Words and photos: Jordan Vinson
Originally published in Issue #40
On a tiny flyspeck of land, in the middle of the massive Western Pacific, isn’t where you would expect to find a rich and thriving bicycle culture. The U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll, located on the remnants of an ancient volcano in the western archipelago of the Marshall Islands, is home to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site.
Living among the installation’s array of radars, rocket launch pads, missile tracking stations and WWII-era Japanese pillboxes and blockhouses are roughly 1,200 Army personnel, MIT scientists and civilian contractors. Together, they operate and support a state-of-the-art American weapons test range and deep space surveillance site on the islands of Kwajalein, Roi-Namur and smaller satellite islands peppered along the rim of the largest natural lagoon on the planet.
They also ride bikes. A lot.
Wedged into rickety wooden bike racks, propped against swaying coconut palms and constantly tipping over in the steady trade winds, the number of bicycles on the installation is greater than the number of people living there. Even Copenhagen doesn’t have a bicycle ownership and usage rate to this degree.
The explanation for the small community’s apparent love for leg-powered travel is, at its core, rather simple: Because the garrison consists of only a handful of remote islands with a cumulative landmass no larger than a few big city blocks, no personal motorized vehicles are permitted. Nor are they required. Commutes to work are, generally, a breeze. A trip to Surfway, the garrison’s sole supermarket, takes only a few minutes—even when competing for cheese and avocados, both prized food items for remote island dwellers. When you need to haul a big load around, you simply attach a rugged, two-wheeled trailer and tow your payload home like a beast of burden.
Driving the Kwajalein and Roi-Namur communities’ rich diversity in bicycles is the residents’ desire to stand out from the crowd, said Normen “Auntie” Sablas, a long-time Kwajalein resident and logistics support coordinator for test range customers with the Missile Defense Agency, NASA and so on.
“Everybody has different personalities,” he said outside his home on a blustery afternoon in early February. “So they want to fit their bikes to their own personalities. Some like bikes with the high-rise handlebars … And some prefer just a standard look and feel. It’s all about individual preference.”
The peculiar “high-rise” handlebars that Sablas mentioned are usually one of the first things newcomers notice about the Kwaj (island speak for Kwajalein) and Roi-Namur bike scene. Called “goosenecks” by locals, they’re emblematic of the classic Kwaj bike, and at first glance they look both goofy and completely inefficient in terms of getting anywhere quickly. But Sablas pointed out the true utility of the gooseneck: comfort level and cool points.
“It’s easier to ride, and it’s easier on your back,” he said. “You’re sitting up straight. The only problem is when you’re riding against the wind. But other than that, it’s kind of a cool thing to ride on it.”
Fellow Kwajalein resident Michael Symanski hit on another key point: Nobody’s really going anywhere very quickly. “My strongest and most common impression of the beach cruiser bike culture here is best described as ‘island time,’” he said. “Extremely relaxed, mellow and comfortable, such to the point that the slow pace of riding seems to defy the laws of physics.”
Nailing down the origins of the Kwajalein gooseneck is difficult. Sablas, who owns and lends out more than 100 Sun Bicycles beach cruisers to visiting engineers, Missile Defense Agency mission leaders and other visitors, has lived on Kwajalein off and on since 1975. He’s never known a time in which the classic longneck stem wasn’t in vogue.
Army Signal Corps footage shot in 1972 and recently digitized by a National Archives team in Maryland documents the use of the gooseneck in the early 1970s, a time when thousands more people lived on the garrison to support America’s Cold War ballistic missile defense strategy.
According to Bill Remick, a former long-time Kwaj resident and author of a history on the island titled “Just Another Day In Paradise,” the use of the gooseneck has to have sprung up sometime during the late 1950s or early 1960s. It was at a time when an influx of civilian contractors began streaming in to support the Army’s brand-new Nike Zeus anti-ballistic missile system designed to destroy Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“I heard from two sailors who were there [in] ’55-’56, and none of the military guys had bikes,” Remick wrote via Facebook from his home outside Phoenix. “They either ran or walked to where they needed to go … If I had to guess, it began with the arrival of construction people. Folks with the requisite skills to make the goosenecks.”
Regardless of the true origins of the high-rise stem, there’s much more to the bicycle culture of Kwajalein and Roi- Namur than goosenecks and Sun Bicycles beach cruisers. Cannibalizing existing frames and transforming them into completely new rides has a long track record on the far-flung Army base, where free time abounds and replacement parts can be hard to come by.
