In the pale winter gloom of my junior one bedroom in Bay Ridge, the skinny 10-speed sits low on depressed tires. The metallic silver paint job is dull and scratched and the factory white primer peeks through like exposed bone. Bedraggled black handlebar tape hangs limply over pinched spokes, like a suicide dragged from a lake. We’ve been together for nearly five years. Her name is Chino.
Now, as she leans against the wall in my hallway—a hat covering her split seat—I gently lift her sagging chain with a finger. She needs a new cassette and a service but I just can’t part with the $70 plus parts, to fix her up this month.
People say she looks like just another Peugeot knock off, but to me, she looks like the bike I always wanted as a kid. That scorching August day in 2011 I wasn’t looking for a bike. I was just wandering around the East Village when I stopped into a no name, used bike store. I saw her snuggled between a sleek black Schwin and an angular, haughty red Raleigh, with a wicker basket—like models backstage at Fashion Week. She smelled of WD40, my nostalgia and excitement got the better of me; The skinny jeaned American Apparel chick behind the counter saw the desire in my eyes. I don’t think I even asked the price. Cha-ching!
I led her out to the baking sidewalk. But for a couple of stickers denoting a long expired Midwestern registration she looked as good as new. With shiny rims and tight new tires she was so elegant. Chino—the name painted down her center column—was still clearly visible in a slightly western, white on black serif font. I changed her tough leather Brooks seat for a spongy butt saver, pulled her handlebars up into the air like the kids at school did many years ago, switched her flat, brick-like pedals for ones with toe clips, and off I went. She was smooth and fast. Outside, the fuzzy faced hipsters looked up over upturned bikes and waved as I sailed off down East 4th street.
We rode everyday, from the sunny 69th street pier in Brooklyn under the sweeping curves of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and out to Coney Island. Full of life with fresh air in her tires, we took Manhattan by storm criss-crossing the Manhattan, Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges. We looped infinite circles with the cool kids in Prospect Park. They swooshed by me, in primary Spandex and Oakleys on $10k bikes without a second look, but I didn’t care. I pedaled at decent rate in my grey Battle helmet, soccer shorts and a Thin Lizzy ‘T’.
But I didn’t know anything about her! Those stickers from the City of Ames on her centre pole told me she grew up in Iowa sometimes in the late 1970’s, and a transparent store logo peeling off the handlebars suggested her point of entry to the world: ‘World of Bikes – Ames, IA’. Buried in the archives of the local Ames newspaper The Tribune, I found a clue:
“The “World of Bikes,” co-owned and managed by Ted Millen and Lowell Strike, will open Thursday at 214 Main St. The store will feature a fall range of bicycles from those “designed for casual and family use to racing models, with servicing”. In addition, “World of Bikes will handle parts and accessories, carry used bikes, and provide rental service”. A French line of bicycles. Lhe Cazenave (sic), will be the store’s “main line,” Millen said. The long established French firm is now marketing its bikes in the Midwest; “World of Bikes” is the exclusive dealer for the line in Story County. Millen and Strike plan to carry lightweight bicycle camping equipment at a later date.” – Tribune, Ames, IA.
World of Bikes, is long gone. 214, Main Street is a sewing machine store now. It was one of several shops that sprang up responding to the bicycle boom in the 1970’s. Today World of Bikes would be a ‘pop-up shop’.
Ronn Ritz of Skunk River Cycles, has been selling bicycles in Ames for 40 years. From his headshot on the Skunk River Cycles web site, I can see he’s a youthful 65, with glasses and a neatly trimmed grey beard. He looks and sounds like a college professor, he reads The New Yorker and he’d like to get to Brooklyn sometime to try the restaurants. He remembers World of Bikes and it’s owner Ted Millen, though he never knew him well, If Ted’s still around, he’s not sure he’d recognize him.
“I started in ’72 at Michael’s Cyclery. At the time there was a hardware store selling Schwins, but he wasn’t doing a very good job of it so a couple of other stores opened up.”
