“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.