Small Wonders: Riding the streets without a frame

“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.” — Robert Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

I sold my bicycle a few months ago with the expressed intent to flip the profit into a new and better bike. Then the holidays hit.

Thing 1 wanted Nicki Minaj perfume and cash. Thing 2, an American Girl doll. So Dad waited, suffering through a case of bike-seller blues.

But to start the New Year, I gave myself the gift of a new road bike, and last weekend took it for my first ride in more than three months.

I’m still sore.

It was one of those deceivingly rare, crystalline SoCal days: no clouds, plenty of sun, but warmth was elusive. And not long into my pedal-powered excursion through our Elysian Fields — getting familiar with new gears, brakes and handlebars, exposed and awkward before the world, its traffic, potholes and low-hanging limbs — I was reminded of the realness of life when one isn’t sheltered in a house, office, gym or car.

I set out through the Rancho, the aroma of hay, dust and dung thickening the air. An ominous sign.

Past movie studios and entertainment companies, reminders of our humble suburbs’ place in the economy and culture. Past parks where children play and adults practice martial arts with samurai swords and plastic bats.

Roads narrow through neighborhoods where no two homes look alike; the specters of childhood friends come running out to greet me; places I’ve passed a thousand times, yet see the memories now for the first time.

The faster you ride, the colder the wind. Avoid shadows.

Farther on and up that hill, the scent of pine hits you hard, like the sweet smells and sounds from a Sunday farmers’ market; like the memories of my babies and so many nieces, nephews and godchildren being born at the nearby hospital.

Under oaken archways past Descanso’s glorious gardens and palatial homes; how I covet the circular driveway not for its measure of wealth so much as its convenience. On these winding, hilly back roads a cyclist must be wary of the unexpected round each bend.

Limbs ache and breath grows short in a last push up and over the crest, reminding me of my limitations, my age and our struggle in a world that resists yet rewards your efforts. Several miles of easy, down-sloping canyon follow, a fixture in the background of my youth. Fear the speed, the painful and pleasant memories, and over-wearing of brakes.

My high school was large back then. Now it seems the size of a rural Midwest private college. Did I shrink? Down one lane and another I pass my grandparents’ home on Maple Drive. Happiness. We should all have a Maple Drive to return to.

Past the graveyards where they now rest.

To the river that will lead me back. So much change here, too. Blighted parcels have been cleared to make way for a sunny nook of a park. It’s not yet open, but looks inviting. The homeless man who slept in the shrubs before the bulldozers came is still there, reading his books, enjoying his own extreme home makeover.

Aided by the draft from northbound highway traffic, I pass one rider and feel pretty good about myself. Leaving others behind always puffs one up with vainglory. But when I can’t catch up to the next cyclist I feel like a failure once again. There’s always someone with better gear, stronger muscles.

My legs, butt and ego ache as I head for home. Tired, world-worn, enriched.

Can you see all that from a car? Sure. But can you experience it?

It’s scary to expose oneself to the world, its unpleasantries, sights, smells and sounds; the cold and wind, pains, efforts, memories, regrets and trials we do everything we can to protect ourselves against.

And yet… and yet.

That sacrifice — giving up the known, the thing you may love — is often the only path to growth and other, hopefully better places.

Do you ever feel like you’re in that flat stretch between two hills? Riding the draft, yet knowing it’s time to break away? Me, too. Time to ride, to risk loss and pain in order to get over the next hill.

“On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming…” — Robert Pirsig


PATRICK CANEDAY may be reached at

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