Essay: Bringing bicycles out of hibernation

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What’s in your neighbor’s garage? Do you know? Have you ever noticed a lonely bicycle?

My neighbors are a bit of an anomaly—where I live in Colorado is an anomaly. The guy across the street has a high-end carbon mountain bike that gets upgraded fairly frequently. I regularly see a guy drive by in a beat-up old Subaru with a gorgeous titanium hardtail on the roof. Every morning, scores of parents on cargo bikes haul their kids past my house on their way to the elementary school up the street.

On the corner opposite mine lives a quiet gentleman who doesn’t drive; he only rides a silver, big-box store bicycle with a huge orange flag attached to the back, a drink holder on the handlebar and thick foam padding wrapped around the bar ends. Anywhere he needs to go is accessible by off-street paved path or bike lane. Across the street, the elderly friend of one of my elderly neighbors gets around on a gas-motor-powered bicycle that one of the teenagers on the next block built for him.

A mountain biker who lives two blocks away actually knocked on my door one afternoon just to say “Hi” because he recognized my truck from a piece I wrote for Dirt Rag magazine.

I haven’t always been in a bicycle-loving area. Shortly before leaving Texas, I lived in one of those charmless, cookie-cutter neighborhoods where all of the modest homes looked exactly alike and the streets were all named after a variation on a theme. Despite not being a particularly upmarket neighborhood, it was gated, and perhaps that gate is why people tended to leave their garage doors open.

My husband and I would go for walks at night and I would look into my neighbors’ garages. Almost all of them housed a bicycle or two; almost all of the bicycles were older and in obvious disrepair, or stored in a manner that they were obviously not being used. I remember wondering why all of those bicycles were there, why people hung onto them, still. I also wanted to know this: Why had they bought them in the first place?

When I was a kid, it was still a “thing” for everyone to own a bicycle, though not necessarily a fancy one. That was true for adults and kids alike, sometimes for no specific reason. Even my mom still had a blue fade step-through hybrid until a few years ago. She bought that bike for about $300 after giving up road riding when I was a toddler, and it stayed in the family for the next two decades. Sometimes we’d just ride around our neighborhood, which only netted us a few miles, but that alone made owning a bike feel worthwhile.

I thought of this again on one of my daily dog walks. The mutt and I hit the road during the lunch hour (without routines, working from home can drive you nuts) and though this neighborhood isn’t gated, people still leave their garage doors open when they’re home. Despite the high level of cycling participation here, I still see them: bicycles hanging dusty and rusty from ceilings; chained to back fences with broken parts; hidden behind large boxes or shelving units.

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And I know that not all of the owners of those neglected bicycles are too old or unfit or unwell to be out on two wheels. I see them in their running clothes, pushing their baby strollers, loading their climbing gear into their hatchbacks, working on their older homes. What was the charm, the dream or the goal that got those people to buy those bikes in the first place? I want to know. I wish I knew.

I wonder what would happen if we tried to bring those bicycles out of hiding, out of retirement. What would happen if we tried to reach people who don’t go to the local shops, read the Facebook cycling forums or frequent popular riding routes? What would happen if we simply invited those bicycles out to play—if we literally put flyers on doorsteps and invited people to a park one evening where mechanics were ready to clean and tune the old bicycles and friendly neighbors were ready to serve grilled food, cold drinks and lead the whole crew on a casual ride around town?

Could we remind people of why they bought their bicycles in the first place? If we could, it would benefit all of us.

Those kinds of casual social rides do take place where I live, but there’s never been a component to the events that says, “Bring us your tired, your downtrodden, your neglected machines.” I have friends who own old bicycles that don’t function properly, and that is the number one excuse they give me for not riding. Go to a bike shop? That’s intimidating, time consuming and expensive. And yet, on the rare occasions that we do pedal together—even if we just coast one mile down the hill to a happy hour downtown—they love it. My friends will talk about riding more, which means investing more, which means noticing cyclists more readily when they drive, which means supporting more riding opportunities where we live.

When organizing community cycling events, it might seem like a small thing—or maybe even a hassle—to offer free bike repair, but I think it could make a significant difference. Sometimes you have to approach a bike ride as a total non-rider in order to invite those dusty, rusty, old machines out of hibernation, and get them back into the lives of our neighbors.

 

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