As summer’s green subtly fades to Autumn’s gloaming, I am thinking about bikes. Not just any bikes, but the bikes of my childhood, bikes that seize my imagination now as they did then. My friend’s older (and much bigger) brother had a 1957 Schwinn “American” that had seen better days by the time we got it in 1969. One of the two speeds didn’t work, the blue paint had chipped and the chain was perilously loose. We called it “the rig” and to us, it sizzled with power. “The rig” easily held me and my friend. We chained a wagon to the back and clattered around the neighborhood, collecting interesting trash set by the curb. We would try to transform the “trash” to “treasure” through cleaning and minor repairs, then resell it in our “trash to treasure” home delivery business. That summer and fall, we cleared about $1.80, mostly from a kindly, older neighbor. He was our best customer until his wife saw the junk in the garage. When “the rig” wasn’t harnessed in service of our small business needs, we would take it for uproarious rides around the neighborhood, terrorizing girls sitting on curbs and challenging neighborhood dogs to races (dogs ran free in the “old days”). As a kid, I would go to my friend’s and announce “Let’s go for a bike ride!” What rides we had!
I was thinking of “the rig” recently on a walk downtown when it dawned on me that people don’t go for bike rides much anymore. They become “cyclists.” On my walk, I was passed by a group of young men on bicycles who were clearly not out for a bike ride—they were “cycling.” These fellows looked more serious than Scientologists cranked to the gills on Ritalin. Astonished by both their intensity and gear, I wondered if their group goal was a “sonic boom.” They were actually racing more than taking a ride. Well, “good for them,” I thought. They were young and full of energy. Cycling is excellent exercise and countries with the most cycling (whether for leisure or commuting) have the lowest obesity rates. I support fitness activities in all their forms, but I do miss a good bike ride. It seems we Americans make everything so serious—even bike rides. A bike ride is basically pointless other than to be out on the bike, checking things out, looking around. It is mechanized ambling, if you will. In addition, the lack of a point makes spontaneous decisions like scaring girls or racing dogs all the more fun.
These days, I go on occasional bike rides to take advantage of the wonderful biking/hiking trails we have around Kent, but it is not as fun as randomly racing dogs or trying to impress girls. I have friends who are “cyclists” and regale me with impressive statistics about equipment: helmets, shoes, jackets, jerseys, tights and pants—what controversies! The only equipment we had for “the rig” were Red Ball Jet sneakers, jeans, and t-shirts. I am admonished by my kids to wear a bicycle helmet for my bike rides now, but my “boomer” ethos rebels against this. I can no longer reach the blazing speeds we attained on “the rig,” so I doubt a collision would be of much consequence. Plus, at my age, you take your thrills where you can get them.
While they don’t make Red Ball Jets anymore, I am still loaded with jeans, t-shirts and, most important, a deep yearning for pointless mecha-nical ambling; a yearning to take a bike ride.
When cycling had become too serious for me, the answer seemed clear: up my game and get a motorcycle. I could be a “biker” rather than a “cyclist.” You can still go for a “ride” on a motorcycle (though you have to get your exercise elsewhere). Most of my cousins ride motorcycles and it made a certain sense since I could take “rides” with them. Bike rides! Just like in my youth! So I laid eyes on a black Harley-Davidson Sportster XL that bore an amazing resemblance to “the rig” of my childhood. I was sold. Now, unlike “the rig,” or any bicycle I ride today, I not only bought a helmet for the Sportster, I took lessons to learn to ride it. These were great fun and the camaraderie of our learn-to-ride group reminded me of the fun my friend and I had riding bikes as kids. We were all dedicated, enthusiastic and worked hard to pass our license test (except one woman who was dismissed shortly after she asked “where is the seat belt?”). The truth is, though, we all just wanted to go for a ride; to mechanically amble across northeast Ohio with no goal other than the ride itself. Now, of course, bikers can get caught up in “gear fever” too, but aside from the helmet, I was good to go. I had escaped the “seriousness” of cycling.
On my first rides, I noticed something they did not teach us in the “learn-to-ride” class. When another biker is approaching you from the opposite direction, they give you a sort of “low wave” with their left hand. Some nod as well, but their faces are usually as grim as the cyclists decked out for a race. Upon further research, I learned this is called the “left-hand low” also called the “Harley” or “Cruiser” wave. Since I own a Harley Cruiser type bike, it seemed the wave for me. I became concerned though— had seriousness again crept into my “ride?”
Further research instructed me that there are five waves that have been standardized by the “Wave Hard and True Biker Society (abbreviation “WHAT-BS”). This admittedly tongue-in-cheek society wanted to save bikers from the embarrassment of the “princess” and “howdy” waves that can get you “stomped” in some areas of northeast Ohio.
The “WHAT-BS” group also has guidelines for when not to wave (e.g. on curves, in rain, on interstates). My research on the “wave” phenomenon relieved me that bikers had a sense of humor; were “sincere” but not “serious.” The ride was still the thing.
The only other area where bikers border on seriousness is noise. As readers know, some bikers are not happy unless their engine noise loosens fillings, opens dog bladders and registers on the Richter scale. While “rolling thunder” may have a poetic quality to it, it is downright annoying when you are trying to dine outside at one of Kent’s many fine restaurants. As with the “low wave” I did some research. In most states the decibel ratings for motorcycles cannot exceed 88 decibels (depending on the year the bike was made). Some Harley owners swap out their factory exhaust systems for illegal straight pipes that do not muffle the engine noise and result in decibel levels well over 100. Hearing loss can result from exposure to 100 decibels in as little as 15 minutes. Uh, oh—that sounded serious to me. Though I did not want to get too serious, I was compelled to dig deeper.
The scant psychoanalytic literature on loud pipes suggests that bikers who put them on are compensating for something or expressing aggression. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide on the compensation issue. From an acoustics perspective, some bikers maintain loud pipes save lives by alerting other drivers to a biker’s impending presence. There is no research bearing this out. About half of motorcycle accidents are single vehicle (bike only). When another driver is at fault, it is usually something that happens in front of the motorcycle (like a car pulling out or changing lanes). If a motorcycle passes a car, the car driver sees the biker before hearing the “thunder”, so the loud pipes are only annoying the people behind the motorcycle. If bikers want to increase their safety, they should add gigantic halogen lights on their handlebars and a huge boat horn. Of course, then they run the risk of looking like saps instead of sounding like rebels.
I am aware that all this research is driving me in the “serious” direction. I am still thinking about bikes, but riding them too; ambling happily across northeast Ohio. Racing the occasional loose dog (yes, they come after motorcycles, too) and in some sense, staying in touch with the part of me that is still barreling at light speed on “the rig”, striking out pointlessly for worlds unknown.