I don’t think of myself as a lucky person — too many broken bones and too many outsized consequences for small mistakes — but sometimes I do have fate on my side. Here’s an example: About 72 hours ago, somebody listed an old bike for sale on Pittsburgh’s Craigslist. I was sitting around Thursday night when I was struck with a sudden desire to search for this particular bike. Never before in my life had I searched for this bike, and I mean never. My search brought up the bike, which had been listed about four hours previously. As it happened, this weekend was the one weekend I planned on having open between now and May, so I was able to go to Sewickley, PA and get it for the considerable sum of $140.
It was a remarkable coincidence that somebody would list this bike within driving distance and I’d have the idea to look for it, all on the same day. So what did I get?
Why, it’s a Ross Polo Bike Junior, in yellow. I cannot imagine that any of my readers will have ever heard of the Ross Polo Bike Junior. Few enough of you will have heard of Ross itself, a Pennsylvania-based bike builder that was sort of a distant third to Schwinn and Huffy with virtually no distribution west of the Mississippi. The Polo Bike Junior was a response to the Schwinn Stingray, in more or less the same too-little-too-late way that the Chevy HHR was a response to the Plymouth PT Cruiser. It was really fucking lame, actually.
Unless, that is, you were seven-year-old Jack Baruth. I’d just arrived at my new house in Columbia, MD, pictured below with a TPC-tuned 997 Turbo that I used to visit it thirty years later:
I’d had a red training-wheels bike from Montgomery Ward that I’d never really learned to ride, and it had been left behind at our previous house. Wherever that was. I should mention that I lived in probably ten different places on the East Coast as a kid. I also had something like a half-dozen concussions in my teen years that almost completely erased my memories from childhood. I can’t recall much from before I was ten years old or so. So what I’m about to tell you is pieced together from what other people have told me and from spectral fragments of childhood recollection, insubstantial and easily damaged just by thinking about them too hard:
I do remember the bike shop where I picked out my Ross. There was a blue one and a yellow one — I picked the yellow one. Or was it that the blue one wasn’t available? We took it home. Dad took a brief shot at showing me how to ride it and then gave up. Mom spent a couple of hours trying and gave up as well. Neither of them understood that you can’t shout somebody into riding a bike.
It turned out to be a good thing, this parental disinterest in my cycling future. Their combined anger-fueled ineptitude regarding this topic would end up galvanizing me into thinking long and hard later in life about cycling instruction, which is how I became a BMX coach after I broke my neck in ’88. I’ve devoted a lot of effort to breaking down the basic motions behind bicycle riding. A surprising number of the riders I coached turned out to be champions in their own right, including one double World BMX Champion — and when it was time to teach my own son to ride, it happened effortlessly and immediately, well before his fifth birthday.
But wait! Our story is still stuck back in 1978, and I still don’t know how to ride a bike. Enter my neighbor, a brillant kid named Jeff. He was a few years older than me, and he was an outcast — not because he was black, which he was, but because he was a black intellectual. He was the only kid I knew who wanted to talk about all the same things that I did, from the physics behind Star Wars to the biochemical programming behind anthills.
Jeff was the closest thing I had to a friend, and I was the closest thing he had to a friend. But I didn’t know how to ride a bike, which was a problem in his opinion. So he put me on the Ross’s banana seat and shoved me at high speed into a couple of small trees and out of sheer self-preserving terror I learned to avoid the trees and then we were set. We’d ride down the long hill of Tamar Drive all the way to the creek, a distance of a few miles, throw rocks at stuff, then ride back.
There was a limit to how fast the Polo Bike could go, thanks to its low gearing. Jeff had a Raleigh ten-speed, and he delighted in switching to tenth gear and dropping me like a bad habit. “SUPERCRUISE!” he’d yell, because “supercruise” was what you called it when an aircraft could maintain supersonic flight without afterburners (cf. SR-71 Blackbird, Concorde) and it was also his name for tenth gear. I told you he was a nerd. We were well matched.
Jeff was about the best friend for which a kid could ask. I have a dim memory of a attending some sort of craft camp at the elementary school up the hill and getting into a disagreement with some older kids who were picking on me. I mentioned this to Jeff and the next day he supercruised into the school parking lot and read my antagonists the riot act. That was the end of the problem. Of course, before long it was time to move and leave Jeff behind. This move would be the longest yet, all the way to Upper Arlington, Ohio.
Shortly before the move, my father and I went to the local MG dealer so he could buy himself a sports car. To my immense delight, the ’79 Midget that he picked up was the same color as my Polo Bike Junior. Unlike my trustworthy Ross, however, the Midget was a total and complete piece of shit that didn’t crack the 5,000-mile mark before Dad sold it in disgust.
