Growing up a Hoosier I learned that there are a few required tasks. A Hoosier should read Vonnegut, listen to John Cougar (Not John Mellencamp, but Johnny "Rockin'" Cougar.) and watch "Breaking Away." While Vonnegut remains my favorite author to this day and I have begun to start to kind of appreciate what John Mellencamp has done musically (Johnny Cougar has yet to move me.) it is the movie "Breaking Away" that has had the longest lasting impact on me.
For those unfamiliar allow me summarize the plot. In Bloomington, IN there was an apparent class war going on in the 70's between the students at Indiana University and the Bloomington natives who barely graduate high school and go on to work cutting Limestone in the quarries, or "Cutters." This name carries the multiple-meanings of cutting stone, cutting class and, more ominously, cutting life short. Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher, who would later reenter my life as Cyvus Vail in "Angel."), the son of a used car salesman, is a Cutter. He does not, however, lie down and let life roll over him. Instead he pretends to be an Italian student to woo the college girl of his dreams. He also rides his bike. He RIDES his bike. His passion for cycling, for the Italian cyclists of the day, for the Tour de France and the Spring Classics and chains and ball bearings and cassettes and.... well, he just really loves cycling. The movie climaxes with Dave assembling a team of his friends (Including Daniel Stern, Dennis Quaid and a young, not yet scary, Jack Earl Haley.) to race in the, traditionally college student only competition, Little 500. (This is a real bike race that takes place in Bloomington to this day.) The Cutters end up winning the race and all is right with the world.
JEH in his less harrowing form along with some other actors.
Yeah, I know, it is not an original story, but for a Hoosier in, as I posted last time, a small town it was just what I needed to see. Cycling quickly became my passion. I moved steadily up the cycling hierarchy from Sears 10 speed to Huffy 10 Speed to (Insert blows of the one thousand trumpets of the angels here.) a Schwinn Super le Tour 10 speed racing bike. This was a bike meant for kicking some Italian ass and leaving the French in your dust. My best friend got a similar model and he and I would ride. I don't just mean kids riding around the neighborhood. I lived on a horse farm six miles outside of town. So, when Mark (Best friend.) and I rode our bikes, that means on an average summer day we could put in 40 to 50 miles easily. Not just any miles, but climbing and descending the knobs of southern Indiana. The climbs were the payment for the joy of descending again. Hitting anywhere from 30-40 miles an hour on our bikes we would less ride than fly down those winding hills. The poetry of body and bike was always evident on those descents. Leaning in and out of curves while debating the merits of keeping the upper knee in against the frame or sticking out in the wind. How low could I keep my body and still maneuver safely? Cars, cinders and the various other distractions were gone to us. We simply rode, comparing our top speeds from our cycling computers that in the 80's were the size of encyclopedias.
I could mention that cyclist in southern Indiana were then, and still are, given little respect. The cups of soda and ice thrown at us, the cars veering into our path, etc. I really don't think about those things, though. What I remember best is the cadence of my feet as I pedaled. When at my best they were fluid in motion one following the other in a primordial rhythm to a beat that only I could hear. When at my worst I seemed to be stomping the pedals to the ground as though crushing cockroaches with my toe clips. It didn't matter so long as I was still pedaling.
I still ride today. My passion for it has not waned, even though my ability has been somewhat hampered by age and dwindling knees. Today, as in my youth, I still think of Dave Stoller at least once a ride. I remember how he taught me that, regardless of the distance I am going and the location in which I am riding, every bicycle ride is a journey of significant magnitude. It can take you out of the small town and into a blur of color and sound where no one but you exist. A bicycle can turn commuting to work into commuting through the streets of Florence. A ride, in short, can turn a Hoosier into an Italian. Grazie, Dave!
The author and his bike in Beulah, MI. Pedaling his Hoosier roots in the Wolverine State.