The Old Coot pedals into the past

By Merlin Lessler — 

I was seven when I got my first bike, a used, single speed, fat tire specimen; you engaged the brake to stop by pushing the pedals backwards. By the time I was ten I’d completed the requirements for a bachelor’s degree in mechanics (bicycle mechanics). 

I took that bike apart dozens of times to fix flats and adjust the handlebars and seat as I grew. When I wanted a racing bike I removed the fenders and flipped the handlebars forward so I could lean over the front wheel like a real racer.

When the fenders were on I could carry a passenger on the back one, holding me around the waist. If a second friend came by, he sat on the handlebars, facing forward and yelling when we were about to crash into something. 

On the rare occasion when another friend joined us he sat on the crossbar between the seat post and the handlebar post. Four on a bike! A lost art of the 1950’s.

Like most kids of that era, I could ride facing backwards by standing on the pedals and leaning back to grip the handlebars. Needless to say, my parents spent a lot of money on band-aids, gauze, adhesive tape, and iodine. But luckily no time at the ER.

I found a three speed, skinny tire English bike with hand brakes under the tree the Christmas I turned 12. I transitioned from a “pony” to a “stallion.” I went on to earn a “master’s degree” in bike mechanics. 

It served me well for the rest of my life, as did the basic carpentry skills I learned building tree forts and soap box street racers. That three-speed bike introduced me to brake pad adjustment and replacement, generator light installation, brake and shift cable adjustment, and spoke tuning. The latter became a necessity after we loosened them up by fastening baseball cards into the spoke pathway to create a motor sound effect. Loose spokes could lead to a bent and ruined wheel, a repair cost I could not afford. 

Now in my 80’s I’m still riding, not a three-speed, but an 18-speed, though I only use three of them. Still getting that feeling of joy, gliding around with so little effort, fresh air blowing around me, a 12-year-old in an 81-year-old body. I’m that same kid again when I hop on a bicycle. 

In truth there is no hopping, just a big leg lift with hopes that my feet land on the pedals. In a helmet? Of course not! I’m 12-years-old when I’m on my bike, and it’s 1954.

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