Photo: Joe Penniston This year, as we have in years past, my wife and I packed up the kids and flew across the country to spend the holidays with her family in suburban Baltimore. Christmas at the Thomas house is always a festive affair: crab soup, wine by the bottleful, quality time with grandma and grandpa and sundry cousins. And for my benefit, they keep the Barry Manilow Christmas tunes to a minimum. (Sincere thanks for that, guys.)
There’s just one problem: Put me in the ‘burbs for more than about 48 hours and I go completely batshit. I’m not sure what it is that sets me off. I completely understand the appeal of the place, having lived in Baltimore proper. It’s peaceful here. And safe. No need to lock your doors. But in suburbia, I feel trapped.
I need wheels. But here’s the other problem: Put me in a car in traffic for more than about 48 seconds and, you guessed it, I go completely batshit. Instant road rage. I swear. I’m just not a well-adjusted 20th/21st century human. My parents did their best, really (here’s looking at you, mom and dad), but they brought me into the world about a hundred years late.
This year, though, I was determined to spare my family the experience of dealing with yours truly in the midst of a stoplight- or split-level-induced freak-out. I went looking for a bike. I needed something that could get me around the neighborhood and to the town-bound train. Bonus points if I could take it on the train and use it to get around the city.
I ogled a friend’s foldable Brompton that crumples like origami to the size of my cell phone for his weekday train commute. But that was way, way out of my price range. I needed something cheapass but functional. I needed the, wait for it … I needed the Suburban.
“I’ll give you a bike,” my buddy Kristian told me when I explained my plight. “I’ve got this 60-pound Schwinn I haven’t ridden for a couple of years. I’ve been meaning to get rid of it.” And, no joke, it was called the Suburban.
The Suburban is a cobalt blue, steel-framed 10-speed with matching fenders, freewheel in front (if you can appreciate that you really are a bike geek) and a soft steel frame and springy leather saddle that make it ride like your grandfather’s Cadillac. You don’t wear Spandex on this bike. Oh no. Just your street clothes. Forget the aggressive cyclist’s crouch. You sit upright on this bike, a stance so jaunty that, while riding it, you feel obliged to wave at everyone you pass. It is the very physical manifestation of the suburban dream. (And if that link made you blow eggnog out your nose, you can find the whole 1972 Schwinn catalog here. What’s up with the airplanes?)
There was just one problem. (Have I said that already?) Two, actually. The first was that Kristian lives in the city, so I would have to pick up the bike there and get it out of town. The second: “It’s missing a bolt,” Kristian said. Not just any bolt, but the one that attaches the rear brake to the brake cable. A minor detail, brakes.
“It builds a lot of inertia,” Kristian said. (Sixty pounds? Try 80. The kickstand alone weighs at least five.) “But I think I have the front brake adjusted so it will work alright.”
Mmmm hmmmm. I gave him $80 for the beast and we walked it down to the neighborhood bike shop, where I bought a bolt to fix the brake, along with a helmet and a lock. We fixed the brake and I set off across the city.
It was terrifying. This bike was not made for negotiating tight city streets. The handlebars are just too wide and the geometry is designed for cruising, not for quick maneuvers or rapid acceleration. (Rapid deceleration, brakes or no brakes, is pretty much out of the question.) The moonscape that is Baltimore’s streets didn’t help matters. I blundered through the potholes and pavement patches like a tank crossing rough terrain. I wasn’t going to be riding wheelies with the local kids on this monster.
Today, I’ll put the bike on a train and ride out of the city, past the high rises and old mill buildings, past the drivers idling on the Interstate, across the beltway and into the county, where the streets are wide and winding, the pavement is as smooth as satin Christmas ribbons, and the front yards are aglow with inflatable snowmen and Santa Clauses.
I’ll wave as I ride by, and I’m curious to see what kind of reaction I get. I suspect it’s been a while since folks out there have seen much bike traffic — certainly nothing quite like this. The Suburban is coming home.
Happy holidays from the suburbs. Here’s hoping you find your two-wheeled bliss, too.