Every year, I try to give myself a birthday present that I know I’ll like — a bike ride. My birthday is at the tail end of winter and I live in Wisconsin, so this doesn’t always happen.
The tradition began when I was in seventh grade, and my mother gave me what is still the best birthday gift that I’ve received—a Jeunet Franche-Comte bicycle. This was during the bicycle boom of the mid-1970s, and inexpensive, but well made, French bicycles were flooding the market.
The morning of my birthday, my mom told me that we would visit West Bend Cyclery that afternoon to purchase a new bicycle. I had been riding a Sears-brand stingray, which was seriously undersized, so I was definitely in need of an upgrade.
Rows of gleaming bicycles greeted us in the bike shop. My mom told the shop owner our price range — I told him that I wanted a racing bike — and he showed us the selection of bikes that kind-of matched our description. A shiny, red Jeunet ten-speed with drop down handlebars, chrome forks, and impressive pinstripes captured my attention. It was a bit out of our price range, but on that day mom came through and I had the bike of my dreams.
The owner, who rode a high wheeler in the annual Fourth of July parade and was a well-known figure in West Bend, made sure the bicycle fit me properly and was in good running condition. He then jammed the bike into the trunk of my mom’s Oldsmobile. The front tire had to be removed so it would fit, which would prove problematic when we got home. No matter, I had a new bicycle and couldn’t be happier.
After pulling the Franche-Comte (French Comet, in my unschooled mind) out of the trunk, my education in ten-speed bicycle maintenance began. First lesson, how to attach a quick-release wheel onto a fork. I had been given instructions at the bike shop, of course, but my mind was blank as I forced the wheel through the brake pads, jammed the hub into the fork and spun the quick-release in way too many directions. Finally, I had it, or so I believed.
Unsure if I had properly attached the front wheel to the fork, I walked the bike down the street to my friend John’s house. John knew as much about bikes as anyone that I knew, and I wanted him to make sure that the front wheel was on right. I also wanted to show off my new bike.
John, the owner of a Schwinn ten-speed, was all smiles when he saw my new bike. After he reattached the front wheel, John suggested that we take our bikes for a ride. We raced the mile or so on city streets to Regner Park. We pedaled every inch of sidewalk in the park, and then hit the unpaved trails through the woods. Bouncing over tree roots, rocks, and that winter’s downed branches, the Jeunet was thoroughly broken in by the time John and I returned to our neighborhood.
That gift began my cycling journey, and changed the course of my life. I owned that bike for 40 years, and pedaled it at least 20,000 miles. Thanks, mom!
Every birthday, I remember the thrill of that first ride, and when possible, I am out on my bike.