Bicycle Brakes: The Great Mystery of the Universe

Summertime: a relief from the normal routine of things, or a stressful interlude in the middle of real life? A colorful alternative to a Minnesota winter, or a hot, humid, stay-indoors-away-from-the-Minnesota-bugs season to be survived?

Personally, I think it’s a toss-up.

There are things I LOVE about summer: lightning bugs, dancing their disco-ball dance every evening over the dew-damp grass. Grilling burgers, churning ice cream, yummy salads. Baby birds, running through the sprinkler, the pungent scent of tomatoes on the vine. Sleeping in, hanging out with my children, sitting out on the deck (in the few moments when the wind, heat, humidity, or bugs aren’t too bad). I like summer parades and friends coming to visit and driving down to Okoboji, Iowa for an afternoon, knowing that no snowstorm will sweep in and wreak havoc with the roads when it’s time to return.

There are other things I totally dislike: mosquitoes, ticks, sunscreen, sweating, squabbling children, running around like a chicken with its head cut off…oh, wait, that happens all year long.

Fireflies = summer in Minnesota.

I sometimes wonder if my children are having the fantastic summers I had growing up on Orcas Island, Washington. My mom didn’t drive us around all over creation from thing to thing, but I had the run of the neighborhood, could play on the beach for hours, or ride my bike into town, or make a fort, or sleep out on the deck under the stars night after night after night.

One time I do remember going to a friend’s house to play. She was a year ahead of me in school but we had a lot of fun together. She suggested that we ride bikes – she on her brother’s, and I on hers. That sounded fine to me. We hopped on, started down her dirt road, and suddenly I realized that her road was on much more of a hill than I’d ever realized before and, as I reached for her handy dandy handlebar breaks, I found nothing but handlebar.

“Where are your brakes?” I screamed, whizzing past her on the road.

“The pedals!” she shouted back.

I remember wondering what on God’s green earth she was talking about.

“The pedals!” she shouted again. “Just back pedal!”

But by then I was far past her, careening down her hill, heading straight for the paved, heavily-trafficked road at the end of the lane, squeezing in vain at her handlebars the whole time.

I truly believe that God has a full-time angel on “protect Gretchen while she’s behind the wheel” duty – whether that wheel is on a car or a bicycle. My angel worked hard that day.

As I sailed on my friend’s bike over the main road – mercifully free of passing cars at that particular moment – I saw the trees, ditch, and fence across the road rise up to meet me.

And there wasn’t a blessed thing I could do about it.

Crang. Right into the barbed wire fence.

My friend crossed the road (after waiting for a passing car), threw down her bike and jumped into the ditch and to my side in an instant. I was, miraculously, relatively unhurt. I mean, I was bleeding…but I wasn’t even close to dead. Which was good.

“Why didn’t you use the breaks?” my friend asked as she helped extricate me from the rusty wire.

I think I said something like, “Your dumb bike doesn’t have any brakes.”

“Of course it does,” she said. “They’re on the pedals. I tried to tell you…”

But I had never heard of pedal brakes; I had never imagined such a thing could exist. What bike doesn’t have handlebar brakes? That’s just crazy.

I limped to her house, dripping a trail of blood onto the dusty road like some kind of twisted Hansel and Gretel trail of breadcrumbs…a trail for vampires, maybe.

I walked the bike, and my friend walked hers alongside me. By the time we reached her house I was laughing through my tears about my idiocy. She, who grew up with three brothers, never did understand how I couldn’t know about pedal brakes.

Her mother took me to the clinic where they gave me a tetanus shot, because I was almost due for one anyway, and, as I recall, we then went happily off to girls’s choir practice, where, I’m sure, I related my story with relish, and proudly showed off my injuries.

Yes, summer is full of memories. Some of them better than others, and many of them tinged with the scent of blood, sweat, and tears.

I still have the scars from that day. I also have the smiles.

Summer on Orcas Island…

2 thoughts on “Bicycle Brakes: The Great Mystery of the Universe

  1. And one of my elementary school classmates, to this day, still shows me her barbed wire fence scar from the time she stayed over at my house and caught herself on the barbs. I can’t remember why, but it had nothing to do with bike braking. We knew about braking with the pedals. Oh, yeah, they hadn’t yet invented handle bar brakes.

    Wonderfully told story, Gretchen, with a fairly good ending. At least you can laugh at yourself, which is a gift.

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