Riding Miss Betsy

Her steel body squeaked unnervingly as we bounced along the uneven pavement. My hands, gripping the short, ribbed handlebars, struggled unsuccessfully to keep the oversized front wheel from wobbling. The man who lives at the top of the block looked up from his weeding, amused. I had regularly watched him breeze up the hill during his two-wheeled commute and as far as I could tell he had never broken a sweat. Clearly he was one of the many experienced members of the Victoria cycling community. Clearly I was not. Someone in a more sensible state of mind might have questioned the decision to start a relationship with an old bike. Perspiration enveloped me and started to absorb into my clothing. My legs ached as I extended muscles that were long out of use. I was unsteady. Even still, I just wanted to ride.

Quarantine has made some of us do crazy things that we would never have considered in the “before times”, like cutting our own hair or making a yeast starter. For me, I was suddenly drawn to the romanticism of a vintage bicycle. In my imagination I pictured the 1920s colour advertisements showing beautiful couples on an outing and smiling side by side. The scenes were literally works of art. And since the implementation of closures and restrictions a few weeks ago, more and more families had been passing by my front window, happily taking over streets relieved of traffic. Not once before had I considered this mode of transportation; it had simply never crossed my mind. Going to work meant getting into my car or walking. But unexpectedly, pleasantly, the idea of biking became as comfortable as the Brooks saddle seat that I would soon be sliding onto.

The wheels began to turn. I started to search used sites for my dream bicycle: a mint-condition vintage cruiser popping in turquoise or red, complete with rattan basket and chrome bell. I quickly learned, however, that I was not the only one who was suddenly browsing the “cycling” category online. The best deals were snapped up right away. I was left to choose from rather expensive, fancy models, or rusted out castaways that might only be useful for parts. Determined to find something that would fit both my grand vision and my small budget, I combed through the listings every day, sending those that caught my eye to the only expert that I had direct access to: my teenager. He was a serious cyclist who for years had urged me to get my feet on the pedals. During the first two-weeks of lock-down, he had even taught his younger sister to ride without training wheels. Now it was time for him to help me. I sent him photo after photo, and, being the impatient person that I am, began to lose hope. That is, until I found her.

She was a 1972 green Raleigh cruiser with a bum back tire, and she hadn’t been ridden in probably 30 years. I was nervous. This seemed like more than I could take on given my limited, no, non-existent knowledge of the subject. Other than being vintage and a cruiser, she wasn’t quite what I had pictured. But she was pretty — she had personality, I could just tell — and the price was right. Convinced by my son to reply to the seller, I set up a viewing. The next day we made our way through the narrow back streets of Fernwood, work gloves at the ready, to get a good look. Half an hour later we hauled her away, back wheel locked by loose rubber; we had to move fast before I could change my mind. The diminutive green lady was flawed and a little worn, just wanting to be free in the world again. I could relate. I told myself that we would get along fabulously.

But first, she needed a name. I polled my friends for suggestions. Initially the theme was green, to match her colour. Olive? Too boring. Oscar? Too grouchy. Green Giant? Too big. Green Bean? Just no. Nothing fit. From there I ditched the paint cue in order to open up the possibilities, but still they seemed unsatisfactory. I wanted to get this right, but I didn’t know her well enough yet to make a decision so the best option was to wait. Much to my disappointment, she remained temporarily nameless. Besides, I was becoming antsy. All at once I was eight years old again, anxious to get over my fears and find my balance. I hadn’t ridden since I was a kid so it was like starting from scratch. So the focus shifted to getting the bicycle up and running. It was time to take her out on the road, even if I didn’t know what to call her.

The journey was not at all smooth. The old girl was grumpy — I guess we had that in common, too — so I tried sending her out for a little pampering. A new tube and some chain lubricant put her in a much better mood. Other fixes weren’t so easy; I’m fairly certain that some may never be resolved. I am still stuck riding in a middle gear because a) the vintage gear-shifting lever requires more coordination than I have at present, and b) I’m convinced she doesn’t want to make it too easy for me to get up all of the hills in our neighbourhood. And the squeaking? In the short time that we’ve had together, she has made it clear that her constant metallic music is staying on the travel playlist. But in exchange, she endures my beginner signalling and awkward manoeuvring and safely gets me to and from my destination. We’re learning to accept each other, defects and all.

And that afternoon as we flew back home, wind whipping through spokes and hair, we both travelled back in time 30 years. We didn’t notice any stares from strangers. We didn’t feel any soreness in our bodies. We moved in tandem with the rhythmic movements of the ride and for the rest of the descent forgot everything else. That was the moment that I finally knew who she was. That was when I truly met Betsy.

Published by Sonia Nicholson

Sonia Nicholson is an archivist, executive assistant, and writer. She was born and raised in Osoyoos, British Columbia, Canada and studied French and Spanish at the University of Victoria. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia with her husband, two children, and two rescue dogs. Follow her on Twitter @nicholsonsonia_

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