Late, Lamented Five Dollar Bike

18984941122_76d85c1696_bBy Barry Gantenbein

Riding my bike home from a second shift job in Milwaukee’s Third Ward in the 1980s, I always felt a sense of relief when I’d see an arc of lights casting a faint glow in the front yard of a home near my East Side apartment.

A statue of Mary in a homemade grotto, typically a buried bathtub to form a protective arch, is a Midwest icon. This one was lighted, which made it visible from the apartment where I lived at the time. When I’d see the Bathtub Madonna, I knew I’d made it home safely.

While I tried to figure out how to make a living with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, I was working as a floor care specialist for a cleaning service headquartered in the Third Ward. Every night, three-person crews of floor care specialists were dispatched in purple vans to strip and wax tile floors for clients across the Milwaukee area. We’d start at 4 p.m., and wrap up around midnight.

When the weather was good, I’d make the four-mile or so ride on an old Schwinn Collegiate Five Speed with upright handlebars. It was brown, and at least 20 years old. Every bit of shine had been knocked off, and it had a dull, matte finish. The derailleur was so messed up that it functioned only as a three-speed, which I learned is all the gearing that you need most of the time. Low is for uphill, middle gear is for flat roads, and high is for downhill.

I called it the Five Dollar Bike because my older brother had purchased it for that amount at a police auction in Minneapolis. He gave it to me because he figured that I could use a beater bike. He was right. I rode that bicycle hard in the two years that I lived in Milwaukee in the ‘80s.

For all its shortcomings, the Five Dollar Bike actually rode very well. The bike worked well enough that I would ride it to Mequon and back, and good 20 miles round-trip. It was solid, rode quietly, and was just about indestructible. Heavy, steel rims easily survived banging into missed curb cuts (a common occurrence when riding a bike at midnight).

My fiancée (now wife) and I moved to Milwaukee after graduating from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She was attending graduate school at Marquette, while I was taking journalism classes at UW-Milwaukee and working odd jobs while I tried to launch my career.

I worked a string of “six-month jobs” and rode the Five Dollar Bike to most of them. I rode the bike to work at a book store, movie theatre, bowling alley, and, worst of all, selling the Milwaukee Journal over the telephone. (Sales tip: Don’t cold call anyone living on Forest Home Avenue. You will get your head bit off way more than you deserve.)

But the commute that I remember best was the ride from the East Side to the Third Ward and back. Milwaukee was a much more industrial city in the 1980s, and the Third Ward was a patch work of cold storage buildings, factories, wholesalers of produce and flowers, bars, and a variety of other commercial buildings.

It was an adventure riding from my apartment near UWM, through Downtown, and into the Third Ward. The best part was riding down the Brady Street Hill, racing past Laacke & Joys and the tanneries that lined the Milwaukee River at that time, and into Downtown at 20 mph.

The trip back home wasn’t nearly as much fun. For one thing, it was uphill. And it was dark. My bike had no lights, although I did have a plastic light that I’d strap on my left ankle which supposed to alert drivers to my presence.

Anyone who has lived on the East Side knows that the side streets, which comprised the last half-mile or so of my ride home, are terribly under-lit. Riding virtually invisible, there were plenty of times that cars braked suddenly to avoid a collision. That’s why the sight of the Bathtub Madonna always elicited a quick prayer of thanks.

After two years, my wife and I left Milwaukee for Chicago. I decided that the Five Dollar Bike wasn’t worth hauling out of state, so I gave it to my buddy, Chris. He rode it for a few months before it was stolen off the front porch of his Bayview home. I was amazed that someone thought that bike was valuable enough to cut the lock, but it happened.

Thirty-some years later, I remember that bicycle fondly. Proof that a bike doesn’t have to be expensive to be a good ride.

Riding Through Winter’s Respite

feat_winter_dps_amsterdam-photo-agnes-resized4By Barry Gantenbein

The second Saturday of January, the sun was shining, the temperature was in the mid-20s, and there wasn’t a spec of snow on the ground. I took advantage of the day to take down the Christmas lights on the outside of my house.

