[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]

ARTICLE: Old Bikes

Nostalgic stories about the inexpensive bicycles that have made my life more worthwhile and about how they made my life more meaningful.

What was my first bike like? How did I use it? Why did I quit riding? How did I return to cycling? What were all my other bikes like? How did I use them? Why did I love my bikes? What kind of nostalgic memories do I have of them? How many miles did I travel on each of them? What charactistics do I consider most important in a bicycle?


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Old Bikes

These are the tales of my lost and current loves, the bikes I have traveled with and the bikes that are in my dreams.

First Bike, '53-'59

My first bike in 1955.
My first bike in 1955.
My first bike was 22-inch, West German, and red, which I was given for Christmas in 1953, when I was eight. This bike did not have the false gas tanks or fake springs that most children's bike had then, and banana seats and high-rise handlebars were far in the future; it did have a long wheelbase and fat tires, making it the equivalent of a one-speed mountain bike. I taught myself how to ride by rolling down the grass lawn of a churchyard after I finally convinced my father to take off the hated training wheels during the second year (he probably thought I needed them because I was so small: I was just 3' 6" at ten). For a while, because I learned to balance rolling downhill, I could ride only downhill, while another kid on the block, due to the way he learned to ride, could ride only uphill. This was my only childhood bike, and I was too big to ride it by 14. Besides, in those days, we believed bikes were only for children. In our play, I pretended it was a horse, an airplane, or whatever I wanted it to be. I also invented a great game, which I called bicycle chase, in which we pursued each other up and down the street, around the circle, and into people's front yards, and through their backyards. I was very proud of my cycling skills, doing all sorts of stunts such as riding no-hands, jumping off and onto the moving bike like a trick horse, jumping the bike into the air off of a board with one end resting on a concrete block, and even riding across the neighbor's teeter-totter (which required me to balance standing still at the perfect spot on the plank three feet above the ground while the teeter-totter slowly changed from a steep uphill to a steep downhill). Yet I never once fell down -- not even when my handlebars came off while going down a small hill. At one time, I made a skull and cross bones with the words "Dare Devil" which I flew on a coat hanger until a jealous kid smeared it with dog crap. The picture above was made in 1955; I was a proud, skinny, happy, little kid with my bike. I would guess I rode 3,000 miles on this bike, never getting more than a mile away from home.

Second Bike, '64-'67

My second bike was a black three-speed English "racer," purchased during my second year in college in November 1964 for $44. Most of that was money I had earned myself at fifty cents an hour, but I had to get Mother to help me out a little. At that time, bikes were scarce on a college campus. My reason for getting a bicycle again is a little odd. A friend of mine convinced me to take a summer job selling door-to-door by suggesting I could use a bicycle to travel between houses. The job didn't work out, nor did I need the bike, but the idea was in my brain. That fall, I borrowed another student's bike and rode 45 miles on the first day. But his bike soon had a flat which he was reluctant to fix. So, I had to get one of my own. I immediately started using mine almost daily. I used it to explore the countryside, go birdwatching, to visit swimming holes, to climb various steep roads (some of them dirt), to go cave exploring, to get my groceries, and to go to class. On one occasion, I was descending rapidly down a dirt road when I unexpectedly reached the main road. I braked as hard as I could, and the back wheel slid past the front as I stopped, so the bike stopped facing backwards. On one occasion, I used the bike to visit a cave, and I stayed inside several hours, digging out a narrow spot in the passage. When I returned to the surface, I was shocked to find the world covered in snow, a rare event in Alabama. Before getting the bike, I had sometimes walked and hitchhiked the 28 miles to my parents' home. Now the bike gave me a quicker method, but my first trip took four hours due to terrific headwinds that had me fighting for every foot. However, on another occasion, when I had strong tailwinds, I made the first 25 miles in an hour flat. During the summer, I made a trip of 100 miles in one day for the first time, so I decided to use the bike to go camping in the Smokies (see "Bicycle Camping and Touring" for this 1965 trip). On the trip, I recognized the need for dropped handlebars and more gears so, as much as I loved this bike, I bought a ten-speed after just one year. The bike "hung around" for a couple of years, getting less and less use, and then I gave it to my sister's kids who let it become part of their lives. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of it, but I can see it as clearly in my mind as if I rode it this morning. I traveled about 4,000 miles on it, the bulk in 1965, including 820 miles of new roads. I wrote the following poem about riding this bike:

