The unexamined spoke is not worth riding.

Socrates, or somebody…

Sometime around 1972, my dad found two banana-seat bicycles at a yard sale, and launched my brother and me off into bicycle land. I was five then, my brother three, and I don’t remember a time until my twenties when I didn’t have a bicycle. In my early teens, my uncle and aunt bought me a blue Schwinn Varsity ten-speed for Christmas. Despite its many middling qualities, the Varsity was indestructible, a bomb-proof tank. It was the first practical transportation I had. I went everywhere on it, at first to destinations close by, then to places miles away, and finally a one-hundred forty mile, two-day solo ride to visit friends. On that last trip I was fifteen. When I got home, I was sick for days, laid up with a fever, perhaps because of dehydration, sun stroke, and overexertion.

Marketing photo for my Gitane “Gran Tour”

For my sixteenth birthday, I bought myself a Gitane touring bicycle, a four-hundred dollar folly. If you have a romantic view of vintage French bicycles, well … I would recommend finding romance elsewhere. Some of them (actually, probably quite a lot of them) were dogs. I broke so many spokes on that Gitane that I never left the house without tools to replace them; the spare spokes I stuffed into the seat tube, and I carried wrenches and whatnot around the bike. There’s nothing quite like trying to remove a cassette in the middle of the countryside in bad weather.

Racing in a crit, back in the day

Still, like the Varsity before it, I rode the Gitane everywhere, nearly every day, hundreds of miles a month. I eventually took up racing, and joined a local bicycle club for a season. I can’t remember how many competitions I did; enough to get a flavor of the peloton, but nowhere near as many as I’d like to think. College beckoned that fall, though, and I had other goals. Just before heading off to school, I bought a blue racing Bianchi, but I hardly used it. After a year or two, I gave it to my dad.

I kept the Gitane for my college commuter for about eighteen months, until it was stolen, one fall night in 1987. I miss it a little. Once in awhile, I’ll look around a pile of junk bicycles thinking that maybe I’ll spot it, its head tube bent at an odd angle because of a crash, the black paint flaking away, and the characteristic “Cycles Gitane” decal running along the down tube. Nothing so far.

After the Gitane was stolen, I came into an old three speed, a “Robin Hood,” which I heard later was a low-rent Raleigh. It had one good gear, one bad one, and one that didn’t work at all. The brakes were shaky, especially in wet weather. But it got me where I needed to go. When I was graduated from college in 1990, I had my uncle take my photo on the bike, and then I left it, unlocked, propped up on its kickstand, next to a dorm, and walked away. I don’t think about it as much, but it’s funny that my aunt wrote on that photo “Last Carefree Day.” She was right, in many ways.

The only photo of me and my Robin Hood’s … handlebars

I don’t think you can ever completely abandon the cycling bug. For a long time, nearly twenty years, I didn’t own a bicycle, but even so, I found myself watching races and visiting bike shops. In 2003, I rented a bicycle in Scotland and toured the countryside for a week or so. I was pleasantly surprised to be able to maintain fifty-mile days despite no cycling in thirteen years.

During the oil shock of 2008, I finally got motivated to buy again, just in case oil prices kept climbing. I picked up a red Cannondale “CAAD 8,” on sale at Helens in Santa Monica. I’ve since been tearing up the roads of SoCal on that thing. I think I put more miles on it than my car.

Bridge near Plön
Near Plön, Germany, October 2010

I took another cycling trip in the fall of 2010, this time a ride between Copenhagen and Amsterdam. To make the trip, and to add a cargo bike to my bike collection of (now) two, I picked up a Larry vs. Harry “Bullitt.” It rode like another tank, especially as I was pushing some one-hundred pounds of bicycle and gear. Getting it back to L.A. was a small adventure in itself, but it has been fun to ride it around for errands, and I’ve found I need to allot an extra twenty minutes to trips just to talk to people about the bike.

Riding in Los Angeles, for those that haven’t done it, is a horrible revelation. The streets that one ignores for being “good enough” in a car show themselves as pothole infested nightmares on a bicycle. Traffic behavior that one dismisses in a car as trivial is life threatening on a bicycle. A tranquil drive down Santa Monica Boulevard is a gauntlet on a bicycle. This city is an awful place to ride, and yet, I — we — ride still.

It’s hard to dismiss the role the bicycle should play in an urban setting, especially for those who spend any time thinking about traffic, pollution, and public health. A city full of cyclists is a healthier city. Bicycles should be celebrated, and their riders given the keys to the city. Instead, they are seen as the lowest of traffic, the red-headed stepchild on the road.

Maybe someday we’ll be able to change that. I look forward to a time when the bicycle becomes a full partner in the Los Angeles transport grid. Until then, it’s up to enthusiasts and, unfortunately, the poor, to keep the flame alive.

  1. John L.
    May 11, 2011 at 8:32 AM

    Just found your blog through “Biking in L.A.” I look forward to reading it. Keep up the good work!

  2. Vorpal
    January 13, 2015 at 12:51 AM

    Hi, I just read ‘Do Dutch women have more time to cycle’ and I liked the blog, but I also wanted to comment on your statement that levels of cycling are low in Norway and Finland. They my be low compared to the Netherlands, but they are 4 or 5 times higher than the USA. And this despite, long, cold winters, snow, and Norway being the most mountainous country in Europe, with over 36% of the land area being above the tree line. Furthermore, cycling levels are quite high in the cities, but in low in rural areas, where, like int he USA distances to get somewhere are longer, and infrastructure poorer.

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