That same day, I pulled my bike down from the rafters in my garage, and went for a ride. I hadn’t expected to get out for another six weeks, so I didn’t have a chance to properly clean my bike, but that didn’t matter. I was riding a bike in January, something that I don’t believe I’ve done since the mid-1980s.

In January 1984, I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, and in my last semester as an undergrad student. I remember riding my bike from my apartment near campus to a temp job on the west side. The following year, I was living in Milwaukee, and didn’t yet own a car, so it is possible that I rode that January, too.

Typically, January is the heart of winter in Wisconsin. It is the coldest month. Days are short, though growing longer each day, and the ground is usually covered in snow and ice. This January has been cold, but not brutally so, and roads are bone dry. So, my bike’s tires have been pumped to 80 psi, the chain has been lubed, and I have been riding.

The first half hour that I was out, I regretted every cookie that I ate and each beer that I drank over the holidays. Blech! After that, my blood began to circulate and my legs warmed up. For a couple of minutes, I was able to reach that state of nirvana where the bike and I were one and there was nothing but the moment.

On Monday, I rode to work and even managed a short ride along the New Berlin Recreation Trail on the way back home. This is the earliest start to a season in the 10 years that I’ve been bicycle commuting. As I write this, I’ve ridden to work three times.

Temperatures have remained in the mid-20s, although I’ve faced 15 mph winds in the evenings. Riding for me is possible only by wearing two jackets, two pairs of gloves, leather boots, and ear muffs.

Conditions are tough, but it is better than not getting out. I know that I’m riding on borrowed time, and this January respite will not last much longer. Soon enough, snow and ice will dominate the landscape, and my winter bicycling will come to an end.

But I’ve enjoyed my time on a bike, and the riding has helped me to sharpen my focus on the upcoming season. More reasonable cycling weather draws nearer with each passing day, and I’m determined to be ready when spring truly arrives.

So, I’ll ride as much as I can during this strange bubble. And before spring arrives, I’ll clean my bikes, patch that hole that I punched in my panniers last November, watch what I eat, and walk as much possible to ready myself for the 2019 riding season.

Stingray Christmas



By Barry Gantenbein

From opposite sides of the laundry room, my younger brother and I launched plastic cars toward each other, and then laughed hysterically when they collided and exploded into pieces. It was December 1972 and we were playing Smash-Up Derby, one of our favorite winter games.

For those who don’t remember the Nixon administration, Smash-Up Derby was one of the greatest toys of the ‘70s. The set consisted of a pair of plastic cars, with break-off parts that clipped back into place after the smash-up that gave the game its name.

The game was simple, you’d pull the rip-cord that powered the cars, then point them toward each other in the hope that they’d collide. If they ran into each other, parts would fly off, simulating a car crash. You’d collect the parts, snap them back into place, and do it all over again. Great fun.

The laundry room was a favorite spot for us to square off. With a tile floor that slanted toward a drain in the center of the room, the cars were naturally drawn to each other. Going downhill, we were assured of a top-speed collision. The tile floor also made it easy to find parts.

On our hands and knees searching for an errant door on a December day, we noticed a blanket covering the storage space beneath the stairs. There was only one reason to close the spot where tables and chairs and assorted junk were hidden from site, Christmas toys! We looked at each other for a second, waiting for the other to say that we shouldn’t do it. Neither of us had any objections, so the blanket was pulled aside.

We couldn’t believe what we found, stingray bikes! Complete with high-rise handlebars and banana seats. This was the ride of choice for kids in the early ‘70s. And come Christmas Day, my brother and I would each have one. We grabbed each other, and hugged. Then rolled around on the floor like a couple of puppies.

Up to that point, my brother and I had been sharing a bicycle. Like the bikes we were to receive for Christmas, the shared bike was a stingray with a banana seat. That meant there was enough room for two riders, but after two or three years of that we were simply too big to ride at the same time.

