By Vernon Felton
It’s funny, the things in life you remember and the things you forget. I, for instance, have forgotten most of 1976 to 1986. Mind you, these were my formative years–the decade that supposedly shaped the adult I’ve become…and 90 percent of it is completely blank.
Take grammar school, for example. By my reckoning, I spent roughly 7,840 hours jockeying a desk and staring at a blackboard between the ages of 6 and 13 and here’s what I can recall: three frogs, named Sid, Tad and Pud. These frogs liked to sit on logs. The were partial to jumping on rocks. Sometimes they hopped. I absorbed these facts and, by doing so, I learned to read. A couple years went by and I wrestled with addition and my multiplication tables. That’s all I can retrieve from my memory banks.
I’m not blaming the public-school system. I’m confident my teachers did their best, but it was hard to pay attention to them when I was busy calculating my career path, which I was confident would take the following trajectory:
(1) Become lead guitarist for Judas Priest, knocking off either K.K. Downing or Glenn Tipton (I wasn’t particular);
(2) Sleep with groupies when not busy blowing minds with my Satan-granted prowess on the Stratocaster–again the specifics were blurry, but I liked the idea; and finally
(3) Spend Christmas vacations getting coked up with Keith Richards somewhere in the Bahamas. Cocaine, it’s worth noting, was still considered healthy–like an expensive form of Vitamin C–at the time.
The rest of the 1980s are just a blurry pastiche of Iron Maiden lyrics and fragments of “Dukes of Hazzard” episodes. At some point, I recall pastel colors becoming popular and girls suddenly liking Duran Duran, but those are really the only things that stand out as memorable for me until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.
Except for this one thing: the bikes.
I DON’T KNOW YOU, BUT I KNOW YOUR BIKE
I can recall, with stunning clarity, every single bike owned by every single kid within a mile of my house–no small feat since my zip code was crawling with grubby rugrats. You have to understand, there was nothing on TV from 1968 to 1971, aside from “Hee Haw” and “The Lawrence Welk Show.” People made a lot of babies back then; there was nothing better to do once you got home from work.
And still, I remember the following: In 1979 Lou Zadesky received a Redline for Christmas. In 1981, Chuck Distefano-the local rich kid–snagged a Supergoose. He was envied in a very dark and terrible way by countless groms. In 1982, Rusty Smiglewski’s dad brought home a Black Widow MX-200: a full-suspension BMX bike, complete with a triple-clamp fork and a rear shock that looked like it had been ripped off of a YZ250. In 1983, Brian Ash received a Black Mongoose with Red Tuff Ii wheels on his birthday. I spent six months pondering how I might get away with stealing it. Since he lived about 50 yards from me, the odds weren’t exactly stacked in my favor, but I probably lost about half of fifth grade planning the home invasion.
I can go on and on. I remember PK Rippers, Redlines, crappy Rampars and exotic Hutch racing bikes. And when I say “I remember” I’m not talking about vague recollections, I mean, I can call up specific dents and scratches on each of those bikes.
That’s crazy. I can’t even remember most of the kids’ names, but I remember their bikes. Crazier yet, I didn’t even like BMX bikes much. I had no aspirations to ever race. I thought of BMX bikes as nothing more than a means of transporting myself to the nearest 7-Eleven, so that I could steal a bag of Skittles and flip through the latest porno mags, which, back in the early `80s, were thoughtfully kept within children’s reach.
I didn’t truly fall in love with bikes until I was 13. One moment I was riding to the pet store to pick up some hamster feed and the next minute I was in love with turning the pedals. Within months I was riding 60 and 70 miles at a clip and dreaming of racing in Belgium. Soon, I began fantasizing about Ferrari-red Ciocc’s and Cinellis and Masis. I would lurk in bike shops and watch the Campagnolo Super Record group collect dust in the display case. A few years later, I was lusting after the black Diamondback Apex with the pink and green splatter paint job and saving up to buy a Tioga T-Bone stem.
I can still recall every mountain bike my buddies owned, from 1986 to 2003. That’s a hell of a lot of bikes. When people ask me when I got married, I come up with the correct answer only because I remember that I tied the knot the same year that Trek stopped producing Bontrager hardtails. To this day, I can pass a roadie in my car at 50 miles per hour and, nine times out of 10, I tell you the year his bike rolled off the assembly line.
I’m like the Rain Man of bicycles. And if you’re reading this, you probably are too. The odds are good that you can recall the bikes your best friends rode back in grade school. You probably remember every mountain bike you’ve owned, which parts were on it, what you upgraded and why…. Which, when you imagine all the other things in life you’ve surely forgotten during that same stretch of time, is kind of crazy.
I have a hard time remembering what I did last week, yet the summer day in 1987 when I bought my first set of clipless pedals will be forever etched in my mind. I’m not sure that’s even healthy, much less normal.
Why do old bikes live on in our memory, clogging up the corners of our minds, when so many other, more important facts, just vaporize into the ether? The obvious answer is, duh, we like bikes so we remember them. Okay, sure, but I also really liked “Air Wolf.” I just couldn’t wait for it to come on TV every Wednesday night and now the only thing I can remember about the show is that Ernest Borgnine somehow factored into every episode.
Bikes are a mystery. I mean, on one hand, they are dead simple–just two wheels and a greasy chain, really. And yet how could something so simple still be so important to so many of us?
In all likelihood, you’ve abandoned all the other artifacts of your childhood. I have. I no longer collect baseball cards. I’ve stopped playing Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’ll never be a full-time member of Judas Priest. Bikes, however, are still a part of my life. And chances are, riding a bike today is even better for you than it was when you were a kid. There are damn few things in life that you can say that about. Maybe that’s why bikes get headliner status in our memories. It’s as good an answer as any.
Long live the bike–all of them–the ones you lusted after, the ones you owned, and most importantly, the one you’re actually riding now.