Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


It is naive of me to leave the office and ride the elevator down in the morning's tight and shorts get up, rain pants rolled neatly and still stuffed in my bag. All day I lurked in the windows in others' offices, a gulping air fish peering out from my aquarium, eyeing suspiciously the variable weather -- mostly cloudy to cloudy to rain, and back again. As the afternoon wore on, the increasingly dense wall of moisture off the Point told me all I needed to know, but still, in the comforting embrace of a lunch-time play break to the exclusion of all else, I believed.

It's just pouring.

In the garage, standing beside my bike, in the view of a parade of leased luxury cars and in sight of the two attendants manning the gates, I remove my shorts, feeling dirty notwithstanding my tights beneath. Something about unfastening a belt and unzipping a fly in public is taboo; I blush a little.

Preparing for a ride home in the rain involves a long sacrament: pull on rain pants and secure right cuff snugly with a velcro strap, pull on toe covers, fold shorts and situate them in the bag, unlock bike and slide U-lock into bag, fasten and check lights, zip jacket to the neck, pull down skull cap, check bag flap to ensure optimal closure, sling bag over shoulder and draw down helmet stretching the skullcap to hook under earlobes, check chain tension, adjust glasses, don gloves and struggle to slide them under the rain shell's tight elastic, activate lights front and back, adjust fenders to clear the wheels, wait for a lapse in the stream of exiting vehicles and slide out between the berm and the gate, nod to the attendant if he happens to be watching . . .

Outside, the road shines brilliantly with second-hand light; cars lurk more menacingly then usual. I force myself to imagine the drivers behind windshields drenched in a milky sodium reflection talking into their phones, fingering blackberries, looking at everything but the paltry ---- blink blink blink ---- blink blink blink ---- issuing from my silver-dollar-sized rear light. It is unwise to assume the best of any driver, less so at dusk, and even less so when dusk is pressed prematurely into the service of night by low clouds and driving rain. Pedestrians, as well, cannot be trusted.

Nor am I blameless. As soon as I clear the garage overhang, the lenses of my small glasses are spattered with hundreds of miniscule refracting lenses, each of which scatters photons like a chaos of laser beams; I must decode the dim interstices between brilliant gems, prove a negative armed only with gravity, vibration, muscle memory, and pattern recognition.

In adverse conditions speed pales in importance beside safety, and my my chess player's love for anticipating events one incident further than my adversary ascends. Shadows vie for my attention with dark figures wrapped in raincoats; the hissing white noise of traffic and the visual static of a thousand wet surfaces reduces the effectiveness of sight and sound; the ineffectiveness of skidding on a wet surface, my only emergency option in Susan's still-brakeless configuration, forces me to slow further away from hazards and limits my panic options to choosing whether I'd rather crash into a moving or a static target.

The rain on my cheeks, however, is refreshing, the swish of my pants against my left knee hypnotic as I reach Smithfield Street's obtuse end, free at last from the tangle of uncoordinated signals and pedestrian-choked intersections that run from Saks to Liberty, swinging at speed around the shallow corner and out into the left lane, setting up to make the left at Tonic. What I lack in visual acuity I compensate for in frequency of visual checks of the entire panorama around me.

I pass through downtown's northern edge uneventfully, turning right before the Convention Center's river ramp, decorated seductively by the brilliant blue Jenny Holzer installation, can lure me down to the water, turning left again along the Convention Center's eastern edge, and then right onto Smallman. I pass through the Strip District's handful of road hazards shrouded in darkness or obscured by their cupfulls' of rain like a soldier negotiating a minefield he has traversed before. Finally through the Strip's commercial visage and in its industrial viscera, Smallman narrow and fraying at the edges, I count my cadence and watch the shadows for things I cannot name but will know when I see them. Except for a dry sensation of cold across my upper arms and shoulders, a sensation that appears to arise from the cognitive dissonance of rain and cold temperatures and raindrops falling palpably against one's body without soaking through, I am warm, limber, feeling on this third day of riding like I never stopped. A quick check between my legs when no traffic lurks confirms that my taillight still blinks.

