Today's guest post is brought to you by Linh's husband, George, who shares memories of his very first bike. It's a short story, but longer than what we usually post, so make yourself a cuppa and enjoy your read. This story is set in George's hometown of Killybegs, Ireland. You can read more of his writing here.
The Onion-Infused Red Raleigh Chopper
A Short Story by George Vial
I’ve a bike in the garage that cost about two thousand dollars, weighs twenty-four pounds of the finest hand-welded aluminum, with ultra light wheels and top-of-the-line components. Twenty-four gears that can get me effortlessly up any small hill or mountain road. It’s more like a rocket ship on wheels than a bicycle.
When I think back to my first bike, I often think about the racer Derek bought me begrudgingly with his bingo winnings, but that memory is false. There was another, my first real bike, and it came from Granny and Granda’s coal shed.
The coal shed in the back garden was a dirty little building. It’s where, true to its name, they kept their coal and slack. But it was also a home for dogs and their pups and lots of old junk they no longer used but didn’t have the heart, or gumption, to throw away. There were old spades, saws and even a petrified string of onions on the wall. But among all the clutter, the biggest thing stuck to the wall was my aunt Magella’s old bicycle.
It was a red Raleigh Chopper. The kind with the little front wheel and the oversized back wheel, the long saddle with the high back and the gear shift in the middle of the low, slanted crossbar, oh and I shouldn’t forget the big droopy Harley-Davidson style, low rider handlebars, from which it earned the chopper distinction. Jesus, she was a sight. When we were really little, before we could ride a bike, we always wanted to have it down off the wall to play with, but always the answer was “No!”
Then Derek had his first Holy Communion and ended up with enough money to have Granda take him out to Mervin Morrow’s in Fintragh, just up past the wee bridge, to get a new bike. At the time Mervin’s was the only place you could buy a bike in Killybegs and technically, since he was on the other side of the wee bridge, he was in the parish of Kilcar. Donal Burn’s in Ardara was the next closest place and he had BMXs and Raleigh Burners in stock. But Mervin’s it was and Derek’s choice: a nice, bright blue Super-Delux with back-pedal brakes. He got the one with the small, regular looking saddle, not the long variety like Eddy Burn’s, a better decision all round.
Of course, the advent of Derek’s new Super-Delux made me extremely jealous. As I remember, I threw one of those fits where all I could do was cry and bubble for several hours. And since there was no way in hell I was getting a new bike, there was no known method of shutting me up, bar a good slap across the head, which I admit I probably deserved, but am equally glad I didn’t receive. The most ignorant part of all was the fact that I couldn’t ride a bike yet, but that was of no consequence to my self-centered, six-year-old mind at the time.
The next day when we were down at Granny’s, Granda brought me out to the coal shed and took the Chopper off the wall and gave it to me. My reaction was one of pure repulsion! Derek gets a Super-Delux and I get the onion-infused, rusted red Raleigh Chopper off the coal shed wall! Where was the justice?
Derek taught me to ride the beast and after a few falls out the back of Granny’s, beside the clubhouse of the St. Catherine’s Football team, I was ready to take her on the road. We rode our bikes back to our house on St. Cummins Hill, but I ended having to walk the bike up the hill as I was not quite able for a gauntlet of that magnitude just yet. It was while pushing it up the hill that some little brats on their new BMXs came by and started laughing at my bike. It was OK for me to hate it, but not anybody else. I got really embarrassed and Derek told them to “feck off!” My relationship with the chopper was always like that: love, hate and shame.
Despite the embarrassment I endured as the owner of the two wheeled anomaly, she served me well and after several months I began to take pride in her and love began to emerge as the prevalent emotion over hate and shame. Since no one else had a bike like it, those who tried to ride her usually fell off. Due to her unusual shape they found her impossible to control; it would be like a Chelthnam Cup winning jockey trying to ride a camel for the first time!
For about three years the red Chopper was my main mode of transport. I took her out to Glen-Lee forestry, Fintragh beach, up to Conlin Bridge and the Mass Rock, all over town and no matter where I went, some ass-hole would have to say some smart-ass remark about her.
There was one day when the burden as master of such a beast, became too heavy and I felt like I hated her beyond redemption and could never love her again. The incident that caused this shame arose from a visit Declan Cunnigham received from some of his rich relations in Kildare. They were staying up for a week and had taken their nice new racers and BMXs. Needless to say, I was all excited to go down to Declan’s after school and play with them.
