Fear Bikes Out

Panic about kids and the rise of the neighborhood bike

Photo by James BunoanMine was a Schwinn Stingray; metal-flake blue with a banana seat and a chunky five-speed steel stick shift attached crotch-high to the frame so as to ensure ease of shifting and the probability of extreme groinal malfeasance.

I loved that bike. All kids loved their bikes back then: the '60s, the '70s. Back then, bikes were freedom, freedom to leave the neighborhood, to get yourself to school and back, to push off from your porch some weekend morning with the promise of returning just in time for dinner. A bike was rebellion and maturity, adventure and responsibility, and thus Christmas' Holy Grail.

"Yeah, I remember that," says Mike Abeles of Huntington Beach Bicycles. "It's not like that anymore. Bikes went from being the No. 1 gift to the No. 3, and now it's, like, 10th. Christmas used to be our biggest time of the year; now it's just another month."

According to the National Bicycle Dealers Association, youth bikes make up just a quarter of all the bikes sold in the United States. Most bikes are bought by and for adults. Mountain bikes are the most popular, and then there are comfort bikes with large padded seats for large padded seats, as well as specialty bikes for triathalons, racing and fitness. In fact, a major cause for one-time king of the hill Schwinn's two bankruptcies over the past 10 years is that the company failed to see which way the trend was heading—continued to follow the youth market at the expense of marketing to grown-ups.

Now, you know the theories: kids have too many options now, kids have too little muscle mass now; it's the kid-stealing kooks; it's the kid-shooting kids; it's a different world, too dangerous; it's the same old world, too dangerous.

"Kids don't ride [bikes] because it requires effort," says Phil Aldi of Anaheim Hills Bicycles. "A lot of kids would rather play a video game about riding a bike."

But is our children's lethargy their fault? Any parent, or anyone who knows a parent with kids today, knows the rules of the game have changed. A kid out of sight is a kid in absolute peril. The idea of children getting themselves to a park unsupervised to play their own, unsupervised games seems as antiquated today as Pokémon cards.

Abeles grew up in Huntington Beach. His was a Schwinn Stingray; metal-flake blue with a banana seat but no gear shift since it was a girl's bike, a hand-me-down from his sister.

"Yeah, at first, people gave me shit for riding a girl's bike, but I just beat them up," he said. "After that, no problem."

He rode that bike everywhere, whether it was racing other dudes or riding the five miles to Sav-On.

"It was great," he said. "Would I let my kids do that today? I wouldn't dream of letting my kids do that today—no way in hell. It's the predatory nature of when and where we live. Some of it is contrived; some of it is true. Either way, there's this perceived need to protect your kids at all times."

Which probably explains why Albi expects his big kids' seller this Christmas to be a freestyle bike—a bike designed for stunts, like a skateboard. And, like a skateboard, the bike is not designed for long-distance trips, just for doing stunts, like, right in front of your house.

"We call it a 'neighborhood bike,'" Albi said.

Bogeyman fears aside, there are some very big reasons parents are cautious—giant SUVs and other behemicles creating an ever-dwindling road space.

"There are too many big cars with too many aggressive drivers," said Fred Clements, executive director of the National Bicycle Dealers Association. Fred's was a drop-handle 10-speed that he once rode with friends all the way to Tijuana. These days, he drives his kids to school.

"And even then, I'm scared," he said. "I mean, there's a bunch of people in these giant vehicles, dropping caffeine with a cell phone attached to their ear. It's not good."

And even if a kid has a bike, where's he or she going to ride? Any codger who grew up in the '70s or '80s will tell you that even decent-sized cities always had spots to ride unencumbered by traffic. Of course, the best of those were the new developments, with their big dirt hills. Of course, the same developments, once built, were to limit even more where kids could ride.

Still, Clements remains upbeat.

"I know there's a lot of other cool stuff for kids to want," he said. "But kids are always going to want a bike for transportation to ride to the place where they play video games."

Which is a nice way of seeing a flat tire as half-inflated. Either way, I gotta go. I have to pick up my nine-year-old from school. He's not allowed to walk the four blocks home without an adult.

 
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