On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 1/1/2004
Kids on Bikes
I set out on my bike on Thanksgiving morning to meet some friends for a ride. It was a crisp, late autumn day in Northern California. Not cold by Minnesota standards perhaps, but still pretty brisk for riding a bike. As I was cruising along the bike path between my town and the next town over, I saw a small boy riding toward me on his little bike. At least I think it was a boy: he was all bundled up for the cold morning, with a scarf wrapped around his face right up to his wind-buffed button of a nose.
I couldn’t see if he was smiling, but I’m fairly certain he was having fun, judging from the busy industry he brought to the task of moving his bike down the trail. Seeing him out there, on a brisk holiday morning, creating an adventure for himself on his bike, under his own steam, made me smile. And more than that, it tapped a wellspring of memory within me. It recalled for me all the bike rides of my own youth, tooling around the country roads west of Portland, Oregon. It reminded me of what a liberating, empowering force those collective bicycles of my childhood were.
Seeing this little tyke on the bike path also reminded me that these days, some parents only let their kids ride in places perceived to be safe, such as bike paths or parks. In my day, we rode pretty much everywhere: back roads, boulevards, around our neighborhoods, through shopping districts--the precursors of malls--and even on dirt single track. Is today’s world inherently more dangerous for a child cyclist than it was 40 or 50 years ago? I can’t say. But the media-driven angst about traffic, pedophiles, gangs, and god-knows-what has convinced a lot of parents that it isn’t prudent to let their kids roam free. Whether their fears and prohibitions are justified or not, it’s a shame the kids are denied the independence to make their way in the world on their bikes, because free-roaming mobility is what bikes do best...the mobility to explore and discover and expand your horizons, and to generally just fart around, in the timeless, heedless way of kids.
I can’t recall exactly how old I was when I first learned to ride a bike, but it had to be before I turned eight. We moved that year, and I know I had begun riding on the street in the old neighborhood, before we moved. I learned to ride on my big sister’s big blue bike...what in those days was called a girl’s bike, or sometimes a step-through, with the top tube following the down tube to the region of the cranks. Back in the 50’s, at least as far as I can remember, no one I knew had smaller, kid-sized bikes like Sting Rays or Orange Crates. The bikes were full-size and full-figured: big, lumbering, fat-tired tankers weighing well over 30 pounds.
I was far too little to reach the pedals on a regular boy’s bike, but the dropped top tube of a girl’s bike--ostensibly provided so girls could ride in skirts--allowed me to reach the pedals, even if the point of the saddle was poking me in the middle of my back. Somewhere in one of our family albums, there is a snapshot of me standing over that bike, or more accurately, standing in the bike. With my stubby little legs on the ground, my crotch barely clears the crankset. I couldn’t come close to sitting on the seat, but I could stand on the pedals, grip the bars, and chug up and down Cashmur Lane for a country block or two. I can’t honestly claim to remember how I felt then, but I like to imagine, as I rolled up the street, with the pavement slipping by at a heady 10-mph, I felt the first intimations of how cool this was going to be: this translating of my pedal strokes into smooth, liquid progress through the world.
I’m also a little fuzzy as to when I got a first bike of my own...a boy’s bike. This memory business is tricky, and as I think back and retrieve more images from my childhood, I may have to revise my previous comments about full-size bikes. I do recall that I had a bike of my own while we were still in that old neighborhood, and as I couldn’t have been big enough at that point to handle a full-sized bike, it must have been scaled down somewhat. I cannot recall a thing about that bike except that I was given a bizarre kit to embellish it: a rubber seat cover in the shape of a little Hopalong Cassidy cowboy saddle, replete with faux leather tooling, plus some doohickies to make the bars look like a horse’s bridle. It must have been incredibly uncomfortable to ride that silly saddle, but all I remember is that I was thrilled to be the only kid on the block with a bike so flamboyantly accessorized.
When my legs had grown long enough, I finally got a real big bike. I may or may not have had blocks of wood on the pedals to help me reach them, but I know for sure I was a long way from being able to stand over the top tube with both feet on the ground. It seems so natural now to stand over a bike at a rest stop on a ride, elbows on the bars, munching a snack. But that was an impossibility for a youngster. In fact, it was a grave liability: one of the most common and indelible memories of childhood is the mind-numbing pain of crushing one’s tender little nuts on the top tube. When your feet don’t reach the ground, being on a bike is a bit like being on a high-wheeler: you’re only on it when it’s in motion. Mounting the bike is like mounting a horse: put the left foot on the pedal, shove off, and throw the right leg over the saddle as you roll away.
