It’s early on a Sunday morning. Outside the Battle House, bellmen lounge and joke beside queued carts. Downtown signals blink yellow. No hurry. It’s early enough to score parking at Bienville Square. I’m in the shade across Charleston Street from Callaghan’s Irish Social Club. I strike a pose on a 10-speed Jamis comfort bike.
“No, I don’t want you to raise my seat.”
“Of course, I can adjust my helmet!”
I know how to ride a bike! When I was 6, a circus bear shamed me into it. If he could ride, so could I. But today feels like a pre-circus day. Rolling forward, stiff-legged, feet planted on the ground, blending with the couples gathering for the tour of Old Mobile, I’m more tourist than writer.
Bill and Sharon Host discovered bicycle touring as they filled time on a Jacksonville stopover. Their hometown had more interesting history, so they birthed a business – Two Wheel Tours. Bill jokes that it’s just an expensive hobby but adds, “We’ll keep on until it stops being fun.”
The city is mid-July sauna. Sweat pools in the usual places as we hope for a route that dashes from one shady spot to another.
Bill wrangles the herd, single file, into the street. Sharon brings up the rear, motivating stragglers. Somewhere in the middle, I wobble. The seat is too low. On each upstroke, my knees rise above my waist. I’m a cartoon character, a too-tall dude on a too-small contraption. It’s the price of being prideful!
“Comfort bike” is a cruel oxymoron. The shock-absorbing seat and front forks vibrate through my arms and keister. They may ward off butt callouses, but comfort?
That’s a stretch. Engineers have mostly neutralized the sensuality of the journey, but on two wheels, potholes are personal.
Discomfort ebbs as we caravan past pastel homes awash in vegetation. We cruise a live oak tunnel; a chunk of bark iced with resurrection ferns lies in the roadway.
The Hosts have strung together a six-flag tour of the Port City. The route meanders through three historic districts: Oakleigh Garden, Church Street East and Lower Dauphin. Greenery brushes heads as we pedal under palms. Ancient roots crowd sidewalks. Motion breezes cool steamy bodies.
At Cooper Riverside Park, a man tosses river-fresh crabs into a bucket. A buddy snoozes on the retaining wall. Sharon gestures toward the futuristic warship moored across the water. She tells of the St. Louis engineer who designed the craft’s helicopter pad. Before this, he’d not seen his ideas transmuted into metal. His tale and others personalize the script.
Despite five years of driving in Mobile, the topography still eludes me. The Bankhead Tunnel always disorients. From the Bay side, I plunge into always-on luminescence, dirt-dive beneath the river, and resurface in the three-story, New Orleans-esque world of mid-city. Albert Einstein once said, “Life is like riding a bicycle. In order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
Cycling connects dots. Bay breezes anchor with nautical aromas. Greenery shades and cools. Somewhere near Cathedral Plaza the machine and I merge. It goes whichever way I lean. And all Mobile, Mr. Einstein, becomes relative.
Two Wheel Tours
Bill and Sharon Host offer three routes that highlight the history, architecture and natural beauty of the coast. Sunday tours may include brunch at a local eatery for an extra charge. For prices and reservations, go to 2-wheel-tours.com.
text by Giles Vaden • photos by Dennis Holt