The Discover Hartford Bicycle Tour is a yearly event that introduces one to sections of the capital city that many suburbanites have labeled as urban danger zones. It’s a tragedy that gorgeous areas such as Keney Park are riddled with reputations that keep out-of-towners outside its vast 693-acre expanse. This I proclaim while pedaling on the heels of two Hartford bike cops. It’s a confusing notion though — to feel unsafe without knowing why — and to wonder if the anticipated danger is warranted. Is any section of this park more dangerous than any single section of the miles of wooded bike trails or crowded streets that I ride? It’s a question that I’m not qualified to answer but very intrigued with.
Last Saturday morning The Boy (for those of you new to this column, he is my 13-year-old son) and I participated in the event’s 40-mile bike ride. He is the last of our five children and the only one to share my passion for bicycling. As a parent we really shouldn’t have secret rankings for our kids based on whether or not they enjoy participating with us in our favorite activities. I love all of my offspring equally. I'd never incorporate a silly system where The Boy would gain the maximum of 10 points for sharing my passion. Just as I would not penalize a daughter 10 points for switching sports teams because of her spouse — it' absurd!
On the morning of the big ride, you would have thought The Boy was on his way to Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park for the first time. The preparation and anticipation was almost as fun as the event itself. It was still half dark when we walked out the back door to the Bike Shed. We’ve declared it the Bike Shed because it’s where we keep our bikes and everything bike related. It also has electricity for light and a stereo because I was resourceful enough to drill one hole in the bottom of the porch and one beneath the shed and run an outdoor extension cord between them. Don’t laugh — it’s been working for ten years. The Bike Shed is full of cycling memorabilia and it's where men go to prepare for a big ride or hide when they don't want to be discovered.
We filled water bottles, pumped tires, and gathered glasses, helmets, shoes and gloves. The air was chilly and smelled of crunchy leaves and chimney ash. The Boy's declaration that this was the first of many organized rides for us earned him another 10 points. We rolled our human-powered machines to the car and secured them to the roof rack. The bikes upgraded the look of my faded '96 Camry much as a baseball cap does a mop of morning hair.
The gold dome of the State Capital building was our target and we parked just behind it. Soon Bushnell Park was covered with riders of every age, race, size, and ability imaginable. There were racing bikes, old people bikes, rich and poor people bikes, kid's bikes, and bikes that could pull entire families. There were tents with friendly people handing out free samples of things that cyclists like to collect. A bike shop mechanic gave my rig a free check-up.
If you've participated in a large group ride, you know that the start can be quite a harrowing experience. The riders are packed tightly together and only a thin wall of air keeps you from swapping cold sweat with other riders. Adrenalin and body control allowed The Boy to make it through safely to open space.
The Boy, on my '97 Cannondale R-500, was dressed for the part. He was the rookie in the big boy pack of riders and chased down those that threatened to ruin the Tour de France of his mind. It was fun to watch him play master tactician whenever a Roadie decided to stretch his legs and attack a hill. The Boy always had an answer if only to grab a back wheel for a turn or two.
I was pedaling my wife's Trek hybrid. My trusty 20-something Cannondale road warrior had to be ditched the night before due to bad rubber. If I'd had known that the Trek came with a piercing squeal on every turn of the pedal, I'd have ridden my bike on just its rims. Nobody would ride near me. Even the bike police reached for the cuffs if I got too close. When I arrived at Elizabeth Park, the huge Biker’s Edge repair shop on wheels was parked and owner Bob immediately put a wrench to the crank. It was way beyond a roadside repair. I had twenty miles left of the loud and annoying squelching sound. I did something next that I forbid any of the darling little children out there to do. I pressed my ear buds into place and let the music from my iPhone block out the annoying rhythm below me.
We rode through Pope Park. It’s named for Col. Albert Pope. In the early 1880's he established the Columbia bicycle plant and made Hartford the bicycling capital of the world. Mark Twain purchased his first bike from Pope. By 1895 more than half of all motorized vehicles in America were being made in Hartford at Pope’s plant. The city is rich in bicycling and automotive tradition yet the man responsible is virtually unknown to most of us. Your homework assignment this week is to Google this fascinating man and report back to me with one important fact that you have learned.
Meanwhile I was learning that I was better off hearing what was being yelled at me on Albany Avenue and decided to ditch the music. A few miles later The Boy was asked by a couple of his new big boy Roadie friends if he could ride up front with them for a while — so much for the father/son bonding experience. But I knew his beefy legs where screaming to be unleashed so off he rode. Several miles later we reunited at the last rest stop and rode along lovely Riverside Park and finished together.
Yes, I love all of my children equally. And for almost 30 years of my life, I’ve enjoyed the uniqueness of each and the memories of our special moments together. Hopefully this last child of mine will continue to share my love for the bicycle. Maybe the others will come along for the ride too.