50 Years on Skinny Tires

Rob-Gitane-64-2

On the first true skinny-tire bike, the Gitane Parliament, 1964

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

— Albert Einstein

Most of you know I ride a bike. I learned in the spring of 1958, age 6½, on the sidewalk in front of our house on Hampton Road in Rocky River, Ohio. My dad took the training wheels off the red-and-white Schwinn Spitfire, and after a couple of small crashes I was up on two wheels.  After we moved back to Minneapolis, I got a three-speed, sort-of-narrow-tire Huffy, in the style then called “English.” It was also red, and while the gears helped a bit, like lots of kids my age we pined for a “racing bike,” lighter and with ten speeds (two chainwheels in the front and five sprockets in the back). Chris MacPhail and his brother Bob were the first to get them, sleek matching numbers made in England. The store with the best stock was Wheel Goods, five or six miles from our house. We’d often ride the bus there, a dime each way, to admire the selection and the brand we all wanted, Gitane, made in France.  And with skinny tires.

Money was becoming increasingly short in our household in1963 and ’64, but I recall a deal cut with my always-generous dad: 50-50 for the Gitane Parliament, not quite the base model, but in range at about $85. And the Saturday after 7th grade ended, in early June 1964, a dark orange Gitane was mine, and it was pure joy. Fifty years later, a ride on what we now call a “road bike” – light, nimble, good gears, skinny tires – still makes me smile. And every year in between, through a lifetime, I’ve enjoyed the ride.

Over that half-century, I’ve owned ten road bikes. The orange screamer got sold a year later, when I traded up for a $100 Gitane, red with chrome forks. A honey. Then again, they’ve all been honeys – I look back on the collection in much the same way that car guys wax nostalgic about their hot rods or pickups or whatever. But my cycles never required gasoline, expensive repairs, insurance, or a license to operate. In 1971, I bought a Peugeot (soon stolen from the office building where I worked every afternoon), replaced with another Peugeot. The job paid for college and a lot more – not just some great overseas trips, but a sweet 1972 Raleigh Super Course, in a lovely brown. Had that one for a decade, a fine bike. On the verge of parenthood, 1982, I got a Trek, way light with good components. Seven years later, not paying attention, I plowed into the back of a Chevette, broke the frame, and a number of teeth, but that opened the way for a yet-better Trek. In late 2006, I hit another car and broke that frame (there was a streak of bad luck for some months), but most of the rest of the bike was fine, so we just upgraded the main metal, and off I rode. The tenth, and by far the sweetest bike – maybe the last one I’ll own – came in 2011. No mishap triggered the purchase, just a bigger-than-expected tax refund. Had to drive 185 miles to get it, a red Pinarello FP3, carbon-fiber frame, excellent fit, the best ride over five decades, hands down. In fact, I’ve never bought anything that has brought me as much joy as that bike; not a new car, or a house, nothing. It is simply awesome.

Regardless of the ride, the 50 years on skinny tires have produced some interesting moments and memorable times. How to capture them? Ten vignettes didn’t seem right, and narrowing the wide experience on the saddle to that few would have been hard. So, dear reader, here are 50 little accounts, one from each year since that warm Saturday in June 1964. Strictly speaking, most but not all of these rides were on skinny-tire bikes.

1964: Two weeks after getting the bike, we joined an American Youth Hostels weekend trip, a one-way, 58-mile ride up the Gunflint Trail, from Grand Marais on Lake Superior to a spartan hostel at Gunflint Lake on the Canadian border. A good workout. I can still taste the hamburgers served at dinner.   1965: A longer AYH tour that summer, from Chicago to Washington Island at the tip of the long peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan north of Green Bay. Some hard rides, some rain, and a big sense of achievement, covering 500 miles in a week or so. 1966: On Sunday, June 12, Greg Paske and I caddied 18 holes at the Edina Country Club, finishing at noon. Rode to the airport (MSP), and with earnings and a bit more bought $10.50 round-trips to Rochester, 72 miles south. Down on a 727, back on a turboprop Electra.   A lifetime of flight began with a bike ride. 1967: The plane bug bit, and that summer we rode to the airport almost every day. Had a flat one afternoon just after starting home (it was about nine miles); wheeled into a general-aviation hangar (security was way different then), politely asked for help, and Warren Hartzell (yes, I still remember his name) patched the tire and got us on our way. 1968: I was always good as a builder of plastic scale models. Cars became planes, and I soon had built a little business selling 727s painted in Northwest Airlines colors to pilots and stewardesses all across the system. We only had one car, so much of my material sourcing was on the bike, riding a few miles south to the Southdale mall to buy kits, paint, and glue.