I was 11 years old, and this would be the first bike that I could call my own. Christmas 1972 would be one to remember, but we knew that before we found the bikes.

It would be the first without Dad, who passed away that June at age 45. My Mom, who grew up in a family where Santa personally delivered gifts each Christmas Eve, went all out every Christmas. That year she outdid herself, and successfully transformed what could have been a miserable day into one that I remember fondly.

Wounds were raw for all of us that December. Dad had been diagnosed with cancer in spring, and was gone before the end of June. Night after night that spring, Dad sat smoking alone in a dark living room. The burning ember of a cigarette all that was visible. I’d say good night, too fearful to say anything more. Afraid that I’d learn the truth that we all knew, Dad was dying.

The previous Christmas, we accidentally captured my Dad laughing in the background of some tapes that we made fooling around with my sister’s cassette recorder. Dad had a booming laugh that couldn’t be missed, even from the next room. We just about wore out those tapes that year. Dad was gone, but his laugh echoed through the house.

It would have been easy for sadness to overwhelm us that Christmas, but Mom was determined that wouldn’t happen. Family and friends filtered in and out of the house, and the gifts were crazy. Besides the bikes, we received a pool table!

When the bikes rolled out, my brother and I literally jumped for joy. We begged to ride them immediately. They were hauled into the garage, where my older brother quickly adjusted the seats. Then we were off to the gas station to put air in the tires, ice be damned. We cruised around the park, and eventually made our way back home.

We rode the bikes to school, the park, trails through the woods, and most memorably raced them on the dirt course that we called Baja. The bike took a beating, and I regret to say that I didn’t maintain it very well. It didn’t last as long as I would have liked.

But in my mind, the stingray lives on in all its purple-spangled glory, the perfect antidote to the sorrow that could have enveloped a Christmas, but thanks to a very wise Mom, did not.


Scribbled Lines Inspire


By Barry Gantenbein

With a forecast calling for heavy snow, I hung my commuter bike in the rafters of my garage late Saturday afternoon. I needed to shift the snowblower to the front of the garage for winter, and had reached almost all of bicycling goals this season, so my bike is now hanging on a pair of hooks.

The promised storm left Waukesha’s streets and sidewalks coated with a snow/sleet/wintery mix. With a week of subfreezing temperatures ahead, and the sun setting earlier each day, the dreaded combination of ice and darkness seems to have shut down my bicycle commuting season. Since crashing on the ice and sliding on my face for 50 feet several years ago, riding in the snow no longer seems worth the risk.

Just 30 miles short of my goal of 200 miles for the month of November, I had hopes of riding to work this week. But looking back, it should’ve been clear that was never going to happen. The last day that I rode to work, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I discovered an unexpected dusting of snow when I peeked out the window that morning to check the weather.

Patches of ice could be seen and avoided beneath the light layer of newly fallen snow, so I decided it was safe to make a quick 10-mile ride before work. It didn’t begin well. Facing a snow-covered, steep driveway, I started my commute by walking my bike to the street on the grass alongside the driveway. I didn’t want to fall before I left my own property. Roads weren’t bad, as long as I stuck to the pavement cleared of the dusting of snow by passing cars and trucks.

When I reached the New Berlin Recreation Trail, I began to question my decision to ride that day. Snow still covered the trail, but I could make out the darker patches of ice, so I figured that I’d be okay. Following the bike tracks of the only person other than me foolish enough to ride the trail that day helped me steer clear of any hidden ice.

I made it to work without falling, but as I put my bike away, I muttered the magic words that end every cycling season for me, “That was stupid.” Almost without fail, those are the words that I say as I hang my bike up for the season. This year wasn’t quite that dramatic, but my fate was sealed as soon as I spoke the words.

There is still hope of breaking the bike out on weekends, as long as roads are clear. I managed to get the bike out twice over the Thanksgiving holiday, and conditions were a little better each time that I rode. The day that I hung up my bike, I rode 20 miles on the New Berlin Recreation Trail, which was clear except for icy patches in spots shaded by trees.

