Max Synatowsky rode his bike toward the pier. It was early afternoon, so he was not the only young person there. The lake was a popular place to hang out on a weekend, and many of his schoolmates already lounged in the sweltering summer heat. The group had divided into noticeable cliques, the major division being those already in high school and those, like Max, who were yet to start. He pulled to a stop near a group he knew from the middle-school video club. They weren’t exactly friends, but they were not particularly hostile to him either, which was the most Max had come to hope for. Several of the video geeks nodded at him, acknowledging his arrival. Max took it as a positive sign.
“Nice bike, dickwad.”
Max recognized the voice. He turned toward the cluster of high school students and confirmed his suspicion. It was Timothy Brundy, loudmouth jock and bane of the student underclass. Tim was leaning on his own bike, an expensive looking ten-speed with curved-under handlebars and a shiny silver-blue paint job. One of his tires was probably worth more than Max’s entire bike.
“I bet it’s faster than yours,” Max responded. It was a ridiculous thing to claim. Max’s bike was an older three-speed. It was smaller. It had fat all-terrain tires instead of Tim’s skinny racing tires. He had wrapped sliver tape around some of the metal supports to hide the rust, and a cardboard box was bungee strapped to the carry rack over the back tire. It was the exact opposite of Tim’s sleek machine.
Tim laughed. “I’ll take that bet. How about we race. To the end of Lakeshore Drive and back. Loser forfeits his bike.”
Max looked around. Everyone was watching the exchange. He was beginning to regret his words… regret even coming to the lake. But backing down would be worse than losing. “We race around the gravel pit, and you’ve got a deal.”
Tim thought about it for a moment. “Sure, what the hell. Let’s do it.”
They lined up on Lakeshore Drive, one of the high school students stood in front holding a baseball cap in the air as she explained the rules. “The race will go down Lakeshore, turn onto Mill Road, go around the old gravel pit, and then onto Putnam Avenue and back here to the pier. The first one to cross the line back onto Lakeshore Drive is the winner. You can start when my hat hits the ground.”
Max took a deep breath. His heart pounded. Kids on either side shouted encouragement or taunts, but Max couldn’t make out who they supported. His eyes were laser focused on the hat.
“Get ready… get set… GO!” With a dramatic flourish, she tossed the hat down.
Tim shot off the mark with amazing speed. Max was only an instant behind, but he was already losing ground. He peddled furiously, quickly clicking through all three gears as Tim pulled away. When they reached the turn onto Mill Road, Tim was already three whole bike lengths ahead of him.
Max’s bike fishtailed as he flew off of the pavement of Lakeshore Drive onto the gravel of Mill Road. Ahead, he could see Tim slow as his thin racing tires lost traction. Max pumped his peddles with every bit of strength he could muster, and briefly he gained on his opponent. He had calculated correctly… his fatter tires actually gave him an advantage on this terrain.
Mill road straightened out for a stretch, and the gravel became more compact. Tim began to pull away again as his longer legs and greater strength made up for his thin tires. Max gave it all he could but gradually fell farther behind.
They reached the gravel pit, and the road began to curve again. It was crisscrossed with ruts, forcing Tim to slow down and allowing Max to gained ground. Three bikes lengths. Then two. Max was a tantalizing few feet behind when they finally reached Putnam Avenue. The two bikes hopped back onto pavement and began racing down the long straightaway toward the pier.
And that’s when that sleek racing bike showed its worth. Tim clicked through his final few gears and poured on the speed. He pulled away like Max was standing still. Max threw his last bit of strength into peddling. His lungs heaved. The muscles of his legs burned with exertion. But Tim continued to pull away.
It was now or never.
Max reached down with one hand, searching for the small switch under his seat. He clicked it, closing the circuit and sending an electrical current down the thin wire running to the cardboard box over his back tire. He frantically put his hand back on the handle bars as the solid fuel rocket engine ignited and the bike nearly leaped out from under him.
He had spent weeks constructing it. The fuel was a variation on the stuff he used in his model rockets, but this engine was much larger, encased in a big metal pipe rather than a small cardboard tube. He had welded it securely to the frame of his bike and then careful concealed it with the cardboard box. The rocket motor roared, and he was suddenly gaining ground on Tim.
Tim, oblivious to what was happening behind him, tucked himself low over his handlebars and continued peddling. Max held his handlebars in a death grip as his speed quickly increased, any thought of trying to peddle his own bike forgotten as he simply fought to maintain his balance. He caught a quick glimpse of Tim’s shocked expression as he rocketed past.
Max flew down Putnam, still accelerating. The rocket should have burned out by now, he was sure of it, but he kept gaining speed. The pier was quickly approaching, and the shouts of his schoolmates could be heard even over the roar of the rocket motor. He lifted his hand to wave them away, warn them that he couldn’t stop, but had to quickly grab the handlebars again as the bike wobbled. People dove out of his way as he reached the end of Putnam Avenue, shot across Lakefront Drive, and onto the pier. He rattled across the boards of the pier, down its entire length, then off the end. He finally let go of the bike as it hit the water, his body briefly skipping across the lake’s surface like a large stone thrown by a mischievous god. He thrashed for a moment in the water before standing up, realizing it was only waist deep.
Max half swam, half walked toward the shore. Partway there, his foot snagged his bike. He dragged it with him the rest of they way. When he emerged from the water he was immediately surrounded by a crowd of yelling youngsters. He walked past them to the beginning of the pier where Tim had finally arrived.
Tim looked angry. Max waited for him to speak, to accuse him of cheating, but Tim remained silent. He was looking at the cheering crowds around Max.
This is it, Max thought, this is what winning feels like. He soaked it in, his gaze drifting from face to face. People who wouldn’t have given him the time of day only twenty minutes earlier. He finally turned and addressed Tim.
“I’ll take my bike now.”