Saturday, April 2

My First Bike Was a JC Higgins

This Looks like a Worthy Book
This all started with a reminder of “Third Places” at Carbon Trace. Jon Grinder poked at it a little more in “Bicycle Stories,” when he recollected a memorable bike crash he had, here. I’ve only had two really memorable bike crashes, one of which was summarized here. This post is about the other crash. It was in Seattle around 1961 or thereabouts. John Kennedy was President and Ronald Reagan hadn’t yet started hosting “Death Valley Days.” I don’t recall exactly how the red JC Higgins bike showed up. I thought it was great, though some of the sentiments in the book later developed as I got further up in the elementary school pecking order. I haven’t been able to read the book yet, but it has been added to my list. Considering that it is #3,163,675 on the Amazon “most popular” list, I suspect it won’t be available through interlibrary loan or in an electronic format.

Excerpt from the book
Today, the bicycle market has proliferated, with many variations in bike style and usage. In the early 1960’s, bikes were for kids in the US, and they were overwhelmingly much like my bike. Tank bikes were for rich kids. A few people got “English Roadster” bikes. I don’t remember my own bike ever having fenders. That bike was WONDERFUL. We rode everywhere in Seattle. There weren’t any bike lanes or helmet laws. What is now the Burke Gilman Trail was the “Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway.” Heck, nobody I knew had ever even heard about bike helmets. It would be many years hence before I even got a “hair net” cover.

My JC Higgins bike didn't have fenders or a rack, but otherwise it was RED and a lot like this one
NE 60 Street, Looking UP Towards Bryant Elementary
We rode on the street. Occasionally, we’d ride on a sidewalk, but in the days before ADA, the curbs went right around the corners and the blocks were short, so the main reason to ride on a sidewalk was so you could get a little air when you flew off the curb. In my neighborhood, one of the big attractions was the big hill leading up to Bryant Elementary School in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood. Actually, the big deal to this hill was not where it led going UP, but the return back DOWN. With a good head of steam, you could apply your coaster brake and skid the bike for most of a block before coming to a stop. Perhaps this is where my love of skiing had its origins. There were no artsy fartsy stop signs or traffic calming circles like those that litter the neighborhood nowadays. What’s more, overprotective parents and school drop-offs by car were so rare as to be freakish. Back then, school crossing guards were fifth and sixth graders who considered being picked a privilege. When I went by Bryant, I was struck by the irony that the crossing guard was older than I am, but I was a crossing guard when I went to school there. I’m really somewhat surprised that all the times I shot down 60th street, that I never hurt myself or even crashed as far as I can remember. I guess cycling really IS pretty safe.
NE 60 Street, Looking DOWN - We Had None of those Round "Traffic Calming" Things to Keep Us from Glorious Braking and Epic Skids
Typical Trail in Ravenna Park, Seattle

The OTHER big attraction was Ravenna Park. Ravenna Park was and remains a wonderful place. It is full of trails and trees, and Ravenna Creek runs along the bottom of the ravine. We almost lived there during the summers. Just us kids. The trails were great places to ride. Our bikes, with their fat tires, functioned much as do mountain bikes today. Well, to avoid turning a short story into a long one, one day I was bombing down the main gravel trail, and somehow a stick got caught in my front wheel. A moment later, I was imitating the liftoff of an Atlas rocket as I launched over the handlebars. Somehow, while I got banged up a fair amount, I avoided head injuries and was back on the bike within a week or two. Life is good when you’re young and stupid – and lucky.
Scene of My Crash - FLYING Through the Air
 Still, Ravenna Park has many fond memories, one of which was my first memorable bike crash.

Even Ravenna is More Civilized Nowadays - Steps! Whoda Thunk It!

Steve A - Standing ON the Dinosaur (No, He isn't Actually a Dinosaur) With Siblings & Mom. Not Long Before the Crash


limom said...

Brings back memories of my banana seat ape hanger Schwinn, complete with tassles on the grips.
I crashed a lot.
Usually doing things you weren't supposed to do on a bicycle.

Pondero said...

Cool post, Steve. I certainly can ride the nostalgia train, and hope on board quickly with posts like this. Thanks for sharing.

Chandra said...