  The warm, wet wind blows me along
  As I ride my bike in the cream moonlight
  Down the road that leads from my home.
  The sky's black-blue, the clouds are white,
  The stars are silver dots. To me belong
  The night and sky, as all are 'sleep except for me,
  Me and those puff clouds that smoothly roam,
  And like them, I long to be free.

Third Bike, '65-'73

My third bike in 1966.
My third bike in 1966.
My third bike was the famous (or infamous) Schwinn Varsity, 1965 model. For years, my mother kept a picture on the wall of me at 21 standing with this bike after my successful first trip to Canada; you now have the picture in front of you, a photo of the cyclist as a young man. The bike was light-blue, dropped handlebars raised as high as they would go on the 23-inch frame but still lower than the seat, a bird feather stuck under the right brake lever, big plastic speedometer that ran off a cable, a tiny generator light mounted on the front wheel, an air pump that couldn't pump forty pounds, water bottle cage, big plastic seat bag attached to the leather seat, 18-inch long carrier, and of course the bright chrome fenders. The bike weighed forty pounds but seemed indestructible. Outside of being heavy, the only fault was in the gearing -- six useful gears and a Simplex derailleur that missed a lot of shifts and shift levers that would tend to relax on a hill. The low gear wasn't very low (39 x 28) and the high gear rather ambitious (52 x 14), but since I didn't use toe clips and straps, my cadence must have been low as well. I traveled 18,000 miles on it from 1965 to 1973, when it was stolen, a third of that in 1966, and about 4,600 miles of new roads. My greatest adventures with this bike are my trips to Canada and to Spruce Pine, told in the touring section, but I had many shorter trips and local adventures with it. While in college, I one time went exploring near Cheaha Mountain and discovered a "hidden" waterfall and pool after traveling ten miles down a dirt road. While skinny-dipping, I was approached by two fellows who accused me of public nudity. They explained that a whole group of people had arrived above the falls. Leaving sheepishly, I found a paved road and a large sign announcing the falls just a short distance away. I stopped to eat at a grocery store just down the road, when a gang of fellows from the falls arrived to attack me. It seems that someone had robbed their vehicles after I left, and they automatically assumed it was me. Somehow, I twice escaped a beating and made it back home. When I revisited the store five years later, the owner told me that the real thief had been caught elsewhere. About the time my son was born, eight years later, I was using the bike to make almost daily fishing trips to a small stream. I would put the fish in a pack on my back and carry them home. This bike was on the porch one night, just a few feet from my bed, when someone took it. I could not believe, for some time, that the bike was gone for good.

Honorable Mention, '73

Taking my son for a ride.
Taking my son for a ride, 1974.

One bike deserves honorable mention. Between the theft of the Schwinn in the spring of '73 and the purchase of the Peugeot in October of the same year, I continued to ride as normal. This was possible because I had purchased a second Schwinn Varsity for my wife in 1971. This bike was brown, with a 21-inch frame, brown fenders, upright handlebars, and a wide seat.  It weighed about 45 pounds. After returning from our cycling trip in '71, she seldom rode it, so it was very much available for me. In an attempt to convince her to ride again, I had converted the handlebars to dropbars myself, mounting the brakes so they'd work like safety levers. I managed to travel about 1,500 miles on it during those months, but only 3 miles of new roads. After my son was old enough to sit on a bike, I purchased a bike seat, and so he and I continued to ride it right up to the divorce. Right after the divorce, when he was 1½, I made my first trip to get him for the weekend. He could not yet talk, but he grabbed me by the leg and pulled me towards the garage where the bike was stored.

