Two men once tried to steal my bicycle. I was riding it at the time.
I rode my bike a lot in 1969. It was my escape from the pressures of life. When I found myself doing a dozen things at once, and none of them well; when I hardly started one project before another was due; when I reached such a state of overload that I dreaded One More Thing — I would make the time to go bike riding.
The bike was my Time Machine. I never had time to ride it. But when I made time, riding the bike created more time for me. I know that sounds funny and you may think I’m saying that riding the bike relaxed me so that I got more done when I came back. That’s probably true. But that’s not what it felt like. It felt like the bike created time that had not existed before. By taking time to ride my bike, I made time where there wasn’t any. Anyway, that’s how it seemed to me.
It was fanciest bike I had ever owned — a Raleigh Competition that I bought from a free spirit who was “doing California” and wanted to lighten his load. He said didn’t want “to be tied down by possessions,” so I bought his burden from him. When I last saw him, he was hiking down Stanyan Street with a pocket full of 20’s, a backpack, no destination, and no deadlines to meet. I held his sales receipt (to prove he hadn’t stolen it) and a lightweight racing bike I didn’t even know how to ride.
This bike had what the instruction manual described as “tyres.” Of course, that’s just the British spelling for “tires,” but in this case it made a difference. These were not ordinary tires. My bike had the kind of racing tyres known as “sew-ups.” I learned from a bike shop that these were designed for Serious Racers who didn’t want to burden themselves with the extra weight of carrying the little wrench and two bent blades you need to change an ordinary tire. Instead, they used a tyre that you could change by hand, with no other tools than a little kit that contained a razor blade, a sewing needle, a teeny tube of rubber cement, and a few patches.
The tyre wasn’t held onto the rim like ordinary tires. The outside was sewn together around the innertube, then stuck into the cupped rim with just enough glue for the pressure of the inflated tyre to hold it in place. The tyre was designed to save time. If you practiced enough, you could change this kind of tyre about a minute faster than a regular bicycle tire. And you didn’t have to carry a wrench. For serious racers, this could make the difference between victory and defeat. You win a serious race by riding like a maniac for a week, then crossing the finish line a couple of seconds ahead of the next bike.
The oddest thing was the way the wheels came off. They weren’t held on by the solid, hexagonal nuts we all know from our childhood Schwinn’s. These tyres were held on by quick-release levers. One easy twist and the wheel comes off in your hand. As I also found out, one accidental snag on a passing branch, and the wheel comes off in the bushes a few yards behind where you are trying to disentangle yourself from the rest of the bicycle. Whenever this happened, I kept reminding myself how much time I could save through this method of changing tyres.
Actually, I never did save time changing tyres, because I didn’t practice enough to snap loose the wheel, peel off the tyre, untie the thick, waxy string, patch the tube, sew back the string, tie it with a tight, flat knot mastered only by brain surgeons, glue the tyre back on the rim, frantically pump the tire up to a million pounds of pressure, snap the rim on, and be back on the track in a minute flat. Whenever I tried it, I was usually surprised to discover that, when I was still struggling to untie the outer tyre, a half hour had vanished. But as I said, whenever I was with this bicycle, the meaning of time changed.
On the day I want to tell you about — a cool, sunny day in San Francisco — I had ridden off edge of that inner clock that incessantly ticks the message that you don’t have enough time to do what you need to do. In the loveliest way, time disappeared. I eased down the last hills so I could pedal through the flatlands around Fisherman’s Wharf. On a Sunday, there’s so much to see. The people alone are worth the trip. And, just beyond them, boats bring in their catches from the timeless cycles of the sea.
A clock told me two hours had passed, which meant I had to return home and finish my projects. A couple of blocks west of Ghirardelli Square, I headed uphill. The hill was too steep to pedal, so I walked up, pushing the nearly weightless, perfectly balanced bike beside me. My worry-mind started up again with its particularly unforgiving notions of time and trouble. I began thinking of all the things I had to do. Each step up the hill required greater effort. As I thought of tying the bike onto the back of the car, each action seemed to take forever, and everything went wrong. I was half-way through imagining getting the key unstuck from the car door, and part-way through dragging myself and the bicycle up the ever-steepening hill, when I sensed danger.