That first big bike--the one that ushered me into the world of two-wheeled liberation--was a used bike. Although my folks were not dirt poor, they were as frugal as if they were, and they made a virtue out of making do, reusing, and recycling. (I admire and practice those values myself now, but as a greedy, I-want-it-all-now kid, I was frustrated by their little economies.) My grandfather, who owned a machine shop and was handy in all the metalworking trades, had renovated the bike and painted it a bright, fire-engine red. I would have preferred a new bike, but this one was really about as good as new, and it served me well for a few years, allowing me to widen the circle of neighborhoods within which I was a comfortable traveler...a little man of the world.
As a budding artist, I saw those decal-free red tubes and big, blank fenders as a canvas awaiting my talents, and with my Testor model paints, I added what must have been woefully crude pinstriping and other graphic flourishes of doubtful taste and sloppy execution. Funky as they undoubtedly were, I loved my customizing touches, the things that made the bike my own. Already, I understood my bike to be an extension of myself...almost as much a part of me as a prosthesis.
Eventually, my good parents did the right thing and bought me a brand-new bike, for my 11th birthday in March, 1958. We were sitting down to my birthday dinner when someone asked me to run out to the den on a little fabricated errand. I belted down the hall and round the corner, and skidded to a stop in mid-stride. There, gleaming as if lit from within, was this marvelous, shining, dazzling apparition: a brilliantly perfect Columbia Flyer, resplendent in ruby red and snow white, with elegant gold pinstriping swirling around every tube and lug. I could not have been more surprised, nor more overwhelmed by a tsunami of rapturous joy.
All of these early bikes from the 50’s were what we used to call paper-boy bikes, but which now seem to be identified as cruiser bikes or town bikes. They all had curving tubes, wide, motorcycle handlebars, abbreviated tractor seats, chain guards, and generous fenders. None of my bikes had the ersatz, moto-wannabe touches such as imitation gas tanks and streamlined headlight farings, but they were definitely built for comfort rather than speed. They all had one speed and foot brakes. My Columbia Flyer was at least a bit leaner and friskier looking than its clunky predecessors, running on slightly skinnier tires, with smaller fenders, and overall, conveying a sense of speedy efficiency...relatively speaking of course.
Bikes such as these were the standard workhorses of my generation of kids, and with only modest changes, those of my father’s and grandfather’s generations as well. We rode the heck out of them. Worked them hard and did little in the way of intelligent maintenance, and yet, for the most part, the bikes--free of the complexities of derailleurs and hand brakes, and the vulnerability of lightweight rims and tires--took the abuse and kept on truckin.’
We loved nothing better than to race down a hill, zoom up to our friends, stomp back on the brake, and throw the bike into a gaudy, fishtailing slide through a patch of gravel. We swiped a few of our mother’s clothes pins and an old deck of cards and clipped the cards onto our fender struts, so that the spinning spokes slapped the cards and made a thrumming, sputtering racket...a wishful imitation--to our eager ears, anyway--of the sound of a motorcycle. Do kids still do this? Does this need to be explained to a younger generation? How many moms out there still have clothes pins? (Right after I wrote that sentence, my phone rang, and it was one of my son’s old friends calling. This kid--now 25--works as a wrench in a local bike shop, and we always talk bike lore when we meet. So I asked him if he would know what I was talking about if I mentioned playing cards in the spokes, and he said, “Oh heck yeah! Makes it sound like a motorcycle! Jeez, we should sell cards in the bike store!” So I guess the answer to my question is yes.)
I grew up in a hilly neighborhood. Very hilly! Not quite San Francisco steep, but close. Going downhill was a blast, but getting those hefty, single-speed bikes up the hills was hard work! The term we used for leaping out of the saddle and stomping on the pedals was “pumping.” I have no idea whether that was a regional term or was current throughout the cycling culture of the time. Pumping iron, indeed: we grew very strong muscling those bikes around.When I see the statistics about the epidemic of obesity among today’s youth, and I see so many kids getting no more exercise than a thumb workout on the controls of their video games...well, it makes me wonder whether the alleged dangers of bikes on back roads isn’t less worrisome than the dangers of growing up to be a fat tub of blubber.
There definitely were dangers inherent in youth cycling, even in those innocent days. All the stats you read will tell you that kids crash more frequently that adult riders, and we were no exception. The acquisition of that new Columbia Flyer precipitated one of my worst crashes. No, I didn’t trash my lovely new bike. Here’s what happened. I got the bike in mid-March, just before the beginning of the Little League season. I was totally psyched by the prospect of riding my shiny new bike to Little League try-outs. How cool would that be? The envy of every kid around! But my practical, common-sensical mother was afraid my new bike would be stolen or damaged in the scrum of several hundred bouncy boys at the ball fields. So she insisted I ride my old bike...my hopelessly, egregiously, pathetically funky old bike. Geez, was I mad! I was just about crying tears of rage and frustration as I coasted down the long hill from our house.
