A (Cyclist’s) Christmas Story (redux ad absurdum)
Copyright © 1999, by Kent Peterson. Republished without permission, but it’s too good a story not to share.
It’s been years now, but I’ll never forget that Christmas…
The days had grown short, the snow had begun to fall and my friends and I were all gathered around old man Petersen’s bike shop in the center of town. Flick had his eyes on a Raleigh Pro with a full Campy gruppo and my kid brother’s heart was set on Redline BMX bike but I knew there was only one bike for me.
It hung from a pair of hooks above the window, gleaming with elegance and old world sophistication. Hand built by a man who was already an old legend when Coppi first won the Giro, the simple frame would not be cluttered with derailleurs or an excessive amount of cable. No, this was a pure bicycle, the holy grail of human powered vehicles a fixed-gear road bike.
Not a track bike, we didn’t have a track in my town, but a champion’s road training bike. One tiny front brake that gleamed like a jewel. A single chain ring and a single cog joined by the absolute minimum amount of chain into a mechanism as precise as a Swiss watch. The bike was the very embodiment of craftsmanship put into the service of speed and athletic excellence. It was a bicycle that had no business being in my small town, but there it was, calling to me.
Each day on the way home from school I stop by that window, longing to see the object of my mania, fearing that someday it would be gone, sold to someone less than worthy to appreciate it for what it was the perfect bicycle.
But each day I’d hold my breath as I’d round the corner by Petersen’s shop and each day I’d see the bike and let my breath out slowly in something that was half a whistle and half a prayer. I’d carefully calculated the rate of my accumulation of allowance and the cost of the bike and determined that the odds were I would die of old age before I’d ever be riding that bike down the streets of my town.
But Christmas was coming and I’d been good so maybe there was a chance. I’d have to approach it just right, however.
My mother, knowing nothing of the subtlety and timing involved, caught me off guard.
“So Ralphie, what do you want for Christmas?”
I was young, I was impetuous, I was certain. Before I could stop myself I blurted out, “I want an Italian-built, Columbus-tubed fixed-gear road bike!”
A look of horror crossed my mother’s face, “You’ll blow your knees out!” She said this with a tone of absolute certainty, like she’d just predicted the sun would rise in the morning.
It was the classic mother fixed-gear block. No amount of reasoning known to kiddom could counter that, so I beat a hasty retreat. “Oh yeah, heh heh,” I said, “I guess a mountain bike would be fine.”
A mountain bike? Good grief, what was I saying? She’ll never buy it.
But she wasn’t listening, “I don’t want you riding around a fixed-gear. They’re dangerous and you’ll blow your knees out.”
My old man looked over the edge of the copy of VeloNews he was reading, “Fixed-gear, eh?” he grunted, “can’t coast, you know.”
Oh boy, did I know. No shifting, no coasting, no problem!
A fixed-gear would be the bike that would make me a man, a bike where every climb and descent would be a test of strength and skill. In one instant I would have to be strong and in the next I would have to spin like a caffeinated phonograph record and always, always, I would have to be paying attention. It was a bike that would test me and teach me and make me into a cyclist.
Fortunately the conversation drifted onto my kid brother’s desire for the Redline, so I was free to concentrate on new schemes to obtain my dream bike.
My next chance came from a most unexpected source, my English teacher Mrs. Brown. “I want you to write a theme,” she proclaimed one day. We groaned.
“The subject of this theme is ‘What I want for Christmas’.”
Here, I brightened. This was my chance. An eloquently written them on the virtues of fixed-gear riding would surely earn me an A. When I proudly showed the A plus theme to my mother, she’d be swayed by my powers of erudite persuasion and have no choice but to buy me the bicycle. Here was a plan that could not fail.
That night, I wrote fervently, like a man possessed. The first sentence came easily and the rest of the words tumbled quickly out of me like blood from a fatal wound. Oh yes, I was constructing a masterpiece!
This is what I wrote:
What I want for Christmas
What I want for Christmas is a fixed-gear bicycle with an Italian-built Columbus tube frame. I think a fixed-gear bicycle makes a good Christmas present. I don’t think a derailleur bike makes a very good gift.
Perfect. When Mrs. Brown reads this she’ll have to give me an A!
It didn’t work out quite the way I’d planned. Mrs. Brown hadn’t seemed to realize the importance of my manuscript when I’d handed it to her and now 24 hours later it was judgement day. The papers were passed back and I looked at my grade. There must be some mistake! Here where it should have said A plus, plus, plus there was a big, ugly C. And what’s this? She’d written a comment on the paper.
There in her precise, school teacher printing, were the dreaded words: “You’ll blow your knees out!”
Oh no, this is horrible.
I was running out of time. I needed a new plan and a new ally.
Santa Claus was my last chance.
Sure, I was getting a little old to believe in Santa but when the days dwindle down to a precious few, even the most agnostic of kids realizes that it costs nothing to believe and the upside potential is huge. So, like every year, we trundled down to Loehmann’s department store and while mom and the old man wandered about the store, my brother and I waited in line with 400 other bet-hedging beggars to have a minute of pleading with the old guy in the red suit.