Two men appeared behind me. I glanced at them: one husky fellow, one thin and wiry. I felt uneasy. For the first time, I became aware of the block I was on. It was a warehouse district, deserted on Sunday afternoon. I suddenly realized I had not seen a car pass by the entire time I was pushing the bike up the hill. No one else was on the sidewalks. No one would have reason to be there. No one was likely to appear. The two men caught me alone on a deserted street pushing a bicycle worth hundreds of dollars. They closed in.
The big fellow started the intimidation. “Nice bike you got there.” I had heard this tone of voice before. It meant trouble. The wiry guy was quick on the follow-up, “Yeah, man, I’d like to ride it,” he said with a menacing whine. “C’mon, let me ride your bike.”
I took a deep breath and told them no, they could not ride my bike and to leave me alone.
“Isn’t he unfriendly,” the big fellow said to his partner. “C’mon now, let’s be friends.” As he said this, he draped his big arms around me from behind, pinning my arms to my sides. I felt a little laugh vibrate where his chest pressed my upper back, and I turned my head to see the wiry one sitting on my bike seat. He had one foot on the raised pedal, the other toe balanced against the sidewalk. He rested one hand ever-so-lightly on the right handlebar and the big guy held me ever-so-lightly in a grip of slack steel. As I looked at his eyes, the wiry one’s mouth rose into a contemptuous little smile that said, “Sucker, you’ve just been had!”
At this moment, time stopped. The whole crisis became like a video on freeze-frame — except every detail was supernormally clear. I conducted what I can only describe as a detailed inventory of the situation. I looked at everything, point by point. The big guy was leaning slightly over me. I evaluated just how far his weight was off center and judged that, based on what I remembered from wrestling at recess in grade school, I could reach back for his collar, hunch forward, and drop him flat on his back on the pavement. I saw that as soon as I took my hand off the handlebar, the wiry guy would wheel my bike onto the street, coast downhill, turn the corner, and disappear forever. The big one was wearing work boots. I had on sneakers. This was bad for a fight. I figured he would get up and smash my face in, and I would still lose the bike.
They both wore jackets; the wiry guy’s was leather. He had his left hand in his jacket pocket. Could he have a weapon? Should I resist and risk getting killed over a bicycle I could not afford to replace?
I seemed to have forever to look around and think things over, even though no more than two seconds had passed since the big guy grabbed me from behind. Time stood still.
Then, out of the stillness time stood in, an idea came. Leaning forward slightly in the loose, steely grip of the big one’s arms, I reached for the lever on the front wheel, flipped it, and gave the wheel a light kick. It jumped free of the bike, rolled a couple of yards, bounced over the curb, and, with a long spiralling wobble, settled down in the street.
I looked back at the wiry guy just as the bicycle sank beneath him. His face changed into the look of someone witnessing the impossible. He looked shocked, violated. The strength vanished from the big fellow’s arms. He offered no resistance when I slipped out of his hold. He didn’t even seem to notice that I moved.
I intended to defy them; I wanted to say, “OK, jerks, now it’s your move!” But when I turned, I no longer saw two dangerous punks. I saw the faces of people who were beyond what they could control, beyond what they understood. They would not have time to retrieve the wheel and figure out how to put it back on, before a car might appear on the street — perhaps even a police car. Their faces told me that they knew I had beaten them. Later, I felt triumphant. Gleeful! But for a long, spacious, and deeply-lit moment, they looked not like two toughs who had failed in a mugging, but like people who had just seen a crack split open the world they stood on.
That look did not last long, and neither did my compassion. Time revved up again, in high gear. I won’t write what the big one said next, only that he fired off a volley of profanities that ricocheted through the empty street even after they reached the bottom of the hill and turned the corner.
I waited until they were completely gone, then retrieved the wheel, and — with a quick twist — snapped it back on. I knelt a moment longer, running my hand along the circle of the sew-ups — the fancy racing tyres I still had not been able to master.
But I didn’t mind. I felt I had all the time in the world.
Gerald Grow is a retired journalism professor. More at longleaf.net