My love affair with the bicycle began somewhere around 1973 when my parents moved our family from a suburb of Minneapolis to a suburb of Wahpeton. A town of barely 400 residents Fairmount, North Dakota was a far cry from the burgeoning community of Burnsville which had a population of about 20,000 residents.
Today, Burnsville has over 60,000 residents and Fairmount has about 359 residents.
At the age of 10 I had yet to own my own bicycle. In a family of nine children it was a luxury we couldn’t afford.
Like the hand me down clothes, skates, baseball gloves and everything else owned by another brother or sister before me, any bike I had the joy of pedaling was well ridden before me.
Arriving in Fairmount it was apparent that a new life awaited five Mische boys and one Mische sister.
It became obvious that the world was a different place than we were used to when I began my first day of school in 5th Grade. As my new teacher, Mrs. Baumann, attempted to gently integrate me into my new surroundings – complete with an entire 5th grade of barely a dozen students—she suggested I share something about my life with my new classmates.
Sensing I needed to say something that would both impress the young faces before me, as well as send a warning shot across the bow that I was not to be trifled with, I lead with what I thought was my strongest asset: The fact there were 9 Mische children available for whatever action was needed in this new and remote rural community.
Puffing up my chest I announced that I, Erich Mische, was the 6th child of 9 children – in fact there were 6 boys and 3 girls.
Yet, my boasting didn’t seem to have much impact on the kids staring impassively back at me.
I was soon to be given a sibling superior smack down I would not soon forget.
The first to deliver the blow was a young girl who informed me that there were 12 kids in her family. Followed by another sweet young thing telling me about the 13 kids in her family.
On and on it went as one kid after another raised the stakes on the numerical advantage they held over me thanks to the higher level of productivity of their parents.
Finally, the coup de grace was delivered by a meek blonde little girl who stood up and said, without boastfulness but obviously proud that she was going to bring me to my knees, that her family had 18 children.
Two times more of their kids than Mische kids.
All I could think of that moment was how long it would take to even the odds and whether or not my folks were up to the task.
Sadly, they were not, and not long after this fateful class show and tell, the number 18 ballooned to something like 20 kids.
Over time the disappointment that my family would not win the war of superiority over the number of children in a household would wane.
In its place would be two significant events that would change my life forever.
The first began when my Grandpa Paul provided a new bicycle to my brother, Hans.
It’s important that I point out that my brother, Hans, in addition to having the “cool” name in our family, was – and remains – the sibling who is better at everything without really trying.
He’s generally funnier than most of us, better looking, cleverer, casually cool and in public has the demeanor that makes one believe that Brad Pitt probably studied him before portraying his character in Ocean’s Eleven.
We would play football in the yard of the school across the street from us and Hans would always score the touchdown. But, he wouldn’t just score a touchdown. He would first run past you – around you – back past you – around you again – and then within inches of going across the goal line – do it all over again before he ultimately scored.
Surprisingly, I never hated him for that. I just wanted to be like him.
But, I digress. Hans got this great bike from our Grandpa. I don’t remember why. In fact, I can’t tell you much about that bike. It might have been red. It could have been glitter. Who knows.
This much I know: I wanted that bike. I wanted to get on it and ride it and go fast and go far.
So, not long after he received this wonderful gift from one of the kindest men I have ever known, I took the bike.
I wouldn’t characterize it as stealing. After all, there wasn’t anywhere for me to really go with the bike.
I couldn’t hide it. Hell, in Fairmount you couldn’t even hide your breath it was so small.
So, rather than indict me at such a young age let’s call it “borrowing” his bike.
Sadly, my career as a borrower was short-lived as I ended up crashing the bike, bending the rim, and otherwise wrecking the bike.
It’s at this point I have to admit that I don’t know what else happened with this story. Perhaps I was so traumatized I blocked it from my memory. I am sure there was some crying on my part. Expression of sorrow. Stuff like that.
But, I imagine Hans accepted my apologies for breaking his bike the same way he accepted my apologies for wetting the bed – and him – when we slept together as young boys.
I presume he punched me. Held me down. Did something gross thing with spit. Who knows.
This much I know. His bike was wrecked.