Such a nice post. Thanks for sharing your fond memories with us.

Peace :)

Chuck Davis said...

I still remember my first bike, a nameless 26" tubeless (PITA to keep air in) tired w/ **very** marginal coaster brakes

I had a Lewiston Daily Sun (ME) paper route that I used to veer onto the shoulder gravel to scrub off speed for one customer at the bottom of a hill

My dad then got me a creme/maroon tanked Schwinn with big tan leader saddle that stopped quite a bit better, recall the Friday edition of the Sun "up front" effecting the handling at speed

I graduated to a 3x SA Raleigh that I did a 120mi weekend camping trip on with a friend

Think we were 13 or so, still remember the BSA haversack and Sterno stove

Khal said...

My first bike was a no-name 20" repaint from Goodwill with solid rubber tires. That worked OK to learn on. We moved to the 'Burbs with everyone else in the early sixties and I got my first decent bike: a Sears Flightliner.

The operative words from Steve's post are "...overprotective parents and school drop-offs by car were so rare as to be freakish.."

Yup. We rode everywhere. We lived on a quiet side street in Alden and the kids ruled the road. But we rode our bikes on NY-33 and Walden Ave., a truck route, to get to the middle school to play baseball in the summer. Its funny that in those days, living in the depths of the Cold War and with people driving creaky cars and our/their ICBMs and strategic bombers on hair trigger alert, kids were "safe" riding their bikes. How strange that nowdays when much of life is safer than ever, kids are "endangered".

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

PM Summer said...

My first bike (not counting my brother's old bike) was a Puch-made J.C. Higgins 3-speed "English Racer". I want it back.

Anonymous said...

In that pic of the dinosaur I bet you were thinking "now, if I can only get wheels on this thing.." I like the memories referring to "just us kids" and how the parents were somewhere, but definitely not hanging around. Kids were out playing with other kids. I remember saying " 'bye Mom" as I ran out the door, and then next seeing her at supper when I returned. Its different now, and I don't think better. Meanwhile, I like that JC Higgins bike - very cool!

Justine Valinotti said...

This is one of my favorite posts I've read on any blog. I'd love to see that J.C. Higgins bike in person.

What I find amusing is that so much of what is today called "mountain" or "off road" riding consists of things we did as kids--without the "right" kind of bike (as it didn't exist then) or protective gear. And here we are.


Anonymous said...

My first bike was a JC Higgins too and I got a JC Higgins BB gun for Christmas one year instead of the Daisy Red Rider. The BB rifle was almost identical to the Red Ryder and was built by Daisy and I still have it.

cafiend said...

Bear in mind that the first mountain bikes were simply old fat-tire clunkers salvaged from scrap piles. Derailleur gear systems were gradually grafted on, but Tom Cuthbertson had described fat tire clunker bikes in Anybody's Bike Book no later than the early 1970s. He recommended that every cyclist have one for kid-style bashing around on trails and riding on beaches. Mountain Biking didn't become really big business until the very end of the 1980s.

My FIRST bike had welded spokes and solid tires about 16" if not smaller. I rode it on the streets as others in this thread have described. Children were free-range back then. The stem snapped on that bike. I don't remember crashing as a result. A local fix-it guy welded the bars back together. I rode the bike until the solid tires wore through. Then I got a 24" Western Flyer. So maybe the small bike was a 20". I do recall that parents would buy the largest bike possible to avoid having to buy them often.

I had my first potentially fatal crash on the Flyer when I was about 8 or 9. Good times, man! Handlebars came loose and I burned in, going for a speed record down a big, long hill. The ambulance people squeegeed me up unconscious. I missed a few days of riding. Traded up two years later to an "English Racer." And so it goes.

trickytrip said...

What a great blog. I learned to ride a bike on one of those solid rubber tire 16" bikes. Then I got my sisters big fat-tire bike that made a clunk sound when I peddled, I wasn't even big enough to sit on the seat and peddle. Right now, I am cleaning up a 1958 JC Higgins, it was my brothers. Not doing anything fancy, just cleaning up the chrome and replacing the tubes and tires. It is still in really good shape, will be a nice cruiser.

Post a Comment

No Need for Non-Robot proof here!