Fending for Yourself
by Richard Drdul
I discovered a new bicycle accessory a few weeks ago, one that I had never seen before. I saw it on another cyclist's bike. It turns out that Nathan was from the UK, and was taking several months to ride across the North America. He called this marvelous accessory a fender, and told me that in some parts of the world, where apparently it's quite common, it's called a mudguard.
His fender was a truly ingenious invention: a slim strip of curved plastic that fits around the wheel, and prevents water and dirt from spraying onto the bike and rider. Once I figured out how the fender worked, I realised what was so odd about Nathan: the distinct lack of a dark stripe up his back.
I knew at that moment that I would have to get a set of fenders for my bicycle. Nathan was quite helpful, describing where he had purchased his fenders in the UK. Unbelievably, he told me that they could be purchased at any bike shop. I had assumed that he must have bought his fenders from some weird mad scientist type who made recumbents in his basement. Flush with optimism, I returned home, wiped the dirt off my face, my clothes and my bike, and started searching for a set.
After phoning all the local bike shops (MTB Works, Mountain Bikes R Us, Gonzo Bikes and Fat Tire Heaven), I was ready to give up. My inquiries had been met with disbelief, laughter, dismissal, and hostility, in that order. One bike shop employee accused me of being a wimp for wanting to stay clean and dry, and another threatened to call the police to put a stop to my "crank calls". Then I had an idea. Why not phone the bike shop in the UK where Nathan had bought his? I remembered the name: "Practical Cycles". Directory assistance was able to give me a number for a shop in London, and I dialed it with a trembling finger. I was greeted by a heavily-accented voice. Nervously, I explained what I was looking for, remembering to refer to it as a mudguard. My heart leapt when the voice responded "Yup, we've got 'em. What size d'yer want?" Size? I couldn't believe I had found somewhere to buy fenders, and now I was being offered a choice of size!
Well, to make a long story short, we determined what size I needed, and a couple of weeks later, my fenders arrived. I installed them on my bike, remembering how they had looked on Nathan's machine. Then I went for a ride.
It was raining -- the perfect conditions for a test-ride. I was ecstatic. There was no more spray up my back, on my feet or in my face. I actually had to drink from the water bottle instead of catching mouthfuls of spray off the front wheel. And when my rear end remained dry after an hour, I knew I wouldn't be needing those plastic shorts anymore.
On the way home, I met a group of cyclists from a local racing club out for a training ride. I waved at them, and to my surprise, no-one waved back. I waved again, and this time all I got was a couple of sneers.
I didn't understand. Cyclists had always returned my greetings. What had happened?
I've come to realise that's it's my fenders. For some reason, North American cyclists react violently to the sight of fenders. Eight year olds on full-suspension mountain bikes kick dirt at me. Skin-suited grandmothers on time trial bikes run me off the road. Pregnant women stoking tandems spit at me as they roar past. And even recumbent cyclists in full fairings swerve to avoid me.
The only cyclists who seem to accept me now are the ones who ride on the sidewalk. They're the moms riding department store bikes equipped with steel rims, cottered cranks and baby seats. They always wave vigorously when they see me, and I can imagine that they're saying to themselves "Isn't it nice that people like that are still able to get out?"
I know that I've been marginalised because of my fenders -- pushed out of the cycling mainstream, so to speak. I've become part of the cycling fringe, a twilight zone inhabited by clowns on unicycles, unkempt old men carrying bags of aluminum cans to redeem at the grocery store, and do-it-yourselfers on contraptions built from recycled 10-speeds. I've grown to like it out here on the fringe, though. Me and the clowns are dry and happy. I've even convinced a few of them to install fenders on their unicycles.
© Richard Drdul