Backstory: My annual Tour de sands
The beach cruiser effect: Giving a sense of purpose to wind-whipped bare toes.
CAPE MAY, N.J. — On my bike, in Cape May, I'm 12 years old again, dipping and weaving past people and cars, making swift, smooth turns, knowing every bump, every hazard, every straightaway, detouring now for a gulp of honeysuckle, now for a glimpse of whitecap.
Every errand, on a bike, is a ramble. Every aimless ride encounters purpose.
To get into town from our place, you ride past the zinnia field, down a narrow one-way street, rattling past picket fences and daylilies. You'll get a nod here and a smile there from a lady doing some weeding, or from a family packing up its younger generation, pointing them back home for the workweek.
You pass the hotel that used to be ramshackle and overrun with vines, but is now a color-coordinated and draped bed-and-breakfast.
A little side trip to a lane one block over reveals the backs of the bigger houses – their cottages, their trellises, their clamshell-lined walks.
It's hard to know whether the horse-drawn carriages and tourist trolleys here – indeed the tourists, themselves – add to the view or detract from it. But my 12-year-old self wants to become part of their scenery.
Negotiating the center of town by bike takes equal parts concentration and nerve, unless you want to stop constantly, put your feet down, and have to heave the whole bike into motion again.
The trick is to keep moving, to find the eye of the needle – past the circlers looking for parking spaces, past the gapers and the fumers, finding the opening, taking the chance, moving fast, speeding up to the sidewalk ramp where you brake with a flourish and a little skid ... whoosh.
Here, diversity is in full bloom at the bike rack: the sleek, dark machines securely locked by people in spandex; the spanking-clean rental cruisers with high, orthopedic handlebars; the true classics, whose hallmark is rust, whose seats are worn – a ride so seasoned you can only look on with respect.
Sometimes there's one that wins for sheer gall, like the vintage number in Pepto-Bismol pink, a gigantic frame with massive tires and a sizable, built-in headlamp which must have worked at one time.
This bike calls to mind a '60s big-finned convertible whose owner, as we imagine her, is out of a Life magazine ad – a smiling, sunglassed, head-kerchiefed gal whose right arm drapes over the seat while she drives.
But for true pedaling versatility, you need a bike like mine: The two-wheel incarnation of a 10-seater Country Squire wagon that, long ago faded, doesn't owe you anything.
It's an ugly, mountain/beach hybrid loaded with adaptations, only some of which still seem like a good idea. The exceptional rear-view mirror rusted away some years back, replaced by a plastic one so flexible it's useless. The nifty headlamp works, but it also works its way loose, to illuminate just the front tire. So I ride mainly in the daylight.
The accessory department hasn't failed totally, though.
The funny tricycle bell once read "I [heart] my bike," and now, with the red heart faded, says "I my bike." It still works – ching-ching, ching-ching – a lot better than the 15 gears. Only two of those are usable: the long, languid with-the-wind speed, and the short, frenzied inching-along speed that just barely keeps me from having to stop and walk.
But ah, the function.
Together, the wire saddlebags, the spring-loaded fender rack, and the front basket can teeter home $75 worth of groceries. At least. With the baby seat – when it was on there – I could cart two beach umbrellas, a towel bag, a toddler, and a chair across the handlebars. It's all in the daring: Look Ma, no car!
Some of the better beach bike rides are unplanned. There's the drive-by – by a relative's house or a friend's – to see, by way of lights on, cars parked, windows open, who is "down" (in town) yet.
If someone is out front, a drive-by may turn into a stop-by, as one foot on the curb, shaded by a sycamore, you learn who else in the house is down, when and why someone else had to go back "up" (home), and when they're going to be down again.
The first-of-the-season drive-bys can stretch on and on, as the winter's news is gathered and given, and they often grow to include other stoppers-by in a little bike-clogged street chat. For some, this is all the social life necessary in the summer.
If it's not too windy and especially if the early evening sky is pink and streaky, it's worth postponing for just a bit longer the commotion and duties of home.
Head away from town and aim for the blue and the open, and with those long rhythmic strides, pedal and pedal and pedal, up one wide, empty avenue and down the next, bareheaded, barefooted, cooled and bathed by the air.
Though grown-ups, their pants legs rolled up, sometimes like to do a bit of pondering on the beach at this time of day, pondering by bike works just as well when you're 12.
There's nary a conundrum that doesn't yield to the easy movement and multiple distractions of a bike ride. A spritz of salt air, a wandering box turtle – they soften up any problem. And as the focus of adulthood surrenders to the mercifully short attention span of youth, little spurts of insight remain.
But not too many. Get home now – you're late for dinner.