Not that I gave the Polo Bike any props for its durability. To the contrary; I wanted it to die, so I could have a new bike. By the time we got to Ohio, I was pretty well aware that the Ross was “gay” and if I had harbored any doubts on the subject, the derision from my rich-kid friends, with their P.K. Rippers and Mongoose Experts, removed said doubts with all the delicacy of Holly Holm kicking Ronda Rousey in the chin. Of course, my parents didn’t figure that I needed a new bike. The bike I had was perfectly fine. I disagreed. I was eleven, attending class with fourteen-year-olds, and most of my friends had mopeds, for Christ’s sake. The Tomos Silver Bullet, owned by the kid whose father founded Red Roof Inns and a few other classmates, was considered the gold standard, the Lamborghini Aventador of middle-school transportation, but I was on a “kid’s bike”. Ugh.
When my parents got divorced, Mom finally listened to my pleas and sprung for a Huffy Carrera ten-speed, like this one. Check out the copyright-infringing logo, stolen straight from the side of a ’73 Porsche:
Later on, she and I went on a harrowing bike ride together in which we got lost and wound up at a Schwinn store twelve miles from the house. It resulted in my getting a Schwinn Traveler:
I don’t know what happened to the Polo Bike; it was probably a casualty of a move. As a child, I accepted without question the idea that half of my stuff always disappeared or was broken during each move, even though we used North American. My mother existed in a state of permanent warfare, protracted over the course of a decade, with North American Movers. “Sons of bitches,” she’d snarl at the hapless blue-collar fathers who passed us with their heads bowed, like stevedores, carrying massive boxes full of Wedgwood jasperware and souvenirs from Mom’s recent trip to London. “John, I don’t trust them. Half of your things will be lost.” I had a suspicion that the problem was not with North American but I said nothing.
By the time I got to Sewickley, PA last night, it was too dark to properly inspect my new Polo Bike Junior. In the headlights of my rental Malibu, however, it looked about as good as I could have hoped for. The seller was apologetic; he’d neglected to mention the flat rear tire and broken spoke. I had to chuckle, both at his apologies and at the fact that I was about to pay $140 for a worthless old bike. I was tempted to play hardball on the price. No way it would fetch $140 to anybody else. Yet I’d have paid $1,400 without blinking and I didn’t want to spit into the eye of Fate so there was no negotiation.
For a mild-steel bike with an indifferent paintjob, the Polo Bike Junior has weathered the last thirty-eight years pretty well. The one flaw that immediately stands out to me is the missing “ROSS” sticker on the seat tube. It should have one, as seen here:
Then again, maybe this bike never got that sticker. It would be a mistake to think that a bicycle factory in the middle of both rural Pennsylvania and the troubled Seventies wouldn’t occasionally miss a decal application. There’s no sign of scraping or other forcible removal on the tube. I’m not too stressed on the subject.
So, what to do with my new bicycle? I’ve been considering dragging my son back to Columbia, making him don some vintage polyester Sears clothing, taking photos of him riding the thing, then running said photos through a Hipstamatic filter, having them printed on old stock, and passing them off as childhood mementos. It’s unlikely. But I will fix the thing up a bit, swap the wheel bearings out, and let John ride it around the neighborhood.
He won’t be impressed by it. He’s not yet to his seventh birthday but already something like the Polo Bike would be laughable to him. He owns and can competently operate a seven-speed Gary Fisher mountain bike, a DiamondBack Viper, an electric motorcycle, a Yamaha TTR-90, and a TopKart. If he had an ultralight plane he’d probably be able to fly it. There isn’t much that seems to be beyond his capabilities. His world is already much bigger than mine ever was.
So we can close the story here, except for one memory that may or may not be real. In this distant recollection, somebody built a little dirt jump next to the stream, at the bottom of the hill in our neighborhood. It was maybe a foot high. Jeff dared me to ride over it. There was a path down the grass hill that started at the end of Tamar Drive. I pushed off and was seized by gravity. Frightened, exhilarated. The first time, I think I swerved around the jump when I got to it instead of riding over it. Maybe the first few times. But I eventually hit the jump and my front wheel — just my front wheel — left the ground and at that point some thin glass rod in my head snapped. From that day on, I started seeking out ways to go faster, scare myself, do things that I didn’t think I was brave enough to do.
It’s possible that it was a dream, or a retcon fabrication of my teenaged mind after some tooth-loosening impact, a face-first hit to the ground on a dusty evening at the Pataskala Phase IV BMX track. It’s also possible that it really happened. I’ll never know. Whether it was real or just a way for my brain to explain something to me, it was the pivot, the Rubicon. It was the moment when I started to become myself. It was the pinprick in time when I became permanently bonded to the idea of the machine and where it could take me. That machine, and every one that followed, in a forty-year journey that has seen me wind up behind the wheel of everything from a World Challenge McLaren to the Goodyear blimp. It’s the only permanent thing in my life. I’ve had many relationships with people, almost all of them abject failures. There’s only been one relationship in my life that has truly worked. That childhood bond, that marriage to the machine. For better, as they say, or for worse.