Monday, December 31, 2012

Ode to my Walmart Bike and Gainesville

Bike at UF
Bike at UF

Man I wish I had taken photos of all the bicycle corrals around the University of Florida campus back in the day in Gainesville, FL but I never did. Literally they were littered all over the place, spilling over into the walkways like some junk yard because there was never enough parking. Yes, you heard right, never enough "bicycle" parking somewhere in Florida. I could never find a space to shove my bicycle into around the student union center, the Reitz, and half the time I had to do some whacked-out aerobics to lift the bike over my shoulders past half a dozen fallen-over bikes to find somewhere to lock it to. Also, half of those bikes always had an "Abandoned" tag attached to it by the UPD. Beyond that, when I lived on campus, I could never find a spot in a bike rack outside my dorm either. When I lived on the first floor of Buckman Hall (one of the oldest dorms and on the Historical Registry), I would just haul my bike into my tiny apt, much to the bewilderment of my roommate. I would clean it every day because I was very obsessed with keeping the rust off. This was my baby and I depended on this bicycle to get me through the day. I did not have a car for 3 years at University. I would clean the rain off and re-oil and re-lube the chain and the spokes and the headset and other places I didn't know why but I just liked doing it so I'm pretty sure I overdid it. I even went as far as to buy a rain cover for it and 3 locks, because you know, bike theft was the biggest crime on campus.

This bike was nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary. It was $73 from Walmart and my parents bought it my freshman year before they left me there like an abandoned puppy, sobbing as I watched their van disappear down the road for the first time in my life. I was really into the 50's retro thing back then so I discovered "beach cruisers". These are super popular in Florida and feature big, white-walled fat tires and relaxed handlebars and chromed fenders. I really loved white-wall tires on old 50's cars so it was love at first sight. Back in 2004, Dirty Dancing Havana Nights came out and I fell into a 50's obsession for a couple years. Not just 50's, but the decadence of the era in Cuba in particular. I was fascinated with those last couple of years before, during, and after Castro's coup d'etat in 1959 when he kicked Batista, the former President and all of the "Yankees", out of Cuba to return Cuba to the people. Now Cuba is like a time capsule, the last vestige of fancy cars built for no reason other than showing off. They are called "cacharros" and have to be fixed by hand because they could not import parts anymore from any of the American manufacturers due to the subsequent embargo. Everything they needed had to be reverse-engineered and re-crafted. It's really a marvel how they have kept these relics going. Before the coup, Americans would bring them over in droves on ferries from the Keys and there they have stayed ever since.

So to get back to the bike, I was instantly attracted to this baby-blue white-walled beauty and for $73, my parents couldn't say no. I mean, I needed a bike! The campus is enormous and there was just no way for me to get to all my classes on time walking or taking the campus buses. They elected not to bring my bike from home because their van was filled with my other living necessities crapola. I had a love-hate relationship with that old bike and why was something I would not understand until much later. It is (still have's hanging in their garage) like a mountain-hybrid-sporty-women's-style-crap bike (also from Walmart I presume). The seat is absolutely atrociously terrible, and it has no fenders so mud would shoot up my back. This is also because the town we moved to from NYC, Port St. Lucie (aka the Pizzle aka Port St. Shithole, etc. etc.) really did not have sidewalks for many many years. So it was either ride on a 2-way 45mph road or in a super wide shoulder in the mud. Fenders were not a concept I understood from age 11-18. I used to ride miles through disconnected stupidly engineered Florida suburbia neighborhoods. It took me an hour to go 4 miles. However...and I do mean however, this bike, being built for MOUNTAINS, was great when I decided to ride through the woods. Lots of kids in the neighborhoods with nothing better to do would carve these trails and forts in the middle of wooded lots and I'd go riding through them and it was fabulous. For this purpose, the bike was fun. For commuting at school, I am glad they left it at home. It did have a dynamo light system though! My dad knew about these and bought some cheapo crappo one from Sears but it worked! So go figure.