1969: A week before graduating from high school, I landed a job at a new travel agency, Vanguard. It paid for college, gave me a sense of worth and identity, and changed my life. And on rainless days, for three years, I rode the three miles to Vanguard on my bike (I didn’t own a car until I was 32). 1970: My friend Deb Moline’s parents, Ann and Del, were among the most hospitable people I ever met, and they welcomed us on weekends and often during the week. Their house at 5111 Arden was less than two miles from home, an easy ride, even late at night after beer. 1971: Didn’t do a lot of biking on the first trip to Europe that summer, but recall memorable rides in Amsterdam (my first and to this day strongest memory of that city were the waves of cyclists commuting home in late afternoon) and a 20-mile ride across the whole, small, flat island of Texel, in the Friesians, north of Amsterdam. 1972: Fall of my senior year, and the future was uncertain, as it is for many in their last year of university. One Sunday afternoon I rode the three miles around Lake Calhoun, once, twice, how many times, trying to figure out what would become of me. The bike has always been a good place to think; I didn’t get it sorted that day, but options began to emerge. 1973: One of those alternatives was a summer trip around the world (total cost, $1,011, including air fare). Lots of hitchhiking and not a lot of biking, but one pleasant ride comes to mind, up and around the Manoa Valley in Honolulu on Jim Cochran’s ride; I met Jim a few days earlier while hiking the spectacular Kalalau Trail on the northwest side of Kaua’i.

1974: The last part of a long trip before starting graduate school saw me in Denmark, pedaling along the south coast of the island of Fyn (Funen) on a couple of sunny days. I’m not one for souvenirs, but the shop that rented my bike also sold me a T-shirt emblazoned with a red heart and “cycling is good for your heart” in Danish. I kept that shirt for years. 1975: One sunny Sunday in October, 10 of us drove 150 miles south from Minneapolis to the Sparta-Elroy Bike Trail, one of the first examples of converting abandoned rail lines to bike routes. Fall foliage was close to peak color. The ride was 52 miles round trip, and Linda and others were pretty cranky about my “it’s flat and easy” description. 1976: I spent the summer helping one of my tourism mentors, Herb Hiller, research a book on Caribbean tourism and economic development (lots of the material I dug up went into my dissertation). Herb lived in Miami and did not own a car, so we biked everywhere: for groceries, to libraries, for exercise, everywhere. 1977: After finishing some dissertation research in London and Oxford, I headed north to Scotland for fun, and rented a bike in Inverness for an ambitious ride in the highlands, south and west, around Loch Ness (no monster ate me). A nice workout, and almost no rain. 1978: In May, Linda finished her law degree, I got my Ph.D., and we got married. My teaching job did not start until September, and that summer saw lots of rides, mainly around the several pleasant lakes in south Minneapolis.

1979: Linda and I bought our first house in June, a wonderful old bungalow in St. Paul, but it needed a lot of work, and I frequently biked to the nearby hardware store, or down the hill to the Sears store on the edge of downtown, provided the part or supplies could be carried home on the Raleigh. 1980: Two weeks after buying the house, I started a new job as one of two geographers at The Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. It was an easy commute by bike, and if the weather was good I pedaled down Summit Avenue, lined with historic houses, then down (or in the afternoon up) the hill into downtown. 1981: I was a visiting lecturer at a university in a small city (~ 25,000) in northern New South Wales, Australia, that year. Shipping the bike would have been expensive. Fortunately, one of my roommates, Maureen, had a yellow cycle that she almost never used, and that became my way around Armidale – until one Friday night when, after quite a bit of beer, she smashed into it in the garage. Happily, the wreck was late in my visit. 1982: Robin was born a couple of weeks after her due date. The day before, appropriately Labor Day, Linda encouraged me to go out for a long ride on the red Trek rather than hanging out waiting for something to happen. I remember the ride as tonic, and less than nine hours later our first child arrived. 1983: I brought the Trek to Philadelphia for a summer “retooling” program at the University of Pennsylvania – a first step toward a career in the private sector – and I rose at dawn almost every morning, often riding north and west through a poor neighborhood. I greeted early risers, and was never afraid.

