Pay It Forward

Emily sobbed and tried to hug herself. That hurt her arm even worse. The rain that had soaked her had stopped, but now the wind was beginning to pick up. That rain had also soaked the oak leaves littering the road, and caused her crash. Now she regretted going out on this training ride alone, but Mary and Joanna had both backed out at the last minute. Emily was at least 20 miles from town, and it would be dark in another hour and a half.

She worried about her arm, but she was sure that it was only scraped badly and not broken. Still, her favorite Shebeest bicycle jersey was bloodstained and torn, and her spandex shorts had big holes on the left side. The road rash on her arm and the cut on her cheek were slowly clotting. She was more worried about her bicycle, a three-thousand-dollar Colnago that her stepfather had bought for her birthday four months ago. She had been winning amateur racing events all summer and was hoping to win one more race before winter set in and consigned her to the spinning studio at the gym until spring.

She was no bike mechanic, but the front wheel looked like a pretzel to her, after hitting the tree when she flew off the pavement on her left side. She shivered, picked herself up, and walked over to the bike. Lifting it up, she tried to roll it, but the front wheel ran into the fork, and the bike stopped. Her mood shifted from tears to frustration.

It occurred to her that not having a little toolkit under her saddle was probably a bigger oversight than taking the risk of riding alone. Some of the other racers carried those on training rides, but she did not know how to fix anything anyway, so she never bothered.

At least the Colnago was light. She hefted it on her good shoulder and started walking along the highway. She was hardly an elegant sight, wobbling awkwardly in her cleated, hard plastic racing shoes. She considered going in her socks, but the gravel on the edge of the road was sharp and nasty-looking.

With something to do – even if unpleasant – she felt her scrapes less, except maybe for the bruise on her left hip, which was her main shock absorber hitting the pavement. She figured that, at worst, she could make it back to town in three hours, if she could not hitch a ride.

Hitchhiking. Her mother would have a bigger fit over that idea than her riding alone. The lack of any traffic was the main reason that she trained on this highway, which ran to a now-abandoned Army post fifty miles west of town. Her parents would be at the Dursten’s party until after midnight, so no one would miss her as she hiked along the deserted road.

After a half-hour, she had at least stopped shivering. She took off her shoes, tied them to the saddle post and started walking on the pavement. It was not comfortable, but she was moving at a better clip. The bicycle, light as it was, had begun to dig into her shoulder, so the smoother gait helped with that.

Cornfields extended in all directions, as the asphalt ribbon seemed to disappear into a yellow tunnel of corn in the distance. She had never really looked at the scenery – or lack of it – before. As the shadows from the stalks spread across the road, she noticed how the fields went from yellow to golden to purple. As the sun began to sink out of sight behind her, the purple fields slowly turned dark. There were still maybe 45 minutes of light left.

Emily noticed the Evening Star (Venus, she remembered) appear up ahead while there was still plenty of light. Beyond the rustle of the wind in the corn, she heard a sound behind her. She shifted as she walked and saw what looked like a small bear with a flashlight in its mouth, weaving back and forth on the road, maybe a quarter-mile back. She stopped and squinted.

A bicycle. With panniers. And a dark form sitting almost erect on it.

Emily stared as the bicycle came closer. Bicycle tourists belonged to a different universe, especially the bikepacking variety who sometimes rode through town. Generally unkempt, looking unwashed, with assorted collections of gear lashed to their bicycles and panniers, they looked more like peasants fleeing an invading army than regular people. They looked as likely to steal supper as buy it, her mother would say as she crossed the street to avoid meeting them. The men never shaved, and the women never had their hair combed. Still, Emily wondered why they always seemed so cheerful, why they always waved when her racing team blew past them.

The sound she heard took form. The bicyclist was singing, loudly. She weaved happily as if waltzing to the music, which indeed she was. It wasn’t a familiar song, and Emily thought that she had all the hits on her playlists.

