My first two wheeler bike was a small green hand me down with training wheels. After a very short time watching me wobble along on the gravel street in front of our house, my dad pulled the old, “Let’s take off the training wheels and I will hold on to the seat until you get the hang of riding without them.” Does this sound familiar? The ‘holding on‘ lasted about twenty feet and I was almost to the corner of Center and Norway before I realized that I was indeed riding on my own. Isn’t this how everyone finally learns to ride a two wheel bike unassisted? I can’t remember where we got the old green beater or where it went when I was done with it, but I do remember getting my first new bike. At the end of fourth grade, I came home one day to find a shiny new red and chrome Schwinn bike parked next to our back porch. Mom said, “It is a little early for your birthday (which is in late September), but we got your present now so you can ride it all summer.”
As it turned out, my next door neighbor Harold (who was a year older than me) got exactly the same bike the next day. There wasn’t much time spent worrying about how we would be able to tell them apart because mine was customized the second day I owned it. Living only a block down the hill from Whitman Elementary school, we were not allowed to ride our bikes to school. The only time this rule was relaxed was the last day of school when all we had to do was show up for our final report card. I jumped on my new steed to ride up the street and turned up the driveway on the north side of the school where the bike rack stood. We were too cool to just hop off and park our bikes. We would bump them over the wheel bar and slam on the breaks just as the front wheel slid into the two bar slot that would keep the parked bike up right. Much to my dismay, I hit the bump bar a little too fast. The impact the front fender made with the top bar on the bike rack bent the new, shiny chrome fender down to the top of the wheel. With the wheel now locked up with the bent fender ‘brake’, I had no choice but to find stick on the ground to bend it back into place. Harold would never confuse his bike with mine now as this crash & fix left a distinctive wrinkle in the front fender.
There were many mighty adventures waiting for our little posse of neighborhood bike riders that summer. There was a winding path that led north from the Whitman School playground through the forest of pine and hardwood trees that grew to the east of Norway Avenue. Northern Michigan University was in the early stages of expanding into the area to the north of Whitman so there were all kinds of new sidewalks and trails for us to ride on. I can’t say that the sport of bike motocross even existed in the mid-1960s, but that is what we were doing with our bikes of all sizes and shapes. Did I mention the ‘chase each other through the woods trail’ was always done at top speed? If someone’s back wheel slid out and went down, we would do our best to get around them. More often than not, we ended up in a pile of bikes and bodies that would need to be untangled. We broke more than a few spokes on our bike wheels like this and looking back now, it amazes me that we didn’t also break a few bones. Once we hit eighth grade, the bikes got parked in favor of walking everywhere. Maybe the ‘cool’ factor of walking beat out riding our bikes, but I have no memories of riding this bike during my high school years.
The summer after my freshman year at NMU, I had two weeks off before I had to report to the Huron Mountain Club to start my dishwashing job. Two of my normal recreational buddies decided to take a spin to Detroit just for kicks, but I couldn’t go as they were coming back after the start of my job. My brother in law sensed I was kicking around with nothing to do so he loaned me his ten speed bike until I left for work. I had never ridden a ten speed before but after a couple of trips around Presque Isle Park, I vowed that as soon as I got back from the club in the fall, I was going to get a ten speed of my own. After doing some research at the local bike shop, I decided there was no use getting bike just before winter or in the spring when the plan was to spend a third summer working at the club. The bike purchase was pushed back again.
By the second semester of my junior year at NMU, I had already decided that I wouldn’t be going back to the club. Having revisited the local bike shop at mid-term break, I picked out a Schwinn Continental. The one I wanted had to be ordered because they did not have the chestnut color model in stock (although to me it looked more reddish copper than chestnut). Of course they insisted on a $25 down payment to place my order, but that was fine with me. My folks could not believe that I was going to spend $130 on a new bike when I hadn’t touched my old one in years. I reminded them that they had sold my old bike in a yard sale before our Norway Avenue to Summit Street move the summer before. They also figured that if I was paying for it, then there was no use in trying to talk me out of it. It seemed to take forever to get the bike shipped but as soon as the streets were bare in April, I was on two wheels again.
Before getting a driver’s license at the end of our sophomore to junior year summer, we walked everywhere. Once driving became an option, we still put on a lot of miles hiking in the woods, but locomotion in town was now done by car. It seems those five years took a toll on my legs because as soon as I started riding my new ten speed, it became clear that there would be a period of physical conditioning needed for me to cover longer distances. Marquette is a hilly town and the first time I tried riding up Arch Street hill from Lakeshore Street, I couldn’t make it without getting off and pushing the bike. As the summer passed, getting up that one hill in first gear became a goal that I tested every time my route took me to that side of town. It took at least until June for me to pass this road test, but as an added bonus, it seemed that the leg work was also helping my tennis game. About the time my bike legs were coming around, the bike had to be parked until my new summer job at NMU’s Field Station at Cusino Lake was done in late August. Both classes I took at the field station (and my duties as the Assistant Station Manager) involved a lot of hiking so my legs were still in good shape when September came.