1984: On many summer evenings, after dinner and cleaning up the kitchen, I often got on the Trek and rode really hard down Summit Avenue and onto the parkway along the Mississippi to the University of Minnesota; I timed the outbound segment, and returned just before dark at a more leisurely pace. 1985: I was never a competitor, but for a few years in the late 70s and early 80s, pals John, David, and Tom formed a team to compete in the Zumbo Zig Zag, a canoe, run, and bike relay race. My part was on the bike, in hilly terrain in southeastern Minnesota, and the Saturday that June was the hottest in decades. I was woozy at the finish, but we finished! 1986: Cousin Jim worked in Yellowstone National Park for several years, and that July I flew out to see him. We mostly hiked, but he loaned me his Fuji road bike for a ride through the park, a great way to see the abundant wildlife. 1987: On October 4, I packed the Ford and drove to Dallas to start what became a long career at American Airlines, but I left the bike at home, and I did some tonic rides early on Saturday mornings, across St. Paul, around a few lakes in Minneapolis, and home to play with Jack and Robin. 1988: Settled into our new house in Richardson, Texas, I quickly found some good dawn rides, including one I did a lot, east on Campbell Road and out into what were then rural roads, past cattle and horses to Sachse and back.

1989: Riding home, into bright sun, from a short jaunt early on a September Saturday, I was not paying attention and, duh, I hit the back of a car. Serious damage to my teeth, wrecked the bike, but the Chevette was unharmed. The dentist worked that afternoon, patching me up in time for Jack’s fifth birthday party. A week later, I was on a sweet new Trek 1400, blue. 1990: During the first summers in Texas, we vacationed in cooler climes, and that year had a splendid trip to the mountains of Alberta, to Kananaskis Country. Took my first good mountain bike ride there, a total blast. 1991: That summer was the first of 16 consecutive years that some or all of us headed up to Chicago to a baseball game with Cousin Jim (that first year we saw the Sox, then switched to the Cubbies). Either before or after the game, we’d go on a long bike ride through neighborhoods in inner Chicago, and sometimes along Lake Michigan. 1992: Jack played soccer for many years with the same bunch of boys, and I would often ride the Trek to the games; plenty of people stared at a 40-year-old on a two-wheeler – I guess they thought bikes were only for children. 1993: In January I took a job in AA’s international planning group, and went to Washington twice a month or more; I never stayed in a hotel after the first trip, instead lodging with Carl Nelson, our capital lawyer and a keen cyclist. He had an extra bike, and when the weather was good we would rise way early and head out on what Carl called “dawn patrol,” touring the monuments, embassies, and often along the towpath of the C&O Canal that paralleled the Potomac.

1994: Carl and I became cycling buddies in places other than D.C., and that April we flew to San Diego, drove his pal’s van across the border, and joined thousands of other cyclists on the Rosarito-Ensenada ride, way fun, 50 miles, and a free Corona at the end. 1995: We took the kids to the North Shore of Lake Superior many times in summer and fall, and that August I rented a mountain bike for a spectacular ride up the Caribou Trail, across on a dirt logging road, south on the Sawbill Trail, and back on Highway 61. Worn out, but triumphant after 50 miles or so in an afternoon. 1996: At the end of the summer, Robin and I took a quick trip to Grand Cayman Island. It’s flat, and there was time for a nice, though blisteringly hot, ride on a hotel bike. 1997: Okay, this time the bike was okay, but I was not, after hitting some wet leaves on a short Saturday ride I crashed and fractured my hip. Was four miles from home, so I got back on the bike. Ouch. 1998: Two years earlier, I began volunteering with the Dallas Ramp Project, and back then we spent one Saturday a month building frames and modules, so I would sometimes pack my drill and a few tools in a waist-pack and ride seven miles to the warehouse.

1999: More than a decade after I took to skinny tires, my brother bought them, and became a far more serious rider, competing for many years. So when I flew out to visit him and wife Pam in southwestern Oregon that year, I wondered if I could keep up. I did, more or less, as we took to the hills and valleys of that spectacular part of the U.S. 2000: I bought a Dahon folding bike that spring, and began taking in on trips. We arrived Vancouver early enough one summer eveningto unfold it at our downtown hotel and ride west to Point Grey and the beautiful University of British Columbia campus. Rather ambitious, and dark by the time I got home, but a fine ride that included a surprise visit to my pal Peter B. 2001: I kissed Robin goodbye on an August Saturday morning and headed off to build a wheelchair ramp. When I got home, she and Linda had departed for her start at the University of Southern California. I was feeling wistful, all the more so as I rode past a father teaching his young daughter how to ride a bike. She wore the look of freedom, and I smiled. 2002: The University of Texas at Dallas was a mile from our house, and I often rode around the campus. It was commencement day on a May Saturday, and I remember saluting the fresh graduates as I rode past. 2003: On a long ride one April Saturday, after circling White Rock Lake, I paused at a traffic light, behind a pickup truck with a bumper sticker identifying the driver as a veteran; I wheeled gently alongside his open window and thanked him for his service, likely in World War II or Korea.

