Skidders….the short story

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Miguel wheeled up to Bernard’s doorstep and rang the doorbell, did a track stand. The door opened. “Ready Bernie? Let’s saddle up. I’m in the mood for mayhem.” He sped in a tight circle around the patio, popped a wheelie.

“You’re early. Just a sec. I’ve got to change.” Bernie left the door open, disappeared inside. He bounced back after a minute, got his bike out of the garage, clipped into pedals.

Miguel still maintained his track stand. “What’s your record for a track stand?” Bernie asked. “Five minutes. Could go longer, but I get bored.”

“Where to?”

“Stevens Creek Boulevard. Let’s check out the spaceship and do it there.”

“That’s sick. Right in front of Apple headquarters.”

“Why not?” Miguel replied. “We’ll give those overcompensated carpet crawlers something to talk about during lunch. Maybe even get our mug on Snapchat.”

“I just polished my nose ring,” Bernie replied.

“You wish,” Miguel shot back. “They don’t call you Mr. Clean for nothing.”

Miguel removed his long-sleeve jersey to reveal an arm full of tattoos. “It’s warming up Bernie. Warmer every year.”

“Tell me about it. They’ll be selling beachfront property in Antarctica.”

Bernie and Miguel headed west on Pruneridge Avenue, breezed right through the Saratoga Avenue intersection without stopping. Cars obediently slowed as they rode by.

“We should have slowed down,” Bernie griped. “It’s the law.”

Miguel sneered. “Like it matters.”

“Some little old lady might bang her head.”

“Doubt it. She probably asked Uber to put it in creep mode.”

Bernie laughed. “I’ve seen those drivers. Road boulders of the autonomous-bahn.”

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CONTINUED FROM HOME PAGE

Miguel pulled next to Bernie, taking the right lane. “You going to the Critical Mass ride tonight?”

Bernie sat up, took his hands off the handlebars and coasted as he checked his smartphone. “Let’s see. Nope. It’s my week to see my dad. Besides, Critical Mass rides are a bore.”

Miguel agreed. “Uncle Pablo tells stories about past rides, fights, epic traffic jams. Not sure I believe him.”

A passenger in the car behind them leaned out the window. “Get the hell off the road!”

The riders looked back. Miguel gave the passenger the finger. “Make me!”

“I love it!” Bernie said gleefully. “They can pound salt. Welcome to the bike, man. We’ve got FREEDOM!”

Eventually the car went around and as it did, the passenger leaned out and yelled at them.

“What did he say Bernie?”

“Something about calling the cops.”

“Car cameras got us anyway,” Miguel said. “They’re probably running our faces through an image analyzer as we speak.”

“It’s just a warning,” said Bernie. “Until you receive your third.”

“That’s why I don’t have any I.D.,” Miguel said.

“Not many people can do that, Miguel. Everyone has to use Uber for one reason or another.”

“Could be,” said Miguel. “I like living offline, riding my bike.”

“Dad says it won’t be long before you can’t do that, even if you choose to.”

“They wouldn’t. Too much bureaucracy trying to keep tabs on everyone. A few will slip through the cracks.”

The riders quickly reached their destination, taking Lawrence Expressway to access Stevens Creek Boulevard. Noon rush hour was in full swing, the road crowded with Apple employees in cars moving with robotic efficiency. A handful of Teslas, occupied by executives with more money than they knew what to do with, mingled with the cookie-cutter Uber and Lyft sedans.

Miguel quickened the pace in the center lane. Bernie, the slower rider, took his draft. By the time they reached Tantau, they sped along at 25 mph, keeping with traffic.

“Ready?” Miguel yelled, looking back. Bernie gave a thumbs-up.

“Vamonos!”

With nimble dexterity honed from track racing, Miguel sliced to his right, changing lanes, jammed on his disk brakes inches in front of a car. The car lurched to a stop, tires screeching. A puff of blue smoke drifted up, quickly dissipated.

Bernie peeled left and executed the same maneuver, bringing traffic to a standstill. Car systems, alerted to the hazard, brought traffic to a halt. Passengers leaned out windows, screaming profanities. “Damn skidders!”

Miguel and Bernie sped away, dodging left onto a side street and quickly put distance between themselves and Stevens Creek Boulevard.

“Any bets on how long before the drone is overhead?” Bernie asked.

Miguel checked his cyclometer. “If they’re on the ball, we’ve got a minute, maybe two.”

Bernie chuckled. “And now Miguel?”

“I’m thirsty. There’s a 7-11 on the corner. I’m buying. We can park the bikes under a tree. They’ll never find us. You did remove your transponder, didn’t you?”

“Of course,” Bernie replied.

Safely inside, they waited to see if the drone would show. It flew by, hovered momentarily, then continued on, keeping to the road.

Miguel slurped his frozen drink, watching the window. Sucking the dregs into the straw with a death rattle, he sighed. “Love these on a hot day after a long ride. Except when I get a brain freeze.”

Bernie nodded. “How much longer before they find a way to catch us?”

Miguel sneered. “They wouldn’t waste their time, beyond sending a drone to do their leg work. Cops got bigger worries than chasing a couple of bike skidders. Like motorcycle skidders. Now those guys are dangerous.”

Bernie finished his drink in silence. “I was at the Bike Co-Op the other day and got to talking with an old-timer. He told me how he used to do skidders before we were all-robotic.”

“He’s got cojones,” Miguel said. “Not even I would do that.”

“Said they did it just for the thrills. He said you had to really look over the car carefully to be sure it was machine-driven. They’d check the license plates. Even then, they took chances.”

Miguel motioned to Bernie. “Speaking of taking chances, let’s ride up Montebello Road and turn around at the gate. We can be back before dark.”