Bike riding became my number one solo activity and rides to campus and beyond became the norm. A small odometer installed on the front wheel satisfied the ‘geography’ side of my brain that liked to know how far each excursion took me. One of my favorites treks was down Lakeshore to Presque Isle Park. The road around the park was nice if there wasn’t much traffic, but the real fun came from traversing the trails that criss cross the interior of the park. I believe the park now restricts any kind of wheeled traffic off the paved roadway, but back in the 1970s there were no such restrictions. Mountain biking was much less popular then and I only knew one other person in the Geography department who actually had a true mountain bike. We were discussing Presque Isle one day and I mentioned how much fun it was to ride my Continental on the interior trails. He looked at me incredulously and said, “What? You can’t ride a ten speed Schwinn on those trails! You will either break your bike or kill yourself.” I assured him that I did indeed ride those trails, had not broken my bike or my neck, and any time he would like proof, he should give me a call to take a ride. All those years crashing and burning in the woods by Whitman School taught me a thing or two about what kind of trail riding one could do on a bike. As a true blue mountain biker, he never accepted my challenge to do a little bike rally at Presque Isle.
The other frequent route I would take was a different kind of test. My buddy John’s family had a cottage on Lakeshore Lane in Harvey. When he would spend time there, I started riding my bike the 18 mile round trip from Summit Street (a practice I continued even when he wasn’t there to). The portion of South Front Street / US 41 was a bit tricky as there were no sidewalks or bike trails for several blocks, but once I got to the border of Shiras Hills, the old road past the Shiras Steam plant acted as a bypass that connected to the bike path that paralleled the highway all the way to Harvey. Not one to enjoy riding a bike on a busy street let alone a highway, it was always eye opening to see how fast the cars whizzed by on US 41. Like the tortoise, slow and steady got me where I was going regardless how much faster all those car bunnies could navigate the same distance.
The miles accumulated throughout the summer of 1975 and when I packed up to move to Ontonagon, my bike got tossed on top of the load in the back of my truck. There was a spare room in the apartment Bob and Jan Mazurek rented me on Pennsylvania so my Schwinn was my roomie for a couple of weeks. The first time my rent check was delivered to their house on bike, Bob mentioned that there were a couple of hooks in the basement that a previous tenants had used to hang their bikes. From that point on, it was a couple of stairs to the basement and a quick lift to hang the bike after each use. Deep into the fall, I would bundle up in sweats, hat and gloves and explore my new home. Even after the Million Dollar Bridge was built across Paddy’s Creek, no ride east on Lakeshore Drive would be complete until I rode across the old one lane bridge. There weren’t many streets in town that didn’t get explored by bike, but the only time the bike hit the highway was when I took it back to Marquette for the summer.
I marked my first full year of retirement in July by passing my trusty Schwinn Continental of 45 years on to someone else who can wring the last miles out of it. It still works fine, but my aging wrists began to complain about the forward lean they had to support when I rode it. Never fear: my new ride, a Schwinn hybrid 700c will keep me on the road and trails while allowing me a more upright posture to take the strain off my wrists. Just as I had with my Continental years ago, I replaced the standard seat with one sporting a little more padding and a couple of internal springs to absorb the shock of the bumps and cracks I encounter. The standard seat was okay for short jaunts, but any longer ride made me painfully aware that it was not engineered to keep one comfortable for a longer haul over bumpy streets.
I should also point out that there is a new bike helmet included in the deal. After years of being a ‘helmet denier’ (“I don’t need that, I ride slow, I am careful,” etc etc etc) it dawned on me that bouncing my gourd off the pavement could happen no matter how careful I thought I was being. After not mounting my bike much in the early 2000s, I picked up the bike riding habit again a few years ago and wearing a helmet became a new habit. The new bike didn’t come in chestnut color like the old Continental, so that red and black streak you may see passing by from time to time will be the black helmeted me on my new steed. No predictions here, but if I get 45 years of use out of this bike, I will truly have lived a blessed life. In the meantime, I will be content to pedal here and there – less concerned about how many miles pass than just going out to enjoy the ride.
By the way . . . while I was adjusting the handlebar and seat position on the new bike, I forgot that I had not resnugged the bolt for the handlebar post. Imagine my surprise as I tried to test the seat height when the front wheel turned left, the handle bars turned right, and I found myself on the ground. It wasn’t a spectacular crash as I was basically standing still (it looked kind of like the statue of a disposed dictator being toppled), but the landing pad was cement. The little elbow scrape and a hip pointer I collected were pretty innocuous reminders that one must always pay attention (and wear their helmet) when operating wheeled vehicles of any kind, even when standing still.
Top Piece Video: Queen Live in Japan in 1979 – including a snippet of Bicycle!