Alphabet, A History (B)

The following piece of creative nonfiction is part of a series I started on my personal blog a few years ago called “Alphabet: A History,” which is a collection of short, autobiographical vignettes, focusing mainly on relationships (familial, romantic, platonic, and self). I will be publishing the series on Fridays.

B: Bike
My first big-girl bike is classic: hot pink with a banana seat and shiny steamers on the handle bars. In the parking lot outside our high-rise apartment on Yokota Air Base in Japan, my father holds the back of my seat as I pedal unsteadily. It’s a test of patience and stamina for us both, and not at all unlike our driving lessons years later on winding streets in Germany. When my dad lets go and I finally bike with confidence, I don’t want to ever stop. In the evenings after school and work, my whole family bikes together along the tarmac, a seven mile stretch — my dad in the front, my mom in the middle with Allison in a baby seat, and me in the back, my streamers waving in the breeze.

We move so many times — from Japan to Korea to Germany — and somewhere along the way, I stop riding. Worse yet, somewhere along the way, I decide bikes are scary. In Springfield, Missouri, my college friends talk about how bikeable the town is. They pedal around to each other’s houses and the bars downtown and in the summer, they even ride all the way to Fellow’s Lake. I’m convinced I’m a klutz and have no balance and don’t want to look stupid in front of anyone, so I stick with cars. Once, I try rollerblading on campus and I fall three times in five minutes, and declare wheels off-limits for good.

When I’m 24, I move from Missouri to Chicago with my boyfriend. He brings two bikes with him and quickly buys a third. He gets a job making sandwiches at Potbelly and rides the two miles there and back everyday. Soon, he loses 15 pounds and bleaches his hair. In the winter, his shoes and the legs of his pants are covered in salt. He gets promoted once, twice, three times in a year. We move to a bigger apartment.

The lakefront is just three blocks away now and on an early summer evening, I walk over with my boyfriend and two of the bikes. He rides in front and I follow behind, pedalling unsteadily. It’s so crowded on the lake path and I lose my balance and give up right away. “I’ll just meet you back inside,” I yell after him, but I don’t think he even hears me. He’s already off in the distance.

“I just saw the perfect bike for you,” my best friend Chad says over the phone late one Spring afternoon. I’m 28 now and single. I’ve been thinking about getting back on the lake path. I go to Brownstone Antiques in Andersonville and see it: it’s turquoise and probably from the early 70’s, with a white wicker basket, a headlight and a rearview mirror. I buy it for $45. I spend the whole summer on my new bike, clunking along with my friends down Damen to Wicker Park and Ukrainian Village, I don’t know what I was so afraid of before. I ride all the way through fall and into early winter when I finally switch back to my car until March.

Two summers later I upgrade to a new bike with more than one gear. I ride through my last months in Chicago, memorizing tree-lined streets and Winnemac Park and routes to all my favorite places. When I think of what I’ll miss most when I move to New York, this is top of the list. The day the movers come, I’m a nervous wreck. I drug the cats for the plane trip, finish packing my bags, sign a check for storage, and clean my apartment. Later, after the movers leave and I’m hailing a cab for the airport, I realize I’ve forgotten my bike. I can picture it now leaning against the wall in the foyer of my old apartment.


  1. Jess of says:

    Wow, so timely! I just got a bike and have started riding for the first time as an adult. I’ve been blogging about it if you ever want to give it a read! ( Now I want to know, did you ever get a bike when you moved to NYC? Do you have one now? Does Drew? (Miles?!)

    1. Well, I actually had a friend pick up my old bike and put it in storage for my in chicago. It came along when I had my things shipped to New York a few months later. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit up the tiny stairwell of our old apartment in Manhattan, so I had to sell it and buy a bike that folds in half. I still have that one. I didn’t get to ride it this year because I’m pregnant and promised Drew I wouldn’t. But as soon as I’m not longer pregnant and the weather is nice, I’ll be on it again.

      1. Jess of says:

        Oh cool a foldable bike (or however they call them). That’s smart. I’m sure soon enough you will be back out there with a kid’s seat on the back!! I rode past a dad yesterday with his toddler son on the back. The boy was having a BLAST talking to all the other cyclists riding by him.