Fourth Bike, '73-'75

My fourth bike was another famous bike, the Peugeot PX-10, a white bike. Although I had been looking at this bike, it was my wife's decision to buy it for me (she made the first payment). This was my first and only bike that would have been suitable for racing. On my first long bicycle trip, all the kids asked me (speaking of my three-speed), "Is that a racing bike?" On my second bike trip, all the kids asked me (speaking of my Varsity), "Is that a racing bike?" Now, I had a real racing bike, and not one kid ever asked me about it; it was just another ten-speed. Outside of the chrome-moly frame and the 21-pound weight, this bike had no desirable characteristics for a touring cyclist. I learned how to sew-up the sew-ups on the edge of the road whenever they had their frequent flats. Tires cost $20 and did not have a long lifetime (one set lasted just a week due to faulty stems; the dealer claimed I had been careless and refused to take them back). One time, on a steep downhill, I locked both front and back tires (the Mafac Racer brakes were superior to today's fancier models), and the bike didn't even pretend to slow down -- not enough rubber on the road. Before I changed the 14-21 rear cogset, I was slowly pedaling at the back on the bike club ride, carrying on a conversation, when a 10%+ hill suddenly appeared in front of us. I made my apologies, and passed almost everyone on the climb -- I had to make it at speed or walk! But, as soon as possible, I changed the rear derailleur and cogset so I could manage long climbs. Mounting a child's seat on the rear of this bike caused it to protest alarmingly, but mount it I did, ASAP after the divorce, and my son and I made our last ride with the baby seat, a 21-mile ride, while he was three. That October, the bike was stolen, and I didn't know whether to be upset or grateful. I wondered who would be so foolish to buy it. I have never looked twice at a racing bike since then. Nonetheless, I put a lot of miles on it, including a camping trip when I dragged a Bugger trailer behind me. Although the round trip was just 112 miles, this was the longest bike trip I have ever made. I never took a picture of this bike either. I owned it for two years and rode it for 5,000 miles and about 400 miles of new roads.

Fifth Bike, '75-'86

My fifth bike in 1979.
My fifth bike in 1979.

My next bike was bought shortly after the Peugeot was stolen in 1975. This was a Motobecane "touring" bike. The safety levers and high tensile frame revealed its plebeian nature. However, bikes were expensive at the time and after having the PX-10 stolen, I did not want to invest as much money in another. Actually, due to repeated burglaries, I rode this bike for just one year before it went into my parent's basement where it sat unused. In 1979, I built a cabin in the woods and moved my bike there. The picture is inside the cabin while under construction (the picture was not taken of the bike, hence the angle). Unfortunately, the cabin was also burglarized, so the bike went back to the basement. In 1985, I was laid off my job and returned to the cabin, hoping to make my living as a beekeeper. I soon discovered that I could "make" more money riding a bike than selling honey; that is, the amount of money saved by riding the bike was greater than my income from honey. I rode this bike to death, unfortunately, traveling down rough tar and gravel roads. I bought plastic fenders for it, but they quickly tore up, so I bought some steel fenders, as on my Schwinn, and later transferred them to another bike after 6,000 miles. Since I could not carry supplies, my only overnight trip was to my parents' home. The bike's last ride happened on June 24, 1986. Coming down a steep, pothole covered mountain road at high speed, I heard an extremely loud crack that scared me to death. Stopping, I could see nothing wrong. On the climb back home that evening, I discovered the front chainrings to be wobbling badly under load. Looking at the bottom bracket, I discovered four of the five tubes cracked, including all three main tubes. The bike had traveled about 9,000 miles and 500 miles of new roads.

Sixth Bike, '86-Present

My sixth bike in 1989.
My sixth bike in 1989.

