My very first bicycle was a Sears Free Spirit single speed kid's bike. It was red and had a coaster brake - pedal backwards and the rear brake engaged. The frame resembled the Schwinn Stingray, with the curved seat stays that extended beyond the seat tube in an arc all the way to either side of the serpentine down tube. It was a classic design. Mine was not, however, a Stingray. It was a practical and respectable Free Spirit. Therefore, there were no high-rise handlebars, no banana seat and no sissy bar. It did come complete with a set of training wheels and was given to me by my parents on my fifth birthday - December 6, 1967.
I learned how to ride a bike that winter. It had shiny chrome fenders, white accents and a chain guard. After it rained, water would remain puddled up in one special spot across the street. There were no sidewalks or curbs on my street; the puddle was formed by a high spot on the street side and another on the house side. My training wheels would rest there while my rear wheel would hang just low enough to hit the water. I could then pedal furiously sending a rooster-tail of water skyward. The other kids on my street took turns in a game of ducking under the arc, side to side. I was on top of the world.
Soon enough, the time came to wean me away from the training wheels. My dad removed them and in short order I was precariously perched on my now two-wheeled machine. With my dad holding the bike steady behind the seat, he ran with me holding the bike up. Or so I thought. It wasn’t until he yelled, “You’re doing it!” that I realized I was riding all by myself. In an instant of shock, exhilaration and panic, I attempted my first turn, sans training wheels. It was slow and unsteady, but I managed to get the machine turned around and headed back towards my father.
When it came to stopping, well - that was a different matter altogether. At first I would ride to my dad and slow to the point of losing my balance when he would catch me and hold me up so I could dismount. However, he wasn’t always around to help me off my bike. I devised a method of slowing to a near stop and then simply falling over - except I would do it on our front lawn. Eventually I learned how to dismount anywhere and my horizons gradually expanded. The next year I entered first grade and along with my other two-wheeled friends, I rode my bike to school virtually everyday.
As time wore on, that first bicycle went through a number of metamorphoses. Ultimately, it no longer served my purpose as my rides to school and elsewhere became longer. I finally outgrew that first bike. Although it was followed by others, a five-speed “muscle-bike,” with a stick shift, a racing slick rear tire and a tiny front wheel and a Schwinn Varsity ten-speed, my last utilitarian bike was a Motobecane Mirage. Then I got my drivers license… and a car.
It would be many years before a bicycle would become a significant part of my life again. Due to a series of events, my driving privilege was temporarily suspended in 1987. I had too many tickets in a short period of time and the California DMV, in their infinite wisdom, removed my driver’s license for 90 days. I had two jobs and my future ex-wife was expected to give birth to our son during that time. I had to work and I could not risk getting caught driving without a license. Enter the bicycle.
Ironically enough, it was a gift from my dad. I don’t remember it being for any particular occasion, just an offer to help. Much had changed in bicycling technology since 1979. Greg LeMond was setting the cycling world ablaze with his 1986 victory in the Tour de France. Although perhaps not with the fanfare (or controversy) of the second American ever to win the tour, LeMond was doing it on equipment available to the masses - what I was riding was strikingly similar to what he was. Composites and space-age technology were just beginning to penetrate the sport. Thanks to the DMV, I rode seriously for a few more years.
Today I have a full-suspension Specialized mountain bike. It has a million speeds, hydraulic disc brakes and a wireless speedometer. It is beyond what anyone dreamed back in the day - either of them. It spends most of its days in the rafters in my garage. I mean to ride it far more often than I actually do. And that’s a shame. I can really only remember good times on my bike, and perhaps that’s because no matter what else is going on, riding a bike seems to take one away. It is similar to the feeling I get when I ride my Harley, but it’s still not quite the same.
I really should dust that bike off - it’s summer time.