When I was ten, I was a bicycle fiend.
Go ahead, ask my mom. I had a cool purple bike and I rode that thing all around our neighborhood, down to Smithtown High School, around toward the end of Plymouth Road, up Wichard Blvd. (which featured a hill that I defy Lance Armstrong himself to tackle), around and down Harris Court, and back through Washington Blvd. I was fast and I was good. I could handle bumps in the sidewalk, hairpin turns, and human obstacles, and I never fell off.
Then the inevitable happened: I entered some kind of adolescent zone where I no longer played outside after school. God knows what I was doing instead, because I didn’t watch much television and I sure as heck wasn’t doing my homework (you can ask my mom about that one, too). I guess I was reading, or playing the piano, or at rehearsal for whatever play I was in at the moment. I got too big for my cool purple bike, and never thought to ask for a grown-up one. How was I to know that one day I would be mocked by all and sundry for my inability to ride a grown-up bicycle? I, who rode like the wind, the two-wheeled purple streak of my neighborhood?
That’s right, folks. Think back a second. Your kiddie bikes, they had brakes on the pedals, right? Well, grown-up bikes do not: they have brakes on the handles. You have to squeeze them to stop. And while I admit that for someone who can drive a car and play the piano, handle-brakes ought to be no problem, I can tell you this: they are. If you’re not used to them, then you have to go through the learning-curve. And Parisian traffic is no place to do it!
Nevertheless, once this new bike rental scheme debuted in Paris, I was determined that if I could find a quiet spot with a Vélib, I could train myself. This in spite of an ill-fated (and slightly drunken) attempt to ride Meg’s bike five feet next to the Canal St Martin back in June (something for which she continues to taunt me). Two weeks ago, N and I rented Vélibs from the station at the bottom of rue Mouffetard for an outing to the Darty at Odéon. I climbed on, rode it a little ways down rue Edmond Quenu, started to squeeze the handles– so far so good– and put my feet down on the ground to stop myself completely. Except my Repettos slid along the cobblestones and allowed me no traction whatsoever. I was riding and slipping and not stopping and heading right into the nearby traffic circle, which had actual cars in it. I gave a very Nathan Lane-in-La-Cage-aux-Folles shriek and somehow managed to avert the bike out of oncoming traffic. N was already off biking happily around the circle. I marched the thing right back to its station and returned it before he could even get back to me. "You ride to Odéon," I said, my voice shaking with frustration. "Vélib c’est débile!" I cried. "I’ll take the bus and meet you there." He did the gentlemanly thing and insisted on taking the bus with me. Then he did the ungentlemanly thing and mocked me so incessantly for not knowing how to ride a bike that I told him to go buy his own effing vacuum cleaner and I turned around and went home. He rerented the bike and Vélibbed to Odéon without me.
All this is a preface to a question. Do they make grown-up-sized bikes with the brakes on the pedals? Or am I out of luck, doomed to be a Vélib reject, a bicycle gimp for the rest of my days? In NY this would hardly brand me a loser, but this is France. Every physical activity here is highly ritualized and performative. You don’t just ride a bike– you ride a bike. You don’t just take a walk after lunch– you go for a walk.
You’ll be happy to know, however, that I now go regularly to the pool with N without crying.