It was a waltz! The rider was not wearing earbuds but was singing from memory – in German. As the rider approached, Emily could see that she was a tall, strong black woman. Certainly not a kid, she could be any age from 25 to 60. She was riding a 53-cm frame, which could take a six-foot man. Under her helmet, a smile that included her eyes spread across her face. As she reached the final line of the waltz, the rider leaned back erect and belted out the coda with her arms spread out. She was rolling at what looked like 15 mph with no hands. She grabbed her handlebars and coasted to a stop alongside the stunned Emily. Her biceps rippled as she moved.

“You know, you got it backwards, honey. It’s supposed to carry you, not the other way ‘round.” The way she grinned, Emily felt comforted, not put down.

“I crashed, and I’m walking home.”

“The next town, I take it.”

“Yes. About 15 miles now, I guess.”

“Hoo-ey. That’s a long hike.” She dismounted the bicycle and parked it, supported by a kickstand that would hold up a truck. She smoothly unbuckled and removed her helmet, which she pulled off a long ponytail of shiny black hair. With her angular cheekbones and tall, spare frame, she looked like something that Emily could not imagine. A black Amazon perhaps.

“Your folks probably don’t want you talking to strangers.” She put out her hand. “I’m Hilda.”

“Emily.” She took Hilda’s hand and felt her strong, confident grip. “What brings you here? There’s nothing but an abandoned base on that road.”

“I know. Which makes it perfect for unmolested camping. The parade ground made a beautiful campsite. The grills in the picnic areas beat campfires any day, and the water still runs in the toilets. Someone forgot to turn that off, I guess.”

“Are you crossing the country like the other bicycle tourists I’ve seen?”

“Probably. If I am, I’m only halfway there, and who knows what will happen tomorrow?”

“But you’re alone!”

“So it would seem. And it would seem that so are you.”

“But I live here – well, up there a ways.” Emily nodded to the distant end of the road.

“I assume you aren’t walking because you like to carry expensive bicycles in the dark.”

“Front wheel hit a tree when I slid off the road. Did you see the leaves back where the stand of oak trees is?”

“I did. Went through there shortly after the rain stopped. I hate leaves – they’re worse than snow.” Hilda pointed to the bike on Emily’s shoulder. “What have you got there? May I look?”

Emily swung the bike off her shoulder. Hilda grabbed it easily, flipped it upside down with one hand and set it gently on its handlebars and seat.

“Very nice bike. You wouldn’t have a spoke wrench, would you?”

“I don’t have any tools,” Emily said apologetically. “If I did I wouldn’t know what to do with them.”

“I can tell that you are a racer. Probably on one of those sponsored teams with a pro wrench to fix everything.”

Emily nodded.

“Well, long-haul touring bikes usually don’t break down except in places like this. Maybe I can help.”

Hilda considered the front wheel. She went to her bicycle, rooted in the right pannier, and came back with a camping lantern, a flashlight and a zippered bag.

“Got what you need right here. That wheel may look like a pretzel, but it’s perfectly formed for the kind of twist the spokes will give the rim if it’s hit just right. The rim is not broken or cracked.

“Here, you hold the lantern, so we can see this. I’ll show you what to do.”

“Thanks.” Emily took the lantern and watched, as Hilda loosened the brake and quick-release lever, and removed the wheel.

“This is all we need.” Hilda held out a steel ring with square cuts in it. “Spoke wrench, They come in different sizes, and only weigh a couple of grams. I would never leave home without it. This one can handle the three most common spoke nipples. Watch.”

She set the wheel of the ground, and let some air out of the tire. Then she inserted a square cut around a spoke nipple near the valve and twisted it a quarter-turn.

“The spoke nipple is a nut on the threaded end of the spoke, right?”

Emily nodded, although this was news to her.

“Think ‘righty-tighty; lefty-loosey’. Can you remember that?”

“Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey. Got it.”

“That applies to all right-handed screw threads. On your bicycle that means every thread except your left pedal.”

Emily nodded again.

“Now here’s the catch. You have to think of where the nut goes on the bolt or, in this case, the threaded end of the spoke. We are here looking at the wheel from inside the rim, but the spoke nipple is screwed on the end of the spoke, so you have to look at it from the tire side, not the inside. Make sense?”

