Not everyone would agree, I’m sure, but I find bicycles to be very complicated. A bike just isn’t a bike anymore. The bikers have changed a lot, too.
The whole industry has grown up, evolved, become extremely serious, and bikes can be outrageously expensive. It’s easy to drop $1,000 or $2,000 on a fancy new model, chock full of gears, tires of all widths and purposes, handlebars dropped down and decked out as if designed in the Lamborghini lab.
The Tour de France began Saturday and will last until July 22. The Tour is three weeks of very serious, complicated, grueling and sometimes dangerous biking. A professional racing bike can cost $10,000 or more. Those aren’t the guys who grew up borrowing their mom’s clothespins to fix baseball cards cleverly to the sides of their bike wheels, getting the cards to flap and snap in the spokes.
I can’t tell you the last time I saw a kid zipping down the street with those clothespins and baseball cards, imagining he or she had just angled a shiny one-speed Raleigh (with coaster brake and kickstand) into the Indy 500. Bikes, baseball cards and imagination don’t travel the same roads anymore.
Frankly, out here in metro West, I rarely see kids on bikes these days. Adults, yes, scores upon scores of them, the vast majority huffing and puffing along on dazzling, expensive bikes and wearing all the latest bicycling fashion, and too often hogging the road as they imagine themselves, I suppose, in a fierce uphill climb in the Tour de Burbs. But I’m not here to bash the bikers again, because, well, many of them are as comical as they are rude and inconsiderate, and I’ve decided to focus on the humor of them all as my coping mechanism for roadway coexistence.
The disappearance of kids on bikes, though, is kind of sad. Where did they go? I was both a walker and a biker as a kid, because we lived in the center of town and that’s how kids in the center of town got around. Bikes ruled. We biked to one another’s houses, to the stores, to school, to the dentist, to the ballfields, to the swimming hole, to church on Sunday, for ice cream cones, for anything and everything. Lots of us had wire baskets draped over the rear fender — yes, fender! — to lug home newspapers, a half-gallon of milk, a loaf of bread.
No one wore helmets, of course, which in hindsight seems foolish and ridiculous, but that’s the way it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Most cars didn’t have seatbelts either, but all of them had ashtrays and cigarette lighters, and lots of adults preferred cars with side vent windows that popped open to siphon out the smoke.
My son, now 15 years old, just finished the ninth grade at Fenn, an all-boys school in Concord. As classes were about to wrap up, he polled 279 students, grades 4 through 9, about their bike use. Just over 10 percent (29 total) of the boys said they never bike, while another 17 percent (48 total) ride but once a month. Some 45 percent (126 total) said they will ride two or more times each month during the summer. They weren’t polled on the art of clothespins and baseball cards.
Of the 279 students, only 76 (27 percent) reported they’ll ride every day in the summer. That’s the number I find shocking. When I was a kid, 100 percent of the kids biked 100 percent of the days each summer. It didn’t matter how hot it was, how much it rained, what shape the bike was in, how many gears it had (three, maximum), or its brand (lots of Schwinns, Raleighs, Columbias, and Sears, as I recall).
If a kid wasn’t on a bike, either he had been grounded, had broken a leg, or was in the hospital for a tonsillectomy. Otherwise, no excuses, you biked, sunrise to sunset, and often later if you were lucky enough to have a light stuck to the front of your handlebars. Some of those lights approxmated the size of a Buick headlight. Way too much wind drag by today’s standards. So unsleek, uncool.
The night bikers I see now usually have a light attached to the front of their helmets and strips of reflective tape stuck all over their body. Nice. Had we strapped a flashlight to the top of our heads, the jokes would have lasted through the summer and well into our adult lives. Hey, how’s it going, D-Cell?
I don’t know what to make of the disappearance of young bike riders. Parents typically drive their children everywhere now and getting kids out of the house for physical activitiy can be a chore, what with TV and computer screens as ever-present electronic binkys. There is always another show, another video war game, another Google search.
We explored with our legs, the click of our bike pedals taking us to new worlds, creating new memories.
Our kids explore from a chair, with the click of a mouse, with memories preserved as long as there is enough storage space in the computer.
But based on what I’m watching on the streets around my house the kids eventually hit the road, because biking thrives. What was once essential transportation and basic recreation for every kid, with adults rarely seen on a bike, has morphed into a pricey, high-speed athletic activity for adults.
Packs of these bikers, in groups of four, eight, 10 and sometimes more, storm constantly along the country roads around my house, spring and summer and fall. The riders are most often in their 20s and 30s, but it’s not uncommon to see much older bikers out there, too, some of them no doubt able to remember the intoxicating snap and whir of a Jerry Lumpe, Chuck Hinton, or Rich Rollins card in their spokes.
The Tour de France has begun. Allez everyone. Kids, if you have a minute, you might want to tune in and watch where your legs and imagination might take you. There’s really no need to wait.