Familiarly Strange

The joy of reconnecting with a stable of well-ridden bikes

Editor’s note: This column originally ran in the June 2014 issue of Bike.

familiarly_strange

Words by Mike Ferrentino
Photo by Jordan Manley

The slider door to my house hadn’t been opened for over a month. A month of wind and dust and fog, the usual elements of rural coastal California had crusted it with a layer of brown, enough so that it was sticky to open. Inside, leaning against the bookcase, four bicycles sat beneath a fine grey patina of settled particles. I read once that something like 80 percent of household dust is composed of human skin. Given that nobody had been in my house in a month, and that the bikes had all been relatively clean a month ago, I think I can safely call bullshit on that theory (which is a shame, because it was always fun to see what kind of reaction that statistic would evoke).

The nearest bike in the pile still had sand on its tires, from its last ride. At the time, the trails had been bone-dry and blown-out, square-edged braking ruts appearing at corner entrances, apexes widening as the layer of sand and dust on top of baked hard ground had made cornering a skatey proposition. A spiderweb was being spun in the spokes of the rear wheel. Behind it, a steel road bike sat sadly on a pair of deflated tires. The ‘cross bike behind that was still holding air in its tubulars, something of a small miracle, and the one-speed closest to the bookshelf looked about the same as always—dirty, with a specking of surface rust on the brake rotors.

Unpacking my bags, my clothes smelled of foreign soap. Into a pair of shorts, rummage for jersey and socks, unearth shoes, out the door, bike with cobweb in the wheel being the choice given it was closest to hand and felt like it had the most air in its tires. This bike carried me around for a couple thousand miles over the previous year, but as I pedaled stiffly uphill out of the fog, it felt completely alien. Long, squishy, big wheels, ponderous and slow. For the previous month I had been fed a steady diet of lighter, steeper, smaller wheels, less travel, and my reflexes had become accustomed to the feel and timing of a different ride. Here I was, home again, a stranger on my own bike.

I had just spent a month on the other side of the world, riding terrain nothing like the dry coastal sandstone or mulchy redwood duff that were typical of home. The trails on the other side of the world were wet and tight and festooned with tree roots. When the riding was done, we would pile into cars with steering wheels on the right-hand side of the vehicle and drive off down the left-hand side of the road. Disconcerting at first, but relatively quickly adapted to, it wasn’t something I thought about much, except when signaling to turn and accidentally flipping the windshield wipers on, or reaching to shift and feeling a door panel. The big things, like which side of the road to drive on, get sorted out in short order, or else things get bad fast. It’s the little things, those almost reflexive movements we never really think about—those are what mess us up.

Everyone on the other side of the world sets their bikes up so the front brake is the right-hand lever. I grew up down there, and rode motorcycles, so that has always been how I set my brakes up. I always have to remind people if they want to take any of my bikes out–”pay attention, the brakes are reversed!”–and more often than not this one aspect of all that we juggle when riding a bike still manages to bite others in the ass. Likewise, whenever I ride someone else’s bike, I have to remember that the front brake is now in my left hand, and that subsequent need to consciously think about how I use my brakes slows me down just a hair. After a few miles, my reflexes adapt, and I can start to ride faster. But for a while there it feels like I am learning how to ride all over again. The same thing happens when I transition from one of my bikes to another. There’s this phase of re-acquaintance, when I have to remember the nuances of the bike, some sort of lag in my internal processor while reflex and memory reconcile themselves.

By mid-ride, the grey dust of inactivity had been rubbed off by clothing and hands, marked by drips of sweat, overwritten with the brown dust of the trail, and my bike didn’t feel like a stranger anymore. It felt like the same old predictable workhorse it had always been. A few hours and it was as if we hadn’t been apart at all, and the 13 hours spent folded up like the world’s saddest contortionist in a flying tube had been partially wiped from my thoughts.

Downhill into setting sun, up onto the deck, shoes off, in through the still-crusty-but-no-longer-sticky door, forage for a lonely beer in an otherwise empty fridge, bike returned to the quartet against the bookcase. The dance of reconnection, with one bike out of the way, three more to go. As the last light of the day cast shafts through the dust hanging in the air (no way it could be human skin, right?), and it dawned on me that having to make friends with each bike is not a bad way to live, a tiny movement caught the corner of my eye. Methodically, deliberately, the spider in my back wheel, having somehow stayed on the bike the whole damn ride, was re-weaving its web.