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  • Writer's pictureThomas Sweeney

The Bikes We Ride

I had the pleasure of speaking at the opening meeting of the Pedal Bicycle Club in Loveland on Thursday. Below is an excerpt of my talk, slightly altered for readability.

Bicycles are such amazing machines, and just like the clothes we wear, or the car we drive, our bikes are an extension of us, a reflection of who we are - and not just who we are in general, but of who we are at any given point in our lives.

For many of us, the type or style of bicycle we ride has changed over time. That’s certainly true for me, and each one of my bicycles has led me to some pretty interesting places, both near and far.

I grew up in Lansing, Michigan, and one of my earliest cycling memories is riding my Huffy BMX with my family around our neighborhood. My brother had a BMX bike too, with mag wheels, and my parents rode their respective cruisers. My dad’s was dark green and mom’s was tan and black, with a wicker basket attached to the wide front handlebars.

As I got older, my dad would ride with me and my brother all the way to the Lansing airport, a full mile from our house. We’d go into the terminal and get Little Debbie Nutty Buddy’s out of a vending machine, back when anyone could enter the areas now reserved for ticketed passengers. We’d watch Cessna’s and small jets take off into the humid evening sky.

I still remember my first ten-mile ride. I was twelve years old, and rode from Lansing to Grand Ledge to see a friend of mine who had moved earlier that year. I packed my things for an overnight stay and pedaled the hilly route along the Grand River on a sunny afternoon. The next day, I pedaled home, and from that point on, I was hooked. My bike at the time was a ten speed Huffy Savannah - part hybrid, before there was such a category - and part mountain bike. I went everywhere my pedals would take me. I tried drilling holes in the downtube so I could attach a water bottle cage with bolts like the fancy bikes at the bike shop, but only succeeded in scratching the frame.

In 1988, I set my sights on a real bicycle: The Diamondback Apex, a steel mountain bike with a full Deore 21-speed groupset. It had water bottle bosses on the downtube and seat tube, and had a straight steel fork designed to increase rigidity and transfer power to the pedals. Soon, I was riding out of the city, past Grand Ledge, and into the surrounding countryside. I did my first fifty mile ride on that bicycle, under a hot summer Michigan sun.

That bike was stolen in 1990 when I parked it next to a friend's house without locking it. I replaced it with a Gary Fisher mountain bike that never quite felt right. In hindsight, part of the problem was that I wasn’t a mountain biker. I was a roadie at heart, a truth about myself I didn’t realize until I got to high school and met a few other cyclists, a rare find in a Lansing Public School in the early 90’s. I tried putting narrow tires on the Fisher, but it just never worked.

So I bought a Schwinn 594 Aluminum racing bike, and did my first race, at age fifteen.

I was hooked - again. I raced that Schwinn all over mid-Michigan, the Detroit area, Grand Rapids, northern Indiana and Ohio, and Illinois. I think in the process of driving to all those races I developed my love of travel.

I did pretty well for an amateur junior racer. I upgraded to a steel Tommasini road bike with the latest in bicycle technology: integrated brakes & shifters, with 16 speeds altogether, two in front and eight in back. From high school through college, I was a “racer”. I wore my fancy jerseys and shorts everywhere I rode. I didn’t think you could call yourself a cyclist if you didn’t sign up for races, and I shaved my legs every other day. I still have a racing license, and sometimes I think I renew it every year solely to justify the fact that I still shave my legs.

I raced on the Tommasini, then a Fondriest, then a Trek 2300, with an aluminum main frame and rear carbon triangle. One year I upgraded to a full Dura Ace, full carbon Trek Madone, but somehow the amateur Cat 3 racer in me felt that it was a bit much, so I sold it and stuck to my modest 2300. Regardless, all my bikes were race bikes. They were all fast, and all fun. Anytime I rode, I was in uniform. Every ride was an official ride. I didn’t ride to the grocery store, or to work. The bike, in my view, was for training and racing.

In 2008, however, I started commuting nine miles to my new job as a teacher at Lincoln Elementary in Loveland. My goal initially was to simply reduce my carbon footprint - I hated driving so far each day. At first, I rode my Trek 2300 and wore a backpack to carry the things I needed. It didn’t take long to figure out that a racing bike wasn’t suitable for commuting.

I needed something that I could attach bags to, something that could accommodate a rear rack, or more. I needed a commuting bike. At the time, I was moonlighting as a mechanic at Lee’s Cyclery in Fort Collins. I had worked there on and off throughout college, and then in the summers when I was teaching. As a mechanic, I had access to the coveted QBP catalog, where I could purchase any frame and any component at wholesale prices.

I set my sights on a steel Soma Fabrications Double Cross frameset with full Ultegra components, including 9-speed downtube shifters. It could accommodate rear and front racks, and since it was technically a cyclocross bike, it satisfied the racer in me.

I also fixed up a dilapidated Trek 800 mountain bike for those snow days when 28c tires couldn’t stick to the pavement. Between the Soma and my Trek 800, my sense of cycling self changed in the most fundamental way since high school, when I switched from my Gary Fisher mountain bike to my lightweight Schwinn 594. While I still raced in the summers, my training was now integrated into my daily commute. I was no longer just a racer. I was a commuter.

In 2011 I started doing hill climb races, like Guanella Pass and Mt. Evans, for reasons that are explained in my memoir. But I also did a few side treks in the summers, including two overnight camping excursions on my bike, and a six-day bicycle tour in 2012 around Colorado. My Soma and my Trek 800 were becoming as important to me as my fancy racing bike.

Still, even though I’d gotten a taste of bicycle touring, it still wasn’t something that I was actively pursuing, until sometime around my 38th birthday, when, over a backyard campfire, I announced to my wife that I wanted to ride my bicycle around the world. And that’s where my memoir begins…

Who knows where the next bicycle will take me.

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