By Barry Gantenbein
The cobwebs seemed to grow thicker each time that I looked at the old bike hanging from a pair of hooks in the rafters of my garage. It had been years since I rode the Jeunet, and with each passing year it became rustier and less likely that I’d ever ride it again.
It made me sad to think that the bike that had once been my most valuable possession was moldering in a dark corner of the garage, the chrome darkening with more rust each passing year. I became determined to resurrect the Jeunet. The only way to do this was to sell it. I had two other bikes that rode a lot better than the 40-year-old relic, so I had little incentive to take it down from the rafters.
The Jeunet had been a gift from my mom on my thirteenth birthday, and it had changed my life. It was the first multi-speed bike that I owned, and the bicycle that started my love of cycling.
After being used primarily for transportation in middle school and high school, the Jeunet inspired me to explore unknown trails and learn to ride for fun in college. But there’s a twist to the bike’s history that made it even more valuable to me. It had been stolen the first semester of my freshman year of college.
Like many other naïve freshmen living in Reuter Hall at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse in the fall of 1979, I thought locking my bike to a cyclone fence behind the dorm would keep it safe. I learned I was wrong about a month after school started when I walked outside to find that my bike was gone. I spent some long hours scouring the campus the following week, searching unsuccessfully for my bike.
The next semester, I was reading the La Crosse Tribune when I noticed a story about a police sale of unclaimed bicycles that weekend. My roommate gave me a ride to the police storage facility, where to my great surprise, I found my bike. It was in pieces, and the front wheel missing, but my bike was mine once again.
The remnants were taken to a bike shop for reassembly, and the purchase of a Kryptonite lock. The bicycle was also stored in my dorm room, not outside. Lesson learned. I spent a lot of time on my bike that spring and the following year exploring La Crosse and the surrounding hills and valleys.
When I transferred to the University of Wisconsin – Madison after my sophomore year, I became even more immersed in bicycling and began bicycle camping. One of my most memorable trips was a ride from Madison to La Crosse and back. The Jeunet also served as a commuter bike in college and after graduation, as I rode to a string of jobs in Madison and Milwaukee.
As my career advanced, and my wife and I acquired a car, bicycling was reserved for weekends and days when I didn’t work. As children joined the family, the Jeunet enjoyed a renaissance as the bike that I rode with the kids. Bicycling was one of our favorite activities.
The older the kids became, the less they rode with their dad. After they had their driver’s licenses, the family rides ended. As they became more independent, I had more time to get out on my own. The hour-long rides that I had taken with my children expanded into two hours or more. I purchased a new hybrid and then a road bike to better suit my needs. The Jeunet was banished to the rafters.
Anyone who has owned an old bike knows that they must be used, or they die. The Jeunet was dying, and it was up to me to save its life. I pulled it from the hooks, and cleaned the years of neglect from the old bike. Degreaser, a pile of old rags, and long hours in the garage cleaned the chain, derailleurs, freewheel and crank. Naval jelly removed much of the rust. I hosed it down, wiped it clean, and put as much air as I dared into the 10-year old tires. I then ran through the gears on a test ride around the neighborhood. It was ready to ride.
I took photos, and put the bike up for sale on Craig’s List. A few days later, the Jeunet was sold. Just before the new owner, a graphic artist in his mid-20s who planned to use it as a commuter bike, was to pick up the Jeunet, I ran a rag over the bike once last time and said goodbye to my old friend.
Just as I finished my farewell, the new owner and his girlfriend drove up to the house. I rolled the bike to him, and that was the last time that I touched the Jeunet. While he was on his test ride, I told his girlfriend the bike’s story. When he rode up the driveway, a big smile on his face indicating the ride went well, she called out, “This was a much-loved bike!” I could have cried, but simply pocketed the bills that he handed me, and said only, “Enjoy the bike.”
Nothing else needed to be said. The old Jeunet was somebody’s new bike, a person who would ride it and give it the attention that it needed. As I watched the Subaru containing my old bike pull out of the driveway, a smile creased by face.