My grandma Roxie had a problem with bicycles. Her friend’s son had been killed riding one in the 1950s — so she tried to prevent, or at least delay, every one of her 13 grandchildren from getting or riding a two-wheeler.
Because of this, I was still riding a tricycle at age 8. This was humiliating. Every other boy on my block had been riding a bicycle, a real two-wheeler, for 3 or 4 years. Finally my cousins Richie and Jimmy, who lived in San Mateo, took pity on me and gave me a red-and-white fat-tire bike.
The bike’s glossy paint had oxidized to matte, and it had only one speed, but, Hey!, it was a bicycle.
So in 1967, before I turned 9, before the Summer of Love, here is how I learned to ride a two-wheeler: my brother Stevie, who was busy staying out of the Vietnam War, took me into the grass-covered back yard, ran next to me holding the bike by the handlebars and the seat post. Then, he simply let go. I went about 20 feet and fell. Then, 25 feet. Then 30.
My goodness I loved that bike.
As the threat of Nam loomed over cousins Richie and Jimmy, they gave me another, even-cooler bike: a J.C. Higgins black English racer three-speed. My dad really dug this bike. He explained with some confidence how one had to quit pedaling when shifting to let the internal hub do its magic thing. He related how the “easy” gear was for climbing hills (rises), the middle gear was for normal riding, and high gear, the hardest one to turn, was for barreling downhill or for sprinting in the flats. He didn’t use those exact words; I only remember “high gear.” But I got it.
In 1969, Patty Duke moved into our neighborhood. Her street was a lot better for cycling: at least three blocks long with –at that time– only one T intersection: With my street. So a guy could start at Hwy 74, get going fast, lift his legs way up off the pedals, and avoid the teeth and jaws of Patty Duke’s two black and brown, vicious Doberman Pinschers.
But the times, they was a changin’.
I was getting older, and I decided I needed to spray paint the bike frame, replace the gentlemanly handlebars with ram’s horn ones, get a racy lookin’ saddle, and pretend I had me a Schwinn Varsity 10 speed. My dad took notice.
By Christmas 1969, Dad and my mother had saved enough dough to buy me a Royce Union 10 speed, glossy red and white, in the box, at Walker Scott department store in Palm Springs. Price? $49.95 plus tax.
Hey, their house payment was $127.00. It was the coolest bike (see photo). I almost wept when I tore off the wrapping paper. Maybe I was getting a little effeminate–from all those years of Grandma’s keeping me off the bike.
Dad had been “Flight Engineer and Top Turret Gunner” in 1944 on 32 missions in the Army Air Corps, but he could not get this 10 speed assembled and, fearing he would “strip out” some of the nuts and bolts– probably because he had lousy tools–he threw in the towel and drove the bike to the local bike shop for assembly and adjustment.
Poor Dad. He did not understand bicycle shop politics. One thing you don’t do, is buy the bike on the cheap and then pay the shop that wanted to sell you a pricier and better bike, to assemble the cheapo. That really rubs shop owners the wrong way. It wasn’t that my dad didn’t care or was brazen. He just did not know the etiquette.
Anyway, finally, I sat on that sucker, barely reaching the pedals, and man was it cool — so fast in the sprints! So easy to ride uphill in the lowest gear. Really cool looking. Chicks dug it. I got compliments left and right. Took off the kickstand to act tough.
It was certainly not a real European racing bike; it was 44 lbs of iron and steel and aluminum, plastic and rubber. But I did not know in the early 70s that people had ever raced bicycles in America! I had never heard of Major Taylor. Have you? Google him.
The years flew by. I rode my 10 speed to College of the Desert. I took it to San Diego for the rest of the Bachelor’s degree, English major/math minor.
Then it rusted in the salt air. One morning I carried it to the dumpster and threw it in. I felt like I was burying a relative at sea. Can see and smell and hear the event now, 33 years later.
Starting in 1987, I have since acquired and ridden 20 road bicycles, moving through steel (is real), titanium, aluminum, aluminum plus carbon fiber, to full-carbon. I have raced in 158 races for keeps–criteriums, circuit races, road races, velodrome races. I now hold a Category 3 USCF license on the road and the track. Even got a silver medal in California-Nevada Masters’ in 2005 on the track. Grandma Roxie’s caution has long been blown away by the wind I create with leg power.
My current full-carbon ride–SRAM Force componentry–weighs 16.5 lbs and can easily handle 50+ mph without failure. And I get its 20 speeds adjusted and serviced at a “service shop” that does not even sell bicycle frames and forks; so as not to repeat the sins of the fathers.
But I cannot forget that red-and-white 10 speed, or laying it to rest in a dumpster in misty San Diego. A man never forgets his first girlfriend . . . or cool bicycle.