I was so mad--at the world in general and at that beat-up old bike in particular--that I did something very stupid. It’s hard to believe anyone could be this dumb, but what I did was I leaned forward--as I zoomed downhill--and kicked my bike very forcefully right in the front spokes. You can picture what happened next, right? Spokes instantly grab foot and jam it against the forks. Bike instantly does a spectacular front somersault, with flailing, idiot boy attached, all ending up in a grisly, gory tangle some way down the road.
Fortunately, green bones and a rubbery resilience are given to youngsters to compensate for a lack of experience and intelligence. I walked away from that one with just an extravagant display of road rash...one of the first of many. Several of my boyhood friends were not so lucky. One boy ran head-on into a 50’s era Buick and was essentially disembowled by the pointy hood ornament. (He survived.) Another flipped over a guardrail and impaled himself on an iron picket fence. (He did not survive.) His funeral was a wake-up call to all of us blissfully oblivious boys that we were not in fact immortal.
As we grew into our early teen years, our bike adventures grew with us, and we ventured further and further from home. In those blessedly cyclometer-free days, I have no idea how far we rode, but it sometimes took all day to get there and back. This was the genesis of a life-long love of cycle-touring for me, even if the bikes were crude and our skills were rough. Sometimes our rides were long journeys of discovery to new neighborhoods or even well out into the country. Sometimes they simply amounted to days spent larking about aimlessly, happy to just be on the loose, carefree and full of mischief. At some point, we discovered the delights of riding on the dirt, on trails through the woods. We took off our fenders and anything else that could be removed in an effort to lighten the bikes, then flung ourselves in wild abandon down bumpy, root-bound, rock-strewn single tracks. I suppose, in a way, we were pioneering the terrain of the as-yet-to-be-invented mountain bike. We had no idea we were on to something new and special. It was just another way for us to have a blast on a bike.
When I was a freshman in high school in 1962, biking took a new turn for a few of my friends. They bought these funny bikes with hand brakes and derailleurs. We at first called them English bikes, perhaps because Raleigh was one of the first and biggest sellers in this new niche. Rick and Willy, two of my better friends at school, organized a bike tour to ride from Portland all the way to Vancouver, BC...what is that? 300 miles? Wow! I was excited. This took cycling to a whole new level in my mind. This was epic! I wanted to go. I still didn’t have much money of my own--my only income deriving from mowing lawns and working as a golf caddy--so I begged my parents for yet another new bike: a “10-speed.”
But my practical, common-sensical parents were having none of it. They pointed out to me that I was just on the brink of getting my Learner’s Permit to drive a car, and when that happened--according to them--I would quickly forget all about bikes. And they were, it turns out, right. Up to a point.
If one were to plot a graph of bike use by kids, it would probably peak at around age 14, then taper off at 15, when kids can get their Learner’s Permit, and plummet to near zero at 16, when they can get their very own Driver’s License. The age of 15/16 marks the great, yawning divide in the cycling lives of most people. They ride a lot up to that point. Then they drop their trusty old bikes for a new love: the automobile, and most never come back to the bike. This is as true now as it was when I was growing up. In recent years, I have seen several very good young cyclists, including some promising Junior racers, throw it all away at age 16. It’s tough to take your girl for a date on a racing bike.
In my case, I was only away from cycling for about three or four years, from 1963, when I got my Driver’s License, to 1966, when I moved off-campus at the University of Oregon. Freshman year, in the dorm, I was close enough to everything to walk. Off-campus as a sophmore, I needed more mobility, and like a million other college students, I found it--or rediscovered it--in the bicycle. I bought a new Gitane road bike for about $65, and I have been riding ever since.
That image of the siren song of the automobile luring kids away from their bicycles took on new twist for me recently when I read a BBC News Online article entitled, Shanghai ends reign of the bicycle. The report stated that bicycles were being banned on some of Shanghai’s busier main streets to make room for more cars.
Many cyclists who read that piece felt it to be a portentious and dire augury of bad things to come...that China, that bastion of biking--there are 9 million in Shanghai alone--could forsake its humble workhorse for the almighty, polluting car...well, it just seemed like the end of the world, or close to it.
It may not be quite that apocalyptic, but it’s certainly not good news, even if the local law is more symbolic than practical. But pulling back and looking at the big picture, it’s important to remember that most Chinese (as well as other Third World cyclists) don’t ride bikes as an affirmative lifestyle choice. They do it because it’s all they can afford. Bearing that in mind, what the new law points up is that, with China’s growing prosperity, they are facing a huge turning point in their cultural evolution that is equivalent to about half a billion people turning 16 at the same time and all trading in their bikes for cars. And that is a frightening prospect indeed.
Bill can be reached at email@example.com