He must have known. As the cars rushed past, day after day, he must have figured one would drift. Any given car might leave its lane and blow him off the highway shoulder. After all, it was him who taught me all about drifters. Once, when we drove along the backroads between Wisconsin and Minnesota, we kept track of the drifters. We pointed out the careless drivers over countless highway miles. We tried to guess which ones were texting, or on the phone. He told me how easily it could end for a cyclist anywhere near a drifter. Then one day, he was near a drifter. That day, he flew. That’s how I picture it anyway, an afternoon ride along the highway’s wide shoulder, wind in his face, warm sun to his back, lungs aching with the cool air, pedals churning, legs burning, the road just a murmur beneath him. Then, suddenly, flying. A moment of freedom before the end. A single fantastic moment, and then he was dead. Some miles away lay this dead man’s house. A beautiful house with a garage. A garage with five bicycles. One of which was white. This white bike, built for rocks, roots, and hills, would set a soul on fire. Mine.
Arriving home after a six hour drive from his dead brother’s house, my father brought me the white bike. The carbon frame, a sparkling pearl white, would have been far too expensive to buy a child if it was brand new. A rider that was still growing could be too big for the frame in less than a year. Thankfully, the bike was not brand new, and I was short to begin with. I was told that it was a good, trustworthy bike. That’s probably why it became mine. I was the only person that fit it well, and I needed a reliable bike for rough trails. As my uncle’s old buddy says with a smile, “All you have to do is hold on. The bike will do the rest.” Those words held very true.
I would ride my dead uncle’s bike. It felt strange. It was his. It felt wrong. Yet, I couldn’t deny the excitement that built from within me as we traded the chain for a shiny, new one. We replaced the seatpost with our own shorter one. I cleaned the frame with Windex until it glittered in the midday sun. I noted every detail: one scuf, one nick, two knobby tires stained red from earthy minerals. One chainstay encased delicately with tape, wrapped with the utmost precision, to protect it as it lay below the slapping drive chain. To think, a bicycle treated with the utmost and highest respect. Preserved like a new cadillac, I vowed to keep it that way and treat it like fine china. Well, fine china that goes barreling down hills.
With the adjustments done, and the frame cleaned to immaculate perfection, it was time. The Sticker. Words: “I ride for.” A name: “John.” Colors: red and navy blue. I peeled the paper back and gingerly placed it on the very top of the frame. I stepped over the sticker and stood. One of my feet was upon the pedal. The other on the course, tan driveway. I stroked the pedal down and coasted. I rode the bike down the driveway, feeling the smooth depression of the suspension as I rolled into the cul de sac. I felt the brisk wind upon my face. I felt the air within my lungs. I felt the sun upon my back. I felt my legs burn as the pedals churned faster and faster. For a moment, I, too, could fly. I felt the strong, steady, revving of the machine that was my bike and that was John and that was me. One being, three parts. A dead man, a living girl, a white bicycle. My soul was alive with a burning passion I was only beginning to understand. I had almost regretted vandalizing that perfect, pearl white paint job with a permanent sticker. Now, I didn’t. How wrong it would be to forget.
It would be wrong to forget my father’s brother. He who died under September’s afternoon sun, flying along the earth. He who felt the wind on his face. He whose lungs once burned with air. He whose pedals churned and legs burned, the road just a murmur beneath him. He who was afraid of drowning, yet participated in triathlons. He who donated time and money so athletes in his community could feel alive. He who gave me a pearl white match that lit my soul on fire, and made me feel alive. I refuse to forget. Every time I ride. Every time I’m passed by someone faster and stronger. Every time I grind the harsh, red dirt into my knees, or morning dew sparkles on race day grass, I remember. Even as the wind blows past my ears and into forests of green life, I remember. Every time I see the pearl white frame I will not forget, because I ride for him. I ride to feel the unity between a dead man, nature, a bicycle, and a passion. A passion that burns within me when I gasp for air, speed through the trees over piles of rocks, or fall because I am afraid of falling. A passion that was given to me under September’s afternoon sun.