“You’ll know the right bike when you feel it,” I assured the woman. She glanced suspiciously at the comfort cruiser I held in front of her.
“That’s the one?”
“Not necessarily,” I said. “The only way to find out is to take it for a spin.”
I may have been the newest employee at that bike shop in Hawaii, but I knew what I was talking about. Seven years earlier, I’d been in Oregon shopping for a bicycle to ride across the continent. I’d never looked for a serious bike before, and the more I learned and researched, the more overwhelmed I became. The choices were staggering, and for a college kid, the price tags were too. I spent hours in local bike shops comparing wheel sizes and frame materials before a kindly staff member took me aside and admonished me to just ride the things. He pointed out that statistics would only get me so far. A bike is more than the sum of its parts — it’s also an experience.
I watched as the customer lifted her leg over the thick frame, pushed off the pavement, and began pedaling haltingly around the parking lot. She’d asked for something comfortable that she could ride around her neighborhood, but she didn’t look comfortable on the cruiser.
“Not this one,” she said, coming to a stop in front of me. “It feels so heavy.”
We tried a carbon fiber road bike. She came back shaking her head. “It’s nice, but it’s just not ... me,” she said.
I knew the feeling. As I wheeled the road bike back to its home inside the shop, I recalled all the models I’d tried seven years ago. Salsa and Novara and Fuji and Specialized: there’d been nothing wrong with any of them. They’d all received high praise in cycling magazines and online forums, but they hadn’t felt quite right.
After I had failed to find the right bike at local shops, I started checking Craigslist. Bikes in my smallish size were hard to come by, but one day a vintage 1981 steel-framed Miyata appeared. I emailed the seller immediately, telling him I’d be in his city the following day. Two hours on the bus and a 15-minute walk later, I was being shown a 30-year-old bike by a complete stranger. I shoved my backpack into his tattooed arms as collateral and took the Miyata for a test ride.
It felt like I was flying through the city streets, dodging potholes and storm drains with a smile. The bike felt like part of my body, humming along the pavement. She was nimble but solid. Fast and sure. And after I dug the cash out of my backpack and took her home, I discovered that she performed even better with weighted panniers.
I rolled an aluminum-framed commuter bike out into the tropical sunshine.
“How about this?” I said, pushing it toward the customer. She swung her leg over the top tube and was off like a shot, pedaling in quick loops. She passed me once, twice, three times, and by the fourth, she was grinning.
“I don’t want to stop,” she laughed, breezing past.
“Then that’s the one,” I answered.