I was driving around my wife’s home town of Antigo Wisconsin last night looking at the holiday lights and she said to me, “this brings back so many memories, I used to ride my bike up and down these streets.” Just to put the scene in proper perspective, it’s been snowing here all week and this is on top of the infamous storm that dumped so much snow it collapsed the Metrodome in Minneapolis. So, having her remember riding a bike through these snow covered streets where the snow is piled up higher than me (I’m 6’7″) at every corner was quite remarkable. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.
I clearly remember the excitement of getting my very first bike for my 8th birthday, a Dunelt English Racer with a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed internal shift hub. I used to ride that bike all over my town. After a while, it lost its fenders and chain guard, but the core bike survived for many years and much abuse until one day it was stolen from my driveway because I had foolishly left it outside at night. We lived in a pretty safe neighborhood, but I knew better because my parents had warned me that I shouldn’t leave it outside. I was crushed.
That summer, I managed to get a summer job in Germany and bought a new bike with my very first paycheck. This time I got a 5-speed. I was very proud and rode that bike all over Germany. I had made a good friend over the summers I’d spent visiting my grandparents in Germany and he suggested we take a few bike tours during the weekends. Later that summer, we spent a few days sailing his Flying Dutchman from Bremen to Bremerhaven. We camped in his boat quite a bit that summer. Each time, I rode my bike to the yacht club where he stored his boat. Cycling in Germany is very cool because there are actual bike paths on virtually every street and it, along with an awesome public transportation network, is the way many people get around. Over the years, the number of cars have increased, but the infrastructure for cycling was established long ago as Germany rebuilt after WWII.
I grew up in a Levitt subdivision on Long Island, not to far from the Village Green that was immortalized in a Billy Joel song. It was actually a pretty perfect place to get around on a bicycle. Lots of residential streets with pedestrian crosswalks to get across a busy thoroughfare. Later, they extended a bicycle path along Wantagh State Parkway parkway near my house that took you straight down to Jones Beach. It was a little over 12 miles. I’d loved the beach ever since my mom used to take me there several times a week during the summer. The perfect day was going to the beach in the morning, then getting back in time to swim in our neighborhood pool and topping it all off with an ice cream sundae from Carvel, conveniently located across the street from the pool. Of course, we often rode our bikes to the pool as well. We’d all taken swimming lessons so we could enter the pool without being accompanied by an adult.
Both my kids have been riding since they were 4. While they’re not into riding a road bike like their dad, they do love biking. These days, their favorite bike is a freestyle BMX bike. My youngest is pretty entrepreneurial and makes some money building up bikes for his friends and selling bike parts over the internet. He actually builds some pretty nice bikes, often custom fabricating parts using ordinary tools. While I’m not always pleased with the resulting mess in the garage, I’ve supported him in this endeavor as much as I could. During a recent career day, he presented his plan to become a bike designer. I love the fact that he’s taking something he loves to do and wants to turn it into a lifestyle. Good for him. Secretly, I envy his choice. Perhaps one day I can retire from what I’m doing and work on bikes all day like my friend Tim or put smiles on peoples faces like my friends John and Jamie.
The smile you see when a person gets their first bike is like no other. I’m sure some of it has to do with the shininess of the bike itself, but I think there are other reasons as well. One that comes to mind is the freedom that a bicycle represents. All of a sudden, your boundaries expand by at least an order of magnitude and all sorts of new places are accessible to you. While you may not venture too far at first, just knowing you can gives you a liberating feeling that’s not easily matched, even by your first car. Bikes are somehow more relaxed and less restrictive than most other forms of transportation. Perhaps thats part of the allure. Whatever it is, a bicycle is sure to make you smile more times than you’ll ever remember. So, go ahead, think back to some of your childhood memories and start counting the ones that involve a bike. I think you’ll surprise yourself.
So, I wish everyone a happy and safe holiday season. And remember, there’s nothing like the smile a bike brings. I’m smiling right now as I write this even though it’s way to cold and dangerous to go outside and ride. Just thinking of all the riding I’ve done this past year and all the new friends I’ve made is enough to make me smile that way.