“Everyone wanted to sell bikes. Hardware stores, motorcycle stores…Yamaha, Kawasaki, all had bikes in that era. They weren’t all good quality bikes. Bicycles were seen as a way to make quick money.”
It didn’t always work. A local company in Ames imported powder-painted frames, but after three months the paint peeled off in big sheets like sunburn. But some of those ‘cash in’ bikes became iconic. Bridgestone and their subsidiary Kabuki, for example, are still treasured today.
“They still show up from time to time,” says Ronn, “I still repair bikes that I sold in the 70’s.”
Back then the bicycle industry worked the way you might build a house. A distributor who wanted a unique brand would go to Japan or Taiwan, find a designer, a builder and then a parts distributor, and put it all together and paint their company’s name on the side.
I asked him about Chino, he remembered the brand. The Midwesterner gave it to me straight: “I wouldn’t be caught dead riding one.” He says. “They’re not that exciting to ride…lower grade steel with poorly made lugs.”
“In the 70’s in Ames [the registration stickers] were white or yellow, if a conscientious person was registered every year they’d have different colored stickers up and down the frame. Yellow ones, green ones. It’s like getting an old apartment and peeling off the wallpaper and finding an archaeological treasure!”
Iowa is flat, perfect for cycling. Ronn grew up on a farm in the North West of the Hawkeye state. There, the paved county roads stretch for miles and miles.
“The first bike I had,” he says, “I couldn’t not ride it!…I cycled off down the highway in high tops and swim trunks and I thought I was in the world! I had this sudden freedom …and convenience. It’s a time machine! I didn’t have a car but I could get anywhere on a bike.”
“25 or 65 or 15,” he says, “I have a friend whose 85 and he rides quite a bit. You can be outside of time when you ride a bicycle.”
Photo by Neville Elder
I tell him about the upgraded derailleur gears, the soft fluffy saddle, the handlebar tape that flutters across my wrists like a lover’s long black hair when I ride into the wind and a little defensively I say, Chino is my beater. He understands.
“We call them ‘rap’ bikes,” he says (a term borrowed from Hot Rod racing) “bicycles offer a continuing novelty, you can’t change their size but you can customize it to make it your own.”
We speculate about how Chino got to New York. Was she stolen?
“Rumors that cube vans or straight trucks would roll through town…bolt-cutters clip, clip, clip! Pick up 20 bikes. It’s hearsay but sounds feasible.”
“The University [Iowa State] cleans up at then end of the semester and take bikes that appear to be abandoned to a reclaim lot.”
So, possibly Chino was bought in a job lot by an enterprising hipster?
“I’m fairly sure it came from Taiwan,” he says. “It’s made it ¾ of the way around the world! In the 70’s when this bike was common, the Taiwanese [were a] breakthrough in the bike industry…better quality bikes coming out of Taiwan.”
Ronn thinks I should write a children’s story about her journey. He sketches it out for me.
“Your bike would have come to Long Beach [California] in a container, then in to a distributor’s warehouse somewhere, then to Ames.” Ronn continues, his imagination takes off, “Maybe some grad student went to Columbia University in New York for law school and took his bike with him? When he graduated he didn’t need it anymore became a corporate lawyer and bought himself an expensive bike, and moved to Connecticut.”
He pauses, “but, you’re the writer.” I’m sure he’s smiling.
I complain about how much it will cost to get Chino back on the road.
“We made have repaired [your bike] sometime over the years,” he says, “I don’t know about big city prices,” I smile at his tongue-in-cheek hometown colloquialism, “but I think we’d be little bit cheaper”.
I fantasized about subletting my apartment and moving to Ames to pedal the flat open county roads, head and shoulders above the corn. I would live above a bike shop and finish my novel. Ronn would teach me the noble art of the bike mechanic. Just me and Chino, riding against wind.
Originally published at Bikes and Humans