I just got back in touch with a very old friend of mine. I’ve know him since I was five years old and we hung out constantly until I was in my mid twenties. After my career afforded me a more “grown up” lifestyle, we fell out of touch. It’s great to see this friend on regular basis again. Who is this friend? It’s my bicycle.
The first incarnation of my “friend” was a Schwinn built in the late seventies. Its hallmark was the long yellow-banana seat and a couple of red stripes running down the middle that terminated with a cursive Schwinn “S.” I learned to ride it after only a couple of attempts during my first lesson (according to my dad’s recollection) in the wide plains of the church parking lot across from our alley.
My hometown, Winona, is nestled between dynamic bluffs, yet the town itself is almost perfectly flat. Traffic is also low due to its relatively small population and the whole city is less than five miles from its two furthest points (measuring generously). It’s ironic that, like the bicycle-friendly Netherlands, Winona is built on a combination of islands and filled-in lowlands. In this admittedly idyllic setting the bike was my constant companion as the reaches of my childhood kingdom slowly expanded.
At this time the bicycle had not yet been transformed into sporting equipment. Bikes had fenders, kick stands, lights, baskets, and other utilitarian features useful for a device designed to get a user from one place to the other. Hundreds of helmetless children peddled themselves about town to do their business. We didn’t have cell phones, and it never crossed our minds to call on the family phone to see if a friend could play when we could simply saddle up, knock on the door and see for ourselves.
Americans got around to screwing up the common bicycle sometime in the eighties. When it came time to replace my Schwinn with the awesome banana seat, bikes had started to morph into fast road and mountain bike variants It was no longer vogue to casually move on two wheels, one had to get extreme, right? Enter bike helmets and Lycra. Oh, it turned out that biking was really dangerous too and if you didn’t wear a helmet you’re a reckless Communist. Regardless of this odd shift that was happening in bike culture, my friends and I peddled ourselves through middle school and even high school. Grant it, we were pale young lads with twenty-sided dice in our pockets and we didn’t care much for cars, but we biked on regardless.
My senior year of high school brought me to a city called Oldenburg in northwestern Germany. The experience of living there for one year altered me significantly and helped mold me as an individual. Most of the families I stayed with in Oldenburg had hosted foreigners before. Upon arrival I was told in a rather alarming tone that Oldenburgers were a city of bikers and that I would have to bike daily to get where necessary. “Kannst du radfahren?” Apparently I was a bit of an anomaly amongst Yanks as I happily mounted a Dutch bicycle and took off.
Literally half of Oldenburgers, there are 140,000 of them, commute to work and school on bike. It was here that I saw what a beautiful community a bike-centric people can build. I also fell in love with the old styling of their machines. They reminded me of my old Schwinn. Bikers weren’t in a hurry either. They wore suits, skirts, and jeans. Since there were separate paths and streets for bikes almost everywhere, it was incredibly safe. They followed the rules and waited for lights erected just for bikers. I never once saw a guy dressed like Lance Armstrong while simply riding to work. I missed my German “friends” very much upon returning to the USA.
By the time I entered the University of Minnesota bike culture had been fully transitioned to shameless marketers and safety Czars. Still, my friendship with the bike was solid. After graduating and getting a car, I still biked to work most days, but battling the traffic of downtown Minneapolis was a different affair altogether. As more money found its way into my wallet, I abandoned my friend and fell to American car culture. Ten years later I wondered how I had gained an unwanted twenty pounds. Peeking through the window on my front porch was a lonely mountain bike, winking at me.
I was resolved to rekindle my relationship with biking.
My wife, who had never met my “friend” the bike, thought me insane when I announced my desire to spend a sizable sum on a new relationship, one made in the Netherlands that is built for comfort, convenience, and reliability…a bike I can ride to work while wearing a suit (an unfortunate requirement of my employer). I understood her well placed skepticism but plowed forward. My new bike, an Azor brand Opa from Dutch Bike Co. Chicago has brought me full circle.
For the past two weeks I’ve been shamelessly commuting to and from work in Minneapolis without Lycra, a bike helmet, or a crooked back. While silently whisking down the streets I dream of Winona and Oldenburg and wonder what our country would be like if we could just relax, slow down, and enjoy life now and again.
Ride on, my friend.