In Tucson, my dad, a bicycle-obsessed man who likes cacti, too, has a small group of bicycles—three, four, maybe more—that he calls mine. Morning rides in the desert mean 5 a.m. and a sweaty trek home—circumstances that I never really got into but put up with to appease my dad or because my mom labeled the journey “a family ride.” For me, bikes have meant a machine too deeply loved, a source of tension in the Calhoun household, and something I never imagined I would miss. Bikes have been regular gifts given to me and cared for by my dad. I, on the other hand, still don’t know how to fix a flat.
By foot, Madrid presents a slew of challenges: loose cobblestones, unidentifiable liquids, abrupt pedestrian pauses. The sidewalks are narrow and protected from the street by two-foot-high steel poles that pop up every eight feet or so. It’s cramped and the street beckons. I never intended to buy a bike here and, unlike my father, I wasn’t easily convinced. The unpredictable walking patterns and general lifestyle in Madrid made cycling seem unsafe and, frankly, scary.
The first time I rode my Vitus 787, a French road bike from the 1980s, I didn’t return to the shop for 30 minutes. Pedaling up and down the same streets I had only traversed on foot felt fast and familiar. Mario, the Spanish bicycle enthusiast who introduced me to the Vitus, assumed I had crashed or gotten lost.
Back at the shop, Mario and I haul chairs outside. Ruben, the owner of Viva Bicicletas, grabs some beer from the basement. Lyb, the American mechanic, lays down his tools. It’s three o’clock. We break for bocadillos.
Viva Bicicletas is tucked in Plaza del Dos de Mayo, a popular spot for outdoor drinking sessions, el botellón, that fills with dogs, beer vendors, and hipsters in the evenings. Ruben, Lyb, Mario, and I sit in a circle outside of the shop on the edge of the plaza. With bikes as our background and the sun warming our backs, we sip on our cervezas as they ask about my desert and the bicycles that I keep there. It easily becomes one of those blissful moments where nothing seems to be missing. They pressure me to buy the beautiful bike and I ask for time. I buy the Vitus two weeks later. Her name is Lole. She is fast and red.
Lole brings me to new people and places and leaves me with stories to send home. I frequent Viva Bicicletas with little problems my dad would usually have fixed before I even woke up. The Ruben/Lyb duo communicate in a mezcla of Spanish, English, and bicycle jargon. They are majos, nice dudes, who show me how to pump up my tires by doing it for me, make me take a lap with every small seat adjustment. I am reminded of my dad, and call him more.
When I ride in Madrid, I still imagine my dad up ahead, pointing out every shard of glass on the road and grinning proudly when he sees that I am still on his back wheel. I can hear him yell, “Race you up the hill!” and I push harder in anticipation of bright desert rides in the summer. Traffic in Madrid makes empty roads places to release. As I pedal, I shed worry and flow into a zone where my mind calculates space and my body moves through it. Instead of crossing streets, I am in them—winding through Madrid’s major arteries, weaving between taxis, buses, mopeds—and the city collapses.
Inhaling dirty air has never felt so cleansing.
Zoë Calhoun, a recent graduate of Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, was raised in the desert of Tucson, Arizona. After graduating with a major in Spanish and Digital Writing & Photography, she moved to Madrid to teach English.
Header photo of Zoë riding in Madrid bicycle traffic by Mario Cranks.