[Our weekly urban cycling column appears on Tuesdays]
I’m often guilty of nostalgia for things I never experienced: the California Gold Rush, Los Angeles in the 1940s, other people’s childhoods. This summer I had it bad. Summers are for nostalgia, after all, especially summers on bikes.
When I was a kid, we rarely went to the ocean. I still can’t go underwater without plugging my nose. But I could ride a 40-mile day by age 13. Our family vacations were bike tours; my parents spent the weeks before a trip planning our routes in painstaking detail. My nostalgia for childhood biking involves endurance, military precision, building our family bikes in the baggage claim sections of airports. A kickstand was forbidden for the extra weight.
Now that I’m an elementary school teacher, I spend my summers visiting family or working at camp. This year, though, I got a babysitting gig unlike any I’d had: taking care of two pre-teen girls on Fire Island. It would just the three of us from Monday to Friday. I’d never been to Fire Island, and I’d never spent so many days in a row at a beach.
I knew that there were no cars on the island, so I asked if I should bring my bike. The younger sister Amelia assured me they had a bike I could borrow. I was skeptical. My road bike is fitted to me, and its geometry is as familiar as the length of my own legs. How would a loaner fit?
Mark Ronson, The Bicycle Song (Feat. Kyle Falconer & Spank Rock)
The beach cruiser that waited for me on the dock was disgracefully heavy, rusted out, with a turquoise paint job apparently from the 60s. The seat was too low, the handlebars extended too far. I went to change the gears, once, before realizing that there were none. There was no need for them, because as we headed to the house, 100 yards away along a wooden path, a sign told us: “SPEED LIMIT 8.”
On Fire Island, which is paved with sandy wooden slats, beach cruisers are the transportation of choice. Fire Island is insulated– by three trains, one bus and one ferry– from the traffic adrenaline we face daily cycling the city. My own zippy bike would have been as awkward on the island as a top hat at fight night.
But here’s the thing: I loved riding that cruiser. We lived in our bathing suits, hopping on and off our bikes to go to the next town or to get more milk. The nearby towns we biked to were Dunewood, Kismet, Lonelyville—names you couldn’t make up. My clearest image of the summer is 12-year-old Isobel in her bathing suit, riding ahead of me, tanned and upright on her bike seat, bumping slowly over the road to Lonelyville.
The girls refused sunscreen with the carelessness that comes with olive skin and a summer of base tan. They ran in and out of the Atlantic, flopping on sand and reading books between races to the waves. (They taught me to put my face in the water.) Our days had no rigorous routines like my family bike trips, but more of a vague sunny shape based on a single activity—let’s look for sunglasses today! Let’s jump in the bay! My tan lines deepened. Over the course of a week, I learned to let go of logistics, to let the days sift from my hands like sand.
Fire Island feels like it couldn’t possibly exist in the present day. It’s too analog, too smoothed out and sunlit. It inspires nostalgia before you’ve even left: the longing for things past. The sandy kitchen floor, the kickstanded cruisers, no grownups in sight—maybe I was living some weird alternate childhood memory of my own.
Previously, I’d known only one way to remember bicycles and summers. But now back in Brooklyn, with my road bike, rack and clipless pedals, I pretend to remember tanned, lazy summers of my own. I pretend that I was once fearless in the Atlantic, and that I never minded the sand in my sheets. And now I judge beach cruisers, and their weight, more gently.
Micaela Blei is a teacher and writer who lives in Brooklyn. She has written an article for Frontier Cyclist about Bike Anthropology and a poem about bike commuting in New York. She rides a KHS Flite 220 Flatbar.