Elements of Bike Riding 13 - A Bicycle Autobiography

By Peter Burns

It is possible to write an autobiography focused on any number of subjects. While it would not be appropriate for this blog, I could write my storytelling autobiography, my reading autobiography or my work autobiography. We all live multiple lives. Here is my bicycle autobiography. 

I grew up in Providence Rhode Island. I got my first bicycle, a red, Schwinn 26" one speed when I was eight.  It was a gift from my grandfather.   I was thrilled to get it.  My younger sister got a blue, 24" Schwinn one speed.  My grandfather, who was born in the 19th Century, was an avid bike rider.  He worked in the coal mines in Lancashire, and on the weekends took off for long bike rides through the Midlands. He knew how important a bicycle can be for a child.  I learned to ride in a parking lot across the street from my house. My father helped me get started and then I practiced on my own by going round and round in a circle.   After a while, I was able to venture out into the street.  Soon enough I was doing the tricks that other kids did - riding no hands or standing on the seat.  We did not wear helmets.  There was a hill near my house that ended in a blind curve.  We went down that hill and around the curve without slowing down or looking for traffic.  It is remarkable that none of us was killed by a car.

When I was 18, I bought a three-speed bike.  By that time my sister had a ten-speed.  We went for long bike rides together. I don't remember where we went.  I had just quit high school and was still living at home.  Those bike rides with my sister helped keep me sane.  I did not take the bike with me when I left home soon afterward.

In my early 20's I moved to Burlington.  Soon after I arrived a friend gave me a five-speed bike which I rode for a year.  Then one day I saw a guy on a mountain bike pedaling easily up the  Colchester Avenue hill from Winooski.    I knew that I wanted a mountain bike for myself.  I bought a blue Univega at Ski Rack.  It cost $300.  Glenn Eames, who later opened Old Spokes Home bike shop, sold me the bicycle. After just a couple of days, the bike was making a terrible noise and I brought it back to Ski Rack.  Glenn said, "What's the matter, just because you bought a new bike and it sounds like a washing machine you are not satisfied?" He fixed the bike. That was the first bike that I rode through the winter.  At that time, in the eighties, there were just a few of us riding year-round.  

In those days I was a performance artist.  I wrote a grant to the Vermont Arts Council that enabled me to purchase a black and pink Specialized road bike.  I used the bike to ride around Vermont searching for a force that I called The Heat of History.  I used a papier-mâché bowl to gather the history and memory in the air and transfer it to my hips, where it awoke the Heat of History in my body.  I had clip-in pedals put on the Specialized bike.   Back then clipping in and out was a challenge, and more than once I fell down before I could clip out.  With that bike, I began exploring Vermont, and that exploration continues to this day.

I had one of the greatest rides of my life on that bicycle.  I drove up to Saint Alban's and rode from the downtown area out toward Lake Champlain and along some of the roads between Saint Albans and Swanton.  It was a perfect day and the ride felt effortless. I was filled with joy.

After my second child was born, I did not have much time for long bike rides.  I sold the Specialized road bike and did not have a bicycle for a couple of years.  When my son got a little older, my time opened up and I bought a  mountain bike for commuting.  I found myself taking longer rides and soon exchanged the mountain bike for a Surly CrossCheck, which was my main bike for ten years.  I loved the CrossCheck and rode it many hundreds of miles.  

After ten years on the CrossCheck, I decided it was time for a new bike.  I wanted something with disc brakes.  I traded in my CrossCheck, which found a new home in Montreal.  I bought a Salsa Fargo.  That bike has been a real workhorse. I use it as my commuter bike and up until this year, with the addition of studded tires, it has also been my winter bike.  Over the last few years, I have acquired three more bikes.  For riding on dirt roads in the warmer months I have a Salsa Marrakesh. It is a real pleasure to ride.  I also have an Ottrott carbon/titanium road bike for longer rides.  This winter I got a fat bike with studded tires for riding in snow and ice.

About the author:

Peter Burns is a long-time bike enthusiast, and one of the original year-round bike riders in Burlington.  He writes amazing monthly blogs and teaches a variety of Everyday Biking workshops.  In addition to his work at Local Motion, he also works at a group home for people with Psychiatric disabilities, teaches classes for the Vermont Humanities Council, teaches swimming at the Burlington YMCA, and is a regular host of Storytelling VT.