Biking in Westport

February 20, 2008

All through my childhood in Westport I would hear visitors exclaim: “Why are there so many churches in such a small village?” I didn’t have an answer at that time, but later on I came up with an explanation: instant prayer and The Mountain.

More specifically, it was the corner on the Lower Mountain which used to snake its way around Stan Crawford’s house. I would suggest that over the years many a deal was struck with The Almighty on the lower reaches of that hill by a series of young men on bicycles with failed brakes, some with a pant leg wrapped hopelessly around the sprocket, others with the chain flapping randomly beside the bike. Without hand brakes, about all you had was prayer and adrenaline as the white corner of Stan’s house loomed up and you leaned the bike over until the pedals scraped.

There are no atheists on bikes without chains.

I don’t recall any cyclist-shaped silhouettes bashed through that wide white sign at the bottom of the hill, so the prayers must have had some effect.

My pal Don Goodfellow had his disaster on the Upper Mountain. What he told us was that a car turned in to the beach and cut him off just as he hit top speed on the run down from the dump, forcing him to run headlong into the Anglican Cemetery’s wire fence. He reportedly flipped over the page-wire panel and came to rest with a tombstone as a backrest.

I remember joining Bob Conroy, Don, Johnny Wing, Jim Forrester and David Roberts on a ride “back the mountain” to a cheese factory, loading up on a pound of fresh curd each, then coasting back to town. By the time we got home in the hot sun, what was left of the curd was positively leaping around in the bags, a fitting accompaniment for a lunch of green apples.

This was before the days of mountain bikes, though we could have used them. One summer our favourite pastime was to schuss down the hill next to the beach, rolling over old hay and juniper bushes, seeing who could make the slope last the longest while not putting a foot down until the wheel hit water.

Later on it was my great pleasure to introduce my son to cycling in Westport. Charlie and I made a trip around my old haunts a part of every summer’s cruise. One time my mother reported coming upon: “This big lug on a bicycle in the middle of 42, and he had a little kid with him, and a dog on a leash, and they were riding right down the highway!” My sister broke it to her that the obstructions on the road were in all probability Rod, Charlie and Grover returning to the boat after a visit to the Bresee homestead.

Perhaps the greatest triumph of technology over the aging process was the first time Charlie and I rode up the lower mountain. He was about thirteen at the time, and had put a lot of effort into his bike. I had a standard Raleigh12 speed mountain bike, but lots of determination. We had talked about this for months.

Off we went. We passed where we used to have to stop and push our old one-speeds. Then we passed where the best bikes of the sixties gave out. Then we shifted down to the lowest gears and kept grinding at about walking speed. The hill grew steeper, and then nearly vertical. I started to zig-zag across the hill, counting upon my hearing to save me from vehicles in the grip of gravity in the oncoming lane.

I’m not saying it was pretty. There was drool all over the front forks of the Raleigh. I couldn’t talk for wheezing by the time we reached the entrance to Foley Mountain, but I had climbed The Lower Mountain on a bike without putting a foot down, and I didn’t die! My partner seemed much less fatigued. Better gears, I guess.

I had warned Charlie that he would have to look out for himself on the trip down, because in my 14th year I had burned out the speedometer on my bike coasting down this stretch and that speedometer registered up to fifty.

He didn’t seem too impressed, and was even less worried that his digital instruments would be stressed by a little run down the hill. He refused to call it The Mountain.

Off we went, coasting. He drifted a bit ahead. Huh? I have seventy-five pounds on him and he’s getting ahead? On the steepest part of the hill a porcupine waddled out into his lane. In horror I watched him brake neatly, steer around the rodent, and then accelerate away from me again. He made the widened corner at the bottom without incident, then coasted over to The Spring for a drink.

I puffed in behind him. “Thirty-two miles an hour, Dad. That’s a nice hill.”

So much for my fifty miles per hour. “I couldn’t believe it when you coasted away from me like that. What have you done to that bike?”

“Remember what I told you about the bearings in stock bikes? The after-market ones roll with much less resistance. That’s why I spent so much to change them. You should upgrade your bearings and save some effort.”

I don’t remember what I mumbled, but the bike is still hanging in the garage, unchanged.

On the other hand, that porcupine showed me that instant prayer is still very much a part of my repertoire.

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