Opinion: Self-reliant biking

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By Ward Degler

When I was a kid growing up in Missouri, if something broke, we fixed it. It never dawned on us to throw it away and buy a new one.

We used fountain pens to write with, and after a couple years scrawling out themes about what we did last summer, the rubber bladder that held the ink would grow brittle, crack and leak.

We replaced them. It was dirty business because the ink got on our hands, and we had blue fingers for several days.

Another thing we fixed were our bicycles. Face it, anything with moving parts will break, and our bikes back then had a lot of moving parts. Every bike came with a tool kit, a leather bag that hung from the back of the seat. With it, you could fix anything on the bike that broke.

Sometimes the chain would snap. We always kept spare links in our tool kits, and in 20 minutes or less we would be back on the road. A more serious but equally common failure was the coaster brake – that series of gears and disks that allowed you to pedal forward, coast or reverse the pedal and apply the brakes.

We didn’t have friction brakes attached to cables on the handlebars like today’s bikes do. Ours were all in the rear wheel. We also had big balloon tires. The only guys who had skinny-tire bikes were racers, and most of them lived in France.

There were two kinds of coaster brake: Moreau and New Departure. Expensive bikes like Schwinn had New Departure. My bike came from Montgomery Ward. It had a Moreau coaster brake.

You knew your brake had failed when you applied it and felt a distinct crunch followed by a rumbling vibration – a sound you might get grinding up walnuts in the garbage disposal.

The local hardware store kept a ready supply of replacements, but it would still take half a day to get back on the street. It took that long because when the old departure broke, it chewed itself into a thousand pieces. You first had to remove the big chunks, then scrape out the small pieces and wash out the hub with kerosene and dry it before installing the new brake with a giant glob of axel grease.

Some of those old balloon-tire bikes are still around, of course, but I doubt if the local hardware still carries Moreau and New Departure coaster brakes.


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