Bike to Work Week didn’t exist when I began biking. Far from a designated week, our bike season began when our tires crunched the last ice over April puddles and extended into late September or early October when morning frost made riding to school without gloves and toques uncomfortable.
Parents left it up to us to get ourselves back and forth to school … unless the family vehicle happened to be going in our direction at the right time. Parents chauffeured their kids only to out-of-town events like a class visit to the Northwest Mounted Police Museum in North Battleford.
We biked dirt or gravel roads in the evening, or on weekends, our distance limited only by our need for a drink of water on a hot summer day. We never carried water with us. Unless a farm dog barked, or a neighbour happened to notice us biking past, no one knew we were in the vicinity, something that can’t be said for dirt bikes or ATVs with their skull-pounding two stroke engines.
Each bike had a thumb-operated bell on the handlebar. We wore no safety gear. Bleeding elbows or knees from falling off after slipping sideways on loose gravel was a worry, along with the risk of washboard vibrating our hands loose from the grips. I never heard of anyone hitting his head during a fall or riding headfirst into a tree as mountain bikers have been known to do.
About 5 p.m. each afternoon one or two of us brought the cows home from the pasture, wobbling to keep our balance herding the slow-moving milkers. After supper on a windless night we might ride a mile east to toil up Rudy Blanchette’s steep hill for the brief thrill of speeding down. The temperature graduated from warm to cold as the elevation changed. Throughout the downhill swoop you clamped your mouth shut or swallowed mosquitoes like a toad.
On weekends we pedalled to bluffs in the fields or pasture where saskatoons or chokecherries hung ripe. In rat traps on the rear fender or wire baskets on the handlebars, we brought home to Mom honey or syrup pails filled with our juicy pickings for pies, pancake syrup or canning.
My first bike, given to me secondhand when I was 12, was a single speed with a four inch sprocket; I had to pedal extra hard to keep up with my brother whose bike had an eight inch sprocket. By comparison my current bike with three speeds, only one of which I use, needs little effort especially as I ride on pavement not gravel.
Like my first bike, this one is secondhand with high, curved handlebars similar to a Schwinn which allow me to sit up straight rather than leaning flat like Lance Armstrong. A rampant distribution of rust mars its silver surfaces. This relic has drawn unflattering remarks from teens walking along as I rode past them, yet the bike serves me perfectly. At least I needn’t fear it might be stolen.
Theft was never a concern while we attended Vawn country school where we biked two miles each way. We didn’t carry bicycle locks, didn’t need them, though not all kids owned bikes. But with only 42 of us in attendance, we all knew who owned which bike. If a kid had stolen a bike, his parents would have noticed, chewed him out, and sent him to return the stolen swag forthwith, something few parents would do today. They pretend they are blind to unauthorized belongings their kids bring home.
Biking reduces commuter traffic and air pollution and saves gasoline. Healthwise, biking boosts the cardiovascular system, reduces stress, burns calories, builds leg muscles and improves bone density lessening the chance of fractures.
Those benefits were never mentioned years ago, nor was the word “obesity”. Still, look at school or family photos taken during the l940s and l950s and you will rarely find an overweight kid.