Illustration: Kevin Howdeshell / kevincredible.com

There may be no greater sense of personal freedom than when you first learn how to ride a bike. That’s because unlike falling in love, heading to college or finally moving out of your parent’s basement, learning how to pedal yourself around the block is largely a freedom without consequences attached.

What few setbacks there are always get paired with a scenic ride or a good sweat. And I, for one, would certainly take a skinned knee over a broken heart, or a flat tire over an empty bank account. Through all life’s learning moments, few memories stay sweeter than that of flying down your first big hill with the wind in your hair and the world beneath your wheels… and realizing you can experience that thrill as many times as you want.

Which is why this column is dedicated to the bikes I’ve owned—or borrowed—and to all the Denver days that got spun through their spokes:

The Big Wheel

It wasn’t even mine. It belonged to a kid down the block. But I rode that Big Wheel every chance I got, and once or twice even parked it inside my gate. Riding it made me feel like the Easy Rider, like some mechanized cowboy or motorcycle cop. Screaming down the driveway into the evergreen bushes resulted in my first bloody elbow. And I’ve always admired the badass genius of that huge front wheel, the Harley-styled handlebars and the setback seat. I think the only American toy that ever rivaled it for coolness was the G.I. Joe with the Kung Fu Grip.

The Scorcher

The Scorcher was a 3-speed with a red frame, raised red handlebars and another bright orange flame burning up the banana seat. Even more importantly, it was a Schwinn, while my brother rode a Huffy, which was as big a rivalry as Ford vs. Chevy with all the trash we would talk. That bike was my gateway to 7-11 Slurpees and endless summer days cruising Park Hill’s elm-lined streets. We did put baseball cards in the spokes and little license plates on the rear, and it felt like someone locked our legs in cement when both bikes were stolen from under the lilacs in the backyard. With the next bikes, we also bought locks.

The Paperboy Bike

I got the paperboy bike at the same time I got a paper route. I don’t know if I ever knew its model, or make. But I do know it was the original mountain bike. It sure carried a load—not in rear panniers either, but in front-loaded Sunday-edition heavy duty cloth bags that lurched with every handlebar twist—and it still popped curbs, navigated snow, outran angry dogs and taught me the perils of impending manhood when I slipped off the seat and bounced my crotch off the top tube to discover what it meant to get “racked.” I bought it for $25 from another paperboy who had inherited it from some other paperboy, and is the only bike I ever owned that paid for itself. It also introduced me to the sexy side of cycling when I pedaled a Machbeuf Catholic School girl in her green plaid skirt home on the handlebars.

The Nishiki 10-Speed

The 1979 movie Breaking Away changed America’s perception of cycling, from that of transportation and pastime to real life sport. (Except, of course, in Indiana where the cycle-racing movie was set, and here in Colorado, and in particular Boulder, where the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic was already drawing to a close at the time of the movie’s release, and plenty of kids had begun to drink the tour bike Kool-Aid from bottles on their top tubes.) By the time I got that 10-speed there was also an obvious hierarchy between serious racers who rode Flying Dutchmans in real races (and who knew how to pronounce Campagnolo), and those of us who rode Nishikis and went to school wearing the little turned up bicycle-beanie hats. Of course I had a blast on that heavy metal bike and rode it once—expedition style—over Vail and Loveland Passes.

The Witcomb Custom Frame

What I remember most about going to the North Boulder Park Criterium when the Red Zinger became the Coors Classic was how walking to the race, it seemed as if the Grateful Dead was playing from every house. “Fire on the Mountain.” “Shakedown Street.” That and the international racers and crossover talents like the speed skater siblings Eric and Beth Heiden, and how, when we were following a stage from Denver to Vail, a cop pulled us over going 70 down Floyd Hill to let the peloton pass. I thought of that when I found a photo of my dad’s old friend Don Welch, a former ski school director at Vail whom I called when I was researching American Snow, a book I wrote about U.S. snowsports. The very next day another friend called to offer to return a custom Witcomb frame Don had given to my dad, that I had given the other friend to paint a jean jacket with Stagger Lee on the back. It’s sitting here in my office right now, and I’m thinking about making a café cruiser out of it.

The Schwinn Cruiser

If singletrack is your style, you might notice the lack of comment given here to mountain bikes. In the past 20 years I’ve owned three—a Cannondale, a Trek and something I bought from a sporting goods store in Upstate New York with pedals that fell off in a month. They all took me on incredible trails and a few near-disastrous downhills. They showed me views that were clear and perfect. But they rarely ever took me anywhere I wouldn’t be just as happy to travel by foot. My Schwinn always gives me something deeper than that. Black and green like some stealth Batmobile, I have ridden it on century rides, down sandy arroyos and especially on bar nights all high on a pint of beer with the August evening heat coming off the street.

There is something elegantly utilitarian about that bike, with its coaster brakes and padded seat. It reminds me of the women you see in Europe on the black Raleighs in long black jackets and knee high black boots, with their hair in the air as they pedal their way to work. And there are several fantasies that come from that. Perhaps the most lasting being that a day—especially a work day—should need nothing more than two wheels, a little time in the office, a little time at a restaurant or coffee shop and a long tour home to be considered a success.

Peter Kray is Elevation Outdoors’ editor-at-large  and co-founder of The Gear Institute (gearinstitute.com).