This Is Your Brain On Bikes

22 Aug

By Brian M. Howle

I Survived Free Range ParentingThose little neurons that fire off signals to your brain’s memory section must have an interesting genesis. Everyone has them – but I believe some of us have more than most. While washing my car a few weeks ago, I observed a young boy venturing from the safe confines of his driveway to take that inaugural plunge into worldly freedom. His cautious, methodical peddling – tempered with momentary gyroscopic corrections to maintain balance – began to slowly increase in speed. With a determined focus, his eyes were set on the next three feet of asphalt awaiting him; bottom lip firmly in the overbite of concentration. For a few brief seconds, only he and I existed in our little corner of the world. Upon reaching the recognizable border of his next door neighbor’s yard (the grand total of about fifty feet), the realization of his first solo ride cut through the concentration. His little face lit up like a Vegas marquee, and he very carefully negotiated the U-turn maneuver. Then he began screaming to his mother, who was sweeping their garage, “Mamma! Mamma! MAMMA! Look, LOOK … I’m riding WITHOUT training wheels! LOOK!! And Mamma smiled and congratulated him, and as he hopped off his bike she gathered him up in her waiting arms and hugged him amid squeals of delight from both as they made their way inside for a celebratory treat.

I hope his mother keeps that little moment tucked away in her accessible memory, for her to retrieve and relive at her fancy. Because I know for sure the boy will.

In the few nanoseconds after they disappeared inside their home, my mind had transported me back to the day when I, too, had broken the surly bonds of stabilization assisted bicycles. No one was around that day, for reasons unknown, and I sat on the steps at the end of our side walkway, giving my training wheels the evil eye. A serious decision had to be made, and since I apparently had nothing but time on my hands (being a little kid and all), I turned my attention to my dad’s tool box. Now, this signaled two important things:

1) – I was actually motivated to do something, and;

2) – I must have been motivated to plunder through dad’s tool box without his supervision. Hey, I was five, maybe six years old – the difference between a wrench and say, a hacksaw, seemed of little importance at the time. And besides, I had already established that I had time on my hands, so the diversionary task of seeing how many sawable surfaces our yard contained didn’t ruin my time table. And days later, when dad discovered a toothless hacksaw in his tool box, I learned two more important things:

1) – Hacksaws should not be used on steel and masonry unless you use specialized blades, and;

2) – It’s hard to sit for a few days when you do.

Well, after the hacksaw lost its novelty (and its teeth), I again turned my attention to removing the training wheels. It took little while – maybe an hour or four – but I figured out which fit the nuts that held the wheels in place. With the yard littered with wheel pieces, tools and assorted items sawed from their points of origin, I climbed up on the seat, gripped the squishy plastic handlebar grips, put my head down and pushed off from the top of our driveway. A small slope led to the street, and initial inertia always helps when you’re a kid doing something for the first time. It also helps to close your eyes, which I did, and when the driveway bottomed out and the only sound I heard was the rushing wind dancing over my ears, I opened my eyes and languished in the moment of victory of self-reliance. Then it occurred to me that the rest of the world shouldn’t he denied enlightenment to this accomplishment, and I swooped into the big, wide, easy turn to head back to the house to share the news. Aglow in pride, I accepted my parents’ congratulations and encouragement as I stood beside the now tamed beast and reveled in triumph.

Not long after mastering the two-wheeler, a predictable series of events were set in motion. First, every little boy has a genetic code interwoven into his heart and soul, into his very being, that requires him to seek maximum speed in all forms of propelled movement. Second, the same DNA dictates that once top speed has been ascertained, the brain begins to crunch the numbers required to achieve release from the grip of gravity, be it ever so brief.

My friends and I began constructing ramps for free-flight jumping, utilizing such high-tech materials as bricks and two-by-fours. At this point the learning curve is very much in play, as the DNA leads us to discover some of the basic principles of physics: i.e., the concept of weights and leverage, and diminishing or increasing points of fulcrum shift – as when a board’s length exceeds the fulcrum line, resulting in your bike becoming a lawn dart. We learned that when you nail together two or more boards for a longer ramp, always make sure the nails don’t project upwards, ‘cause tires ain’t cheap. Through the painful but rewarding attempts at trial and error, we managed to ride our winged beasts a grand total of maybe four feet – that is, to assure no great injury would be risked. The big, heavy bicycles of the day were simply not destined to fly.

That all changed in the mid ‘60’s when s bicycle designer borrowed front the look of drag racing and invented the “Spyder Bike”.

