Two Wheels Good, The People’s Nag

The historian Jill Lepore has only been linked to twice before in our posts. Not more, because her topical variety is constantly beyond the scope of topics we focus on.

But her most recent essay is on topic for us. Bicycles might have been the invention that kept us part way out of the climate crisis, but then came the car.

She uses the publication of the book to the right as a launch pad for an excellent history of the bicycle, combined with personal history:

Bicycles Have Evolved. Have We?

From the velocipede to the ten-speed, biking innovations brought riders freedom. But in a world built for cars, life behind handlebars is both charmed and dangerous.

My first bicycle was not, in fact, a bicycle. I rode it in 1968, when I was two years old and as tubby as a bear cub. It had four wheels, not two, and no pedals: strictly speaking, it was a scooter. But Playskool called it a Tyke Bike, so I say it qualifies, and aside from the matte-black, aluminum-alloy number that I’ve got now, which is called (by the manufacturer dead seriously, and by me aspirationally) the Bad Boy, the Tyke Bike may be the swankiest bicycle I’ve ever ridden. According to the box, Playskool’s scooter—red and blue and white, with a yellow, leopard-spotted wooden seat, chrome handlebars, and black, white-walled wheels—offered “smart high style” for the “preschool jet set,” as if a little girl in a diaper and a romper were about to scoot along the jetway to board a T.W.A. flight bound for Zurich.

Before being handed down to me, my Tyke Bike, like most of the bicycles in my life, had belonged to my brother, Jack, and to both of my sisters, and, earlier still, to cousins or neighbors or some other family from Our Lady of Good Counsel, whose annual parish sale was where we always got our best stuff, bless the Virgin Mary. By the time I got the Tyke Bike, the paint was scuffed, the leopard spots had worn off, and the white plastic handlebar grips had been yanked off and lost, most likely buried in the back yard by the slobber-jawed neighborhood St. Bernard, a Christmas-present puppy whose name was Jingles and who was eventually run over by a car, like so many dogs on our street, which is another reason more people should ride bikes. I didn’t mind about the missing handlebar grips. I tucked a stuffed bear into my red wagon, tied its rope to my seat post, and scooted down the sidewalk, dragging the wagon behind me, my first bike hack. Far from being a jet-setter, I have always been an unhurried bicyclist, something between deliberate and fretful. Jack, a speed demon and a danger mouse, but above all a gentleman, would wait for me at every telephone pole. Jack and Jill went up the hill, everyone would call out, as we wheeled past. Pbfftttttt, we’d raspberry back.

My current bicycle, the Cannondale Bad Boy, is said to be cloaked in “urban armor,” looks as though it could fight in a regime-changing war, and is built for “traffic-slaying performance.” I like the idea of being redoubtable on a roundabout, Mad Max on a mews, but, in truth, I have never slain any traffic. I have never slain anything. I once knew an old Polish man who called all drivers one of three things—“Cowboy!” “Old Woman!” “Teen-ager!”—which he’d shout out, raging, behind the steering wheel of his station wagon, in a heavily accented growl. I am, and have always been, Old Woman.

The Bad Boy is the only bike I’ve ever bought new. I paid an embarrassing amount of money for it in 2001, to celebrate getting tenure and maybe with the idea that I was finally going to be a badass, that all I needed was this James Dean mean-streets city bike. But, the minute I got it home, I started hacking it, girling it out. I bolted a radio to the handlebars and listened to the news on my ride to work every day—I heard the war on terror unfold on that bicycle—until my friend Bruce told me I’d be exactly seventy-four per cent happier if I listened to music instead. WERS. College radio. Indigo Girls. Dixie Chicks. He was right. For a long time, I had a baby seat strapped onto a rack in the back, molded gray plastic with a blue foam cushion seat and a nylon seat belt. Babies, not to say bad boys, would fall asleep back there, their nodding heads tipped over by the great weight of baby helmets covered in the spikes of a stegosaurus, poking into my back. I steered around potholes, ever so slowly, so as not to jolt them awake. Old Woman…

Read the whole essay here.


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