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Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Ballad of the Laundry Room Bike

I don't know where the statistic is, or if it is still true, but supposedly there's a 1:1 ratio of bicycles to people in the United States. Obviously since the best we can do (hey Portland!) is maybe a 10% mode split in the 13 colonies plus 47 lesser states (hey East Coast snobbery showing colors for a second!) most of these 300 bajillion bikes sit unused and forgotten, left to rot and rust in dark corners. This is a tale of one of them.

Since April and I have been living in the apartment complex on the wrong side of Montavilla, we have encountered this specimen every time we've gone into the laundry room:

She sits underneath a flight of stairs. I haven't seen any movement since we've been laundry room users back in April. The brand: Free Spirit, of probably '70's heritage.

For those of you who don't know, Free Spirit was a house brand of the mighty retailer Sears. Many department stores had their own in-house bike brand (Montgomery Ward had Hawthorne, Western Auto had Western Flyer), made by an outside bicycle company. I don't know who made Free Spirit. Could have been the major players in the American Bike Industry of that era: Huffy, Murray, AMF-Roadmaster. In other words, probably a low-end, crappy bike, without much of a cachet.

Now it wasn't always that way. Sears once sold bikes under the moniker "J.C. Higgins", which I find ironic because it sounds too close to their competitor J.C. Penny. Many of these J.C. Higgins bikes up until about 1970 were made in Austria by Steyr--Daimler--Puch. These were well built European machines, a good find if you come across one these days. (Even Huffy imported some Raleighs. Look for a Huffy Sportsman with a bunch of "Made in England" tags on it if you want to find a decent Huffy.) Then the '70's bike boom came, and retailers figured that they could sell any bike and make a profit. So Sears switched to lower cost (and suckier built) American and/or Asian models. The Laundry Room Free Spirit is one of them.

Department store bikes differ from bike shop bikes not only in quality of components and construction, but how the bike was assembled. While some department stores would have an employee assemble bikes, others (like the one I used to work at) would contract an outside company. I remember talking to one of these contractors about the bicycle assembly process. Not only were they paid by the bike built, but they were taught to assemble these bikes without the aid of an instruction manual. Is this the type of bike you'd want to ride?

The rumor I've heard is that Sears used their Automotive Department for bicycle assembly. On the surface that sounds better than regular employee or outside contractor because these folk were supposedly trained. But the Auto Dept. used air tools in the assembly process, meaning nuts and screws were put on so tight, they are almost impossible to remove, especially since the bicycles used low-grade steel. So much for repairs.

Now please don't think I'm trying to be a bike snob. I owned my fair share of department store bikes. It wasn't until I moved to the West Coast and took up the practice of cycling for transportation that I got a "name brand" bike. But a low-end bike with a heavy frame and crappy componentry didn't exactly move the face of bicycling forward here in the US. Many people during the bike boom, hearing that bikes were fun and good exercise, bought department store bikes, rode them around once or twice, wondered how the hell can bicycling be fun, and then banished them in their garage or basement. Could the Laundry Room Free Spirit be one of them?

How long has this bike been languishing in the laundry room?

Is it the property of a current resident, who seldom or never rides the bike? (Just because it looks like it hasn't moved, doesn't mean it hasn't.) Or is it the bike of a past resident, who either forgot that they had a bike in the laundry room when they moved, or simply just didn't care? Maybe this former resident received this bike from a friend, parent, co-worker, acquaintance, and had the intent of starting to ride "so they could get in shape"? Maybe they took it for a ride once around the block, with its squeaky chain, wobbly wheels, ineffective brakes, impractical gearing, and then abandoned it to this corner?

How many laundry rooms, basements, garages, sheds, etc. have a lonely forgotten bike in them? Will they ever be ridden again?

If I was more inspired, I'd leave notes with the neighbors to figure out if this bike has a current owner. If I didn't hear a response, maybe I'd put some air the tires, adjust the derailleur, lube the chain. Then leave it outside with a note saying "Take Me". Maybe someone who is in need of a bike would get some use for it. Anything better than rotting away.

But I'm not inspired, not now at least. I'll probably stare at that bike every time I do laundry. Until I move out. And then it'll be onto another damp, moldy laundry room with another forgotten bike.

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