This is not the first time I have ridden up this hill. No, not at all. But it is the first time like this.
I grew up in the neighborhood around this long, steady hill on Harrison Street, and it is probably 30 years since I first rode a bicycle without training wheels, and 20-some since I first rode this hill all the way from bottom to top. I find myself wondering if it was just as hard then; how much better shape am I, today, than I was at 13?
For today I am pushing a whale of a bike, along with two children weighing in at more than 60 pounds combined. I've christened it the "mamabikeorama," and it is the very opposite of cool. Or perhaps it is the redefined essence of cool; what someone described as "the minivan of the future," and someone else described as "sweet."
This bike is both, at once.
I have built it (or had it built) like this: an Electra Townie 8, a lovely bike with internal gears and the "step through" that allows me to steady myself quickly when faced with traffic; an Xtracycle "hitchless trailer", an extension with a riding board that turns my bike into a "longie" and allows Truman and Everett both to ride behind; and a BoBike Mini seat on the front in the handlebars for Monroe. The setup was conceived and built by Martina and Todd at Clever Cycles, the American nexus of family bike knowledge. I do not say this lightly.
"Sweet ride!" "Awesome bike!" "That is a machine!" These are the things that other people on bicycles (and other bike people) say when they see me on the bike with the boys. Today alone I have given at least six parents an effusive show-and-tell. Everyone is on board with my subversive stimulus plan to buy bikes with our government checks. I have convinced two other families to buy the setup; a few more are leaning my way. I consider asking for a commission.
There are things said by others, though, the non-bikers, whose reactions range from perplexed to scandalized. "Get those children baptized!" says a woman walking on the sidewalk in my neighborhood (for the record, I have them all wearing helmets. And they were all baptized). "Your baby's asleep and I think he's hurt!" says a woman on a corner downtown (for the record, when he's hurt, he cries). If people standing on sidewalks and cross streets don't watch us go by with a smile, I widen my eyes, then narrow them, darkly suspecting them of driving a gas-guzzler with roll bars.
But most do watch with a smile, or a wave, or a whistle, or an exclamation. And lots, and lots, of questions. I did hours of research before picking this setup, choosing a step-through bike so I could mount and dismount easily; it's super-wobbly with two or three boys aboard, and the last thing I want to do is have my bike fall over (several times) with Monroe atop it. I decided to put Monroe in front because it balances my load and keeps him really near me; when he falls asleep (which he does, a lot, in the seat!) I can manoeuver my arm so his forehead rests on my left wrist (luckily he falls asleep to the left most times). When this happens, I just bike a bit slower and make sure I'm going over the bumps gently.
I do plan to get a BoBike Maxi for Truman on the back (they were out of them when I had my wad of cash), but he's able to ride holding on to my waist without much trouble, or holding on to his brother's waist if Everett rides too. He's not 100% confident riding that way, but we've now been more than 20 miles around town, up and down hills, over bridges, through traffic in several neighborhoods, over curbs and bumps and grassy patches, and a couple of times went really too fast without a single scare. Everett either doesn't hold on at all, or holds onto the board, and we never get into the sort of riding that might make a kid fall off. It's pretty safe as long as I don't ride like a solo biker. (I'm a bit of a shredder when alone on my mountain bike.)
The mamabikeorama is also a beautiful bike for cargo. I'm able to stuff the Xtracycle pockets full of all kinds of things; today, I toted $100 of farmer's market goodies all around town, plus water bottles for the boys, an extra coat or two, diapers, my knitting bag, and a couple of rags meant for wiping off wet seats. My dream is to make my own cargo bags with some pretty canvas or oilcloth, but that'll be a while. I imagine it would be pretty easy to fit a bunch more groceries on board if I wanted to.
And then there are the hills. I'm stubborn, and I've been able to get up almost every hill no matter how many boys I had aboard -- though of course it's far easier with two than three, no matter which two I have on the bike. The setup was meant as a way to ride Truman and Monroe while Everett rode the tagalong behind his dad's bike, with only occasional bicycle-built-for-four trips. Yesterday, I did walk up a bit of one hill, but it was near the end of a seven-plus-mile ride with lots of punishing uphills. I made both Everett and Truman walk that block. "Up... heeill!" was a word Truman learned yesterday. So proud.
And of course, the hill on Harrison Street. It's over a half-mile up, and I could see the admiring looks from bikers whizzing down as I steadily, stubbornly pushed my way in first gear up one block, then another, then another. Monroe was asleep, again, and Truman was quiet, tired from a very early morning, holding onto my waist and occasionally leaning into my back to rest. It was a focused, quiet, hard, hard hill and I wondered what the 13-year-old me would think of this.
"Sweet bike," I think she'd say softly, imagining how fast and strong she would push her children up that hill one day. "It's a beautiful ride."