Jun 082011

The Villere clan on its preferred mode of transportation. (via the author's Facebook page)

As my thoughts are wont to do, the other day my mind started musing, this time on bikes, and I began to wonder “When was the bicycle invented?”  A Google search later, low and behold, turns out the pedals and cranks were first fabbed in 1861 by Ernest Michaux making this year, 2011, their sesquicentennial.  Soooo, happy birthday (modern) bicycle!  You’re 150 years young!  Somehow I thought you would be older than that, because really you are.  Dating back to Da Vinci, but then maybe not.  Who can say?  Nonetheless I hope Smucker’s and Willard Scott give you mad props on the Today Show real soon!

Jean-Paul Villere

Kidding and debated histories aside, remember your first bike?  I do.  It was Christmas 1983.  I really, really wanted a Mongoose which was this total badass black-and-chrome freestyle dirtbike that had hand brakes instead of footbrakes.  Bad.  Ass.  Some mom-and-pop bike shop near my house had one, and I drooled over it almost daily; I can easily tell you this was my first love.  Christmas morning comes and voila, I get a Snapper.  As in the lawnmower people.  Bet you didn’t know Snapper ever made bikes, did you?

My brother got a Snapper too.  His was blue.  Mine was black. They each had footbrakes.  Not a handbrake in sight.  I felt cheated.  Robbed.  Lame.  Nonetheless, I rode that baby till I near wore her out!  And a couple of Christmases later I upgraded to a Stu Thomsen Huffy.  I only knew Stu Thomsen was some bike dude, but I also knew (and more importantly) his bike was rad.  I was in dirtbike heaven til I got the itch for speed and distance.  So I saved up my shekels and bought a 12 speed.

It was from Sears, it was maroon, and it was called Sovereign.  Schmancy for mid 80s.  I paid $99, and I put it together myself.  OMG, I was in love all over again.  I rode everywhere.  E-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e.  I was a latchkey kid to the nth degree, and I couldn’t be stopped.  Years later, my brother borrowed my beloved Sovereign one evening only to get jumped, or so he says.  Supposedly his attacker(s) took the bike in addition to putting a beatdown on him.  He never replaced it.  Never.  Personally I think the whole story a fabrication, and he simply hocked my bike for beer money.  But I digress.

Growing up there was a holy trinity of bike movies you didn’t mess with, and they were, in no particular order: American Flyers, Breaking Away, and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.  And honorable mention goes to E. T. Who didn’t want to fly their bike with their friends across the moon!?  There were other less memorable cinematic forays into bikedom too.  BMX Bandits, anyone?  Maybe a little Quicksilver.  Alls I gotta say is all these movies fueled my fascination, some to this day.  Yes, I did the midnight showing of Pee-Wee two years ago, and it was super awesome.

Today in New Orleans it’s a new day for bike culture.  More and more enthusiasm appears seemingly daily.  From bike lanes popping up all over the city and the new aptly named Bike Shop in the 4700 block of Freret to the Confederacy of Cruisers and Rubarb, the Crescent City serves less as a model but moreso another example in a national progressive trend.  In my day all we could boast was GNO Cyclery and an unpaved path atop the levee.  Really, that was it.

Personally instead of having a second car, two years ago my wife and I invested in a pedicab.  I tried like mad to find one locally, but ultimately had a Boardwalk drop shipped here from Colorado.  We love it, taking the kids out as often as possible but the dead of winter and dead of summer not so much.  Whenever we are out though, invariably we are quizzed by passersby whether it’s for business or pleasure.  With the licensing and legality snafus at City Hall, I am unclear if today I could even run it as a business even if I wanted to.

All in all, the bicycle has a sustainable if not growing space in the modern cityscape.  With costly car insurance, pollution, and ridiculous prices on gasoline, why wouldn’t it?  Pair that with the health benefits and you can quit your gym membership too.  Lastly, consider this: you live in New Orleans, one of the most intimate and pedestrian friendly American cities.  Taking a bike down her spiderweb of streets is only fitting.  And perhaps a birthday fete and cake for your ride ain’t a bad idea either.  Happy birthday!

Jean-Paul Villere is the owner of Villere Realty and the Du Mois gallery on Freret Street and father of four girls. In addition to his Wednesday column at UptownMessenger.com, he also writes an occasional real-estate blog at villererealty.com and shares his family’s adventures via pedicab on Facebook and Twitter.

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