Somewhere around thirtieth street, I ease gingerly up the right side of a long line of cars waiting their turns at a four-way stop. I ease up to the intersection gently, and wait for the car beside me, which has neither signaled nor suggested a right turn, to accelerate through the intersection under the watchful stare of headlights from each of three directions.

Standing into the pedals, however, I hear a noise not unlike the grit I've been quietly ignoring in my drivetrain, only louder, and the resistance has intensified. It doesn't sound like either fender's gotten in the way, and when I look down at the ovals where the tires meet the pavement their black-on-black suggests nothing but darkness. I ease to the opposite corner and reach around behind me, however, suspecting the worst. My fingers meet little resistance when they squeeze the tire until they meet eachother through the sidewalls. For the first time in nearly a year, I've flatted, just about at the mathematical midpoint between work and home.

It's still pouring.

I have yet to make a complete roadside repair, and these are suboptimal conditions to say the least. Behind me, at the near corner, an awning beckons. The printing business whose entry it protects is closed; I have a shadow of rainlessness and one low concrete step on which to do what I must.

The ritual reverses itself: gloves and helmet off, bag off and open, tools and supplies (a new tube, CO2 canister and nozzle, tire wrenches, box wrench for the wheel) laid out like a surgeon's, fenders removed, bike inverted on the ground, and rear wheel removed.

I remove the tube and use the dregs of a previously opened CO2 cartridge to reinflate the tube. The sizzle of traffic makes it difficult to discern whether there's an identifiable leak, but when I remove the nozzle the tube immediately deflates. It dawns on me: last week, in refilling tires gone slack with disuse, I broke off the closure on my rear wheel's presta valve. The valve still held, however, and out of laziness I decided to chance it, promising that this week I would replace the tube in conjunction with some general bike maintenance including rotating my tires. Tonight was the night I designated for those tasks; indeed, I had been composing a list of bike-related tasks when the tire flatted. My reward for putting it off: a wet, roadside tire change, a not-so-quick fix, just to get home, and repeat the process twice more in the relative warmth of the basement.

Thankfully, the air is warm, and my fingers do not numb as they rote recite the verse of replacing the tube, reinflating it by touch (CO2 canisters are rather blunt instruments, and I am apprehensive with the knowledge that should I spend my only cartridge in overinflating the tube the night will quickly emerge an unmitigated disaster). Within perhaps ten minutes the tire is reassembled and reinflated, the wheel back in its fork, the chain readjusted, and the fenders remounted. Patiently, I use passing headlights to search the ground for any loose objects I might later miss, any trash I might later regret leaving behind, until I am satisfied that I will leave no mark. Once again, I upend the ritual.

I walk the bike to the middle of the walk, bestride her, and roll gently toward a nearby garage ramp down to the road surface. The tire holds. As I reenter traffic, I register a brief moment of indefensible surprise that the rain still falls, the traffic still lurks dangerously to my rear, and my glasses still glisten with a thousand raindrops' idle chatter. The night still is cold.

At home, in my basement, still dressed, as I am now, in the jerseys in which I rode (my jacket having kept them remarkably dry), but now in work jeans and slippers, I tend to Susan in mute apology, contritely wiping her down from top to toe, inch by inch, removing the wheels and cleaning in turn the chain, cog, and chainring. I remove and exchange the tires front to back, gently reusing their tubes, and inflate them in stages, jealously indulging the luxury of watching them stiffen in good light, guarding against a swelling aneurysm between bead and rim waiting to hemorrhage with an ear-ringing, heart-stopping clap.

Now, Susan is cleaner than I am, and poised in her appointed place by the front door, clean and dry and calibrated perfectly for the next ride, uncomplaining in her simple elegance. I am dry and warm and chastened. And while I welcome the next dry ride to and from work, I do not dread the next rainy night. Indeed, I look forward to it.


Anonymous eli said...

sorry about your flat.
happy you're writing about bikes again.

11:33 AM  
Blogger isabelita said...

Found your site on someone's blogroll. I was a fine arts major at Carnegie-Mellon U., back in 1969-1972. Many years later, I am a climber. If I had found climbing back then, my education would have suffered... where do you go for climbing? New River?
You are brave to ride a bike there, it wasn't easy back in my college days.

12:18 AM  

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