Monday, August 30, 2010


Not long after I learned how to ride a bike I saw another boy do something really neat. Now please bear with me while I digress a moment. "Neat" was the common word we used back then to express approval. It preceded "groovy", a word I never cared for, which in turn preceded "far out" which I thought was...far out. And while "cool" has endured for decades, it was not present in the neighborhood lexicon on the 3200 block of Bryant Street in Topeka, Kansas. While all of that is not necessarily important to this story, for those of you who think anyone who remembers the assassination of JFK is old, that is how long ago I'm talking about.

A bicycle expanded our horizons and allowed for greater freedoms back then. Society was not as fearful as it is today and essentially the only restriction was that us kids had to be home by dinner. There was a two-fold reason for us to be on time. If we missed dinner not only did we not get to eat but we got a spanking on top of it. An empty stomach and fresh belt welts made for a miserable night for a seven-year-old so it was in our best interests to be home at the appointed time. I apologize for swerving off on another tangent.

Back to the beginning. When I learned to ride, I mimicked what other riders did. It never occurred to me to be imaginative about it so when it came to stopping my bike, I applied the brakes until I came to a full stop, dismounted, and then put the kickstand down. Just like everyone else. That changed the day I saw a kid dismount while the bike was in motion and remain standing on the left-side pedal. While he slowed he pushed kickstand down and stepped off the bike the moment it came to a stop.


All of our bikes had coaster brakes which were activated by pushing a pedal backwards. For us, hand brakes were considered to be outside the norm and found on three-speed bikes that only old people rode. There was always an amount of play in the coaster brakes and that varied from bike to bike. One might engage the brake with just a slight backward rotation of a few degrees and another may require a quarter turn. Mine was more towards the quarter-turn category. The first time I tried the all-in-one-fluid-motion of dismount, brake and park, I did not engage enough of the brake. As the rest of the group came to a stop, I continued on with one foot on the pedal and the other ready to push the kickstand down. But I kept rolling and had to saddle up again to brake, creating a moment of hilarity for my friends and bruising my dignity just a little.

To make it work I had to get to know my bike better. Trial and error is a wonderful, but not always painless, teacher. The next time I engaged too much brake and stopped far too suddenly while in the middle of swinging my right leg over. Catching me by surprise, my body kept going forward while my rear tire skidded. I lost control and went down bruising more than my dignity. Looking for the sweet spot in the middle ground, I followed a different tack. I remained seated while stopping and experimented with the amount of play required to get the brake to engage just right. After that I was just as smooth and fluid as everyone else. A group of boys rolling up on their bikes, stopping and then walking or running away while the bikes remained upright It was neat.