Sitting in my home office I am greeted by a cool breeze coming through my open window and the sweet sounds of summer outside. It’s late June, which used to be peak bike-hiking season for kids — but now it’s mostly adults who go on long rides on their expensive high-tech bikes. The bike has come full circle, I suppose.
From its inception in the 1800s the bicycle had been produced mostly for adults. In the early 1900s it offered an inexpensive way for working-class folks living in urban areas to get to and from work.
As America prospered — as the automobile became the chief mode of travel — bike sales plummeted. Sales wouldn’t begin to grow again until millions of Baby Boomer kids living in the wide-open suburbs drove up demand.
I got my first “spyder” bike, a red Murray one-speed, when I was 9 and rode the wheels off it in only a few years. The 1970s was the Evel Knievel era, and every kid with a bicycle sought to emulate the iconic daredevil. We built ramps from scraps of warped plywood set on uneven blocks.
Then we took our bikes to the top of Marilynn Drive — so steep it might as well have been a cliff — and roared downhill, made a hard left onto Janet Drive and pedaled like mad until liftoff. Our parents didn’t make us wear helmets or pads back then, which is why the average kid was covered with more scrapes and bruises than an NFL player on Monday morning.
When a landing went wrong — when a kid went down especially hard and wouldn’t get up — his family was alerted, a wood-paneled station wagon would arrive and the moaning kid would be carted off to St. Clair Hospital for stitches or a cast. Despite the risks, or maybe because of them, our love affair with spyder bikes was common to every kid in every community across America in those years.
There were three reasons.
First, we were surrounded by wide-open roads and a county park — we had plenty of places to ride.
Second, parents weren’t yet terrified by the 24/7 news media to let their kids out of their sight, and we were permitted to go on long bike hikes so long as we were home by supper.
Third, as the post-World War II economy continued to boom, our parents had just enough excess dough to buy us new bikes — something their parents could never afford to do for them.
None of us kids back then had any idea how lucky we were to have bikes and the freedom to enjoy them to the max. It’s too bad today’s kids are losing interest in bikes. As a Washington Post article says, “The number of children ages 6 to 17 who rode bicycles regularly — more than 25 times a year — decreased by more than a million from 2014 to 2018, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.”
Bike sales did increase during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s mostly adults who are buying and riding them now. Adults have been reclaiming all kinds of activities — dressing up for Halloween, summer camp for grown-ups, prom do-overs — that only young people used to do.
Add bikes to the list — including electric bikes that more adults are riding to work to offset the high cost of gasoline. Meanwhile, today’s kids are inside engaging with their electronic devices. I hope, at the very least, they’re sitting by an open window enjoying a cool breeze and the sweet sounds of summer.
Tom Purcell, creator of the infotainment site ThurbersTail.com, is a humor columnist. Email him at Tom@TomPurcell.com.