Warren Miller: Freedom was my first bike
Vail, CO, Colorado
I was cruising along the other day on an 18-speed mountain bike in a pair of cutoff Levi’s with duct-tape covering my brain bucket, protecting me from death by asphalt. Part way up the hill, I was passed rather rapidly by a group of people on a professionally conducted bicycle tour.
To put my bicycle riding in its proper perspective, I have the only mountain bike in the neighborhood that was Zolatoned when I bought it. It was my top-of-the-line choice at Walmart and cost me a little less than $200. It has 18 speeds, foot stirrups, hand brakes and a genuine bell that I can ring when I am trail riding to scare away bears or deer that might be in the way.
But back to the group that pedaled by me so rapidly: Every one of them was Spandex-clad from neck to ankle in the latest colors and designs to look like a Salvador Dali painting in motion as they went by me at at least three times the speed that I was pedaling. Their helmets were all streamlined and worn at a rakish angle and made my falling apart, duct-taped, foam brain bucket look a little shabby, which it was.
As I watched their respective bodies pumping rapidly away from me with each brightly covered gluteus maximus moving in rhythm to the tour conductor’s blistering pace, I couldn’t help but think back to my first $24.95 simple, single-speed, balloon-tired bicycle and the freedom it gave me.
The bicycle was a genuine Schwinn and weighed at least 35 or 40 pounds. So what?! You’re 12 years old and weigh only about 80 pounds. In 1936, my grandmother gave it to me for my birthday, so what difference did a little extra weight make? The world was now mine to explore.
I rode that single-speed, blue Demon on every horse trail in nearby Griffith Park. It rested many times at the base of the famous Hollywood sign. In those days, the Hollywood sign was a lot longer because it said Hollywoodland. It had started to fall apart six or seven years before, in 1930, when the real estate developers went bankrupt and the tens of thousands of light bulb sockets no longer lit up the sky above Hollywood.
My magic bicycle took many forms. It went through a time when it sported 14 red reflectors on the back fender, and at other times the fenders came off and a pair of racing handlebars replaced the longhorn-cattle-style handle bars that were the original equipment.
When I had a newspaper route, my $24.95 freedom vehicle had a rack on the back for the box with my newspapers. As I pedaled, I would reach back, grab a folded gum-banded newspaper and throw it expertly on my customers’ front porches without even slowing down.
The box, however, kept me from taking my girlfriend to the movies on the back of my bike, so I switched to a canvas bag that was very versatile. It had a big hole in the center and was like a large saddlebag that I could wear over my shoulders. As I delivered papers out of the front of it, it would lighten until it started to choke me. I would then turn the bag around and start throwing newspapers out of what used to be the back of it.
I never quite got riding at night working for me. I had four or five different kinds of flashlights attached to the handlebars at different times. They ranged from a Boy Scout light attached with black electrical tape to a very expensive one that cost $2.95. The expensive one had a small generator that would flip over against the front tire so the faster I pedaled, the brighter the light became.
The 20-mile ride to the beach for a day of body surfing was always a lot of work, too. I had gradually acquired a pair of swim fins, built a plywood belly board and found a big beach towel, and it was hard to pedal the 20 miles with all of that, let alone home after a day in the surf.
Yes, my magic bicycle gave me the freedom to go wherever I wanted to go, whenever I wanted to go there. I explored Southern California from Pop’s Willow Lake in the northeastern end of the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach and Malibu and every mountain road in Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
Then, one evening in the spring of 1940, I had pedaled my girlfriend to the local movie on the handlebars, and when we came out, I discovered that my bicycle had been stolen. Crime had begun to invade Southern California, and by late 1940, it became obvious to me that I would have to buy a lock for my next vehicle, whatever it would be.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff log onto Warren Miller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to http://www.warrenmiller.org.