For a two-mile stretch of the trail, inspirational messages had been chalked onto the asphalt. “You Can Do It!” “Go, Go, Go!” “Believe” and others were scrawled in a variety of pastel colors.

It reminded me of riding through Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine region when I was in my twenties. For several summers, I regularly rode from West Bend to Mauthe Lake and back. At the spot where hills were stacked on top of each other, and my legs burned in an effort to reach the peak, someone had painted “Hills are all the fun” just where a cyclist’s eyes would see the words. It always made me laugh, and somehow helped me to keep going.

These scrawled lines had the same effect. I’ll keep going this winter as I search for days to sneak in a ride, clean my bikes for next season, and walk to keep in shape. You do the same.

Triple Zero Disaster


By Barry Gantenbein

The temperature was 15 degrees Fahrenheit Tuesday morning when I left my house to ride my bike to work. Wearing two pairs of gloves, two jackets, and wool socks, I was plenty warm.

There was almost no wind, and roads were clear of the snow that had fallen the previous week. The commute was going well until I had to cross a six-lane highway about a half mile from my office. I had made it as far as a small island that separates the southbound lanes from northbound traffic, and was waiting for a break in the waves of car and trucks to complete my crossing, when the trouble started.

A couple of stragglers passed, and a 150-foot break in traffic opened. If I was quick, I could make it across before the next wave hit. I got up on the pedals and began to sprint. The swaying of the bike must have caused contact between the bike bag on my left side and the spokes of the rear wheel. I felt a shudder, and then heard the pop-pop-pop of the bag in the spokes. With traffic racing toward me at 45 mph, I powered the bike to the safety of the far side of the highway.

At curbside, I pried the twisted bag out of the rear wheel. I spun the wheel a couple of revolutions, and with a quick hand adjustment of the brakes, everything seemed fine. I continued onto work.

I made it to the office, and was stashing my bike in a back room when I noticed a dime-sized tear in the corner of the panniers. When I inspected it more closely, I saw a bit of whiteness on the interior. Salt from the road? When I touched it, the leaking bit of whiteness was slick. Instantly, I knew that it was the Triple Zero Nonfat Yogurt that I had packed for my mid-morning snack.

Zipping open the bleeding side of my panniers, I grabbed the plastic grocery bag that held my lunch. The corner where the yogurt had been looked like it had been chewed open by a hungry rat. When I put my hand beneath my lunch bag to remove it, I immediately felt the sticky wetness that coated the inside of my panniers

I walked to the break room to rinse the contents of my lunch bag, and grabbed some paper towels and wipes to clean up the Triple Zero explosion. My keys and sunglasses case seemed to have taken the worst of it, coated like bushes after a heavy snowfall. I got the bag reasonably clean, and then started my workday.

When I returned for a closer inspection during my mid-morning break, I discovered that yogurt had splattered on the underside of my bike and panniers. That meant more wipes and more wet paper towels. As I turned the rear wheel to clean the spokes, I noticed the rim rubbing against the brake pads, and did what I could to fix it. The chain guard looked kind of funky, and I realized that two of the four screws that held it in place had snapped off.

I could limp home, but the damage was greater than I initially thought, and a visit to the bike shop was necessary. After dinner, I cleaned the bike again and put it into the car for the drive to the bike shop. I told the story to the mechanic, and 15 minutes later he had trued the back wheel, adjusted the brakes, and just to be nice, tightened a loose headset.

Wednesday morning, I wiped my panniers one final time, put the bags back on my bike, inflated the tires to 80 psi, and lubed the chain. Riding to work, I realized that my erratic riding caused the accident. The swaying of the bike as I raced across the highway made the panniers fly into the spokes. If I had exercised greater control, I wouldn’t have a hole in my bike bag. The upside of the yogurt blast, my commuter bike is in great shape for the few weeks of riding that remain until winter’s darkness, snow, and ice end my cycling season.

