Meditations on the velveteen bicycle
By Quinn Schiebal
I never got a new bike when I was kid. It was always some random derivation of BMX that my dad would pick up for me at the local dump. I would go with him, and we would find maybe two bikes in pieces that I would excitedly meld into one amazing jalopy of a bike. Sometimes it would be a whole bike that just needed a new chain and tubes. If that was the case, I would call up this old guy named Nick who fixed used bikes out of his garage.
Nick was a large man with glasses and a handlebar mustache. He always reminded me of a cowboy who had been put out to pasture. I can remember him digging through huge Schwinn catalogues and finding just the right tire or neck stem. Nick rarely had the part that was needed in stock, though he had huge piles of frames and wheels everywhere. I didn't understand why he kept all those useless parts then, but I understand now.
Now I too have a pile of useless parts that I just can't throw away, because what if I find a great bike that needs a '52 Schwinn crank? I never use the parts; they just sit there, and when I take the garbage up to the dump, my wife smuggles rims and bent frames in under the other garbage. And so the pile shrinks, and then the pile grows again.
Where I grew up, I was the only white kid around. It was back when the seven-mile stretch between Saint Helena and Calistoga was still quiet and rural. All my friends were Latino, and they all had dump bikes, too. It was always about building huge bike jumps. Wood, cinderblocks, rocks--whatever we could find to prop up a used piece of plywood that usually had a large hole right in the center. That's why I went through so many bikes, and probably why my father never bought me a new one.
As the years went by, my dump bikes changed, and as a teenager, I started looking for 10-speeds that I could tune up and ride from Calistoga to Santa Rosa. I wanted to go fast. If my father only knew that at 13 I was passing cars, doing 50-plus mph without a helmet down Petrified Forest Road, he would have croaked. He never knew, because I would just say, "I'm going for a bike ride, Dad." When a 13-year-old boy says he's going for a bike ride, parents imagine him riding some quiet dirt road out in the vineyards, not drafting behind a semi. By that point, riding a bike was like breathing. How could I get hurt while breathing?
As I grew into adulthood, no matter where I lived, I would always find the local dump. There would be all these bikes. I would scavenge through them and come up with what I needed. As a young man, I would find some form of comfortable commuter bike (I was always too irresponsible to own a car and keep it running). The bike shops had changed, and it was all about hopped-up mountain bikes and sleek, weightless road bikes. One time, I didn't even make it through the door before a clerk yelled, "Get that piece of shit out of my shop." I proceeded to the counter and bought cheap parts for my cheap bike anyway.
I would always leave these bike shops and think back to Nick, the king of the dump bike. He would tell me how much it would cost for him to fix the bike, which was always more than my allowance, and then he would tell me how much it would cost for just the parts and show me how to do the repair, which was what I could afford. What I ride is not a bike but a two-wheeled bastard. I am one of the untouchables of the biking community.
Recently, the idea of the dump bike has evolved. I started to think about the beauty of a bike. It's so simple and efficient. You can go anywhere with it, and on your way, you get to come into direct contact with the world around you. I have decided to make my dump bikes real. Lately, I've been finding old cruisers. I strip them down to the metal and repaint them. Then I start to think about what I want the bike to be. What kind of spirit should this bike have?
An example: I have a friend who said that she needed a bike. I found an old Murray cruiser and stripped it down. Then I thought about what kind of bike would best suit her. What would the colors be? What would I stencil on the chain guard? This friend of mine is a wild one. She likes to have a good time and likes to flirt with whatever and whomever she finds outside of bars. I painted the bike brown with yellow stripes. On the chain guard I wrote, "The Brown Sound." Why? So that when people admired her bike they would ask her about it and she could reply, "Because the Brown Sound gets around." It's funny and she might get some action out of it--or at least a beer.
To make something real--not real like existing in reality; real like it has a spirit of its own--one has to give it soul. One has to find a bike that was once loved and then forgotten. You can see them a mile away. All the wear marks are in the right places. The tires are flat, the chain rusty. Whoever rode that bike, rode it for awhile and loved it. Then life happened, and the bike got put on the side of the garage and eventually someone took it to the dump. There is something so fulfilling about saving a bike from the dump, taking something that has been deemed garbage and pulling it back from its demise.
Right now, as you are reading this article, there is a perfectly good bike sitting up at the dump. For a very small investment, you could soon be going just as far and just as fast as someone riding a $2,500 bike. The only difference between your dump bike and theirs will be that yours has retained its soul.
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