Scanning Around with Gene: Getting That New Bike Down the Chimney

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Christmas morning brings a variety of emotions and memories, but one memory that seems almost universal is that time when Santa (or the equivalent gift-giving religious/spiritual icon) delivered a shiny new bike. Bicycles are right up there with Bing Crosby records and hand-me-down cookie recipes when it comes to holiday schmaltz and tradition.

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Figure 1. There's no joy greater than running down the stairs on Christmas morning to discover four bicycles for the whole family. This photo is from a 1972 Schwinn advertisement.

In my family, Christmas brings bittersweet memories that have become exaggerated over time. Yet one that still rings true after many years is the time all three siblings woke up to new bikes under the tree.

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Figure 2. At one point, more than 70 percent of bike sales took place during the holiday months, so advertisers made a big push both to kids and parents. This ad ran in Boys Life magazine in 1960.

Being the youngest, mine was both the smallest model and the only one with training wheels. It was my first two-wheeler, and I can only faintly recall the color, styling, and festive plastic streamers attached to each handgrip. More than anything I remember the strong smell of the rubber tires.

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Figure 3. Most bike ads were targeted at boys, though of course girls got them for Christmas too.

My sisters and I must have had some sort of hunch this was happening, as we were more excited than usual that Christmas morning. Years of embellishing on the part of my father certainly tainted those memories, but legend has it my dad was barely finished after a long night of assembly when dawn finally broke. That was always the signal in our house that it was okay to get out of bed and head into the living room o check out the loot from Santa.

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Figure 4. Columbia was one of the first American bicycle manufacturers, but it faltered soon after World War II.

Usually we would get up and simply sit in front of our wrapped presents while we waited patiently for our parents to rise, plug in the coffee maker, and give the signal that it was time to start ripping. But with bicycles, there is no hiding, so the excitement peaked the instant we entered the room that particular morning. I hesitate to say things went down hill from there, both metaphorically and literally, as we took our new bikes to the street and I began my love affair with mobility.

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Figure 5. The advent of bumpers or mudflaps was a breakthrough that boosted bicycle sales considerably. Prior to the 1930s, bicycles were mostly for adults. Balloon tires (invented by Schwinn) opened the market to children who needed a smoother and easier ride.

Kids and Wheels
Just as I can't understand why every 16-year-old isn't lined up on their birthday at the Department of Motor Vehicles, eager to get that first drivers license, I can't relate to kids who don't seem interested in bicycles. To me the bicycle was the ultimate possession. The idea of sitting in front of the TV playing video games instead of being out there pushing the limits of my travel boundaries is baffling. I wanted out of the house and feel pretty certain that in those days my parents wanted me out of it, too.

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Figure 6. This 1963 Murray ad shows that bicycles were affordable Christmas gifts, but still expensive enough to be special.

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Figure 7. When introduced in 1963, the Schwinn Stingray design became a huge best-seller. Over the years, various owners of the Schwinn brand have tried to revive the Stingray magic, mostly without success.

I suppose times have changed and parents don't want kids to be so mobile. But for quite a few generations the bicycle represented the ultimate freedom tool. We rode ours everywhere.

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Figure 8. By the mid-1960s, most bike companies offered models with multiple speeds, usually configured in 3- or 10-speed formats.

After that first small bike I progressed to several others, and by the time I was about 12 I had saved up enough for my final bike, a Schwinn Varsity 10-speed. It came in a color called "Campus Green," which was suppose to make you feel like a sophisticated college guy.

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Figure 9. My favorite bike was a Schwinn Varsity, though by the time I bought mine in 1968, the price was up to $89.

In those days you either had a Schwinn (the leading brand, proudly made in Chicago), a Raleigh (English), or a Huffy.

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Figure 10. Chicago resident Ignaz Schwinn became the tycoon of American bicycle manufacturing after starting his company in 1895. The Schwinn family did not jump on the mountain-bike bandwagon, however, and the company went bankrupt in 1993. In 1997 the faily was forced to sell off its personal collection of Schwinn bikes at auction, netting almost $800,000. Today, vintage Stingray and other models sell briskly on eBay as aging Baby Boomers try to re-create the innocence of their youth.

Bikes were heavy and made of steel -- much like the cars of the days. We didn't know what the word "alloy" meant, and we didn't care. We would pump and grind on those beasts all over Southern California, and never even considered taking them to the mountains or riding them in mud. Bikes were a transportation method, not a recreational plaything.

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Figure 11. Murray bikes, made in Tennessee, were big and heavy, as were most bikes at the time. Eventually bikes went the way of cars, with multiple gears, headlights, taillights, and other accessories.

We had skateboards then, but they were crude and dangerous. It was not uncommon for a small pebble to stop the boards in their tracks, sending the rider flying on to the asphalt, or worse, into the hospital.

No, it was that Schwinn Varsity that accompanied me on early life journeys. I rode my bike to school, I rode it to my first jobs, and to every important life event pre-driver's license. It was like my best friend -- always there, never judgmental, and willing to go along with any adventure, no matter how ill conceived. That green bike transported me on three-hour rides to the beach, on obsessive trips to nefarious locations as I explored my early sexuality, and in its final days, to the hospital where my sister lay dying.

Along the way my bike also taught me about mechanical things, responsibility of ownership, and it introduced me to WD-40 and Duct Tape, two of life's most precious tools. I can't imagine a childhood without my trusty bicycles.

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Figure 12. Bikes were a year-round necessity, of course, but Christmas was often the excuse to get a new one.

Santa's Got a Brand-New Bag
It's hard to find reliable information about bicycle sales. Kids still get bikes for Christmas, but like everything else they now come mostly from China.

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Figure 13. In the 1950s, Roadmaster was one of the many bicycle brands in America. Now only a few American brands are left, and most of the bicycle products are made in China.

Schwinn's brand has come and gone several times over the last two decades, and brand matters less than style to kids these days anyway. As adults buy Sport Utility Vehicles for their faux off-rode adventures, so kids get Mountain Bikes instead of road bikes.

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Figure 14. In 1956 when this ad ran, getting a new bike was a neighborhood event, as it still was in my youth. Every Christmas morning the kids would come out and show off any new models or bike accessories that Santa had brought.

And as with so many other Baby-Boomer icons, bicycles have been resurrected as high-ticket adult toys rather than the practical means of transportation they once were. The average bike now costs more than $1,000, according to one statistic I came across. My Schwinn Varsity, a top-of-the-line model for its day, was $89.

Nostalgia doesn't change reality. I guess kids don't need bikes these days the way I did. Parents are more than willing to drive Junior to soccer practice, judo lessons, or the mall. What I can't understand, though, is why kids would prefer this. I would have rode my bike for miles in the blistering heat before accepting a ride from my mother.

Since I don't have children of my own I don't know what it's like to be Santa at that special age when eyes get big and squeals just can't be repressed. I know those moments still happen, though I doubt the object of desire is as likely to be a shiny new bike. And that's okay. If a Play Station 3, iPod Nano, or Tickle-Me Elmo can transport a child to another place, then I suppose they're just as valid.

But I can't accept that virtual adventure is as good as real adventure. And for a kid antsy to move beyond the borders of yard, street, neighborhood, or city, it takes a set of real wheels. I'll always be grateful that Santa brought those to me that special Christmas day so many years ago. Once the training wheels came off I was gone, gone, gone. And there is no greater gift than that of freedom.

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Figure 15. The rider in this Varsity ad from the early 1970s can go anywhere with style.

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