Emily nodded. This was interesting, she thought.

“So, we loosen the spoke this way. Got it?”

Emily nodded. “It looks backwards from here, but not if I imagine looking through the tire.”

“You got it, girl. Now, only loosen a quarter or a half-turn at a time, so the pressure comes off the wheel evenly as we work our way around. I like to go to the opposite side of the wheel for each next spoke, but some mechanics just work all the way around. I’m playing it safe here. I got the first six. You try some.”

Emily gave Hilda the lantern, then worked her way back and forth around the wheel, loosening spokes a little at a time. Suddenly the wheel jumped out of her hands with a twang.

“Omigod! What was that?”

“The wheel righting itself. You ok?”

“Yes. Just surprised. Is the wheel OK?”

“Probably. We managed to loosen it all the way without setting anything wrong permanently. Now we just need to tighten and true it.”

“You mean, I can ride it?”

“Not now, but you won’t have to walk home.”

Hilda showed Emily how to start tightening the spokes carefully, so that they exerted their pressure on the rim evenly. Eventually, the wheel felt hand tight.

“Let’s put it in the wheel truing jig,” said Hilda.

“You have one of those?” Emily asked, looking at the loaded panniers.

“No. You do. It’s called a fork. Here, slip the wheel back onto the bike.”

Hilda had Emily check the rolling direction of the tire, and tighten the quick-release levers after the wheel was in its fork.

“Now we spin the wheel and see where it rubs or wobbles out of line. Then tighten the opposite spokes to pull it over, a quarter turn of the spoke nipple each time.” The two of them took turns, until the wheel was not wobbling. Then Hilda checked the roundness by holding a screwdriver near the rim as it spun to see if it bulged out of a circular path. It was almost perfect. Emily tightened the opposing pairs of spokes needed to pull the slight bump into round. Hilda pumped up the tire with the long frame pump from her bike.

“I think you can set your brake back, and ride home how,” Hilda said at last. “It’s dark. Do you have a light?”

“No.” Emily’s elation sagged as she considered the empty, dark road. They could not even see the loom of the lights of town from here.

“Here. Let’s lash this flashlight to your handlebars. I’ll ride on the centerline side in the unlikely event we meet any other vehicles. Besides, that’s an emergency roadside job on the wheel. You should get a new wheel before you go out on the bike again.”

They put their helmets on and set out together. Hilda’s 850W Night Rider head light lit the road comfortably for both of them, riding side by side. Emily told Hilda about her family, her school and her racing team. She loved riding more than anything. Hilda turned out to be an Army brat, whose parents met in Germany, where she was born. Her father retired there, and Hilda grew up bilingual as well as bicultural and biracial. “All-American girl, that’s me!” she said. She was only riding as far as town to catch the train to Chicago, where a friend would join her for the eastern half of her trek.

An hour later, they coasted to a stop outside Emily’s home. Emily untied the flashlight and gave it to Hilda.

“I don’t know how to thank you, Hilda. Why don’t you stay the night here? I know that my folks won’t mind.”

“I’d love to, Emily, but I already have an e-ticket for the train tonight, and I don’t want to miss it.”

“But – “

Hilda put her hand on Emily’s shoulder and squeezed gently. The hand was warm, very strong, and firm.

“It’s OK. Just pay it forward. You know what that means?”

“I think. Do someone else a favor?”

“You got it. Give me a hug and go help someone else someday.”

After Hilda’s brightly flashing taillight disappeared around the corner, Emily realized that she had never gotten her last name, or any contact information. She parked her bike in the garage, and went upstairs, snagging a protein bar and a carton of orange juice in the kitchen on the way. She took a shower and put her clothes in the trash. She put salve on her scrapes, and donned a fresh pair of pajamas. Then she lit off her computer, and looked up the winter maintenance class schedule at the K-bike Bicycle Shop.


Until next week,

Smooth roads and tailwinds,


2 thoughts on “Pay It Forward

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