It was the day of our town's Fair Day race, and I was in big trouble. Seems the crankset had jammed on my bike that morning as I was tinkering with it, and I had to choose another bike for the race, one with a single gear and wide, sloppy tires.
I'd tried my best to borrow another regular 10-speed - spent hours at it - but I was stuck with what I had, an old Schwinn, probably the slowest bike in the world.
Mookie; Beener and his twin sister, Deedee; Spider; and Jo-Jo - they were my teammates. We were known as the Green-and-Whites, because of our uniforms. Having lost to the Reds last year by an eyelash, we were more determined than ever to win the prize. We were all pedaling our bikes toward the high school track, the location of the fair.
Jo-Jo, a small kid with the voice of a moose, asked what the prize was.
''Anybody's guess,'' Spider shrugged.
As our leader, he was right. Mrs. Bridges, the lady who ran the race, made sure the prize was a secret. Last year, the Reds won free passes to the movies for a whole month. The year before, the winning team got to go to the national bike races in Washington D.C. They stayed in a fancy hotel, ate in restaurants, everything!
''Do you think we'll win?'' Deedee wondered aloud.
As one, they turned to stare at my bike.
''My Dad says a Schwinn can get going really fast,'' I said with false optimism. ''I guess because it weighs so much.''
No one believed me.
You could tell that something exciting was happening down at the track by the noise - almost as loud as when the traveling carnival came to town. But that wasn't surprising. The bike race was only one part of the Fair Day our town had every year, with free pancakes, food raffles, rides for the little kids, horseshoe contests, and a penny arcade. The high school band played rock music. Costumed adults handed out balloons. The whole town joined in the fun.
The teams of bike racers met at the far end of the track, near the starting line: Reds, Blues, Oranges, Golds, Purples, and us. Mrs. Bridges, the high school principal, was in charge and barked out orders.
''Huddle up,'' Spider ordered.
''What's our strategy?'' we all wanted to know.
It was simple. My teammates would all go ahead of me to try to build up a big enough lead so that when I went last, how I did on my old-fashioned Schwinn wouldn't matter, just as long as I finished the race without falling off and being disqualified.
Everyone agreed. We shook hands and let out a whoop.
''First racers ready!'' Mrs. Bridges shouted.
We all took our places; mine way in the back, next to the other racers who were going last for their teams. Beside me was a kid named Rooks, captain of the Reds. Like the other bikes in the race (except mine), his was a sleek and shiny 10-speed.
He gave my Schwinn the eye and laughed.
''Where'd you get that, kid? At the junk shop?''
''Is that a bike or an exerciser?'' another teased.
Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. How embarrassing!
My face was burning, but all I said was, ''You won't be laughing at the end of the race when we win. And this bike happens to be our ... er, secret weapon.''
Did they believe me? No way.
Good thing Mrs. Bridges's starter gun went off and the race began, because I was getting upset by all the kidding. And as for secrets ... the only one I knew was my hoping that winning the race wasn't left up to me.
Mookie got off to a good start and flew around the track in first place with a good lead. Beener and Deedee kept up the pace, as did Jo-Jo, their 10-speeds working perfectly. Spider, our No. 5, did okay until the final turn when he went wide, hit a bump, almost tipped over, and ended up wobbling the last 20 yards, giving the Reds and Blues time to catch up and go right on by. Gadzooks!
My turn. Helmet on, I leaped on the Schwinn and headed off in third place. All around me people were cheering, pressed up so close to the track that I lost sight of Rooks and the other racer ahead, who'd started out neck and neck. The wind whistled in my ears, while the Schwinn's large tires whirred on the track's tarry surface. ''Go! Go!'' my teammates were shouting.
I was going, head down, just as fast as I could, along the straightaway and around the far turn, pedaling like crazy. Would I ever catch up? Could an old Schwinn overtake a new 10-speed?
Not a chance, but just when I feared all was lost, a crunching noise up ahead made me look up, in time to see Rooks and a kid dressed in blue sprawled on the track in front of the bleachers, dazed and dirty, their shiny bikes a tangled heap on one side. They must have crashed, down and out.
I slowed plenty, not wanting to hit them, and as I did was passed by another rider from the Gold team, a quick hare to my tortoise. Old Schwinns, alas, took a while to get going. Second place was the best I could do.
''We'll get 'em next year,'' Spider assured me.
My encouraging teammates agreed.
Excited kids were crowding around the Gold team at the finish line, waiting for the medals and the prize given to the winning team. What would it be - Tickets? A trip?
Mrs. Bridges made the announcement: ''Twenty-four free sundaes at Casey's Ice Cream!''
Sadly, I started wheeling the Schwinn home when Mrs. Bridges's voice stopped me. ''One minute, Green-and-Whites. There's to be an added prize this year for second place, because of the unusual Schwinn bicycle entry - 12 free sundaes for the runners-up. And next year there'll be two bike races: one for the speed bikes, a second one just for old Schwinns, as nice a bike as there ever was. How's that sound?''
Sounded great to me.
Just then someone nudged me from behind - Rooks, captain of the Reds.
''It was a secret weapon,'' he said under his breath. ''But what I wanna know is, where do you get one?''
Maybe I'd tell him later.