The Spyder was a gleaming, sexy and seductive sight to behold. Built upon a small frame, it featured highrise handlebars (just like the hippie motorcycles), a “banana” seat with a “Sissy Bar”, a small, thin front tire mounted on an extended fork (again, just like the hippie bikes), and a wider rear tire that was akin the the dragsters’ big, fat racing slicks . The smaller wheel configuration allowed for a better torque ratio for lightning fast acceleration. You couldn’t pedal one wide open for very long, but there was one thing in particular you could do with the greatest of ease:

Pop a wheelie.

Yep, these babies were born to imitate a unicycle, no doubt about it. When I walked into the living room on Christmas morning and saw my metallic copper Schwinn Spyder, I could feel the sensation of weightlessness that awaited me. I walked around it several times, the way a dog does before it beds down, running my fingers over every inch of sparking metal. The bright copper color was offset and highlighted by tons of chrome – the rims, the handlebars, the chain guard, and the fenders; the rear of which were upturned and flared, again … just like the hippie bikes. I momentarily hesitated when urged to take it out for a ride, not wanting to soil its virgin tread. Five seconds later, I was rolling down the driveway.

Well, everyone now had a new bike, and the race was on to perfect the “wheelie”. To avoid embarrassment and humiliation, we practiced these moves alone if at all possible . After a few days of countless falls, I began to get the hang of it. Feeling confident and wanting to show off for someone, I rolled over to visit Louise, a neighbor across the street on the next block. At this point in my life, it was far less humiliating to fail in front of a girl than in front of the guys. For my sake, it turned out to be a wise move.

“Hey, Louise, wanna see something cool?” I suavely inquired as I circled around her big, clunky girl’s bike.

“If you insist,” she retorted, feigning disinterest (I’m telling you, they start that stuff early – it’s in their DNA). “What’s so cool?”

“Hey … Watch this.” I coolly stated, as I swung around behind her to position myself to pass by her in Napoleonic splendor once up on one wheel. I shifted into low gear, straightened out the front wheel and then stood up on the pedal and kicked down; simultaneously pulling back on the handlebars to attain the proper alignment of balance. I was about to learn that the code did not always prepare you for “variables” in the quest for bicycling bravado personified. I failed to allow for adrenaline.

Wanting not just to impress my friend but to absolutely stun her with my ability, I was a little too “pumped” for my wheelie premier. I kicked far too hard, pulled back far too quickly, and proceeded to virtually propel myself backwards into the unforgiving street. The bike shot up in the air as I tried to impale myself – or rather, the back of my skull – into the asphalt. This was not a fall; this was the equivalent of having Mickey Mantle use your head for T-ball batting practice. Completely and utterly disoriented (which I later learned is normal when experiencing a concussion), my one and only coherent thought became inexplicably twisted between thought and spoken word.

“Bike, get my Louise out of the street!” I shouted repeatedly, as I stumbled through the world of cartoon birdies swirling around my immediately aching little head. Louise obliged and rolled my bike over to her yard, then she walked back over to me. I was still trying to get my brain to stop sloshing around my head, but I could sense her growing concern over my well being.

“Brian, you should get out of the road, a car might come by,” she implored, constantly checking both directions as she leaned over me.

“Bike, I am doing what do you think?’ was the best I could manage as I was beginning to abandon any attempt at cohesive thought and speech in favor of moaning in searing, dull pain.

I eventually crawled off to the side of the road and lay prone in Louise’s yard for about half and hour. Shortly after regaining the ability to speak, I struggled to my feet, collected my bike and bid Louise good day. I wobbled back to my house, parked the bike and took a very long nap.

Some time later, I did finally master the wheelie, and would ride with my friends for blocks, all of us peddling along on the back wheel. This soon grew boring, and while sipping on a Coke at Reynolds Drug Store one day, I was thumbing through a car magazine when I came upon it picture of a motorcycle jumping over a car. The shot was taken just as the bike was leaving the ramp, and as I looked at the picture and then looked at my bike parked outside, a little light went on inside my slightly dented head.

I immediately proposed my hypothesis to my colleagues, and we raced back to our neighborhood to dust off the old ramp building materials. In a jiffy, we had the ramp up and ready; not too long, not too steep. Since the revised concept was my baby, I was allowed the first attempt. With the imprint of Farr Ave. still freshly embossed on my head, I envisioned the jump before making the attempt. I took long, deep breaths; I reminded myself not to kick the bike out from under me before I had even started; I lined up the ramp and the landing ramp (oh yeah, we were confident: a full six feet away, with the same degree of incline as the takeoff ramp) and saw myself sailing heroically across the great chasm and landing softly but safely on the other side. I shook out my fingers one last time, grabbed the handlebars and started for the approach. Speed was good, alignment was good, and right up to the point of being airborne, everything looked good. However, once again, adrenaline missed the pre-jump meeting and showed up at the worst possible time.