On Stevens Canyon Road the double-trailer gravel trucks moved over obediently to give room to the riders. They passed the ghost bike at the entrance to Stevens Creek Reservoir Park, gave thanks for being born in different times. Dump truck drivers no longer had to worry about hitting bikes, at least those who cared.

“I don’t much care for this climb,” Bernie said. “It’s steep. Hits 16 percent, according to my cyclometer.”

“Come on Bernie. You’re the climber, not me. You could drop me at your leisure.” At that, Bernie accelerated, forcing Miguel into labored breathing.

Halfway up where the road eased its relentless climb, Miguel caught his breath and rejoined. “Nice. The view I mean.” The early morning fog had long since burned off, offering views of the Mt. Hamilton range and Santa Clara Valley. Hangar One’s aluminum skin at Moffett Field reflected the sun’s rays like a polished mirror.

“All those highrises going up make the valley look more like Manhattan every year,” Miguel said. “Wonder how long it will be before they’re also beachfront property.”

“Not long,” Bernie said. “Alviso was just the beginning.”

“As long as we ride our bikes, we’re doing our part,” Miguel said.

“Yeah, but I believed robotic cars would put more people on bikes, you know, safer and all. It had the opposite effect.”

Miguel drank from his water bottle. “Nothing you can do about it. People ride bikes because they want to. No other reason. All this talk about saving the environment, lip service.”

After the level section ended, the riders downshifted again to take on more steep climbing through the dense chaparral, toyon and manzanita. Their tires clattered over broken pavement, patched one time too many over the past 120 years. They took in the neat vineyards of Ridge Winery hugging the steep hillside.

“My Dad says he used to drive up here with Mom and have lunch, overlooking the valley. Back when they were happily married.”

“At least you still have a mother and father,” Miguel said.

“Thanks Miguel. I’ll go easy on you the rest of the climb.”

At the gate they turned around. “Funny how a road takes on an entirely different complexion when you descend,” said Miguel. “It’s like a different road.”

“I know. You first.”

Miguel led the way on a steep five-mile descent of twists and turns, the stuff that motorcycle racers dream about. And cyclists. As he descended, he had time to take in the road, the scenery, and to contemplate “what ifs.” What if something fails, he thought. A blowout, a fork separation, a deer runs across the road, an oil slick, a car emerges from a driveway, a brake cable snaps, gravel on a corner. So many ways to crash and burn.

Back on Stevens Canyon Road, Miguel waited for Bernie, seconds behind.

“Fun descent.”

Bernie agreed.

While on Stevens Canyon Road, Miguel put his hand on Bernie’s saddle and gave him a friendly pull to pick up the pace.

As Miguel and Bernie rode north on Miller Avenue, a rider approached, pulled up to their side near Stevens Creek Boulevard where rush-hour traffic, even with robotics in full swing, clogged the road.

“Race?”

“Not me,” said Bernie.

Miguel looked over his opponent, recognized him from the Hellyer Park track. He was the rider who cut him off during a sprint, causing him to crash. Miguel considered his chances for revenge. He was big, strong, legs like a locomotive. He would be a worthy opponent on the Stevens Creek Boulevard Scramble.

“You’re on,” Miguel said. “The usual. Right turn on Stevens Creek. Race two and 3/4 miles to San Tomas Expressway. No restrictions.”

The rider agreed. “Name’s Taylor.” Miguel gave his name and they executed the traditional fist-bump to start the competition. Miguel had his manual-shift bike, but he considered the older machines more reliable. He didn’t trust electronic shifting.

As they turned, Taylor immediately started sprinting, splitting the center lane. Miguel knew he had his work cut out. That was the best lane offering the most options when traffic jammed up. But it mattered little, he thought. He’d take the far right lane, left-side lane split.

As they sped up, cars moved in seemingly slow motion, robotically slowing down when the riders approached. Taylor looked to his right, keeping an eye on Miguel.

They stayed within a few bike lengths of each other, equal opponents flying down Stevens Creek Boulevard at 25 mph. At the Tantau Avenue intersection Miguel knew to keep his eyes right where a car might be going straight. Traffic signals had been ripped out of this intersection a few years ago, replaced with the ubiquitous flashing lights.

As a car edged forward. Miguel detected movement and immediately veered left, missing the car by inches. Taylor slowed for a left-turning car, also dodged it and caught up.

“This guy can ride,” Miguel thought.

A long straightaway before the next intersection at Lawrence gave the riders a chance to let go. Traffic lessened here as well, Miguel and Taylor both taking the cars’ draft.

Miguel watched the side streets, made a few minor adjustments to avoid a potential collision.

The real riding took place beyond Lawrence where multiple side streets made things dicey. Miguel watched Taylor barely miss several cars making turns, their collision avoidance systems proving their worth as tire squealed.

They passed the car dealerships at Kiely Boulevard, long since shuttered and now parking lots for Uber and Lyft vehicles.

With a quarter-mile to go, Miguel tapped into his reserves. He pulled slightly ahead of Taylor. Suddenly he saw what looked like an older car. He checked the license plate: antique, with the classic yellow letters on black. He tried to remember the model, but couldn’t.

He noticed the driver in the rear view mirror, not paying attention. Eyes down, he was no doubt looking at his smartphone. He drifted left. Miguel immediately steered left with the car, spilling into the next lane, where the following car’s brakes slammed on.

The driver, suddenly aware of his situation, slammed on his brakes. Taylor, to the far left, squirted by and reached San Tomas Expressway ahead of Miguel.

Miguel watched him ride away as he waved a friendly goodbye.

Bernie caught up several minutes later. “Well?”

“Damn car got in my way. Some guy looking down at his smartphone driving one of those ancient gas-powered cars. He could have killed me. I would have won otherwise. How I hate cars.”


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