Me on my Schwinn Stingray, circa 1970, with its 3-speed internal hub, (which can't be seen.) What I was doing with those mustard weeds stuffed on my bike, I have no idea.
My first bike was a Schwinn Stingray — you know, the kind with a banana shaped seat and long handlebars on the front — made to look like a chopper motorcycle. Like most bikes of that era, (okay, I admit it, this was the mid to late 60’s) my bike was a single speed, with a coaster brake.
Our family lived on a hill in a small town. And when I say small town, I mean a small town. The kind of town that’s ten blocks long, if that.
Living on a hill meant my first rides were harrowing experiences of tentatively climbing on the bike, being pushed by my brothers, and then coasting down the hill (all gravel) until I fell off. My first attempts were just a few yards. If I went any further, then of course there was speed involved, which had its own terrors. Sometimes I fell off just because I was afraid to go any faster.
One day, I was finally able to coast all the way to the bottom of the hill. I turned onto a perpendicular side street (which meant the street was level) and discovered I had to pedal in order to move.
My thighs were burning after only a few strokes.
I was about as far from athletic as a boy could get. While my brothers and peers were outside playing sports, I was sitting inside by the fireplace reading Encyclopedia Year Books. All of them.
I suppose if I hadn’t been reading those yearbooks, and had hauled them everywhere I went instead, I might have had some semblance of muscles in my legs. As it was, I could barely pedal, even on the flats. And riding back home up the hill? Out of the question. I’d have to walk my bike, and hope that none of my friends or classmates or brothers would see me.
Over time, I got to where I could pedal on the flats. And over time, I started meager attempts up the hill, first one block, then two. Finally, after many attempts, I made it all the way home, seated on the bike. I was so proud!
And then came the next challenge. A few blocks over, parallel to the street we lived on, was a section of old highway that went up the same hill. Except this road was steeper. At the top was the town cemetery, and it sure did feel like that’s where I belonged, every time I made the attempt to reach the summit without walking.
Monkey Ward dream bike
During this time period, I read the Montgomery Ward’s catalog over and over. For inside that catalog was a page that became an obsession. No, I’m not talking about a page in the, umm, lingerie section, but rather a page that had my dream bike on it. A bike not unlike the one I already had, but one with multiple gears — five of them in fact, complete with a shifter on the top tube, made to look like a shifter on the floorboard of the latest hot rod cars.
I wanted that bike badly. For I had the notion that with the lower gears I could be saved from those humiliating walks up the hill. Only problem was, that bike was a whopping $50 — way outside the budget of a 12 year old in the ’60s, especially in a family as poor as ours.
But there was an alternate path to my salvation. The same catalog also offered a 3-speed replacement wheel. Internal Shimano hub design. Planetary gears. I didn’t know what planetary gears were, but I wanted them. I figured I could replace my single speed rear wheel with said planetary gears, and my salvation would only cost $18. Well, that and a caliper brake I had to buy for the rear wheel, since the new hub meant no more coaster brake for me.
So I mowed a lot of lawns — for 25 cents a lawn, or 50 cents if I was lucky — and collected a lot of pop bottles at two cents a “pop” until I had enough saved to buy that 3-speed wheel and associated brake.
I ordered the wheel, and waited with anticipation for it to arrive in the mail. I waited and waited. At the time, one of the hits on the radio was My Cherie Amour by Stevie Wonder. You know, the “La la la la la la” song. That song ran through my head while I pined away for my new amour — this dream wheel I was longing for. (Okay, so I did long for that blonde girl in my class too. I wasn’t really a gear head, just so you know.)
My wheel amour comes to town
Finally, the day arrived when my wheel amour came to town on the morning stage, and after shaking off the dust, was all shiny with chrome and raring to go. I rushed home, eager to tickle the internal gears of my newly acquired love and take her out for a spin.
I first installed the rear caliper brake, figuring if I couldn’t get it to work, then the wheel was a moot point. No way was I going to ride without a rear brake. Fortunately, that proved to not be much of an issue. I only had to drill a hole in the seat stay brace, in order to mount the brake. Somehow, this little kid called me managed to do just that. Perhaps I had a brother or two to help out. I don’t remember.
Installing the wheel itself proved to be a problem, though. The fancy-dancy 3-speed hub was a bit wider than the original, and I wasn’t able to slide the wheel fully into the frame dropouts. I struggled and struggled with it, soon ready to give up in teary frustration.
My oldest brother happened by and wondered what the problem was. I told him I was trying to install a wheel, and it took him a while to understand this was no ordinary wheel. No, this wheel had a 3-speed hub. His only question was, what in the world did I want with all those speeds?
My brother did help me coerce the wheel into the frame dropouts, and soon I was off on a maiden voyage. The wheel came with a handlebar twist shifter that had three positions: low, normal, and high. The normal position felt much like the gearing I had before. The high position was harder. I was too weak to pedal in that gear very effectively. Even so, I could feel its potential. On a slight downhill, I could pedal my bike going faster than ever.
But I was most thrilled with the low position, because the first time I tried to climb Cemetery Hill in that low gear, I made it! I was saved! No cemetery for me. At least not yet!
Scoffed and ridiculed, like all visionaries before their time
Soon I was riding my bike everywhere, marveling how those extra gears gave me the freedom to ride wherever and however I wanted. I could cruise at speed on a slight downhill in high gear, go at normal pace on the flats in normal gear, and climb any hill in low gear. I loved my new 3-speed bike, my wheel amour, my gearly beloved.
But just as my oldest brother wondered why I wanted all those speeds, so did everyone else. They scoffed at my fancy-dancy gears. The other kids in town would laugh, and challenge me to race them with their ordinary single speed bikes, and of course, since I was the boy version of Mr. Weak and Slow, I would get beat every time.
Yeah, I got beat, but what they didn’t understand is that they would have beat me even worse if it weren’t for those extra gears. I understood the mechanical advantage that multiple gears provided, probably from reading all those Encyclopedia Year Books. (I guess those books were useful after all. Ha!)
This newly found, visceral understanding of gearing — of the mechanical advantage of a lever (which is what gears ultimately are), was one of the reasons I ended up majoring in mechanical engineering in college.
Fast forward 40 years later, I feel vindicated by the desire to have more gears on my bike. Modern bikes have as many as 30 gears, albeit with derailleur technology (10 speeds on the back, 3 speeds up front). And now, Campagnolo has upped the ante with 11 speeds on the back. The internal planetary hub designs have evolved as well, from the 3 speed hubs of times gone by, all the way up to 14 gears.
But back when I was 12 years old, I was ahead of my time, riding around with my wheel amour, my gearly beloved.