Thursday, May 14, 2009

40+ years of bikes

In honor of bike-to-work day: Friday, May 15, 2009.

c1967: I must've had access to a bike back when I was a five-year-old, because I distinctly recall crashing into a car while riding near my family's apartment in the Bronx. The car was stopped at an intersection and I rode right off the curb into it, but I wasn't going fast enough to cause more than a scratch to myself or either vehicle.
c1970: Groovy custom-built banana-seat coaster-brake with chopper handlebars, a trim little sissy bar, rear shock absorbers, chrome fenders, and a leather carry bag on the back. See snapshot. Rear wheel was a fat-tire slick, front wheel was much smaller and a bit narrower. My uncle built this, just as he custom-built bikes for everyone in my family. This is the bike I learned to ride on -- no training wheels. I think the first of my two relatively serious bike accidents was on this bike, when my stupid kid self put his foot between the front wheel and the fork while moving fast. Wheel abruptly stopped turning and I went flying over the handlebars onto the pavement.
c1971: My uncle built a much more rugged bike for my younger sister. Same-size fat knobby tires front and back. It wasn't really mine but I borrowed it a lot so I could ride off bluffs into gravel pits, jump dirt piles, the usual crazy kid stuff. Don't recall ever wiping out. The bike was very popular among my friends, but I didn't share it much -- it not really being mine to share. Basically a BMX bike before the term existed.
c1974: Montgomery Ward 10-speed with disc brakes -- a birthday present while I was in Jr High. The disc brake worked better than caliper brakes in wet conditions, but was otherwise a gimmick. This was my bike for the next 13 years. In college, with a load of books in both hands and riding no-handed downhill around a curve, I hit a pothole and wiped out. Messed up the bike a bit with some road rash left over for me, the second of my two relatively serious bike accidents. Walked it the rest of the way to my dorm, left it unlocked in the bike rack there -- I was mad at it, knowing that no one would be stupid enough to ride away on a bike in that condition, at least not for long. Bike was stolen by the next morning, of course. After the end of the semester I learned that campus security had recovered it half a block away. Apparently the thief had fallen off and then a car had run over the front wheel, which was bent. Bike stayed in that condition for a couple more years until after graduation, when I had a LBS fix it up, putting caliper brakes on the rear wheel since replacement parts for the Monkey Ward disc brake were no longer available. Bike-commuted in 1985 on side streets between South Pasadena and Pasadena. Also rode alongside the 1984 Olympic marathoners in Los Angeles one memorable time -- I'd hoped too see more of that race, but my roommate and I hadn't reckoned on how fast they were even though we were runners ourselves, so we didn't get to see nearly as much of the race as we'd hoped. Moved to Long Island and then to DC, riding it for recreation both places. Finally gave it to my best friend's landlord (his name was Kelly and he lived in College Park, MD), who needed it a lot more than I did. I did not perceive that suburban Long Island or Northern Virginia were safe places for regular bike-commuting in those days.
1987: My uncle came out of bike-builder retirement to build me a 10-speed for Christmas. It had a big rubber clown horn on the handlebars. After getting it boxed up in San Diego for the flight home, I rode it once in the DC winter. It was an awesome present, a nice bike with an even nicer horn. Left it in my apartment building's locked bike room afterwards, but didn't chain it up there. Never saw it again.
1988: Bought a steel-frame Puch 12-speed at age 26 -- my first self-purchased bike. Rode it for recreation on the W&OD trail in Virginia and, after moving to Sacramento, the American River Trail. Citrus Heights/Roseville wasn't a great place to bike-commute then, either. Moved to North Seattle, bought my first helmet, and bike-commuted downtown and to Bothell. Bought a cushy seat when riding over roots on the BGT started causing electric bolts of pain to shoot from my keel even when I wasn't on the bike. After 10 years in Seattle, mounted an electric motor on it and bike-commuted some more to Bothell, Belltown, and Redmond. A LBS replaced the 6-gear freewheel with a 7-gear equivalent. Once I was in good enough shape for the long ride to/from Redmond, pushing that heavy old steel frame with a second high-resistance chain to the attached 12-pound motor, with or without the 15-pound battery, was more effort than I wanted to expend, so I started borrowing the Trek 720 I bought in Eugene for my wife 10 years earlier, raised the seat way up high, and used that for a couple months. My wife eventually wanted her bike back.
2007: Dropped a K on a Trek 1500. 105 crank, chainrings, and headset, Ultegra rear. The road rocket. Thing can go up hills by itself. Bike-commuted to/from Redmond and later to/from Tukwila. Spilled once while going around a hairpin turn too fast -- I wasn't used to the high center of gravity or the headset integrated shifters/brakes, and didn't brake enough before starting the turn. Started buying accessories for night and wet riding: fender, lights, dayglo vest, tools, small carry bag.
2008: Bought a Novara Buzz V so I could ride Iron Horse State Park over the Cascades between Duvall and Cle Elum with my 11-year-old son. The crossbar-style handlebars necessitated fingerless gel gloves to keep my hands from going numb. Worked nicely enough as a commuter that I switched the cushy seat from the road rocket, which I didn't ride for another 9 months while I used the Buzz commuter exclusively. This year I bought a second cushy seat so I can ride either one of my two new bikes with little prep. I bike/bus commute 1-3 times a week these days. I also pack up the whole family for occasional recreational bike rides around North Seattle: to/from school, baseball practices (my 11-year-old son now sometimes bikes to his practices or games solo), picnics at Gas Works, Costco (!), Pop Mounger pool in Magnolia, SeaFair, even Red Hook in Woodinville and Gene Coulon Park in Renton, really anywhere we want to go. I still have the steel electric Puch, though I don't ride it much anymore.

Family bikes

Kettler tricycle
Winchester bike trailer
16" Novara coaster-brake
16" hand-me-down pink/purple coaster-brake with a little flowered plastic basket on the front
20" Raleigh BMX coaster-brake
20" toy-store 7-speed BMX
24" Giant 21-speed BMX-style
24" Trek 21-speed hardtail
Trek 720

My wife rides the Trek 720. My two oldest sons (11 and 9) use the 24-inchers. My 6-year-old daughter uses the Kent single-speed. My 3-year-old son hasn't quite graduated from the tricycle to training wheels on the 16" Novara -- he mostly rides in the trailer behind me, but he won't stand for that much longer.

We are fortunate in that most of these bikes are hand-me-downs, excepting only the little Novara which we bought for my oldest son when he was 4 years old, my wife's Trek, and the Giant which we bought used from a local meteorologist when her son got too big for it. We had a couple more hand-me-down kids' bikes once, one a Kent that a random kid at the coach-pitch field gave us one day, and which we eventually donated in turn to BikeWorks, the other from a neighbor that we lent to a babysitter who hasn't been heard from since. We're ready to pass on the pink/purple coaster-brake now that my daughter has gotten too big for it. The tricycle has just about fulfilled its purpose, too. Gotta share our good fortune, after all, plus our garage is crammed with bikes! The trailer is still useful for carrying cargo for picnics and shopping trips.

My nine-year-old son is the only one of my kids who's had an accident to date; while riding up 8th Ave NW with his older brother and me last year, he wasn't watching where he was going and rode right into the back of a parked pickup truck, though he wasn't going fast enough to hurt himself or anything else. Really, a little safety education goes a long way -- my sisters and I never had any, and our kid bike accidents (especially my sister's big one) were a lot more serious than anything my kids have experienced. So far. Knock wood.