Turkey Trot


By Barry Gantenbein

As I neared a small creek that crossed beneath the New Berlin Trail, a wild turkey darted across my path and scurried down an embankment toward the water. Knowing that when there’s one bird, there are two, I tapped my bicycle’s brakes and began searching for the second turkey.

Slowing almost to a stop, I noticed a female turkey (smaller and not as brightly colored as the first) straight ahead on the path. She looked at me, and then started to run away from me in a halting manner down the center of the trail.

I followed slowly, not wanting to get too close. I rang my bell a couple of times, then called out, “Hey, turkey, turkey, turkey! Hey, turkey, turkey, turkey!” I wanted to let the bird know that I was heading in that direction, but didn’t want to invade its space. After trotting down the trail about 40 feet, the hen finally ran into the tree line and disappeared into some bushes.

I’ve had several encounters with wild turkeys on the New Berlin Trail this bicycling season, and they were all pretty similar. The birds don’t seem particularly aggressive toward cyclists, but don’t act as if they are in a great hurry to leave the trail.

A couple of years ago on a crisp, fall morning at almost the same spot where I met the wild turkeys, I was confronted by an eight-point buck. Just like the turkey, he was on the trail when we met. Unlike the bird, he stood his ground as I approached. He cocked his head and exhaled a great plume of hot breath visible in the cold morning air when he noticed me.

As he eyed me, I slowed to give him time to make a move. When I was within 50 feet, and feeling very apprehensive, he suddenly bolted down an embankment and disappeared into a sea of cattails. I was close enough that I could hear him crashing through the dried reeds for several long seconds. Only when I was sure that he wasn’t going to dart back onto the trail did I continue riding.

What I’ve learned from these and other encounters with wild animals while bicycling, it’s best to approach them slowly until they react to your presence. Animals have a fight-or-flight response when they perceive potential danger. Best to keep your distance, and leave them an out.

Fall, especially after fallen leaves have been blown off the bike path, is a great time to ride. Scenery is beautiful, there are no worries about overheating and fewer other riders, but animals are on the move and are commonly encountered on trails. Give them their space, and enjoy the ride.

Stone Cold Truth at the Bike Shop

vintage bike shopBy Barry Gantenbein

Standing in line to have my bike repaired at a bike shop, the person in front of me told the mechanic that he was having problems staying in gear when he shifted from a larger gear to a smaller one. The mechanic responded, “Learn to ride in bigger gears.”

The customer stammered, “I’m working on that …” Then trailed off, and looked at the floor. The mechanic quickly spoke up, “I’ll make an adjustment that should help, but I’m not kidding about riding in bigger gears. It’ll make you a better rider.”

A couple of minutes later, the adjustment was complete. The customer slinked out of the shop, obviously stung by the conversation. He had come to the shop to have his bike repaired, not have riding criticized. When it was my turn to speak with the mechanic, I chose my words carefully. My bike was in pieces after a botched repair in my garage, so I had little to say if confronted by the mechanic. Mercifully, he offered no riding or maintenance tips.

Bike mechanics repair damages, but also work to prevent breakdowns. And sometimes riders’ bad habits make themselves known through mechanical problems with their bicycles. Mechanics often feel obligated to remedy the situation by providing a riding or maintenance tip to the bike owner. This isn’t always done nicely. In my experience, mechanics can be brutally honest.

When one of my bikes needed a new crank last year, I was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to do a better job of cleaning my bike. My negligence was directly responsible for the breakdown of my bike. Grit, which I should have cleaned from the chain, derailleurs and flywheel, caused the damage. It was painful to hear, but I knew that the mechanic was right. Just as I’m sure that the guy who was told that he needed to ride in larger gears knew that the mechanic spoke the truth.

It’s not always easy to hear the truth, especially when we are told that our actions are the source of our problems, but it can help us make great strides toward improving ourselves.

So, listen to your bike mechanic. He’s not trying to embarrass you, though he may do exactly that. He’s trying to keep your bike in good running condition. And he’s being painfully honest about what’s causing the problem.