2004: For several years, we were July guests of Cousin Jim’s dear in-laws, Janet and John Robinson, in Quogue, New York, out in the Hamptons. Those visits were always big fun, and always included a good ride with Cuz, out along one of the beachfront roads. 2005: One Sunday in March I returned home about noon from skiing in Colorado, and had about two hours before leaving again on another trip. I had to unpack and repack, but managed to wedge in a short but fast ride up Waterview Drive and around UTD before driving back to the airport. 2006: Linda, Robin and I flew to Vancouver for a couple of days before hopping on a cruise to Alaska; happily, the Fairmont Waterfront had free bikes to borrow, allowing a splendid early-morning ride around Stanley Park, under Lion’s Gate Bridge, along English Bay. It’s a superb city for cycling. 2007: We returned from a few days on longtime friend John Crabtree’s canal boat in the West Midlands of England in time for a ride on his mountain bike, and I pointed it north to Hanbury Hall, a historic home and estate – a splendid afternoon of history and fitness. 2008: In the fourth of five decades, I’ve done a lot more biking on overseas trips, and April of that year saw me on an ambitious ride from Bern to Interlaken, Switzerland. It’s a mountainous country, but the 37 miles was mostly in the flat, up the Aare Valley. I took the train back!

2009: One of my favorite teaching venues, Westfälisch Wilhelms-Universität, is in one of the most bike-saturated and bike-friendly cities in the world, Münster, Germany, and I frequently find a bicycle when I visit, as in May of that year, when I spent a lovely morning riding all around the city and out into the countryside. 2010: After a lot of use in its early years, the folding bike spent too much time in its case in the garage, but that year I shipped it to Reston, Virginia, so I’d have the means to ride when visiting Robin and her family. Did some nice rides on the nearby Washington and Old Dominion Trail, a former railroad right-of-way, and got to know the place where we now live. 2011: Another regular teaching venue, Umeå University in northern Sweden (almost to the Arctic Circle), is another huge bike place, and for many years the dean, Lars Lindbergh, would lend me his bike for some ambitious rides (especially in summer, when it’s dark for only three hours). That September, I needed to return the bike to his office before flying out, so I somehow wedged my rolling suitcase into the handlebar basket, put my backpack on my back, and rode two miles up the hill. 2012: The moving van rolled up to our new house in McLean, Virginia, one day in November. Inside were my two red bikes. After the truck emptied and a few days of unpacking, I pumped up the tires on my city bike and took off, east on the W&OD Trail. It was a warm Saturday in November, and I had a big smile. 2013: The Sunday of Labor Day weekend I got up early at Jack’s house in Lubbock, Texas, jumped on his silver bike, and headed north to the Texas Tech campus, circling and looping, enjoying a relatively cool and Sunday morning, and being reminded of how much I missed living in the Lone Star State. 2014: Technically, this is the 51st entry, but why not end with a snippet from just a month ago. I’m in Milan, Italy, and their BikeMi sharing system beckoned. For about $3, I got unlimited rides of 30 minutes or shorter that sunny Sunday, and the bike took me, as it has for 50 years, to many new and wonderful places.

In researching this essay, I dug a little into my quarterly-update archive, and found a pretty good way to wrap it up. Writing in June 2004, a decade ago, I included a “sidebar” marking the 40th year on skinny tires. I don’t think I could improve on how it ended, because I still tightly embrace the points below; here it is, edited lightly:

I’ve put in thousands of miles on skinny-tire bikes since [1964], and I’ve learned and re-learned a few lessons. First, there is nothing better than fitness. It’s not just about keeping weight in control and other physical benefits, but also about mental health. The bike gives resilience and confidence. Second, from the vantage above those funky curved handlebars and the bun-busting narrow saddle, I’ve come to have a dissenting perspective on American transport – it’s what propels me to small, fuel-efficient cars, public transport, and two-wheel-borne errands. Third, and this has become more pronounced as cars have grown larger in recent years, the bike teaches humility, and that perspective of feeling smaller – what many of us also feel when we look to the heavens on a starry night – is a good thing.

LikeALocal

Like a local: on one of Hamburg’s shared bikes, March 2012

 

One response to “50 Years on Skinny Tires

  1. Loved reading your story. Your passion for bikes is contagious. My Jack is just now riding his bike without the training wheels. Watching his determined and anxious little face transform into a glorious smile of pure joy is priceless. I’ve even started riding a bike again – after at least 2 decades of 4-wheel dependence. Living in Richardson has been grand so far. Hope to see you the next time you are “home”.

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