Doug Lewandowski column: Life is good on a bike
Attempting to be honest with my cardiac doc, I naively shared with him my journeys up and down the hills around here.
I have been a bicycler most of my life. It’s a great way to get around, exercise and see people and places. Both the bicycles and this cyclist have changed along the way.
I never had one of those two-wheelers with training wheels. That kind of luxury growing up was out of the question. No, I had a learn-as-you-go curriculum: an anxious parent holding onto the back of the seat, wanting to release it and running behind waiting for the moment when it looked like I had the balance thing figured out.
In junior high, after saving up some cash, I was able to purchase a new bike. While most of my friends had heavier Schwinn models that were in step with the times, shiny fenders, wide seats and bling that matched the DeSotos driving by, I picked a cheaper Raleigh instead: skinny tires, hand brakes and a three-speed gear shift. To top it off, it was imported — from England!
I kept the fenders on it for a while, but found them to be annoying, always making weird noises, so I took them off to get a more stripped-down athletic look.
I never had a driver’s license in high school, so the bike was my way of getting around St. Paul, seeing friends, traveling to the library and going over to my girlfriend’s house. I mostly stayed around my neighborhood in the Midway area and ventured out to Highland Park to play tennis or hang out with my buddies.
I was able over time to figure out how to maintain the bike, mostly through trial-and-error. I could replace tires and adjust brake cables and fix the chain. The gear shifter was a challenge and I gave it up and let it stay in the highest setting, always a good workout.
I could get to the Hamline Midway Library no-handed from our house, including taking several corners along the way. I never had an accident, which just goes to show it's better to be lucky than smart.
In college I had no need for a bike. I lived on campus. When I started teaching at a high school after college, I invested in a new bike, this time a Schwinn Varsity model with drop-down handles. It was built like a tank and about as heavy — virtually indestructible.
After we moved to Bemidji, I found my early-morning rides around the lake were invaluable for the maintenance of my mental health. At the time, I was a psychologist, managing a family treatment program for sex offenders. It was not an easy job, made more challenging by a dysfunctional administrative structure. Getting on that bike early in the day gave me an opportunity to burn off a lot of angry feelings so I could approach the clinical work in a more balanced manner.
Later, I was able to get a Peugeot road bike from a friend who had ridden it all over the U.S. and Europe. I enjoyed it for a few years until I backed over it with our pickup truck and thoroughly mangled it. Replacement was out of our financial ballpark, so I bought a Trek Hybrid, which has served me well.
Along the road, (or bike path) of life, there have been a few mishaps, mostly due to inattentiveness or klutziness. I have endured bee incursions down a shirt and near-misses from whitetails, but so far, no dog bites although there have been some close calls. The worst wreck was a flip over the front handles after I grabbed the wrong brake when a dragonfly got stuck in my bike helmet. I got a sling for a separated shoulder and should have gotten one for my head, too.
The Bemidji area is relatively flat, so after moving to Duluth, I took on the challenge of climbing the hills around here. I loved the downhill trips to Skyline Drive on Haines Road, but fortunately had enough common sense not to travel further down to the lake. But, there was the trip back to our house.
I have heart disease and fortunately, modern medicine has bailed me out for the time being. One of the little chemical saviors I swallow a couple times a day slams the door on increasing heart rate, which in turn cuts off pushing farther than you should.
Attempting to be honest with my cardiac doc, I naively shared with him my journeys up and down the hills around here. He gave me an “Are you nuts?” kind of look and said: “You’re lucky you didn’t end up being hauled to the emergency room or the funeral home.”
I complied for a time and cut back on the 15-degree hill climbs, but when spring melted the snow, I thought I could go down Hutchinson Road to Skyline Drive and work my way up slowly, taking a zig-zag route. Didn’t work.
I ended up on someone’s front lawn on my back, trying to catch the breath I usually have, contemplating another example of poor judgment. One of Duluth’s finest drove by on his way home and saw me spread out on the grass. He asked, “Do you need any help?” I replied, “No, unless there’s a cure for stupid.” He smiled and said, “Well, if you do need some, I live right across the street.”
After a while, I stood up and walked the bike up the hill until I got to a more gradual grade and cautiously pedaled home.
Over the years, my spouse and I have gone on long cycling trips: one in Italy from Venice across the top of the Adriatic to Trieste, ending up in Pula, Croatia. We have also done some Rails-to-Trails rides here in the states. Since moving here, the Munger Trail is our go-to venue for biking. It’s safe, well-traveled and easily accessible.
Recently, my family has encouraged me to get an electric-assist model. My wife already has one. I resisted for a time, as befits a non-compliant geezer, but finally caved in. I hope I don’t embarrass any family members when I say as I pedal away, “Punch it, Chewy,” when I hit the electric switch. Look out!
Doug Lewandowski is a retired counselor, educator and psychologist. Write to him at email@example.com .