The first bicycle I remember owning was a yellow Schwinn Stingray with a striped banana seat, ape hangers, and sissy bar. I was the first kid in my neighborhood to own this particular type of bicycle, which would eventually become a recognized symbol of childhood for my generation. The yellow Schwinn elevated my stature amongst my peers, and made me and my bike the target of would be thieves.
I loved my bike, I genuinely loved it. A fairly camera-shy kid, I had no problems posing with my bike for photographs, and I was particularly fond of being caught on film while riding as fast as I could down the street in front of our house. While my younger sister was still toddling along on her tricycle, I was the big-girl with the big-girl bike, and I relished my sudden advancement in years. Like all the kids in my neighborhood, we spent a considerable amount of time outfitting our bicycles with playing cards laced between the spokes, scratching our initials into the top tubes, or any other clever adornment we could think of. We travelled like a roving pack of wild dogs through the neighborhood racing one another down familiar streets and not so familiar streets, landing briefly at one of our houses to forage for food, and then back out onto the streets again. My ideal and perfect summer day though was one in which I rode alone. Waking up early and eating breakfast at a speed which would defy any enjoyment, brushing my teeth and hair (not always my hair, and sometimes not even my teeth), grabbing a book, and pedaling off to some secret place that I had discovered and did not share with anyone; a place far enough from home to feel that I’d travelled a great distance, but close enough to hear my mother calling me home for lunch.
As a child, I grew up in various locations and in a number of homes, but each place where I lived was held in consistency by this routine, and the bicycle become a symbol for home.
More than a toy or machine, my bicycle was the first manmade object I appreciated as much for its form as for its function.
My love of the bicycle was borne out of the terror I felt when first confronted by the prospect of riding it; this was the first bicycle I rode without training wheels, my Father having informed me that I was going to ride this bike on two wheels or not at all. Contemplating how I would keep the bike upright and moving forward was a matter of faith, not that which my Father offered in the form of a scientific explanation that “you will be able to keep the bike up, trust me,” but faith in the mythical beings that had recently swum into my imagination via my reading of a child’s version of the Odyssey. I was certain that Athena would be there beside me just as she had been for Odysseus.
My yellow Schwinn was stolen from me one night despite the fact that each and every night I safely tucked my bicycle away in the shed. The loss provided me with a painful, but inevitable lesson of adulthood: not everybody is good and kind and willing to play by the same rules I’d been taught at home, namely that stealing is wrong. And, it was an introduction to the transitory nature that is our human existence.
I owned other bicycles in my youth, my appreciation for the aesthetics of and fascination with this strange machine never diminishing; although, none of those bikes meant as much to me as that yellow Schwinn. And then, for a long time I forgot about the bicycle. I drove resoundingly away from childhood in a red Honda Civic, and I was promptly swept up into adulthood, where I gave little thought to the bicycles of my youth. Occasionally I might hear Athena whisper to me of that Golden Age of adventure and freedom, but like all dutiful adults I understood more than She; I understood that it was a time that was lost and could not be revisited.
The author William Saroyan said of the bicycle that it is “the noblest invention of mankind.” As a vehicle, the bicycle gives us the means to explore the world beyond our driveway. There is no greater thrill as a child than to turn around and realize that your parent has let go the seat and that you might in fact be flying. As a toy the bicycle enhances our childhood play allowing us unsupervised exploration. As a machine, it taps into our inherent fascination with machines and our relationship to them. Simple in design (bicycle design has remained nearly unchanged for more than a century) it reveals itself to us completely: the gears, chains, cogs there for us to see, not hidden behind a façade. Yet the bicycle still fascinates us. What child hasn’t at one time or another dismantled his bicycle in order to discover how it works, and then, either successfully or not, putting it back together with no greater understanding but only a finer appreciation. As a means of travel the bicycle allows us to study more deeply and personally where we are going. The bicycle allows us to both see and feel the contours of a road, the nuances of a slight shift in the wind, the balance of light and shadow as glide from one moment to the next.
The bicycles real secret is it is the only machine that allows us to travel back in time. HG Wells praised the bicycle saying, “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.” Perhaps it was the bicycle that served as his inspiration for his time machine? The bicycle gives children their first taste of freedom and adulthood, and allows adults to cross back over that divide between the two. Get on a bicycle, start pedaling and soon you’ll remember what it was like to be a child. A leveler of class, everyone looks the same on a bicycle where ability is favored over money. The man with a $10,000 carbon fiber bike is not guaranteed to beat the man with a time tested steel-framed bicycle. A little effort and devotion to the sport is far more important to the amateur out riding on a Sunday afternoon than how much he spent on his frame and kit.
Is this too much to attribute to the bicycle? Not to anyone who owned a bicycle as a child, and either continued to ride into their adulthood, or like me rediscovered the bicycle as an adult. Riding my bike now I can feel Athena’s hand on my back pushing me up that long hill, and when I ride with my daughters through our neighborhood I can almost hear my mother calling us home for lunch.
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