My red 26-inch “coaster” bike was an out-of-the-blue total surprise. I was expecting the usual shirts and socks for my 12-year-old Christmas, but a strange request was made on Christmas morning. “Follow the string at the back of the Christmas tree to see where it goes.”

Huh? I hadn’t seen the string, and it went around the living room, down our hallway, into the bathroom. It then went around the sink and down the clothes chute to the basement. There was a gleaming red bike with fat whitewall tires. It had a kickstand holding it up in all its glory.

A Christmas bike! To this day, I still don’t know how my folks pulled it off. How great. Best Christmas present ever!

It had red fenders, which was way better than the bike I’d ridden up till then that sprayed mud in a stripe up my back every time it rained. I could take it apart, and I understood its mechanics with its single gear: sprocket, chain, brake, adjustable handle bars with grips. (The seat often twisted because I could never seem to get it tight, but that may have been because in those days, I rarely knew in which direction I was headed. To be fair, I continued to adjust it higher to allow for longer legs.) No fancy multiple gears, no double-squeezed brakes.

It meant freedom, and could keep up with the bikes of my friends. It went to the lake in the summer. Well, it went everywhere. To library, school, places around town, up and down hills. Up only matters because coasting down was fast, pure, effortless and like flying. Whole other neighborhoods. To the dime store. We’d race. I’d ride no-handed because I could. Showing off. My world didn’t include a helmet, because nobody wore them back then. We’d skin our knees and elbows from time to time. First chance I got, I bought a basket to carry newspapers for a neighborhood paper route. A bike with a basket would pay its own way.

Fast forward – pedaling all the way with longer, stronger, older legs, and steady bike use. (I’ve pure Dutch genes.) One college summer I had a factory job that started at 6:30 a.m. I also had been given the use of a friend’s bike. What I called an “English bike,” it had three speeds with brakes on the handlebars. Fancy. No basket, though. I would ride at a darkish early hour to my factory job, no hands, both in use to carry lunch and thermos.

Verdamnt! A Volkswagen Beetle crossed in front of me, figuring I’d slow. I tried. Instinctively reversed pedals. Nope! English bike, remember? Carrying my lunch, riding no-handed, no stopping this time of the morning. I smacked into the Beetle. Well, I threw my lunch at ’em and got back up sans dignity, sans lunch, and with dinged-up thermos.

Three speeds and hand brakes. Swivel on a bike seat! Coaster bikes still spell joy to me.

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