`SIMPLIFY, simplify,'' cried Thoreau long ago. But, as with most prophets, while we may honor his perspicacity, we do not necessarily embrace his advice. Even the bicycle, that simple machine of our (legend has it) simple forebears, has managed to survive the automobile, freeways, and our American desire to get there fastest with the leastest (amount of effort), only by evolving into an expensive, complex, and time-consuming vehicle.
My pattern is probably typical. I began on a five-speed, itself a quantum advance over that hog of a Western Flyer from my long-ago youth; but I was not long content. Soon I had a 10-speed. And still I drooled over chrome-moly tubing, Shimano derailleurs, aluminum rims, quick-change hubs ... I wanted a good bicycle.
Eventually I possessed one. I parted with my $600 in a state of grace, hardly able to wrest my dazzled eyes from that vision in aluminum and chrome-moly to write the check.
I also bought some problems.
That natal investment was just the beginning. Naturally, complex machines need care and feeding: Aluminum rims bend, high pressure tires flatten, again and again. I was constantly adjusting shifters, tightening spokes, and attending the other innumerable ills that precision machines seem heir to.
And so, one spring morning I sauntered into my garage -- only to discover that none of my three machines was operative. The 10- and 12-speeds were down with various minor but incapacitating ailments, and even my sturdy five-speed was out with a flat.
Desperate cyclists contrive desperate remedies. I spied, lurking amid the spare parts, tools, and other cycling impedimenta, the only other thing on two wheels within sight: a vintage-1954 Western Flyer, stripped of tank and fenders, begrimed with dust, scaly with rust, festooned with cobwebs. Salvaging it from my parents' basement several years earlier, I had envisioned restoring a classic, to be nostalgically admired, not ridden.
Surely, after all these years it would not actually ... run? But it did. Like an old, long-suffering friend it held no grudges, made no remonstrances. A shot of air for each balloon tire, a quick shower of WD-40, and away we rolled for the three-mile jaunt to work.
And we kept rolling. The days became weeks, the weeks months, and the 12-, 10-, and five-speeds remained hors de combat.
I experienced a kind of bicycling epiphany: Thoreau had been right all along.
Farewell the flat. Those fat tires, so high in rolling resistance, were also high in rubber content -- hence almost impervious to the debris that bestrew my path.
Farewell the constant adjustments of spoke, sprocket, and shifter: precious little to adjust now, and most of that scarcely ever needs it.
Needless, too, trips to the city for spare parts no local hardware carries, and the long walks with an injured machine, because some widget had come unstuck I couldn't restick.
Banished, now, all tools, to rust on the workbench like Little Boy Blue's tin soldiers.
I've been riding my Flyer for the better part of five years now, suffering exactly one flat and one bent pedal: and none of that constant tinkering required by the former flagships of my fleet. Grease it once every six months, spray it with WD-40 every so often, and the Flyer just keeps on flying.
Naturally, it flies slower, and rough-er, but what I lose there I more than make up for in security. Astride the broad saddle of this beast, grasping those wide handlebars, gliding along on all that rubber, I feel as secure as the commander of an M60. As I tool along on a heavier machine, with thicker and wider tires, if I do have to head for a ditch, my machine stands a good chance of riding it out.
And the traction is superb. In wet or winter or wilderness it's now my Flyer -- or nothing at all.
Finally, of course, I'm much more noticeable on an older bicycle. That part of the human race known as motorists seems to empathize with an old bike; either they had one, or they possess the usual curiosity about old things in this age of future shock. Whichever, they tend to see me: for a bicyclist, the first step toward survival. Moreover, they tend to approve -- if not of me, at least of the machine.
A postscript. As with Thoreau's profundities, people don't like to have much to do with older bicycles -- except at a discreet distance. As a result, my Flyer is almost theft proof. No locks, chains, or dismemberment necessary. Just park and forget.
Who would want it?