My First Bicycle, or… Worth a Toe Nail?

Douglas Townsend - Houston, TX

My First Bicycle, or… Worth a Toe Nail?

Vaguely I remember my first bicycle. I certainly can't remember its details other than it was red and white, and had training wheels. You see, it was a long time ago; more than fifty years; I was five years old. I recall I didn't have much interest it in as I awkwardly tried to learn to ride and maneuver it in my parents and neighbors driveway. I quickly became frustrated and belittled as I watched my big brother and the older kids turn and spin circles around me on their two wheeled bikes taunting me. Dismayed and daunted I would give up leaving it standing in that spot to go inside the house to play with my other toys.

One day I suppose I had enough and figured that if they can do it so can I. So against better judgment I rolled the neighbors big, red, two wheeled cruiser with its fat, white walled tires out of their carport, mounted it and began to roll down the slope of their driveway. I was doing it! I WAS REALLY DOING IT! I gleefully thought to myself.  I had mastered it and was actually maintaining my balance...until I got to the bottom of the slope.

Warning kiddies, don't try this barefoot as did I. Trying to catch myself from falling at the bottom of the drive I tore off half the toe nail on my right big toe. I must have made some horrific screams because my mother whom was inside cleaning house (yes, we were allowed to play outside in the yard somewhat unattended, we didn't have PlayStation back then or color television for that matter) came running out the kitchen door like a track star. I doubt the screams of pain I made then could minutely compare to the blood curdling screams I cried as she held me in her arms, foot beneath the cold running water of the bathroom sink, and applied the deathly sting of Methylate to the wound.

Most readers are probably to young to know Methylate and its nasty sting, and for those who don't, it is an antiseptic that no household was without if there were kids about. It's used to treat cuts and scrapes (We didn't have the wonders of Neosporene or antibiotic ointments back then either). To apply it to an open wound was to suffer something that would be akin to applying battery acid!

While I vaguely remember my first bike, I vividly remember the Christmas some six years later. After playing “possum” for what seemed like all night, my brother and I sneaked from our room into the living room to see what Santa had brought that Christmas. Lo' and Behold there next to the tree stood two brand new Schwinn, Chromed Stingrays with banana seat, sissy bar and high rise handle bars. We would be the envy of the block! And we were...for awhile.

Wish I had that bike now! A few years ago I heard that an original, first production year model in good condition sold at an auction for two thousand dollars. Mine however went the way most things do ...change. Off came the banana seat and sissy bar, on went the old spring loaded cruiser seat.  Off came the high rise bars, and nix the slick wheels. On went the standard low bars and heavier tread-ed conventional street bike tires,  and there you had it, the early version, the predecessor to today's BMX bikes. We'd ride the wooded paths and trails of undeveloped land around the suburbs and  called it ‚Scrambling.

I don't remember my first ten speed bike, there were many, mostly used bikes I would attempt to fix up. I do remember in the seventies the first new one I purchased, another Schwinn (there were only three cycling shops in my hometown of Memphis at the time, two were Schwinn and one Raleigh). It was a ‚Sierra‚ model which was nothing but the old ‚Continental‚ model with a new name. I babied that thing keeping it cleaned, polished, lubed, and made a few modifications. I replaced the coveted lighter side pull brakes with the (at the time) more durable and reliable center pull brakes. Sealed bearing wheel-sets were atrociously priced at the time and it was usually only the more affluent riders with their high end bikes who had them or could afford them. We learned however that by removing the bearing sets out of the wheel hubs and replacing them with loose bearings, by removing the bearing ‚Äúcage‚Äù, we could add a couple extra bearings to each side increasing smoothness and reducing resistance. By doing the same to the headset one could affect agility and responsiveness.

I rode that bike for years across the width and breath of my hometown of Memphis many times over. I sold that bike to a younger kid as his first ten speed and could only afford a good a second hand bike. It is the only bike I've ever sold that I recovered more than half my investment. As we know Bikes are worse than cars when it comes to depreciation. I applied that sum toward the purchase of yet another Schwinn, “Super Le Tour” model and it was on this bike I did my first century. I was in my middle or late teens.

Since then there have been several. From Super Le Tour and Paramount, to Raleigh R-700's, from Mongoose ‚ÄúOmega‚Äù, to Scott S-50's. Shimano, Ultegra, Rolf Vectors, Easton, Scram, are words, among others,  that have meaning in my life. There have been many organized charity rides for American Diabetes, American Cancer, American Heart and Lung association, and the country's largest MS-150 ride, Houston-Austin (a worth while experience 'fer sure!).

In this mix of 50 years or so there have been many ups and downs and except for brief periods, a bicycle was always there. Indeed during some harder times I had to rely upon it and I learned, if you take care of it, it will take care of you. Today, I'm an avid commuter and can honestly say, I have not purchased a tank of gas in more than fifteen years. I am proud that at 56 years old I can still challenge myself with distances that make others cringe, and that many envy me for being able to do so. I'm not saying such extreme is for everyone. I'm just saying I'm proof it can be done!
I live in Houston now, since '82, and Houston is destined to become the #1 bike accessible city in the U.S. With over 300 sq. Miles of bike paths. One will be able to traverse this expanse city with little contact on public roads. I hope I'm here to see it, ride it, and photograph it.
Recently I've become interested in commuting Houston and surrounding areas to demonstrate the advantage of cycling it over driving it, the ability and convenience to stop for a moment to take it in,You can see a small sample here,...
The topic here started as given to me, ‚ÄúDo I remember my first bicycle?‚Äù  My answer, ‚ÄúWas it worth a toe nail? I'll give you two!‚Äù
Happy trails, Keep the rubber side down,...
Douglas Townsend

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