The next morning, I left for Huntsville bright and early to get another bike. I have told this story under "New Bike for $100," so I won't repeat myself. With my new Schwinn Voyager, I suddenly had a new surge of interest in cycling. I had covered 2,800 miles since January, but I covered nearly double that mileage before the end of the year, including my first century ride in twelve years. Part of my increased mileage was due to now having a bike that could carry camping gear, as I began making cycling trips to see my son and my parents, avoiding the expense of driving the van. In two years, I made eleven cycling-camping trips to see him, totaling 3,200 miles, and five trips to visit my parents only, totaling another 750 miles. Then, after getting a job in my parents' town, I started using the bike to visit my cabin on weekends, a total of eight trips and 1,200 miles before the weather stopped me. In addition, all of my long summer trips starting in 1988 have been made on this bike. It has now traveled 50,000 miles and 16,500 miles of new roads, thus traveling about half of my total mileage and over two-thirds of my total miles of new roads.

Seventh Bike, '90-Present

My seventh bike in 1990.
My seventh bike in 1990.

The story of my bikes includes one more. In 1986, when I had been looking at touring bikes, I had seen a 25-inch Nishiki also. While having all the latest touring features, such as cantilever brakes and eyelets for lowrider front carriers, this bike did not impress me for some reason. But whenever I was by the bike shop, I would stop and admire it. Before Christmas in 1989, the owner said to me, "I want you to buy this bike, and I want you to get it out of here today." I said, "I don't need another bike, and I don't want to spend the money." He said, "Look, I'll let you have the bike for $275 plus tax, that's just a little more than half price, if you'll take it today." Since my son didn't want it, and I couldn't turn down such a good deal, I ended up with a second bike. Unlike my Voyager, the Cresta has never been on a trip and has seen precious few miles of new roads. Instead, I have used this bike around town and for short rides in the country. I have also spent little on it, just changing the shifters, the rear derailleur, and adding steel fenders, a front carrier, and a generator light. It still has the original chain and rear cluster. Nonetheless, it has traveled 10,000 miles so far, including 180 miles of new roads. The picture of the bike shows it during the first year, before I had mounted lights or found some barcon shifters for it, but after I had made the other changes.

At present, I have no further desire for more bikes. I generally do not crave new possessions unless they fill a need, and the two bikes satisfy my need.

Desirable Characteristics

Over the years, I have found some characteristics to be desirable, and I might mention them here. Wide tires give better traction and last a little better too. I prefer 27 x 1 3/8 tires (about 35 mm wide), and that is the size I used on my touring trips from 1986 to 1996. I don't like indexed shifting at all; I never miss a shift using today's derailleurs and yesterday's Suntour Barcons, which I have used on every bike starting with the PX-10 twenty-four years ago. Barcons, which mount on the ends of the handlebars, allow one to shift without letting go of the handlebars. I also mount my handlebars level to provide more hand positions and several inches lower than the seat. I started using foam on my handlebars in 1986; foam is extremely comfortable for the hands. All my bikes except for the PX-10 had steel fenders, which can cope with road shock indefinitely. After the first two, all my bikes had the largest sized frame I could get; the Schwinn was 23 inch, and all the later bikes were 25 inch, including the PX-10. I sit seven inches higher than the frame, even though I am only six feet tall. I prefer high and low gears, so both my bikes are set up with 100-inch high gear (52 x 14) and 20-inch low gear (24 x 32). I use a halogen lamp, mounted on the front carrier, and a flashing light rear. I have used toeclips and straps since 1985, and I am not interested in clipless pedals. (I used toeclips and straps as early as 1972 or so, but found them a problem when carrying my son on the bike, so I discontinued their use for many years).


Evolution of a Bicyclist by Richard Risemberg. Tells the history of his use of the bicycle.

Of Time, and Love, and My First Bicycle by Ben Arie Swets. Another personal bicycle history.

Old Bikes   Articles about Old Bicycles and Parts. Also: Servicing English Three Speeds Sheldon Brown on the three-speed bike, with links to other 3-speed sites. And: Inside the Varsity By Marc S. Muller. Details on how the Varsity was built.

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