And, I didn’t have a bike of my own.
Around this time, I met Barney.
Barney was, as there is in every town, a man with demons. I know about many of Barney’s demons. But, I also don’t wish to dwell on them anymore than I wish to dwell on wrecking my brother’s bike.
I know that Barney fixed bikes. He made bikes from other bikes.
When your bike was broken. Or needed to be fine-tuned, there was nobody else but Barney to fix them.
I was 12 years old when I got my first bike that was my own bike.
It was a Barney Bike. A steel framed behemoth with massive balloon tires. It had a single speed. And, probably weighed twice as much as me.
But, when I got on it and pedaled it I knew my life would never be the same again.
I rode that bike everywhere. And, I rode it on everything. Long before mountain bikes became the rage my Barney Bike flew down gravel roads – leapt through water filled ditches – and performed brilliantly running into trees.
It took a lot of effort to move that bike. Moving massive pounds of American steel with rubber tires that were more at home on a small tank than a bicycle it took all my might to get this bike to speed.
And, once it got to speed it didn’t have a “coast” speed. It just had Erich speed that required my legs and my lungs to keep it going at all times.
That Barney Bike didn’t last forever. I remember one time riding down a ditch in high pursuit of a kid on another bike playing “Cops and Robbers” the frame simply exploded.
Thankfully, I avoided serious injury. But, had to take the wrecked carcass of my steel bike to Zach’s and have them weld it back together.
It survived some number of miles but eventually had to be replaced by another Barney Bike. Just as ugly. Hideous. And, heavy.
But that bike was freedom. It was glory. It was childhood.
Long before the bicycle became a political statement a bicycle became a metaphor for nearly everything about my life journey.
I thought about that this weekend when I went out on my 29er composite bicycle that possesses less steel than not gray hair I have on my head.
This lovely red bicycle needed a name. In hindsight I could have called it Barney Bike 12 but I decided to modernize my ride and christened it Cherry Bomb.
With so many gears that I honestly don’t remember how many it has Cherry Bomb can cut through nearly anything.
Including the years.
Today, at 52, 40 years past the day of my first bicycle, I still climb on a bicycle for freedom. Glory. And, childhood.
The faster I pedal the younger I get. The steeper the downhill – the steeper the uphill – the muddier the trail – the more I am convinced that I can ride faster and further than ever before.
Until I hit the deep sand and the bike twists and turns and my 52-year-old legs fail to turn the power of the pedals fast enough to cut through it.
Or, the effort to get up that steep hill fades three quarters of the way up and I can’t unlock my shoes from the pedals fast enough to prevent myself from simply – ungracefully – tipping over.
This weekend, somewhere between realizing I was going to hit the ground and hitting the ground I smiled. Not because I enjoy wiping out. I don’t.
From the moment I knew that my effort to crest that hill was going to fail and my desperate effort to release my shoes from the pedals I felt that feeling of what it was like to be that 12-year-old boy in Fairmount riding my Barney Bike.
Thousands of bicycle miles later. Life success and failure and struggles and trials and tribulations throughout the years. Joy. Despair. And everything in between. My life has been one long wind in the face bike ride for more than 5 decades.
I’ve never been afraid to fall down. Or fail.
But, I have always known it was going to hurt.
Yet, no matter how much it hurt I got back up. And got back on. And took that bike and continued forward on my journey.
This weekend before I hit the ground I knew it was going to hurt. And, I wasn’t disappointed.
There were no broken bones. No big gaping wounds or deep scratches or punctures.
Just the raw pain of a thud that comes when a middle age man body hits the million years old soil along the banks of the Mississippi River.
I laughed. And groaned. And laid there for a while. I just wanted to be sure nothing felt broken. Or that there was anything gushing out of my body other than my ego.
After determining I was going to survive I laughed again and slowly got up. Readjusted both my parts and my bicycle parts.
At 52 years of age I got back on that bike. Just like I have every time I have hit the ground since the day of my first bike crash.
And, while my body absorbs those confrontations with the Earth in a much different way at 52 then when it did at 12, my mind and memories haven’t changed at all.
My bike is freedom.
It is glory.
It is childhood.