A teen's request for a trendy bike raises questions about what we have wrought.
My son and I are engaged in a clash-of-the-generations conversation.
For months, he has been focused on getting a fixed-gear bike, called a "Fixie," for his 16th birthday. I've seen these sleek bikes with multicolored tires zip by me in hip havens like the University and Uptown. The cyclists appear to have just drunk a double espresso and to be late for work. They've made me vaguely uneasy as they ride through red lights. Now that a Fixie may be entering my garage, I asked my son to explain the appeal.
"Mom, it is a bike with fixed gears."
"You mean a one-speed?" I asked.
"No! A Fixie," he corrected me.
"But it only has one speed, right?"
"Yes! But it is a fixed gear."
"So -- an old-fashioned one-speed?"
At this point I sought out professional advice at our new neighborhood bike store. Just writing the words "new neighborhood bike store" gives me pleasure. Although I've never been a gearhead, I've had a lifelong love affair with bicycling. I led youth bike trips in Europe, taught at a 4H bike safety camp and was an inaugural member of Nice Ride.
At the bike shop, I asked, "Can you explain a fixed-gear bike to me?"
The clerk cast an indulgent eye roll toward my son, who was pretending not to know me.
"The components are fixed so the wheels only move when you pedal."
"You mean, the bike can't coast?" I gasped in horror.
"Yah, that's right. It only moves when you pedal."
"I don't understand. You have to pump the pedals going downhill?"
I left the bike store bewildered -- a bike that does not coast? The body language emanating from my son and the clerk suggested that I had become clueless. And it is true. I just don't get it. A bike that does not coast would be like eliminating the fourth quarter of senior year, the first day of summer vacation, Saturday mornings, Thanksgiving dinner leftovers, "best of" anthologies, and cut-and-paste. How could those Fixie riders face a life of all give and no take with just up and no down?
Life without coasting would mean constantly monitoring professional e-mail, having no pension plan and wearily working over the weekend. What have we done to our younger generation that they feel the new normal is constant exertion? I love feeling a sweaty accomplishment as I bike up the mountain, but when I reach the summit I need to know I can catch my breath -- and admire the view as I roll down the other side.
Jocelyn Hale is executive director of the Loft Literary Center.