The Bike: an Endangered Bit of Americana?

In a few short weeks, the new academic year begins, and my daughter will experience life as a fourth grader. But there is one particular experience she will not have: riding her bike to school.

We live in an area that used to be rural. Many of the roads are narrow, with occasional sharp turns or dips. Sidewalks are scarce. It's not bicycle-friendly terrain, so most of the student population rides between home and campus in official yellow buses or family cars.

I often wonder about the impact geography has on our lives, especially during childhood. I grew up in a city with wide residential streets, flat and straight, with stop signs placed every two blocks to keep motorists from speeding. And at every school, the bike racks bustled with activity from September through June.

The Indian brand was popular then, and my first genuine bicycle (without training wheels) was a small Indian model, apple red, which had a wonderfully smooth ride and a compact, sporty appearance. I never saw another one like it.

By fifth grade, I had moved up to a black J.C. Higgins 3-speed, with baskets mounted on either side of the rear wheel for my school books. It looked nerdy, like something a professor might ride, but it had the durability of an army tank.

As a teenager, being trendy became an important factor in everyday life. My parents, sensitive to this issue, presented me with a blue Schwinn Varsity 10-speed. It had the profile of a racing bike, along with practical features like fenders. (I didn't want my clean clothes getting spattered with water if I rolled through a puddle accidentally.)

I let the Varsity slip away at a yard sale about 15 years ago, which was probably a mistake. It would have been financially rewarding to wrap all my old bikes in plastic and keep them stored away as investments. Most of the bicycle companies I remember from school days have disappeared, and the orientation of the whole industry has changed enormously.

Bicycles now are built to endure rugged workouts on steep, rocky hillsides. Mountain bikes are the basic design. It's possible to buy reproductions of the old one-speed models with fat tires and streamers on the handgrips, but they cost hundreds of dollars.

My daughter does have her own bicycle (a Diamond Back Viper, made in Taiwan), but her cruising area is limited to our immediate neighborhood. I hope this doesn't stunt her spirit of adventure. However, not being able to ride to school isn't a disaster. I'll try to compensate by making cycling a consideration in future vacation plans.

I can envision all three of us pedaling along a scenic road in Canada or Europe. My bike will be a tarnished, old rental. If we stop at a local cafe, I'll just lean it up against a tree. That's my idea of a freewheeling experience.

*Jeffrey Shaffer, a regular Monitor contributor, lives in Portland, Ore.

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