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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Herb Benham

I ride a mountain bike downtown. This is less a comment about my environmental character than it is geography. Work is 10 blocks from home, the pool 20 blocks. I am close to things and it seems traitorous not to ride a bike.

The other day after a swim, I arranged to meet a friend at Starbucks. We left the pool at the same time and given that our routes skirted the east side of downtown, and the streets normally aren't crowded, I would have bet that he would have arrived first.

He didn't. That was surprising given that I had ridden at a casual pace. Maybe my casual was the new fast.

"I can't believe you beat me here," he said. "I ran into traffic."

I tried not to gloat, which is to say I gloated quietly. The disparity in arrival times was evidence that it might be faster to navigate city streets on a bike. Especially a mountain bike, which offers options that include sidewalks, alleys and empty lots, one of which I had traversed in order to get to Starbucks.

A few days later, I rode home for lunch. There is an empty dirt lot on the corner of F and 20th that has a For Sale sign with David Gay's name as the listing agent. Dirt lots are tempting. It is more than a shortcut. It is an invitation to the open road and the simple life, and a time tunnel back to the wild west. There are no fences, asphalt and signs other than David Gay's.

Mountain bikes love dirt like Haystacks Calhoun loved pies. A bike seeks dirt, instinctively taking the exuberant rider along for the ride.

I made a hard left off F, skirted the alley briefly and then sped across the dirt, standing up on the pedals. It was a chance to be a kid again. I did everything but pump my fists declaring victory and yell, "I am riding my bike. I am free. I own this city. Everybody works for me."

I hit a few bumps, holes and what appeared to be dried grass. They call that terrain. I would have jumped a boulder and a fallen tree had there been one and had I been capable of doing that, which I am not.

What fun. For a minute I had become a mountain-biking, downtown-pedaling god. What a life I had. I was a lucky guy.

When I pulled onto the sidewalk near Big Popy's Deli, I looked down at my tires; they were specked with goat heads, which looked like small, pointy starfish with one arm imbedded in the knobby tires. I had ridden through a dried sticker patch.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the tires had hundreds of stickers in them, but it wouldn't have been one to say there were 40 or 50 in each tire. Some of the goatheads came loose when I swept my hand across the tires and others broke off leaving a small pointy Starfish-like arm in the rubber.

How do I get those out? If I had a microscope, a pair of tweezers and half an afternoon, I could do it. If I missed one, I had a flat tire.

I missed one. The next day, the front tire was flat. It was a small price to pay for living in the Wild West riding a steel pony into immortality.

These are Herb Benham's opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.