“For a moment I felt an indescribable, painful, and useless longing for myself: then there was ‘he’ alone, der Unbekannte, the Unknown, there was nothing but him… He was the stronger of the two, and I was the mirror.” —Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. Franco Moretti, “The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture”
Around the time that the above quote was published, and around the time that I read Moretti’s book for the first time as a dissipated, dispassionate sophomore at university, I received a box from a fellow named Bruce Goin. Bruce was the proprietor of the embarrassingly-named “Badd&Company”, and he was the prototypical fat-white-trash-dad-as-would-be-BMX-mogul that all the Nirvana-listening trail-jumper kids loved to complain about. He was also very close to illiterate; the letter that accompanied the box wouldn’t have passed muster in a grade-school composition class. It made me sniff involuntarily in revulsion; I might that very afternoon have plumbed the depths of the most refined literature, perhaps including the Unbekannte and subtle Rilke himself, so imagine my displeasure at perusing an Olympia-typewriter-generated sheet of paper that contained the memorable all-caps sentence “AT FIRST I THOUGHT YOUR CRAZY BUT THEN I REELIZE THAT YOUR NOT CRAZY IM THE CRAZY ONE.”
Bruce was nobody’s choice for the Social Register, but he was a kind-hearted, decent man. The box was on my doorstep because I’d alerted him to a manufacturing error in his “Badd Stretch XXL”. The “stretch” was the longest BMX frame ever made, twenty-two inches from head tube to seatpost in an era where the second-longest frame, the Free Agent Limo, was 19.75″. An utter revolution in the sport, invented by a 350-pound man who couldn’t ride a bicycle at all because his knees didn’t work. There was a sweet irony in that. The “S&M Holmes” that all the dirt-jumper kids loved, the “rider-owned” miracle bike, was nothing but an angle-for-angle copy of the Free Agent Limo with thicker tubing. It was the “fat dad” who changed the BMX game, not the riders themselves.
I’d been one of the first five or six Stretch customers. For me, it was a revelation as well as a revolution, catapulting me immediately to a pair of wins in my local 17&Over Expert races. However, I’d quickly realized that the brake mount was incorrectly positioned. It worked okay enough with the Dia-Compe side-pull brakes that had been in fashion two years previous, but the Odyssey Pitbull cam-pull would not reach to all possible wheel positions. Bruce hadn’t caught it, his framebuilder hadn’t caught it. But I’d caught it. I wrote him a letter, suggesting a different set of measurements for the tubing. He read the letter. Did the measurements. Realized his mistake. And sent me a double gift: a brand-new frame made to my specs, and permission to sell the old one rather than return it. With this generous action, he both funded a spring’s worth of local racing for me and put me on the frame that I would use for most of my (admittedly dismal) professional cycling career.
“I should have known / at your age, in a string of days the year is gone / but in that space of time it takes so long” — Natalie Merchant, “How You’ve Grown”
In my memories, the second Stretch that I owned was my race bike forever. In truth, I used it from the spring of 1991 to the winter of 1994-1995, when I walked away from BMX because I couldn’t a find a job that would give me the weekends off. Less time than that, even, because in the middle of that three-and-a-half-year span I broke my race bike down and rebuilt it on a prototype frame designed by two laid-back dudes named Clay and Erick. It was a two-piece, bolted-together affair called a Hyper HPR-20. My friend and racing idol Billy Harrison, also a college student trying to race professionally but with considerably more success in the undertaking, was the team pro. He managed to get me one of their prototypes. I raced it during my senior year at Miami. It was shorter than the Badd by an inch. Didn’t work very well for me. After three or four races where Big Nick beat me by twice his usual margin of victory, I admitted defeat and went back to the Badd. The Hyper disappeared to the basement, never to be reassembled.
Ten years later, I paid some ridiculous amount on eBay for my childhood dream bike, a 1985 Redline 800p in Construction Yellow. I’d started racing on a Construction Yellow 600c of the same year, one of a thirty-bike batch bought at a discount by Eastland Schwinn in Columbus, Ohio then sold to my long-suffering mother in payments that totaled to $169.99 plus tax. I loved the 600c but it was far too short for me. I wanted the 800p but it was $499 which meant that it was no more within my possibilities than a Lamborghini Countach would have been. Not until I was twenty-nine years old did I ever manage to pay more than $499 for a bicycle. (Klein Pulse Comp, since you didn’t ask.) I hung the 800p up in the basement of my new house, next to the Hyper frame and Badd&Co Stretch complete bike.
