The City Magazine Since 1975

Bicycle Diaries

Bicycle Diaries
October 2008
The love and loss of two-wheeling in Charleston

The first time I biked to the Harris Teeter on East Bay, I was in ecstasy. Sure, I had to weave through a bit of traffic, but it paled to the exhaust-choking crun­ch of Midtown Atlanta from whence I’d fled. As soon as I landed in Charleston, there I was, tooling down skinny little Anson Street, cheered on by ­onlooking crepe myrtles, a grocery-ready pack strapped to my back, and feeling like I had my own operatic soundtrack trailing in my draft. As someone who grew up in the car-bound Carolina suburbs, that simple ride was an overdose of urban charm, and it seemed utterly village-like to live in a place where I could fetch food via pedaling. 

That was a few years ago, and I’m still in love with biking this town. My inaugural bike, a vicious-looking black-and-red Trek, was pilfered for parts (tires, seat, pump) and expensively restored until the ol’ gal was entirely liberated from my backyard a few months ago. Alas, she’d done me well, and I was a road warrior atop her. Given the loose rein local laws seem to have over bikes, I took advantage of the freewheeling and zipped everywhere in her saddle—jumping curbs, attacking sidewalks, scooting up King Street against traffic. She was a fiend, and a sturdy one. 

Once, we were flying up Broad Street in lunchtime traffic and I got distracted, partly by a carpenter on a piazza and mostly by a hottie in a red pickup, who was—shock of shocks—checking me out. As I cast a return stare, blam! I sideswiped a parked Taurus and ripped off the side mirror in one fell crunch. Ouch to me, ouch to my ego, ouch to the sedan. I don’t know if Mr. Red Pickup caught the whole thing (he’d moved on with the flow of cars), but my bike? Nary a scratch. (By the way, I left a note on the violated Taurus and paid for its repairs.)

Post-Trek theft, I talked to a friend who said I needed to get what’s called in Charleston, a “disposable bike.” In other words, one that I wouldn’t pay much for or mourn too deeply if it, too, were “borrowed” permanently. To ensure my future new wheels blended into my neighborhood, and thus were less of a draw, I studied my neighbors’ charges. From my second-story office window—a primo research perch—I peered down Coming Street as day in and day out folks pedaled on past.

Here’s what I noticed: First, there are the industrious fellows on ancient creaky things, some dragging lawnmowers behind them, and others carrying weed whackers slung over their shoulders. Their close cousins toted roadside booty: a barstool, a screen door, or even those 15-gallon plastic buckets, heavy and sloshing with who knows what (I’m guessing paint?). Then there were the kids, stacked three- and even four-deep on sparkling new numbers, laughing as they wobbled along like well-balanced circus performers: one on the handlebars, another on the cross bar, one hovering above the seat pedaling, and the last propped on the back tire pegs. Finally, there were those who rode to work in the dark morning hours on stalwart oldies but goodies, crumpled lunch bags gripped against handlebars or nesting in wired-on milk crate baskets. 

In my quest for new wheels, I be­came a bike anthropologist, and Charleston’s streets my field study. I spotted a father-son duo over by Colonial Lake with Papa driving and Little Man pulled along behind on his skateboard, the two linked with a rope—on Rutledge during rush hour, no less. Crossing over the Ravenel Bridge one day (in my car), I raced alongside a sporty cyclist who barreled down the path sloping toward Mount P., no-handed, weaving across the stripe that separates walkers from wheelers, all the while singing with his iPod. 

When I’d done enough “research,” I was finally ready to find a replacement. I hit the local pawnshops and thrift stores and followed a tip that took me to the Sea Island Habitat for Humanity store on John’s Island. Nothing. I pled my case to one employee who told me to wait as he disappeared out back. After a few moments, he wheeled out a rusty old Caloi beach cruiser with tacked-on handgrips and a fat, comfy lounger of a seat. She couldn’t be more different from my old Trek, but she was perfect. When I tried to haggle the price down from $20, the man chastened me for trying to steal from the poor, so I forked over the full amount. When I got home with the newly christened Wide Berth, I found a spray-paint can in the utility closet and coated her, rust and all, in a cheery bright blue. A friend asked me from whence I had stolen her.

Life since Wide Berth arrived has been pretty divine. I’d never commanded a beach bike before, and it’s an entirely different experience than a mountain bike. Apples to oranges. Atlanta to Charleston. The Trek had me hunkered down over the handlebars, aggressively on the attack with a shallow field of vision. The Caloi’s amply spread handlebars arch up and have me sitting somewhat ladylike (my mom’s observation), open to the world around me. The Trek was all about up and downshifting gears and hand brakes. The Caloi is an old-school single-gear and foot brakes gal. The Trek was about hunting out any ramp-like surface and hopping off it. The Caloi’s chain pops off if I even glance at a pothole.

So these days I’m moving slower, but no less blissfully. Like most bikers in my neighborhood, I cruise and can take in more and more of the city, a gift in itself. And this morning, as I crossed Highway 17 heading home along Coming Street, I passed a lovely gentleman, a kindred spirit, I think. He was on a three-speed, willow basket in front of him, and wore pressed pants, an oxford, and a neat cap over his gray hair. As he headed into oncoming traffic, he nodded pertly to me and shouted across the cars, “You be careful now, young lady!” I smiled back, didn’t wreck, and goober-grinned over cycling through this village of ours.

Footnote: Alas, a well-locked Wide Berth was stolen off my porch soon after turning in the first draft of this story. And since then I’ve lost one more bike before learning to bring my wheels inside at night. As for my current charge? She’s a freebie found discarded on a trash heap. One new tire later, and I’ve been good to go. But happy endings aside, in all honesty I still grin knowing that thanks to a faulty chain I never repaired, whoever stole Wide Berth likely sacrificed a front tooth during his quick getaway—she never was one for speed.