The Birth Of A Bike Commuter

It was a dark time in my life, at 25. My soon-to-be ex-wife was pregnant with our daughter Katie. We were indebted up to our hairlines. I tipped the scale at close to 280 pounds — 60 of which was polyunsaturated self-loathing, the rest mostly Domino’s pizza and Reese’s candy.

For jobs, we barely sold insurance. She out of the house for a respected midwestern company trying to expand into the lucrative California marketplace. Me in the buy-or-die boiler room Tarzana offices of the almost universally despised and always- investigated FGS (you might remember their never-ending TV ads tagline: “Insure for less with FGS!”). I was always a bottom dweller in the sales totem pole, writing just enough policies not to get fired for people with licenses suspended for any number of reckless and endangering acts, including the occasional celebrity likes of Kim Fields (Tootie from “The Facts of Life”) and Dana Plato from “Diff’rent Strokes.” Those coworkers of mine who did the most business also did the most drugs, at times with little discretion at their desks.

Worst of all, I lived in Burbank.

Enter into my life my first new bicycle since… well, the fully unassembled Sears Free Spirit 10-speed I’d bought a couple years earlier for under a hundred bucks, proving the old adage: You Get What You Pay For. The thing never worked right and when we moved to Burbank from Van Nuys a few months earlier I just left it behind.

Though we could barely afford food, much less a new bike, that didn’t stop me from impulse purchasing it at the Bicycle Mart on Brand in Glendale, its manufacturer a been-and-gone and recently resurrected nameplate: Shogun. The model I can’t remember other than it was the cheapest available. I also remember it was white with lame pastel-y accents. This was the late ’80s remember, the reign of day-glo neon wasn’t too far away.

Careless consumerism notwithstanding, it was brought home with honorable intentions. I had bike visions of slimming down by both biking around my neighborhood and by hauling my bulk the good distance each way from Burbank to Tarzana and back. Keep in mind this 1989. In my life to that point the farthest I’d ever pedaled was to various schools and back. Strike that: once in high school I biked from the Swensen’s in Beverly Hills to its sister shop on Ocean Avenue just north of Santa Monica Boulevard, and back. But that was mainly for the casual and novel fun of it.

In my adult incarnation as a newbie cyclist, there may not have been herds of mammoths wandering the flood plains, but it was nonetheless prehistoric from a transportation perspective. You’ve gotta remember that back then pretty much the only people you saw on bikes on the streets were kids, day laborers, and people with driving records so terrifically bad even I couldn’t get them insured for less with FGS. Bike lanes were practically nonexistent and the only bike paths were at the beach, and even back then those were being bogarted by peds.

And here, with a nice 1973 Firebird 350 parked in my garage (the relic given to me by my mother after I voluntarily turned in the 1988 VW Jetta GLI 16-valve I couldn’t afford even when I bought it), I was wanting to join those school children, itinerant workers, and suspended licensees and voluntarily traverse the 13 miles from the rapidly deteriorating marriage at my home in Burbank to my desk with the rapidly deteriorating company for which I worked at the corner of Burbank and Reseda boulevards.

I didn’t do it right off. I started off with a few early morning rides around the way. One of those first jaunts led me to the base of the hill at Forest Lawn Drive where Olive becomes Barham and rises up, up and up to then drop down to the Cahuenga Pass and the 101 Freeway.

Innocently I thought my Shogun’s super power go 18 speeds of fury would flatten the climb out. Yeah… no. I didn’t get a tenth of the way up when I totally and absolutely pooped out and it was all I could do to negotiate a u-turn on the empty street without falling and then coast entirely gassed and worn down back to the bottom. I pedaled slowly back home like a wounded warrior, smacked down by reality.

As demoralizing as it was, it didn’t stop me from making my first failed attempt at the Burbank-Tarzana crossing. That one ended in disgrace after flatting both tires from picking up a passel of goathead thorns on the sidewalk near Magnolia and Whitsett. I had to call my wife and interrupt her productive morning of being pregnant in front of the TV to come get me. Boy was she thrilled.

Still, I kept the dream alive. I eventually replaced the tubes and one sunny Saturday I set out. A sweaty 90 minutes later I successfully arrived at work and late that afternoon, repeated that success all the way back home. In the annals of all my bike ridings it remains — if not my greatest achievement — my proudest.

And I never did it again. The pregnancy not only advanced into the third trimester, but it was very taxing on my wife and put her in the hospital for dehydration a couple times. These developments necessitated me using the fastest available transportation option at my disposal… and old as she was that Firebird 350 was damn fast. Then in September of 1989 our daughter was born healthy and beautiful into a marriage that was neither. On top of that the day she was born was my first day on the job as a “Sparkletts Man” and the physical 12-14 hour days incumbent upon rookies with that regime. The good news was I dropped about 40 pounds by my four month anniversary, which was around the same time that I realized staying together wasn’t only hopeless but detrimental to all involved and we separated.

I left the bike behind when I moved into Glendale and through the nasty times of self-recrimination and failure and hatred that followed. Thus it didn’t surprise me when I eventually asked my estranged wife about the bike only to be told flatly that it had been stolen.

About a year later I bought a 1989 GT Timberline and discovered the joys of mountain biking. Other than the occasional bike commute or the rare 50-mile ride down Baja Mexico way or the even rarer one-time “Glendale to Sherman Oaks for a softball game then over Sepulveda Pass to  Sunset Boulevard to PCH and the beach” ride (whew!), I mainly confined my pedalings offroad and wouldn’t truly rediscover my respect for bikes on the streets until 1997 when I totaled my Honda Civic in front of the mayor’s mansion in Hancock Park on my birthday and was forced to ride them again.

From there its been an increase to the steady level of riding I do now.

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Will Campbell arrived in town via the maternity ward at Good Sam Hospital way back in OneNineSixFour and has never stopped calling Los Angeles home. Presently he lives in Silver Lake with his wife Susan, their cat Rocky, dogs Terra and Hazel, and a red-eared slider turtle named Mater. Blogging since 2001, Will's web endeavors extend back to 1995 with, a comprehensive theater site that was well received but ever-short on capital (or a business model). The pinnacle of his online success (which speaks volumes) arrived in 1997, when much to his surprise, a hobby site he'd built called VisuaL.A. was named "best website" in Los Angeles magazine's annual "Best of L.A." issue. He enjoys experiencing (and writing about) pretty much anything creative, explorational and/or adventurous, loves his ebike, is a better tennis player than he is horr golfer, and a lover of all creatures great and small -- emphasis on "all."