  2. This was a very interesting piece. Biking is so incredibly common in the Netherlands, literally everyone does it – from school kids to the elderly, from mountainbikers to moms with two kids and a big bag of groceries – I can’t even imagine someone being so afraid of it or not being able to do it (actual physical impediments notwithstanding of course).

    1. I’m 25 and rode a bike for the first time in my life (sans training wheels) this summer. My brother, who is younger than me by about 3 years, learned how to ride his bike without training wheels BEFORE me. As an extremely stressful, perfectionist, overly competitive child, I threw my bike on the ground and declared I would never ride one again in my life. LOL I was a pain in the a**. Really, I was also scared I’d hurt myself on it, because I was so clumsy, and I didn’t ride a bike for over 19 years. All of my friends really didn’t believe me when I said I never rode one , because they just couldn’t believe it.

      1. Just read my last sentence, and realized it made little sense. Ohh, Friday. haha My brain’s already off.

      2. I’m 27 and I’ve never ridden a bike either! I actually bought one on craigslist last winter, but haven’t forced myself to try, partly because the last time I tried I actually did hurt myself, haha. It’s silly because I live in Colorado where everyone bikes everywhere. I need to just suck it up and look the fool for a while to learn.

      3. Jess of says:

        Do it Rachel. I just did the same one month ago so I am right there with you. Once you get started and get a little braver, its really fun. I also built my confidence by reading other female bloggers who were leading the way. Good luck to you!

      4. fast eddie says:

        I learned to ride with an 80 yard downhill dash in Manitou Springs, CO. It was a one speed that the peddles were locked to the wheel and no brakes. When I got the bottom the hill those peddles beat the shit out of my shins, but there was no stopping me. Sledding in the winter was even more fearless. Now the mere memory horrifies me. I think my mother secretly wanted me to be out of her life.

  3. caffeinatrix says:

    I LOVE this piece Wendy! I went about 6 years without riding a bike at all- outgrew my last childhood bike when I was 12 or 13 and my parents just never bought me another. I got my driver’s license a few years later and forgot all about bikes until I was 19, in college, and couldn’t afford to have a car where I lived.
    At first, I bought a beach cruiser to get around. A few months later, needing something faster, I bought an old road bike and learned how to fix it myself. A few months after that, I bought another bike just because it was cute. Now, six years later, I work in a bike shop, and I’ve bought, fixed and resold dozens of bikes. I currently own 7 bikes, and I ride almost every day. When I think about it, it seems so strange that I went so long without riding a bike at all.

  4. I miss biking…I grew up in the country and biked everywhere. As a teen I inherited mom’s 18speed Fuji ultralite racing bike. Unfortunately, I moved from the country and into the burbs and there is nowhere safe to ride on the streets where I live now. People do it, but hubs and I joke about them being suicide bikers. Our city just isn’t pedestrian or bike friendly. I tried the mountain bike thing this summer. It just wasn’t the same…not carefree with the wind in your hair. I spent too much time watching for sticks and rocks and eventually one of those rocks resulted in 6 stitches in my kneecap. In the future, we may relocate to Germany for hubs job…I can’t wait to buy another bike.

  5. Wendy's Dad says:

    Wendy, your first big-girl bike is still in our garage, along with your mom’s bike (not ridden any more), and old bike of mine that I don’t use, and my red mountain bike that I ride only occasionally. Yesterday, though, I walked from Schweinfurt to Mainberg castle along a bike path. I got passed by LOTS of people on bikes. I think I’ll have to take mine out for a spin again, but I enjoy walking so much, I don’t know when I’ll find the time.

  6. I love it! I practically lived on my bike as a kid and somewhere around high school that changed. I got back into biking last year when my boyfriend gave me a bike for my birthday. I was nervous at first and felt wobbly but before long I was flying and it is still so much fun!!

  7. I saw a lot of people roller blading in Venice last month. I was like People still do that? Then later this guy who had to be like a world champ at it, shirt off and all, goes flying by me in the road roller blading. I finally caught up to him in my car 10 min later elsewhere in Santa Monica. I was jealous bc My blading experience was the same as Wendy’s. Boy this guy flew.

  8. blackbird says:

    I love the descriptions of Chicago! I’m just starting to get comfortable biking here (so many angry people driving cars) and just recently biked down Damen to Wicker Park. Thanks for sharing!

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