K-bikes

“HEY, MOM! LOOK AT THOSE BIKES.” Emily pointed to a red SUV rolling out of the parking lot of Chisholm Middle School. On the roof were a pair of Colnago road racers. “Must be six thousand dollars on that car.”

“Those are the smallest frames I’ve ever seen.” Katherine shielded her eyes with her hand as they watched the SUV turn into the afternoon sun and drive away. “Do you think someone here rides them?”

“I don’t know, but most of the other kids are bigger than I am.”

“True. I guess an eighth-grade boy could ride those.”

They clipped in and started their afternoon commute back to the house. Fifteen minutes later, they parked their bikes in the garage and shed their heavy winter clothing.

“I wonder if there’s a racing team around here,” said Emily as she pulled a pair of protein shakes from the refrigerator. She put one on the counter for her mother. “I’d like to try it.”

“I never thought of that, but it would be fun, I’m sure.” Katherine took a swig and looked out the window for a while. “I’ve got a clicking in my derailleur and my chain skips sometimes. Let me find a bike shop and we can start asking around.”

“Already googled it.” Emily grinned as Katherine rolled her eyes. “K-Bikes downtown seems to be the only serious bike shop in town. They might have the kind of wrench you need.” A wrench is a bicycle mechanic. “Want to ride there now?”

“Can we do it Saturday? I have papers to grade tonight.”

“Okay.”

Saturday morning, Emily and Katherine dismounted in front of the K-bikes store. A modern bike rack on the sidewalk, capable of taking a U-lock, was an encouraging sign.

Inside, the range of machines hanging on the walls and propped around the floor amazed them. A trim man with salt-and-pepper hair and crow’s feet from smiling greeted them from the counter.

“Hello,” said Katherine. “We’re new in town, and I think I need my rear derailleur adjusted.”

“We can handle that. Jake!”

A teenage boy came out from the back. Maybe eighteen years old, skinny, with dark hair and a pair of natural cowlicks. They stood and bent towards each other like the jaws of a wrench.

“Yes?” He reached up and twisted one cowlick with a greasy hand. Emily understood why they stuck out so well. She wondered if Jake were aware of his habit.

Katherine explained the problem. Jake hoisted the bicycle to his shoulder and walked to a bike rack in the repair shop. He spun the chain, looked at the derailleur as he shifted gears, and checked the chain with a stretch gauge.

“You obviously take good care of your bike. I’ve never seen a chain this worn so well oiled. How long have you been riding with it?”

Katherine thought. “About five thousand kilometers, I think. I wasn’t sure about getting an overhaul before we moved here in September.”

Jake twisted the other stiff horn. “You need a new chain. This one will start putting shark’s teeth on your chainrings and cogs. Were the brake cables new when you replaced the chain?”

“No. They might have eight thousand on them.”

“Want to let me check some things while you shop around?”

“Sure. Thanks.”

Emily smiled at Jake, who blushed. That surprised her. She had never had a boy blush at her before.

Out front, Emily joined her mother. The owner introduced himself as Matt Owens.

“Is there a racing team around here? I’d like to try road racing, but I don’t know where to start.”

“What grade are you?”

“Seventh.”

“NICA has a middle school division, but there aren’t any NICA teams around here.” National Interscholastic Cycling Association.

“That’s mountain biking anyway. I want to road race.” Katherine raised her eyebrow. She had grown up competing on MTB’s in Marin County. “I know, Mom. Where are the mountains around here?”

“We sponsor a USA Cycling team, but USAC starts in high school.”

“Can I ride with you? I’m fast, but I’d like to learn how to ride with other racers.”

“How fast?”

Emily looked at her mother. “Tell him, dear.”

“I’m almost as fast as my mother,” Emily said. “I guess we average thirty to forty kilometers per hour. It would be faster without traffic, of course.”

“You’re kidding!”

“That’s what the bike computer shows. I don’t know if it’s real or not. That’s partly why I want to ride with a team.”

“What kind of bike to you have?”

Emily slapped her saddle. “This is it.”

“A Bianchi Volpe?”

“It’s my only bike, so it has to do everything. In Virginia, I had a cassette with smaller cogs put on it. Around here, I would be spinning like crazy otherwise.”

Matt looked at Emily’s drive train. “That’s a racing setup.”

“I don’t know about that, but it’s more comfortable than what came on the bike.”

Matt asked Katherine, “Did you know about this?”

“Just watched her grow. And one bike each is all we can afford, so she’s right about having to make the Bianchi work.”

Matt considered the two of them. They had the same auburn hair and hazel eyes. Full lips. Long lashes. The hard skinniness of seasoned bicyclists. No makeup. If Emily were any taller, they would look like sisters.

“And you’ve been riding that fast too?” He asked Katherine. ‘

“Well, yes. I only stopped holding back this year. She’s starting to grow and get faster.”