Last night, I drove to Dayton, Ohio and met a charming fellow about my age who arrived in a grey supercharged Range Rover. For the sum of $1,290, he took delivery of all three. The bike that capped my BMX career, the stylish but useless two-piece frame that I’d raced for a long fall of disappointing results, and the vintage Redline that I’d never gotten around to restoring or even building up. I think he’d have paid more; I’d have taken less. He was accompanied by a friend who, to my immense surprise, bought most of the number plates that I’d used in my short time as a Superclass BMX pro. I’d brought them along to show off and to put the bikes in context, but he offered to give me actual money for them. I’d have been a fool to say no. That put a couple hundred bucks on top of the deal.
On the way home, Danger Girl saw me chewing my lip and she asked if I was okay. “Absolutely,” I replied, and I meant it. If you’d asked me a month ago, I would have told you that I would never sell. Not that I used any of it. I didn’t even look at the stuff. The Badd had hung nose-down in my basement for fifteen uninterrupted years, causing the headset to freeze and lock in place. The Hyper had an eighth-inch layer of dust on it, as did the Redline. All three of these items would have been better off in some vintage-BMX collector’s museum or display case. But I was unable to let them go.
Let’s return to Rainer Maria Rilke for a moment. He talks about that useless longing, the gnawing conviction that the truest and strongest version of yourself is gone and you are only the mirror of that person, the shadow, growing dimmer and weaker until you finally disappear into death. You cannot reach that ur-self, that perfected younger version of you. He’s gone. You’re here, the unworthy inheritor of your own tradition.
For a long time, I’ve been the curator of a museum devoted to my previous and superior self. I’ve surrounded myself with every object that I could preserve or salvage or repurchase from my youth. From a “Star Bird” toy to vintage Atari computers to the actual bicycle chain that I used in my first BMX race. All of it a tribute to the better, braver, smarter person that I used to be. Before I broke ninety bones, before I hit my head so many times that all the quicksilver wit drained out, before I was forced to bow and scrape to the quotidian dictatorship of daily bread and homeowners’-association dues, before I unknowingly dabbled in the sympathetic magic of adultery and substance abuse only to be caught up in its orbit like a startled meteor promoted to minor moon.
A couple of things happened. The first thing was that I bought my son his first skatepark bike and I watched the intuitive mastery with which he grasped the opportunity. It’s obvious that he will be a far better rider than I was. Better even than my fifteen-year-old self, before all the crashes. If he wants it, and that’s for him to decide. It’s enough for me to see that he has the gift.
Then, of course, Nick died. I started thinking more about the value of living in the present moment instead of yearning for the past or even the future. I thought about the idea that I’d been given the gift of continuance that had been denied Nick. There must be a reason for that.
Rather than stare at my old bikes, I am building new ones. Instead of daydreaming about my old races and epic weekends spent with friends who are now distant or gone entirely, I’m going to ride my bike in the present and be satisfied. In place of a useless longing for my childhood self, I will put more effort into being a father. I’ll take the money that I got from selling my old bikes and I’ll spend it on adventures for me and my son.
Before I loaded that old Badd&Company into the Tahoe for the trip west, I did something I hadn’t done since 2001 or thereabouts. I swung a leg over the bike. Foot on the pedal in the old starting-gate position. Rolled the old A’ME grips in my hands. Twenty-five years dissipated in the space of seconds and I felt the presence of my old self, coiled and furious at the beginning of a race, alive within me for a glimmering moment. The sneer of my youth curled my lip. What a fool I must have looked at that moment, an old man animated by the spirits of the dead. Then I relaxed, stepped off the pedals, and carried the bike out to the driveway.
“His golden locks Time hath to silver turned.
O Time too swift, O swiftness never ceasing:
His youth ‘gainst Time and Age hath ever spurned,
But spurned in vain; youth waneth by increasing.
Beauty, strength, youth are flowers but fading seen;
Duty, faith, love are roots, and ever green.
His helmet now shall make a hive for bees,” — John Dowland, His golden locks time hath to silver turned, 1597