I’ve been trying to find ways to stay in shape in recent years, but it’s been hard. I was not all that much into sports when I was in school. I spent half of one season on my high school track team before having to fake an injury to save everyone from the embarrassment of having to tell me, after each race, that at least I tried.
As an adult, I have explored a whole range of activities that were, in my opinion, fatally flawed. I’ve tried weightlifting (too hard. You are expected to constantly increase the weights. Where is this supposed to stop?), swimming (water gets in your nose and ears, and you end up pruney), running (takes forever to get anywhere and you get blisters) and hot yoga. (Not really, never actually did it, just looked it up on the Internet. It’s defined as “yoga exercises performed under hot and humid conditions.” In other words, “something you hear about and shake your head before saying, ‘Seriously?’”)
Finally, I settled on riding a bike. Bicycles have a lot of advantages. First, I had ridden a bike all through childhood and had not forgotten (it’s a well-known scientific fact that you can forget your car keys or someone’s name, but you never forget how to ride a bike.) Second, it’s all the rage. You can’t look outside these days without some dude sporting a hipster beard, torn canvas sneakers with doodles and an ironic skinny tie pedaling down the street. Cities all across this country are painting white bicycle lanes on the roads that make bicyclists feel safe -- right up till the moment of impact with a texting SUV driver.
My wife actually went out and bought me the bike I had in high school, an old 1970s Schwinn Le Tour. Now it’s called a “road bike,” but back when I first rode it was called a “10-speed.” I may not have a hipster beard and I’ve never intentionally bought clothes ironically. But I’d have the perfect hipster bike.
Visions of Lance Armstrong (putting aside all the needles, lying and general blowhard issues) danced in my head as I strapped on a helmet, squeezed myself into pants that showed off more Peter McKay than anyone is ready for or comfortable with and set off.
What I found on the road, though, was another matter. First, a hipster on a bike that old looks cool. A middle-aged man on an old bike doesn’t look cool or hip. He looks like the guy who just never seemed to get it together, still lives with his parents and rides a bike because he can’t get car insurance.
I became a target for abuse. The first time I rode through the neighborhood, some smart-aleck guy down the street shouted out, “Hey, kid, you forgot to deliver my paper yesterday!”
It also turned out that somehow, riding a bike in your 50s is harder than riding a bike in your teens, and it gets harder each year. In college one time, I rode 96 miles in a day, wearing a heavy backpack. I could barely get out of bed the next day and walked funny for a week, but it gave me a story I could boast about to my kids so often that the minute they hear the words, “I had this bike in college…” they sigh and tear up a bit at the agony of having to listen again.
I have become accustomed to the idea that I couldn’t keep up with the hipsters, and was happy enough when they’d be polite enough to call out, “Passing on your left!” as they went by. Some of the Lance Armstrong wanna-be’s weren’t so polite, yelling at me as they whipped by in their Lycra outfits so fast they couldn’t even hear my curses as they zipped down the road.
But the other day, I was pedaling along on a rail-to-trail pathway, and I passed, just barely, a young family. The 3-year-old boy took his mother’s hand, pointed at me, and yelled, “Mommy, why is that man riding a bike so SLOOOOW?”
His horrified mother told him to hush, that he was embarrassing me, but the dad laughed out loud. I grimaced.
After thinking about it, I turned to call back to the little boy, to say something about how long I’d been riding, or how hot it was. Then, I’d speed off. When I looked over my shoulder, though, they were still keeping pace with me, only a few feet back. At this rate, we’d be toddling along together for quite some time, them slowing down to let their small children keep up, and me speeding up to try to get away. I sighed.
“I’m not slow, kid!” I said to the boy just 5 feet behind me, “I’m just 53, OK?”
Peter McKay is a longtime Ben Avon resident and syndicated columnist. He can be reached at his website, www.peter-mckay.com.