Just as I reached the top of the ramp, I gave it it little extra “umph” to get me across. I didn’t account for that “umph” coinciding with the rear tire leaving the ramp at the exact same moment. With no resistance against it, the wheel spun freely – and all the force I put into that foot pushing down continued. But without the ground to stabilize it, the bike pulled up under me, as my foot shot off of the pedal and directly into the rear spokes, where my foot was an unwelcome intruder, responsible for removing roughly half of the spokes before stopping. In the fractions of a second that this all occurred, the pain of that intrusion paled in comparison with that which came with touchdown. Now having some surface to grip and counteract the direction of my foot, the wheel reversed itself at the speed of light. It snatched the full weight of my body forward, which pulled my foot through the other half of the remaining spokes. All in all, considering the foot wasn’t actually severed from my ankle or anything, it was pretty cool.

The worst accident I ever had came while I was alone. For some reason I had decided to break out into an all out sprint on my bike. I was standing up on the pedals, leaning forward, pumping my legs furiously as I labored to breath and maintain top speed. I was leaning forward so far, my chin was only inches from the front wheel. And then, the single most surrealistic thing I ever witnessed took place. As I peddled and hung forward over the handlebars, I looked straight down. Unbelievably, and for a brief few moments seemingly suspended in slow motion, I watched in horror as the wheel disengaged itself from the front fork, and with the next pedaling motion that resulted in a slight pull upon the handlebars, it made its way free from the fork and proceeded to pull ahead of the bike.

My small, battered little brain was still trying to process all this when the front fork fell victim to gravity and dug into the old, craggy pavement. I had my eyes open, but remember none of the next minute or so. I knew I was stunned, and I knew that I had just had a pretty bad accident, but I was relatively calm. The whole thing took place a street over from mine, in front of my best friend “T'”s house. Running on emergency backup circuits, my brain guided me to their door, where I politely knocked and waited for Mrs. Gamble to let me in. When she opened the door, she took one look at me and turned white as a sheet, and started muttering those “mom” things that always include a lot of “Oh, Lord “ and “Help me, Jesus “ mixed in there. Confused by her reaction, I stepped back from her as she attempted to put a towel to my forehead. “Let me wipe some of this off, Brian,” she said while trying to steady me, “let me get a good look at it.”

“A good look at what?” I wondered to myself, “What on earth is she talking about. And what’s this warm stuff running down my face and neck?” I reached up – for the first time since the wreck – and felt my forehead. It stung a little, no big deal. And then I looked at my hand and saw the blood. I had finally gone and done it – split my head wide open. At that moment, all of my other senses – especially the one that detects pain – kicked in.

People came running from up to six blocks away, each seeking the source of the mega-decibel screams. My brother, sitting on the walkway steps to my house – no more than 200 feet away – was oblivious to the sound. He and a friend wandered over only after noticing the small crowd gathering in Mrs. Gamble’s driveway. I vaguely remember the trip to Dr. Harper’s office: punctuated by the very strong recollection of receiving stitches while Dr. Harper spun his unique bedside manner that we all came to know and love: “Now, I’ll ask one more time before I close this up … You’re sure he didn’t leak any brains out there in the street, did he? ‘Cause I know this boy, and he’s gonna need all he can get”. Dr. Harper hovered over me, peering over his horn-rimmed glasses and desperately balancing a chewed and worn cigar between his teeth as he looped the sutures shut. “Does that hurt?” he queried, stopping for my answer. I nodded in the affirmative. “Good”, he said as he leaned back in for another stitch, “that means you’re gonna live”.

Sometimes, when I watch how our children now stay glued to the television, video game, computer, cellphone or personal digital device, I worry the simple joy of riding – and crashing – a bicycle might disappear for their world. And that would truly be a shame.

Because nothing prepares you for life like a bike.
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, March 9, 2000.


Posted by on August 22, 2009 in Along The Watchtower


2 responses to “This Is Your Brain On Bikes

  1. Mary Ruth Harper Ragland

    August 11, 2015 at 8:19 pm

    Brian, this is completely delightful. You wrote it before Daddy died. I wish he could have read it. You were a little short on the description of your driveway. It was a mountain to us! Mary Ruth


    • bhowle

      August 11, 2015 at 9:37 pm

      Thank you for the kind words, Mary Ruth. It is possible that my mama or daddy may have told him about it; I know that my daddy enjoyed it, especially that part about visiting your dad’s office that particular time. There were several due to bicycle incidents. 🙂
      Funny how, until I read your comment, I never thought about it – but I do believe that is one of the highest elevations in town!



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