Matt shook his head. He tapped a pencil on a pad by the cash register while he stared from one to the other.

“Why haven’t I heard of you, Mrs. Hampstead?”

“Katherine, please. I dropped out of the pros when Emily came along. I wasn’t USAC. I raced triathlons. And mountain bikes before NICA was a thing.”

Jake came out, rolling Katherine’s Pinarello. “Nice bike. I’ve never seen this model before.”

“Thanks. It’s been with me longer than Emily here.”

“I put on a new chain. The derailleur is fine. I would get a tune-up and change out the cables soon. They look good, but with those miles on them, they could break at any time.”

“How long do you need?”

“Two days, maybe.”

“I’ll come back with the car soon.”

Matt thought silently while Jake took Katherine’s credit card and rang up the sale for the chain.

Emily walked to the wall and admired a 46-cm Bianchi Volpe in the original celeste color. “This one is your size, Mom.”

She glanced over before signing the credit card slip. “Probably your next bike, if you keep growing this year.”

Matt snapped out of his thoughts.

“Emily,” he said, “I should tell you to wait two years and come back, but, frankly, I have a hunch, and I’m excited that you want to learn with a real team. We train on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons starting at the High School parking lot. Do you know where it is?”

“Yes. We live near there.”

“Normally we also race on Saturdays. The snow hasn’t finished melting, or we’d be out there today. Can you do that?”

“I think so. It’s okay if I can’t race with the team yet.”

“Good. I’ll need you to sign some release forms and have your parents countersign.”

“Can we sign now?”

Matt smiled at Katherine. “Is she always this confident?”

“Ask the eighth-grader who pinched her butt.”

“Omigod. Is that her?” The media had not released names of Emily or her assailant, but the incident on the school bus was still the talk of the coffee shops in town. [See “Bus Bullies“]

Katherine nodded. “And she only has the one parent, so we can do it here.”

Fifteen minutes later, they paused at a red light on Main Street.

“Mom, this is going to be so much fun.”

“Should I follow the team?” Emily scowled. Katherine laughed. “I’m not worried, but remember, it’s different riding fast in a crowd. Do what Matt tells you.”

Emily sighed. “Yes, Mom. Of course.” Then she grinned. “Now that you have a new chain, let’s ride out Hesston Road again.” She blew through the green light as her mother stood on the pedals to catch up…

***

Tuesday afternoon, Emily rode to Newton High School from home. She recognized Matt lowering racing bikes from a K-Bikes van and handing them to a half-dozen teenagers. Some older riders were taking their bikes off their cars.

Seeing the twelve-year-old girl arrive on a city bike with racks, lights and fenders, the racers stopped to stare. Matt waved them together.

“This is Emily Hampstead.” Matt pointed out the others, a fog of names that Emily would have to catch later. The stares had turned to curious looks. “She wants to learn how to race. Does anyone mind her tagging along today?”

“Coach, we were supposed to do sprints today.” Tall, early twenties, black hair and beard, but shaved legs. “Do we have to do this?” The expressions on the others signaled their agreement that holding back for a little girl would not be fun.

“Who’s taking her home?” asked a teenage girl with a shiny Colnago.

Matt tilted his head to Emily.

“No one,” said Emily. “I’ll go back the way I came.” She slapped the saddle of her bike.

“Are you going to ride that?”

“Yes. Your bikes are all too big for me.”

The girl shook her head.

“Okay? I told her that we won’t hold back for her, and her mother agreed that she could ride home alone if she fell off the back.”

“Same route as last week, coach?”

“No. Go out Twelfth Street to Burmac Road, then Grant to Hesston and back here on Meridian. Emily, can you remember that?”

“Sure. I’ve ridden that before. It’s about sixty-five kilometers.” That raised a few eyebrows.

“Right. And, like we agreed, just follow and watch. I’ll answer questions after we get back.”

“Thanks, coach.”

“Everybody ready? Good. Pete, you take point until you cross Ridge Road. Trade up every five kilometers, first Myra, then Jack then whoever is next at that point. Everyone takes a turn – except Emily here, of course. After each change, sprint for five hundred meters. Got it? I want to see some smooth shifting in the pack. Let’s go.” He walked back to the van, while the others rolled out in a line behind Pete.

Emily fell in behind the last rider, a boy who smiled weakly at Emily as he started out. She kept about ten meters behind him. This distance should not worry anyone. She was not sure what to make of the cool reception, but then, her mother had warned her that these would be jocks, not inclined to welcome what they would see as a little girl with silly dreams. She didn’t care; she was here to watch.

The sun was weak in the winter sky, but it felt good on Emily’s face as they rode towards it. Emily watched with interest as the riders adjusted position every five kilometers. The lead rider would pull to the left and coast, allowing the peloton to pull up before falling in at the end. She had read about drafting, which involved riding in the slipstream of another rider. It cut wind resistance for the following rider, without causing any increase in effort for the leader. Taking turns riding in front, a peloton could ride at high speed all day.