As I was coming down behind Conlin Road I met them out the back of Declan’s, just in front of Granda’s shed and before his stout (polite word for fat bastard), blond hair cousin even took a moment to say hello to me, he sneered “Who owns that yoke?” Meaning the bride of Frankenstine straddled between my two legs. I wanted to cry right there and then, but I held face and cycled on with balled up pride. Later I did cry and I was told not to be stupid and get over it. But they didn’t have to ride a Raleigh Chopper, the last of a dying breed from the Seventies when it was midway through the Eighties, the BMX era. Come on, had they not seen the movie? It was BMX Bandits, not Chopper Cross-Breeds!
Soon enough, I began to dream of getting a new bike: a BMX, a Racer or a blue Grifter with twisty handlebar gears. Mum and Dad didn’t have the money and as we were always reminded “money doesn’t grow on trees,” all I could do was hope and pray. So, in the days of my reality I had to put up with the rusty old Chopper.
Then, as if by providence, Derek won the Snowball at bingo with Granny and the word was he was going to get himself and me new bikes with the money. I couldn’t believe it, but when I saw the four hundred pounds in Derek’s hands I knew it was real.
Mervin Morrow had stopped selling bikes as the years were piling upon him and the market for the Super-Delux was dissipating in the wind of a growing country that could afford the bicycles of its children’s dreams.
We had to go up to Donegal Town, to the bike store behind the cinema. After looking through a brochure for about forty minutes I chose a red and white President racer and Derek picked out a blue Peugeot of the same variety.
It felt like it took a lifetime for the bikes to arrive, since they had to be ordered from the “main supplier.” I kept telling everyone about the new bike I was getting and showing them the picture in the glossy, full color brochure. Inside, I wanted them to be jealous of me and my new bike for all the years of embarrassment I had to suffer at the hands of the Raleigh Chopper.
When the new bike finally arrived it didn’t live up to its picture in the brochure. Don’t get me wrong, it was a fine bike and I was grateful that Derek bought it for me with his winnings. It was just that, with the chopper I had no illusions, she was ugly and took me where I wanted to go, I never imagined she was anything else. My new racer, I had built it up so much in my mind that the reality could never equal the desire I had created. Derek’s Peugeot was very slim and fast, mine in comparison looked fat, slow and a little girlie. Everyone said they loved it and I am sure they meant it too, but I had wanted to shock and awe the world with this new bike, and quite frankly, it didn’t do that.
For a few weeks I rode only the racer and had a nasty crash on it the second day. The brakes had not been tightened at the bike store and in the rain it didn’t stop at Tommy Blane’s and I went flying right into the ditch. Cut myself up really bad and had to walk the bike back to Granda’s to get it fixed. Granda said Mervin Morrow would never have sold a bike to anyone without first checking everything was adjusted and tightened. I had a few accidents on the Chopper, all of which were my own fault, but nothing like this one. This was completely the fault of the bike and I felt terribly cheated.
I eventually took the Chopper out for a go and it felt funny to ride after the crouched, aerodynamic riding position of the racer. I think, now that I had a bike people couldn’t make fun of, I could let my bias go and love the Chopper for all her ugly, archaic beauty.
Not long after we got the bikes we bought a new house and when we were moving Dad told me to get rid of the chopper as it wasn’t coming with us. I sold it to Leo Friel for six pounds and as happy as I was with the money I felt as if I was betraying her, selling her, prostituting her out to another. Leo sprayed it green and then gold and a year or so later I saw it out by Port na Crosh. Leo had a bag of periwinkles over the crossbar and to use a nice phrase, she looked knackered. The little front wheel was straining under the weight and the seat was even more torn than when I had it.
That was the last day I saw my Raleigh Chopper. I imagine now, she is in some bicycle heaven somewhere. Where chains are always oiled and tires properly inflated and all the roads are down hill. She deserves such an end after surviving the 70s, 80s and the beginning of the 90s.
Bikes come and bikes go, but our first bike is the one ingrained into us, part of our soul and lives. Mine made me a better person cause I had to suffer, struggle and live with such a burden at a young age. I’ve learned never to take anything for granted and always to make the best out of the hand I’m dealt; whether it’s an ultra-light handmade mountain bike or a hand-me-down onion-infused red Raleigh Chopper.