By Sal Ruibal
“Oshkosh, Wisconsin, sounds like the squarest city in America. The home of OshKosh B’gosh and Ardy & Ed’s Drive-In is hardly a Portland on Lake Winnebago. But if not for a momentous event that took place here in 1972, the bike world as we know it would not exist. Singlespeeds, fixed-gear track bike commuters and much of the urban bike scene that defines our 21st century day-to-day reality just might not have evolved. We would probably be so uncool. Commuter bike jeans? Forget about it. Fortunately for us, a young blond woman named Sky Yaeger walked into Vern’s Schwinn Shop that year and changed history.”
That was the lead paragraph of my first feature story in Paved Magazine. Today is Sky Yaeger’s birthday. It should be a national holiday because Sky liberated us from boring, utilitarian cycling and gave us fun-but-purposeful cycling. She broke down barriers in a hidebound industry that said “No girls allowed” and tore up marketing memos that advocated a fake representation of what riding a bike is really all about.
We’ve all known from the first time we balanced ourselves on a wobbly kids bike that riding a bike is about freedom. Instead of enjoying that great gift, we’ve chopped it into infinite little pieces of 26er-650b-29er-citybike-snowbike-cylocrossbike-SM-MED-LG-comfort-bike-cobblestonebike-punkbike-fakebike.
I stop at punkbike because there is no punk rock in cycling. Not now. The best minds of my generation stopped howling and growling and shipped our bike legacy to China. There’s a big difference between making something with your hands and handing a design sheet and a big check to a holding company in Tianjin. Have you ever been to Tianjin? The clouds there are made of vaporized acetone.
Sky has one hand in the old-world of European hand-crafted bikes and the other in the gritty decaying concrete of Detroit, the motor city that lost its mojo because it stopped believing that it could make things that mattered, that easy money was better than hard-earned money. The comeback is always harder than the climb.
Sky learned how to make bikes by hand, metal shaped with focused fire and refined with a quiver of tools that are held by humans, not robots. She knows that paint is a bicycle’s skin and not just a coating that protects a company logo.
Today’s bicycle culture is fascinated with its own belly-button. When the Wright Brothers were running their bike shop, they were also inventing the airplane and publishing the first African-American newspaper in Dayton, Ohio. What did you do today?
Sky’s new company is called Shinola. One of my Dad’s favorite sayings was, “He doesn’t know shit from Shinola.” Shinola was a popular brand of shoe polish. Do you polish your shoes, or do you just buy another pair from China? Sky’s Shinola is making and marketing watches and bikes. Useful bikes that feel good to ride. As for watches, I ride bikes to forget about time. Strava is the ultimate in slicing your brain into the thinnest possible slices, slices so thin you can see through them, so thin your thoughts melt in your mouth.
I know I’ve been on the Internet too long when I start to feel sad about the problems of people I don’t know and happy about the winners of games I care nothing about. That’s when I take off my watch and get on my bike.
Sky once slept on my old lumpy couch. She woke up with a backache. I bought a new couch, but she’s never been back. My fussy old cat died and I got a new feisty one last Christmas. Sky, you’ve missed a lot.
Happy Birthday, Sky. Knowing you and all that you have done to make this world a more human place gives me hope. Keep doing what you do. The world needs less shit and a lot more Shinola.