Once you've been with a bike you never go back. That’s what I used to think.
I spent most of my twenties and thirties living in rural places—New Hampshire, western Massachusetts, Vermont—where swearing off automobiles is no easy thing. During the Vermont years, I was utterly devoted to my black 1985 Saab Turbo: Manta.
We’d met through the classifieds. Unlike the usual clunky pickup truck or minivan, she was sleek, smart, and Swedish, and we quickly became romantically involved. Sometimes I think I gave her the best years of my life. I even once wrote her a poem: Oh Manta, you drove me and kept me from walking / and I need you today, oh Manta. (Apologies to Barry Manilow.)
But when I moved to Paris in 1999, I ditched Manta. Letting her go wrenched my heart, but I had no choice. The day I sold her, I could tell she was hurt. We promised to be in touch, but I never heard from her again.
In Paris, I flirted, bien-sûr, with a few cars, but to my own astonishment, I ended up falling for a nerdy, teal-green Dutch bicycle named Amsterdam. Together, Amy and I discovered not only an eco-friendly commute, but a new way of interacting with the city. We soaked up the smiles and nods of passersby. We chatted with strangers on bike paths. We basked in the sensory details of slower-motion travel that anchor me to the world—the feel of the wind on my face, the whir of wheels on the sidewalk, the sight of an anthill cracking the asphalt. We crisscrossed many an arrondissement together late at night. The City of Light became the City of Bike.
When I moved to Boston five years later, though, I left Amy behind—it was the right thing to do—and quickly rebounded with a black Gary Fisher named Windy. Instant bliss. Thanks to Windy, I became a car-less, committed, one-bike man for eight years running.
I thought I had forsaken my love of the internal combustion machine, but this summer, something inside me grew restless, and I longed to go faster. Was it a seven-year itch? A mid-life crisis? I’m still not sure, but desire, I’ve learned, can be as mysterious as a Shimano rear derailleur. When a friend announced she would be leaving for the summer, and asked if I wanted to borrow her Volkswagen until her return, I felt guilty, but tempted. Quickly, I rationalized that the fling would be harmless. I’d never take her seriously.
The emerald-green Jetta and I bonded immediately. Like me, she was a bit rusty: dinged up, missing some trim, the radio busted. I didn’t mind. Emerald Jetta was a blast, and I relished our weekends in the country and our spontaneous trips to the mall. I got to know EJ’s trunk and back seat intimately. We did everything together; I grew dependent upon her. I stopped walking and taking the subway. I got fat, but felt free nonetheless—even happy—and I forgot about Windy, abandoned in my basement.
Over time, though, I began to see what an expensive date EJ really was. That brazen car had constant demands: fuel, oil changes, insurance premiums. And she grew possessive and jealous, keeping me locked in her glass-and-metal world. Sure, I was comfortable, air-conditioned, and secure—but I was also terribly lonely. One day, I realized it had been months since I’d noticed the sky or really used my legs to get someplace.
I would never admit this to EJ, but I was almost relieved when my friend came back to town and reclaimed her. My summer fling was over.
There was, though, the problem of how to approach Windy. Could she ever forgive me? I dusted off her saddle. I inflated her tires. I brought her into the shop for a tune-up, a mani-pedi, and a chain massage. I apologized. “Jetta never meant anything to me,” I promised her. She took me back. She let me ride her again.
Months later, Windy and I are happily reunited. Yes, there have been some bumps and flat tires, but I’m content. My calves, once more firm and sculpted, speak to the harmony of our beautiful union. What I don’t spend on gas these days, I use to take Windy on romantic adventures: a bike–train jaunt to the beach, a wild ride in the woods, or, for nostalgia’s sake, frequent small-scale grocery runs. To spice up our bike life, we’re trying out new toys like, ahem, a double-action minipump.
But on rainy days, or when it’s snowing outside and the grocery store seems far, far away, I still sometimes pine for Emerald Jetta. I remember the scent of her fabric interior, lust after her cargo space. And when it’s really cold, I dream of Manta. In the dream, we’re flying down I-95 at 80 miles an hour, destination unknown, blissfully oblivious to the world. Yes, I still compose the occasional ode to her—but now I know better than to write them down.
Story by Ethan Gilsdorf. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2007.