I rode my new beach cruiser for all 4 years of college, even when I finally got a car my senior year. I purposefully moved to an apartment close to campus so I could forever leave my car without paying for a parking decal at school. If you don't know this, parking at UF is awful. Driving through campus is even worse because they actively speed check everywhere. Car use is so much discouraged there that I cannot compare it to anywhere else in Florida, not even at any other university, now that I am looking at this retrospectively. They try to take away parking as much as possible and lower the speed limit so you're barely crawling. Because of this, nobody gets hit by cars and there are no traffic jams, no choking smog, no honking, no parking wars, none of that. It's an oasis to pedestrians and bicyclists. Part of the Gainesville Bus system runs through campus continuously, so really that's the only traffic going by.

Gainesville is located in North Florida and in the middle of the state so winters are actually really cold, and summers are brutally hot because you don't get much of the sea breeze being so far inland. Leaves fall off all the trees around December and dogwoods and azaleas start blooming in February. During winter, temperatures regularly fell into the teens and low 20s. I rode my bike actively through all of that. I rode this bike carrying art paintings, canvases, a portfolio, and things flapping in the wind like sails. I was an art major so I had a lot of stuff to carry and I had a lot of inertia. I didn't have a rear rack but I did have the cheapest possible basket I could find (also at Walmart – Note: boon to poor students). I would throw my laptop in there and carry all of my art supplies on both handlebars. I also did not have a bell so I had to yell a lot at people to get out of the way. UF had these bike lanes that go up this hill next to our football stadium (Ben Griffin) on a road called, naturally, Stadium Drive. It was a very steep slope, this hill, and also footed a lot of the bus traffic that would stop at like this bus congregation depot-type area that used to be the former student union. It was up the hill and then the road would curve to the left to continue on till it exited campus. Well on that curve area were these raised concrete curbs that separated car and cycle traffic from the bus lanes where the buses could park and wait. Lots of students walking around not paying attention because they are too busy texting would walk in these closed-in paths with these curbs instead of on the sidewalks where they belonged. Then you have me on a bike with huge loads balancing off both handlebars screaming at them to get out of the f*n way because I couldn't get out of the lane once in it and stopping would have been a disaster. Constant scenario every day. None of them ever made me crash. But on my birthday one year, my cheapo basket decided it wanted to fall off my bike and into my front tire, sending my laptop, me, and the bike spilling all over the cobblestones in front of Turlington Plaza, where the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is located, around 8am. Luckily not many people were around. There's a giant rock statue in front that looks like a potato and one year someone dressed it up as Mr. Potato Head. Apparently it's the largest single piece of stone dug up in the area so they decided to display it or something. My laptop survived intact, if you're wondering. It had a nice dent in the corner but Mac laptops are designed to freeze the hard drive if it encounters impact so everything was saved.