We were in the line for hours. The store was just about to close when it was my kid brother’s turn on Santa’s knee. My brother stared at the big man, opened his mouth and began to wail like a new-born fire engine. A surly elf scooped him up and sent him careening down Santa’s bobsled run.
Now it was my turn, my chance. “Well, little boy, what should Santa bring you this year?”
Here was my chance. I was face to face with the big man and I couldn’t think of a thing. I sat there, dumbstruck. I tried to make my mouth work, but nothing came out. The surly elf began to drag me away and Santa said “How about a nice gel saddle?” I nodded dumbly and the elf tossed me onto the iced slide.
What was I doing?
Somehow I regained the use of my muscles and my voice. I grabbed the edge of the slide, looked up at Santa and declared, “I want an Italian-built, Columbus-tubed fixed-gear road bike!”
I’d done it!
Santa looked down at me with a twinkle in his eye and a chuckle in his throat. As his big, black boot kicked me down the ice slide I heard him say, “A fixed-gear? You’ll blow your knees out!”
Finally the big day arrived. Like every year my brother and I had pooled our resources and gotten the old man a big tin of Brooks Proofide. We got mom got riding gloves which said were just what she needed. She says that every year. My brother did OK, with his big gift being the Redline.
I got the usual assortment of chains, water bottles and a particularly hideous gift from my aunt Cora. Aunt Cora suffers from the belief that I am permanently four years old and a girl. This year the gift was pink helmet cover with rabbit ears and a matching pink jersey with a fluffy cotton tail on the middle pocket. My mom proclaimed it adorable and the old man said I looked like a deranged Easter Bunny and I wouldn’t have to wear it.
We’d torn through all the packages and I’d lost all hope when the old man said “Say, what’s that behind the desk?”
The box was big and the tag said “To: Ralphie, from Santa.” As I tore into the box with wild abandon my parents didn’t think I could hear them whispering. My mom said, “I thought we’d talked about this…” but the old man waved her concerns aside with a simple “I had one when I was his age.”
Surrounded by the torn wrapping paper, it was even more beautiful than it’d been in the window of Petersen’s. I ran my hands lovingly over the leather saddle and looked at the old man, “Can I…,” I began to ask. “Go on,” he replied while my mother looked concerned and said “I still say those things are dangerous.”
I carefully wheeled it out the door and down the driveway. I clipped my right foot in, started it rolling and hopped on. As I tried to drive my left foot into the clip, I stupidly tried to coast. The bike would have none of that, but I didn’t fall over. I just rolled down the street, pedaling one-footed while frantically stabbing at the left pedal with my left foot. Eventually, I got my foot in the left clip.
I turned the corner onto Mountain Park Boulevard and as I did one of the Bumpus’s hounds came out of nowhere and gave chase. Our neighbor’s the Bumpus’s have a hundred and eleventy mean old coon dogs and this was the biggest, meanest hungriest one. He let out a bark and gave chase.
I punched the pedals for all I was worth and flew up the hill. The dog panted, slowed and then gave up. I was doing it, I was winning, I was invincible!
Mountain Park Boulevard gets really steep just before the crest and just as I was reaching the summit, I heard a “pop”. Not my tire, my left knee. Oh no, I’d blown my knee out!
With tears in my eyes, I crested the hill. I had no choice but to pedal for all I was worth, frantically keeping up with the wildly spinning cranks as I descended. My knee was throbbing as I wound through the street leading back to home. As I pulled into the driveway, I could see my knee was swollen noticeably and I began to cry again.
My mom came rushing out, “Ralphie, what’s wrong?!”
Oh oh, time to think fast. I couldn’t tell her I’d blown my knee out.
“I, I hit a patch of ice and crashed on my knee,” I lied. Not bad for fiction on a deadline, I thought.
“Those ice patches have been know to kill people!” Mom clucked in a worried tone, “let me take a look at that knee…”
“I’ll take care of it, Ralphie,” said the old man, stepping in and taking charge. He gave me a look that let me know that while Mom might have bought the story, he was having none of it. We walked, slowly up to the bathroom.
I knew I was in for it now. The old man closed the door and I braced myself for the yelling.
It never came.
He took the liniment from the medicine cabinet and said, “Your Mom’s right about the ice, Ralphie, but you also have to be careful not to push too hard, too fast. You’ve got to let the tendons and ligaments develop along with those muscles. That’s the way the pros do it.”
And that was it. No yelling, no being grounded from riding. He did mention that since I’d “banged my knee” I should probably take things easy and stick to smaller hills for a while.
And they let me keep the bike in my room. I went to sleep dreaming of riding across the Italian countryside or wearing the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. And when I’d wake, there it was: the greatest Christmas gift I’d ever received or ever would receive.
Dedicated to the memory of Jean Parker Shepherd (1921-1999), American raconteur, radio & TV personality, and writer.
Copyright © 1999, by Kent Peterson. Republished without permission, but it’s too good a story not to share.