Few understand the Kwajalein and Roi-Namur communities’ obsession over bicycle customization better than Doug Hepler, an industrial technology and history teacher at Kwajalein’s small high school. A former metal worker with the Navy, he has cut, sculpted and welded aluminum and steel into roughly 20 bicycles over the years, many of which are one-off Frankenbikes that are both a means of getting around the island and a medium for creative expression.
The islands’ bike customization culture is a big part of what makes living on the installation a real diversion from life in the average American city or town, he said. “I think it really displays the great creativity that both our engineers and non-engineers have,” he said. “It shows real ingenuity to help make this space the world-class facility it is. And it shows what people will do to accommodate their rides to get around as comfortably as possible.”
The small fleet of run-of-the-mill Sun and Giant bikes parked outside his family’s home is a testament to the bicycle’s role as an inescapable feature of life on the islands. But it’s his custom-built DIY creations that speak volumes on the importance of taking an idea, making it your own and doing it with limited resources found on the islands.
His “red car,” for instance—a four-wheeled beast he cobbled together using scrap parts found at the landfill and elsewhere around the island—is a prime example. Taking inspiration from a junked child’s pedal car his son had found one day, Hepler decided he could make one himself—but for an adult. Like most of the original bikes he fashions, the emphasis was on re-utilizing spent parts and buying brand-new as little as possible.
“The wheels were donated from a friend who collected bike wheels, and he gave me a stack about five feet high when he [moved],” he said. “I bought the chain and the spray paint and the stainless bolts. Everything else came from the dump … and parts I found by the side of the road.”
Hepler took a similar approach with another custom ride he built, this time a cargo-friendly workhorse tricycle named “the truck,” which he uses to haul everything from groceries to lumber and loads of air tanks needed for the scuba diving classes he teaches. Because “the truck” was welded together completely from scrap aluminum pulled from the frame of an old backyard awning, the only items he had to buy brand-new were hardware, a chain and some other minor odds and ends.
However, like everything else in life, bikes have life cycles, Hepler explains. He’s not afraid of parting ways with his creations after he’s gotten his use out of them. Maybe he’ll sell a particular bike or, even better, cannibalize it for parts to use in other custom rides. “Yeah, I’m a cannibal,” he said with a smile. “I’m definitely a cannibal.”
The passion to modify the bikes and create original designs from the ground up is a carry-over from America’s obsessive car culture, among a few other reasons, he said. “I think it’s pride,” he said. “I think a few [residents], and I emphasize the word few, just like to show off. Some, like me, like to build them just for fun. I have more fun building them than I do riding them. Other people are determined to build something unique so that it’s obvious it wasn’t bought at the store—and therefore it’s a lot harder to steal.”
Tom Sandifer, another Kwaj modifier, echoed Hepler’s opinion. Having just finished a custom-made two-wheeled cargo carrier in early February, he said that the drive for modifying bicycles lies in people’s desire to strike personal identities for themselves. There’s also the free time people often have, he added.
“Part of it’s just to be unique, to be different,” he said, loading his rig with packages at the Kwajalein post office. “Everybody’s got a Sun bike here. Everybody wants to have something a little unique. I’ve seen the recumbent bikes. I’ve seen the three-wheeled bikes and four-wheeled bikes and all kinds of different little contraptions out here. It’s just something to kill the time and just be a little interesting.”
To call Sandifer’s bike “a little more interesting” would be an understatement, though. Consisting of the back end of a Schwinn cruiser mashed together with cannibalized sections of an aluminum Huffy frame, his two-wheeler features a large cargo bed that rests between his gooseneck stem and an extended fork that stretches out about eight feet from the rear tire. What might seem like a completely impractical setup to the untrained eye, Sandifer’s bike makes complete sense to him.
“It’s Kwaj. Everybody’s got a bike. Everybody’s got a trailer,” he said. “I had [a trailer] on the back of my bike, but it made the bike top-heavy, and I could only carry so much on it. I just wanted something that I could carry stuff with and just have one piece.”
The bikes of Kwajalein Atoll may be extensions of riders’ personalities, but they share one major element in common: They are the residents’ only means of personal travel. Chains and forks broken down by heavy salt spray, humidity and heat; the act of dodging coconuts, crabs and rats along paths and streets; the struggle of pedaling into the trade winds and having to root around the island looking for your “borrowed” bike are only a few aspects of the islands’ rich bike culture that the residents can collectively identify with.
And as long as the missiles keep flying and the radars keep humming, those bikes—whatever forms they may take—will be there with those people, making their lives a bit more interesting and their time on the islands a bit more special.