to say. But they flung open the door and invited me in out of the downpour.
I could wallow in all the pleasant human encounters I've had as a biker in suit, tie, and white hair. But I prefer to be a bit more cosmic. Witness a possible summing-up of modern times in what I did yesterday: To retrieve our antique diesel from the repairman, I rode on a bicycle path carved from an abandoned railroad bed.
In other news, as they say, after the long rise of more and better gears, the single-speed is making a comeback under names like Retroglide.
Now that's a statement.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society