The Bicycle Diaries: Misadventures on two wheels

Author with his “cool” unicycle, Che beret and David Attenborough book (Photos provided by: Folwell Dunbar)

Keeping it Cool in Key West

In my early teens, like a lot of kids in their early teens, I had an unfledged sense of what was “cool.” Unlike my dad who had grown up with Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart, I had been (regrettably) influenced by the likes of Fonzie, Gallagher, and Mork. I wore brightly colored suspenders with baggy army fatigues, I rolled up one pant leg and the opposite shirtsleeve, I had a blonde streak in my hair inspired by Mel Gibson in Mad Max, and I juggled disparate objects while riding a unicycle. I also liked to rattle off animal fun-facts in the voice of my hero, Sir David Attenborough. (Come to think of it, I still do that.)

On a family trip to Key West, Florida, I met a girl named Lilly. Lilly was as cute as a baby marmoset, was single and, most importantly, was younger than me, i.e., impressionable.

So, I did my best to, well, impress her. I wore my Che Guevera black beret with a red star, I quoted lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and I blathered fun facts about the local fauna, including the Key deer, Florida panther and American crocodile. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Lilly was not impressed.

On a bicycle tour of town, I came up with a new, foolproof plan: I would show off my musical talents by drumming Beatles tunes on the hoods and roofs of parked cars. I would serenade Lilly with “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Eight Days a Week,” and “Love Me Do.” During the ride, she would surely fall in love with me like Barbara Bach with Ringo Starr on the set of Caveman

But alas, it was not to be. While focusing on my drumming, I failed to adjust my steering to accommodate the occasional wider vehicle. During a rather spirited rendition of “Get Back,” my knee crashed into the bumper of a white Chevrolet van. I collapsed on the pavement, curled up like a pill bug and howled, Helter Skelter, in agony.

Lilly swerved into traffic in order to miss me, stopped and, to my dismay, came back to see if I was OK.

I was not.

Like the final chord from “A Day in the Life,” my bicycle tour (and potential date) had come to an abrupt and dramatic end.    

For the rest of the trip, I searched (unsuccessfully) for sunken pirate treasure. I tied a large magnet to a long rope and dragged it through the shallows. “Surely,” I thought, “Lilly would find this cool…”

Le Tour de Campus

Duke University in Durham, North Carolina is split into two campuses, East and West. I lived in the East but took classes in the West. Every day, I would ride the 1.8 miles between the two on my Trek mountain bike.

During my commute, I would often race the university shuttle bus. Over time, a heated rivalry developed between me and the driver. We became the Fausto Coppi and the Gino Bartali of the Piedmont.

James B. Duke smoking in front of the chapel, waiting for the race (Photos provided by: Folwell Dunbar)

For me, Fausto, the key to victory was the traffic light at the midway point. If it was red, the bus had to stop, but I didn’t. I’d run the light, pick up a substantial lead, and cruise to the finish line, a statue of James B. Duke, the tobacco baron who had founded the university. If the light was green though, it was a different story; it was anybody’s race…

On the Friday before summer break, the final stage of Le Tour de Campus, the bus and I left East Campus in an all-out sprint. For the first three-quarters of a mile, the lead changed several times.

As we approached the traffic light though, I saw a yellow glow, and I beamed with confidence. I glared over at the passengers and raised my arms in triumph like Lance Armstrong on the Champs-Élysées – until, that is, my chin slammed into the bus’s large rectangular side-view mirror. There was a loud “Crack!” I flew backwards, while my bike, still in the race, continued on without me. It sailed through the intersection, wobbled up a steep hill, careened off the side of the road, flipped over the curb, and landed in a bush.

The bus driver took an obligatory glance down at me to make sure that I was still alive, flashed a crooked smile, raised a solitary finger, and stepped on the gas. As he pulled away, he waved a yellow jersey out the window – and the passengers all cheered.

(not) Breaking Away

There was a basketball game that night, so I had the William R. Perkins Library all to myself.  

I ran the stacks like a bibliophile on speed. I found a first edition of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and a leather-bound copy of La Relación by Cabeza de Vaco. I was in history geek nirvana!  

When the librarian finally kicked me out, it was almost midnight. The game had ended and the main quad was all but empty.

The library is next to the Chapel, which is located at the top of a long drive ending in a turnaround. Like the brakeman on a bobsled, I liked to build up a good head of steam for the run down Chapel Drive.

The author recently went riding in Idaho–and wore a helmet! (Photos provided by: Folwell Dunbar)

I rolled up my right pant leg, slung my backpack over my shoulder (in a manner that was cool but definitely not safe), and, because it was cold, tucked my hands inside my sweatshirt sleeves. I jumped on my bike and took off like Dennis Christopher in Breaking Away.

As I approached the turnaround, I was going so fast my eyes began to water. Through the tears, and at the last possible second, I saw a chain stretched across the street. Apparently, the turnaround was closed to traffic (and me).

In the split second that remained, I envisioned three scenarios: 1) like Ponch in that famous episode from CHiPs, I could slide beneath the chain and pop up on the other side, 2) like Evel Knievel on his Harley-Davidson XR-750, I could jump over it or 3) like a Cirque Du Soleil acrobat, I could do some gravity-defying combination of the two and land on the moving saddle in a handstand. Unfortunately, neither of these scenarios came to pass. I simply hit the chain.

The front tire collapsed like an accordion, and I sailed over the handlebars. I flew through the air for about twenty yards and then tumbled across the pavement for another twenty.   When I finally came to a bloody halt, I figured the worst was over. Then, I heard a whistling sound above my head. Like Wile E. Coyote, I looked up just in time to be struck in the face by the crumpled remains of my broken bicycle.

Hearing the commotion, hundreds of students streamed out of dorm rooms and frat houses all across campus. It was as if Duke had just beaten North Carolina in the NCAA finals. Author’s note: When they saw my asphalt-flayed body, many of the students screamed and ran back to their rooms.  

Fortunately for me, the Medical Center was nearby…

The next day, the school newspaper, The Chronicle, ran a headline on page three that read, “Sophomore Survives Epic Crash.”

From my hospital gurney, I added, “Just barely.”


Folwell is an educator, artist and bicycle crash survivor. He now wears a helmet. He can be reached at    



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