Gearly beloved

Me on my old Schwinn bike

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 resemble motorcycles of the day. 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.

Big problem.

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 innate 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.


Gearly beloved — 3 Comments

  1. I just had to laugh at this one,, I do remember the banana seat on the bicycle. Did you forget the rocky mountain newspaper route you had, using that bicycle for the delivery?. hehehe As for the mustard weeds on your bicycle,, I dont remember, looks like an attempt at camflouge, to stay away from said snickers and laughter,, lmao, but I dont remember that,, good post and story

  2. Ah, sometime I will have to write up my memories of those days. And of the first bike that was actually mine. The 20″ wheeled, banana seated, high rise handle barred, single speed, slick tired back wheel, coaster braked one – that Mr. J. McDermott had put together for me from the bicycle graveyards of Colby, KS, for delivery to me for my 14th (?) Birthday (1967?). (When did Anita and John go to S.C. and then on to Stuttgart?) Complete with the White and Hot Pink flourescence streamers attached to the ends of the handle bar grips. The frame painted a metallic mid-night blue. Unfortunately I know of no photos of it from that time back in those days. I seem to remember how odd it was that I had to wait for my own actual bicycle until a time when I at least had gotten a learner’s permit — so maybe it was as late as 1968? (Now I am pressed to begin my own Auto biography — yet again, just to get “His-story” straight and recorded somewhere.)

    Ah, but Dear BroBry, I do have a much earlier photo from times in Goodland, KS of you on a 26″ set of wheels on gravel. Complete with you wearing your very first bicycle helmet. Of course ‘that’ bike was ‘communal property’.

    The hill of that small town (“Pop. 200”, the town limit sign decried), was a constant study in accelleration. As well as a revell of ‘kitty hawk’ for various and sundry attempts at modeled heavier than air flight studies. I am surprised that we did not somehow incorporate our bicycles into those flight studies. LOL. But perhaps the trees on the hill did represent great hazard for such ‘manned’ flight experiments.

    None the less, I do not remember this bike you speak of, nor its conversion into a multi-speed platform. I was off to Sedwick, CO (and 2nd Cousin Evertt’s) that summer you turned 12, it being I think 1969. While you were figuring out how to install this mutli-speed update to your bicycle, I was busy learning how to overhaul 6 cyclinder and V8’s engines and their corresponding automatic and manual transmissions, and doing the respective overhauls as well. Also was learning how to and then doing, giving car bodies new primer and color paint jobs, after doing the needed auto body repair. During which time I passed up a free ride trip in a brand new 1969 lemon yellow Corvette to WoodStock, NY for some doings there, by a couple from San Franciso headed that way – whose new ‘vette was in our shop, for some unremembered reason.

    Yes, the art of associative ramblings is an honored one.

    May be you don’t remember, but the catalog of encyclopedias in our family library were the following, 1.) A set of Brittianica Junior Encyclodpeidas (Ed and year unknown), 2.) a set of Grolier Encyclopedia (Ed. and year unknown), 3.) a set of World Bood of Knowledge Encyclopedia (Ed. and year unknown. ) This last set also was supplemented by a set of World Book of Knowledge Yearbooks complete from 1947 to at least eventually 1969 (perhaps even later). Our older brother read all of them completely several times, I myself read them completely at least three times. I spent even more times reading the set of World Book of Knowledge Year books. (Perhaps why I have such an interest in ‘recent history’). Somehow in spite of such long hours reading them, DP and I did find plenty of time to find more atheltic things to do. None the less Cemetry Hill was indeed a challenge to get up on a single speed bike, even for me, who was used to taking off on 5-20 mile hikes up through the sand hills, not to mention the many times I mowed that Cemetry with its rather heavy slope, mowing with a push mower. None of this rider mower stuff for any of us brothers at that time.

    For the record, I think you, Bry, did inherit my Rocky Mountain News paper route from me, at one time I delivered the Denver Post, the Omaha World Herald, and the Rocky Mountain News, sometimes on bike but usually on foot.

    And remember when the bottle deposit for the ‘new’ 16oz Coke bottle was 5 cents? What a hugh economic boom that became for all of us brothers. A true increase in our available venture capital. The increase allowed for many model rockets to be designed and built of the Estas’ model rocket powered group.

    Alas, some time this spring my 15 speed Wally World bike was ripped off from our drive way. A check at the police bike impound yard failed to turn it up. At the moment I am bike-less, sigh.

    Great story, BroBry… really enjoyed it and yes, Marlen, reading it did bring back some memories.

  3. My J.McDermott special was not a Schwinn String Ray, but its design was most certainly inspired by the Schwinn Strng Ray.

    For what it is worth the very first Schwinn I attempted to ride was sometime in 1957 in Skidknee, Nebsaskra, when I was 4 or 5 yoa. It was a full 26″ incher “girl’s” bike, complete with fenders, and painted in Navy Blue with Yellow pinstripe work. Not sure what exact vintage it was, perhaps mid 1950’s. Since it was Anita’s perhaps she better remembers the details of that bike than I do. If I remember correctly my attempts were “unfruitfull” except for being ‘yelled’ at for messing with my sister’s stuff.

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