It was 11:20 p.m. and the sweat that started leaking from of my foreheadn had now slicked its way down to the lower portion of my back. Leaning hard to the right, I made the turn onto Spring Garden Street rather smoothly, hardly breaking pace. It was brisk and dark and desolate,
and when the wind snuck down into my fleece, the icy feeling forced my legs to thrust even harder on the pedals, causing even more perspiration.
It was 11:27 p.m., and I still had a half mile to go.It was the lonely night of Feb. 27 when I went looking for the Pretzel
Riders. Two-and-a-half years ago, Laura Csira, a senior exercise science major,
(chosen because of her love for bicycling) posted a message to a Philadelphia
bike forum on the Internet.
The message suggested that she and a few friends meet at the museum and ride their bikes down to the Center City Pretzel Co., on Washington Street in South Philadelphia
to chow down on the night’s fresh batch of pretzels.Little did Csira know what she had done.
At this point, neither did I. At approximately 11:35 p.m., I rolled up onto the museum sidewalk where two bikers stood in conversation with each other.
“Excuse me,” I said to one of the mysterious road warriors. “Is this the pretzel ride?”
“It sure is,” he responded.
I was discouraged. Thinking that it would have been bigger, bet ter, much more of an event than this, I moseyed over to the steps and sat down, out of breath, out of hope and shivering.
Then, like magic, it happened. From every-which direction it seemed that bikers started to appear directly out of the night sky. Two riders turned into five, which turned into 15, which eventually
turned into 30. The occurrence was breathtaking. Some had great bushy beards, some had tattoos, some wore courier bags, some wore pink and one individual was riding on a contraption that I had never in my wildest dreams imagined before.
His name was Ashley Steigerwaltz, a 25-year-old South Philadelphia resident. His bike sat roughly 42 inches off the ground, consisted of one bike frame stacked atop another and was welded fast. It turns out, Steigerwaltz was one of the original
riders who saw Csira’s post online and showed up at the bottom of the stairs two-and-a-half years ago.
And slowly but surely, everything began to come together – pretzel riders, story and all.
“It started off with maybe five people and it maintained that size for a good year and then last summer it really started to grow,” Steigerwaltz said of the Pretzel Riders’ golden days. “I like it either way. I enjoyed it when it was small because it was just me and my close group of friends and we’d all get to hang out and ride bikes and eat pretzels together.”
It was 11:45 p.m. and the anticipation was growing.
“But it got bigger and now more people come out and you meet new people who are into the same thing,” Steigerwaltz said.
Just as the clock struck 11:48 p.m., an anonymous scream was sounded: “All right, let’s ride.”
And we were off. Down John. F. Kennedy Boulevard the pretzel riders raced, dodging cars and pedestrians, with fresh pretzels in mind. No car could break up the mob, no pothole or road block or red light could dampen the mood of the riders. It was awesome, and somewhere while circling
around Center City, all 30 riders morphed into one, and I finally understood what made this tradition so beautiful: it wasn’t the two miles of coverage or the tasty pretzels or the cardio enhancement
– it was the unity.
“I’m glad that the ride has turned out the way it has,” Csira said, looking back on the tradition of the pretzel ride. “I never thought it would turn out the way it did, but it’s really cool that people can meet up and ride bikes and eat pretzels together. As long as everyone rides responsibly.”
Of course, there are always a few bandits in the group. “A couple times, a few of us have actually done the ride as a race,” said Chris Raimonte, an 18-year-old South Philadelphia resident. Raimonte’s hair was held back by a bandanna, his jeans were worn thin and displayed scattered holes. His blue sweatshirt matched with the same wear and tear.
“The loser has to buy everyone else pretzels,” he said, as a grin crept over his face. Crossing over Walnut Street, my chain began to stutter and skip. Playing with the gears a bit, I tried to find a mesh that the bike agreed with. After several tries, somewhere around South Street, the chain popped off its sprocket and the Pretzel Riders were gone.I hopped out of the saddle and worked quickly
at mending the chain. Time was racing by as the riders raced ahead. When the chain was fixed, I peeled out in a frenzy, trying to ignore the burn in my legs. But I already accepted that I wouldn’t see the riders again until I arrived at the Center City Pretzel Co.
“People who do the ride are bike commuters
or just people who use the bike as a means of transportation,” Steigerwaltz said.
“We’re all used to riding, so this ride is nothing for us. It’s more the social aspect than just doing the ride itself.”
Of course, by the time I arrived, everyone already had a steamy pretzel in hand.
Steigerwaltz reassured me with a full, bearded mouth, “Any real-deal pretzel vendor in Philadelphia gets their pretzels from this guy.”
Still perspiring, I got into line. I reached into my pocket, but found nothing there. I slowly pulled my backpack off and searched the pockets. Nothing except for a battery and some lint. I checked my coat, and then my pants again, still to no avail.
The sweat ran faster as I realized that after all the riding, adrenalaine and suspense, I forgot my dollar for the four mouthwatering pretzels I had been dreaming about all night. Dejected and outraged, I got back onto my bike and rode home hungry, the wind in my face, flinging tears off my cheek as I peddled.The whole way home, I could feel the Pretzel Riders snickering behind me.
T.C. Mazar can be reached at email@example.com.