Mr. Potato Head Rock sculpture

My poor bike had this basket carve the paint off of the headset so I attempted to remedy it with some electrical tape that I found somewhere. I also had the chain fall off many times that I had to stop in a neighborhood on my way to school (after I moved off campus), flip it upside down, and try to get the chain back on. Sometimes passerbys would kindly help me. Aside from the wonders of fenders that I finally discovered from riding through puddles and rain, a new problem began to plague me with bicycles: the chainguard. While my stupid mountain-hybrid-whatever bike had a derailleur, this bike was a one-speed with a rudimentary chainguard that only covered the top portion. This means the bottom was open and so I had ruined many a pants by the time this era came to a close. I didn't have clamps and no I did not think too much about it to actually care to come up with a solution so, my fault on that. However this did stick in my memory and surfaced again when I discovered the Dutch bicycle concept of a fully covered chainguard. My bike did have to be serviced occassionally and luckily near the student union center, the Reitz, was located a free bicycle repair shop operated by students volunteering their time. These wonderful souls filled up my tires constantly and fixed squeaky noises and fixed my front rim once. They had to do this because of a collision I had with a trash can. Why on Earth did I collide with a trash can of all things? Well here is one of the perils of riding on the sidewalk with pedestrians: you can't predict where they are going to go. You think "Oh, I have plenty of room to pass" but then they suddenly veer left and OMG to avoid hitting them you careen into the next best thing, an immovable object like a trash can. I know that girl and I still hate her to this day because of her piss-ass attitude about the whole debacle. And I still hate sidewalk cycling. It never occured to me at that point that I could ride in the street. I thought the weirdos who did that were lunatics with a death wish. This was before I ever discovered urbanism or really cycling in general. This was the viewpoint from the most innocent of bicycle users – I relied on my bike for transportation and not to show cars that bikes belong. I just wanted to get from Point A to Point B without worry. Campus provided this. The rest of Gainesville did not on any of its infrastructure. I did not even know about any of the cycling trails that my roommate senior year was always riding on and he was actually on the UF Cycling Team! Now I wish I would have tried the Hawthorne Trail with him but I just did not care about cycling as a recreational activity. It was active transportation for me. For me recreation was hopping in someone's car and taking a drive out to Ichetucknee Springs or something, which was a popular summer weekend past-time for the locals. Northern Florida is chock-full of clean, freshwater springs with clear-blue water and lots of lazy rivers to tube on. I heard a similar story from Copenhagen– that for residents there, recreation is taking a drive and not riding a bike. Copenhagen, meet Gainesville.

Gainesville does suck for cycling. I have no clue if it got better since I left in 2008 but there were always stories plastered on the news of some cyclist getting smeared all over the road on 34th street or on Archer. Near campus, the closest Publix was like a 5 min drive away. On a bike, it was like half an hour because they do not upkeep their sidewalks at all. Cracks, dents, tree roots, etc. My roommate used to skateboard to class on these sidewalks, bless his soul, and would come back looking like Mike, the LSU Tiger, chewed up his legs because he collided with a crack or an acorn that sent him flying. It also makes for a terrible bicycle ride.

Sidewalk Collision

This happens when sidewalks suck.

However, even back then, I exuded total Cycle Chic-ness riding in mini skirts and dresses to school and not ever caring because for me it was normal. There was nothing socially-changing about it nor was there anything so contradictory as to ellicit any sort of attention about it. That was the norm. Here in West Palm Beach and elsewhere, it is not the norm and I do ellicit attention, for better I think, and not for the worse.

At the close of the spring semester of 2008, I graduated the University of Florida with a Bachelor's in Art in Graphic Design. I sold all of my furniture and etc. and also had to sell my beloved bicycle that was there with me through good times and bad, through thick and thin, and who I managed to keep mostly rust-free due to my anal attentiveness. I remember how I diligently used to lock it up–pushing my $10 cheapo Walmart U-lock through the front wheel, frame, and post, and using another lock to lock the seat to the rear wheel to the post. Nobody ever messed with it. I remember how, in the rain, the foam handle grips would make squishy noises and I could squeeze the water out of them by gripping tight. I also would forget a lot to cover the seat with a plastic bag so I would ride home with a soaking butt. Then at home, I would spend 15 minutes wiping it dry out of pure love.

This bike was my car, it was my transportation, my buddy, my reliable friend, and it came from Walmart. It lasted 4 years with no discernible problems and went through a lot of abuse. Here is my ode to my pal whom I still miss and who I credit with founding my continued love of cycling and subsequent trolling into the depths of urbanism and discovering cycling around the world, and by accident, Cycle Chic. If anyone ever has a chance to experience Gainesville and the University of Florida campus for cycling, they would understand how comparable it is to the likes of Amsterdam and Copenhagen. They even had a tunnel going under a busy arterial, 13th street, that allows pedestrians and cyclists to safely cross with no impediment!! Go Cycle Chic. And Go Gators. Peace Out.


This is that underground tunnel. Usually covered in graffiti.


Cars are always in the bike lanes anyway. On another note, pink sewer caps.

Here's some photos I pulled off Google for better bike parking shots:
I lived here – Weaver hall – millions of bike parking spots

Imagine this x100 and that's the core campus parking
Quiet cycling street
Also lived here – Buckman Hall

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