Emily had tried it with her mother, but Katherine was nervous about it. Drafting was not a skill she had developed on mountain bikes or in triathlons. Emily found it fascinating, and she hoped this team would let her stay, so she could master it.

Drafting may help the peloton increase its speed, but the ride was not particularly challenging for Emily. During the five-hundred-meter sprints, she got up to a comfortable pace, but then the whole line slowed down for the next four and a half kilometers.

The sun was setting as they pulled into the parking lot at Newton High School.

Pete, who was the one who had questioned the coach and led the ride out, came back to meet her.

“Emily, that’s impressive. I can’t believe you kept up with us.”

Emily shrugged. “I ride a lot. I just have never done it with others, except my mom.”

“Ready to take point?”

“Huh?”

“Take the lead.”

“Oh, no. That trading off was fascinating. I’ve never seen drafting in person. But I want to watch some more first, please. This was fun.”

Pete laughed. “Of course. We’ll let the coach make that call.”

Matt appeared. “Good idea. Want a lift home, Emily?”

“No, thanks. I live just over there.” She pointed to the neighborhood beyond the fence.

“Okay. See you Thursday?”

“Sure!” She reached down and switched on her blinking lights. “Bye.”

Half the other riders smiled and waved as she moved smoothly across 12th Street and turned left.

***

It was clear after four rides that they were not going to leave Emily behind. They were getting back to the parking lot at least an hour before sunset, as the days lengthened, and everyone’s fitness grew out of the winter doldrums. Just before the first day of spring, Matt waved the team into a circle.

“I didn’t expect Emily to keep up like this. Are we ready to let her join the peloton?”

“Isn’t that your call, coach?” asked Myra.

“Not really. It’s tight in there. You all have to work together. If anyone is concerned about Emily being in the pack, let’s not do it.”

The cyclists looked at each other.

“Could I just draft off the back at first?” asked Emily. “I would drop back on each change then draft the new tail rider.”

“I like it,” said Pete. “She wouldn’t be in the middle of a mishap, but she could start learning to draft before joining the peloton.”

“Okay,” said Matt. “Let’s try it. Saturday is a training ride. No race. Will everybody be here?”

***

“Mom, drafting is just so cool! It was like taking a break for two hours. I didn’t even break a sweat until the last mile.”

Katherine smiled. She was straddling her Pinarello, having ridden up to meet the team coming back to the parking lot.

“I knew that you were very steady on your bike. Was anyone worried that you would bump them?”

“If they were, they didn’t say anything. And I was careful not to overlap anyone’s wheel.”

“Good.” She waved at Matt. “Enough for today, or would you like to let out the stops?”

“I’ll show you our route today. It’s new. Let’s go!” Emily waved at the team and swung onto her bike. As Katherine stood on her pedals to catch up, most of the team stopped to stare at the girl flying out 12th Street into the distance…

Riding together after the Saturday ride became a routine for Katherine. Emily could not participate in the races, so on away race days, they would ride to destinations around Newton: Hutchinson, Cottonwood Falls, and the tourist attractions in Wichita. After realizing how far they were riding, Katherine started commuting to Wichita State University whenever she had no morning classes, which was twice a week this semester.

In April, Mark joined them on their Saturday rides. He had also started using his bike to go to work a few times each week, which allowed him to gain the kind of fitness he needed to ride with Katherine and her daughter.

“I know you two are holding back for me,” he said on the third Saturday. “I don’t want to ruin your training.”

“It’s for fun, Mark,” said Emily. “I don’t mind taking it easy, especially now that the team has integrated me into the peloton.”

“Let me guess, you’re pulling them,” said Katherine.

“When it’s my turn to lead, but I’m not sure anyone notices, because they’re drafting. Of course, on the sprints, it’s another story, but they’re getting used to that.”

“I’ll bet Matt wishes he could lie about your age,” said Mark.

“Maybe, but I’m enjoying this as it is.”

***

Emily closed the door on the dishwasher and turned it on. Katherine dried out the pasta pot and put it in the cabinet.

“Has Mark popped the question yet?”

“What question?”

“Doh! ‘Do you want to come up and see my etchings?'” She wiggled her eyebrows.

“Emily Marian Hampstead, shame on you!” She snapped the dishtowel at her daughter.

Emily jumped back and laughed. “I mean, if you look at the time he spends with us, the guy can’t have any social life. He’s been in love with you since before I met him.”

“Maybe he’s too much of a gentleman.”

“That and maybe you intimidate him. The troop is camping out next weekend. Maybe you should bring him home.”

“Emily!”

Emily laughed again. She picked up her French textbook and turned to go to her room. “Well, if he wants to propose, don’t tell him you have to check with me. I’m fine with it.” She left her mother sitting at the kitchen table thinking deeply about the wisdom of children and how they see some things more clearly than grownups.

© 2022, JT Hine

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