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At the Back: Bike debt was money well spent

Neal Rogers recalls his descent into cycling madness; it involved a credit card and a mountain bike

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VeloNews Managing Editor Neal Rogers recalls his descent into cycling madness; it involved a credit card and a Gary Fisher Hoo Koo E Koo mountain bike. This article originally appeared as an “At the Back” column in an April 2006 issue of VeloNews magazine.

I have credit card debt. I have for years. Thirteen years, to be exact. The purchase that started my slide into cyclical monthly payments and variable annual percentage rates was the steel, battleship gray Gary Fisher Hoo Koo E Koo I bought on impulse with a piece of plastic for my 22nd birthday.

It was March of 1995, my final semester of college, and at less than $700, it was that year’s best bang for the buck. It came equipped with a silver RockShox Quadra suspension fork and indexed GripShift; I added clipless pedals, making it the first bike I’d ever had with any of these new, life-changing technologies.

And man, it just looked cool.

That bike changed my life, and in a profound way. The heavy, rigid $300 mountain bike I’d bought three years earlier was no joy on singletrack. It was a poorly shifting monstrosity, and because of the bike’s poor performance, I believed that cycling just wasn’t all that it was made out to be. However, on my Fisher, cycling transformed into something that was seriously fun.

It was still tough, but the idea of becoming a “cyclist” was suddenly within reach. On that bike I discovered, and eventually mastered, trails in the redwoods of the U.C. Santa Cruz campus. I rode at every opportunity, including to, from, and sometimes during class. I learned the nuances of cadence, nutrition and two-wheel slides.

Pedaling uphill I came face-to-face with the internal battles that define endurance exercise. Gliding downhill I developed a new understanding of gravity and traction, often through trial and error. I even made a pilgrimage to the Hoo Koo E Koo trail on Mount Tamalpais, the birthplace of mountain biking and my beloved bike’s namesake.

For the first time in my life, rather than forcing myself to exercise strenuously, I looked forward to it. I quickly shed 10 pounds of collegiate beer weight. I wore poison oak rashes as a badge of honor, and what I occasionally sacrificed in skin I gained in a newfound confidence, both on the bike and off.

I loved that damn bike so much I cleared a space in my bedroom to hang it from the wall. It wasn’t just a means of transportation — it was a piece of art. And to remind myself of the investment I’d made, I tacked each month’s credit card statement on the wall next to the bike.

As every cyclist learns, the entry fee for riding doesn’t end with the purchase of a bike. On top of the initial shorts, shoes, helmet and sunglasses were the rotating but steady expenses of tubes, tires, brake pads, chains, cassettes, race entries and the occasional tube of antibiotic ointment. The more I rode, the more time and money I spent at my local bike shop, and that initial credit card balance crept up instead of down.

Over the past 13 years, paychecks and income tax returns have been justifiably split between cycling expenses and bills, and that pile of debt has continued to grow in parallel with my passion for the sport. I’ve amassed a quiver of bicycles, starting with a road bike, followed by a full-suspension mountain bike, a time-trial machine and a cyclocross rig — every one of them worth more than the car I drove during college.

My love affair with cycling drove me to fund a trip to the 2000 Tour de France on plastic; I have paid to enter races I had no chance of winning and gambled on an unpaid internship at VeloNews in 2001. Surviving on credit, I viewed that period as the year of grad school I never attended, and within a few years I was traveling to the Tour on the company dime.

I’ve finally gotten a handle on the debt that began with my Gary Fisher. And I’ve never once regretted the impulse purchase, and I still don’t. It wasn’t just a quality bike — it was a portal into a new world, and a new way of life. Cycling has led me into neighborhoods, both locally and globally, that I would have otherwise never discovered. The friends I’ve made through cycling are some of the closest I have, even the ones I secretly hate whenever the conversation ends and the steep climbing begins.

On the plus side, I now have an amazing credit score. And 13 very lucky years later, compounded interest and all, it’s still the best money I’ve ever spent.