On a Bicycle Built for One

Bopping around the internet not too long ago, I came across the story of Tom Justice, a talented cyclist who specialized in the 1,000-meter sprint and was good enough to be selected for the U.S. Olympic Training Camp as a teenager. Justice never made the Olympic team – he apparently didn’t put in enough training as a collegiate cyclist to become a world-class contender – but he did find another use for his bicycle after college.

He used it as a getaway vehicle after robbing banks.

Justice (and what a name for a bank robber, yes?) rode a custom-built orange Steelman race bike that he’d bought secondhand. It was a rare bicycle, with only about 50 produced a year. It was also the perfect vehicle for sprinting away after making a haul. Justice became a world-class bank robber, successfully hitting 25 banks in California, Illinois and Wisconsin between 1998 and 2002 before finally getting caught.

At first he did it just to prove he was good enough to do it. He reportedly would give away most of the money he stole, usually by leaving bags of cash in alleys or port-a-potties for homeless people to find. But later, he kept the cash to support a growing drug habit.

I share this story because if I were ever to admire a bank robber, it would be Tom Justice. Not because he gave away most of the money early on, though I guess that’s cool in a Robin Hood sort of way. But because he used a bicycle to sprint away from the scene of the crime.

Being an avid cyclist myself – and witnessing firsthand how fast some folks can ride, and how expert they are at navigating corners and darting through traffic – I can’t help but admire his bike skills.

Twenty-five successful robberies! On a bicycle!

Give that man a gold medal – and a cell block!

***

Sometime in 1991, 30 years ago, I decided to go out and buy a bicycle. I didn’t have much in the way of personal belongings at the time, or much money. I owned a car – these were the teal Dodge Shadow years, as I recall – but not much else. I didn’t own a bicycle, and hadn’t since college.

So, I decided to go out and buy one. There was a little bike shop close to the one-bedroom duplex apartment I rented on the grittier side of an urban neighborhood in Charlotte that was still a few years away from gentrification. I bought a secondhand Trek for a hundred bucks or so. I probably hadn’t ridden a bike in close to 10 years, but you know what they say about riding bikes….

I bought it because I decided it was time to get some regular exercise. At the time, my main exercise came at a weekly basketball game at a junior high school gym, along with the occasional tennis match when I could round up an opponent. I had grown sick of basketball by then, and wanted a sport I could do on my own, on my own schedule.

A bike sounded like a good idea. It’s the kind of exercise you could do sitting down. You could do it alone, so there’s no need to round up anyone else. You didn’t have to pay a membership fee. You didn’t need to wait in line for a court or exercise machine or swimming lane to open up. You just hopped on and rode. I wasn’t sure at the time how long I’d keep at it. I just knew it was time to get on a different exercise regimen, so I gave it a try.

Three decades later, I still ride almost every day. I don’t have the Trek anymore, which is too bad. It was maybe the best bike I’ve ever had. It was lightweight and quick, letting me whiz past 90 percent of the bikers out there. But it got stolen in Los Angeles. I believe a couple of other bikes have been swiped since then.

I have two bikes now, a pair of city hybrids. One is a Jamis I bought in New York 16 years ago for less than $300. The other is a Specialized I bought in Charlotte about five years ago for nearly $800. Neither will win any awards for beauty or speed. Nowadays, I get passed by 90 percent of the bikers out there. But the two bicycles are solidly built, and can take the physical pounding that comes with pedaling down pockmarked streets and broken asphalt. We shipped them over to London when we moved here from the U.S.

Cycling has become the regular exercise routine I set out for in 1991. I ride maybe 50 or 60 miles a week, five or six days a week. I don’t own any biking apparel. I toss on a faded old shirt, some sweatpants or athletic shorts, a pair of sneakers, my helmet, a zip-up athletic jacket during the cold months, and pedal on my way.

I taught our two daughters how to ride, and occasionally I will take them for a spin just to make sure they remember how. And they do, because you know what they say about riding a bike….

I ride through city streets, with lots of twisting, turning, stoplights and traffic jams, where I occasionally am forced onto the sidewalk. I’m not piling up the miles the way you might out in the country. But I bike regularly and religiously, in the cold and rain if need be, because I hate to miss a scheduled ride. I can’t imagine life without it.

There is something liberating about being on a bicycle. It’s just you and the bike and the road ahead. It’s good exercise, good cardio, helps you break a good sweat. It releases those endorphins. You do it all by your lonesome, away from distractions.

Biking in the city is my preferred method. I’d probably get bored riding down long country roads, or on mountain bike trails. In the city you see things – tall buildings, condemned warehouses, drunks, pretty homes and cheap tenements, pubs, strip malls, auto repair shops, cafes, pool halls, famous landmarks, libraries and porno shops, steakhouses, fried chicken joints. You ride past folks out working; noise being made; people yelling; dogs barking.

When you need a break from all that you can find a nice quiet park to pedal through.

Here in London you can bike along the River Thames for decent stretches at a time, giving you a good vantage point of many famous sites. In a single ride I might pedal over the Tower Bridge and wind through or past the Tower Castle, the Shard, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square and Chinatown. I never imagined in 1991 that biking would one day take me past all that.

Back in Charlotte I used to take regular rides through downtown (sorry, uptown), past the NFL stadium, tall bank buildings and fab baseball park, along the light rail trail, and then back through leafy neighborhoods.

In Los Angeles I would mostly pedal right down the beach paths, as far north as Pacific Palisades and as far south as Hermosa Beach. It’s a decent haul – 20-plus miles – often against a strong wind, with the wide blue Pacific spraying your face. But sometimes I would forego the beach and pedal through Venice just to see a little urban grit, or what qualifies as urban grit in sunny La-La Land.

When we lived in New York City I had a regular route from our apartment on East 44th Street:

  • North on 3rd Avenue until around 72nd Street
  • West toward Central Park
  • North through Central Park until it empties out at 110th Street.
  • Further north through Harlem until around 125th Street, then a U-turn.
  • South along Central Park West
  • West on 79th Street to the Hudson River.
  • South along the Hudson River bike path to the Southern tip of Manhattan, near Battery Park City.

At this point I would take a break and gaze out at New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty before winding my way back north through Greenwich Village and other neighborhoods. I’m not even sure how many total miles it was. Maybe 25 or so, depending on how much I zigged and zagged heading home, all in big, loud, dense, crowded Gotham City.

This is what a bike adds to your life. Not just exercise, but experiences, knowledge, a 3D visual in and around neighborhoods you might never wander through otherwise.

I’ll be an old man in not too many years, at least according to the people who chart such things. But I won’t ever feel old on a bicycle. That’s why I plan to keep riding and riding and riding, all the way to the end.

And if I ever find myself short of cash?

I could always park it outside a bank during a heist.

But it will probably get stolen before I make my getaway.

2 Comments

  1. It’s great that it’s stuck with you all these years. For me, running has become a staple. I inherited it from my father, and after about 15 years of being fairly inconsistent, I’m regular again.

    I never learnt to ride a bike. Started, but never got beyond training wheels and quit. My balance was horrible… though I did go through a skateboarding phase too.

    My wife also can’t ride, interestingly…so we’re a perfect match 🙃. The kids can, though – but it’s an expensive hobby, and they’re drifting away from it now. But it sounds like a great skill to have, so maybe they’ll return to it someday.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t realize you were a runner. Good for you! My wife is a regular runner/jogger now. It’s something I’ve never been too keen on, so biking is the perfect exercise. The main expense with biking is the original purchase, but you’d be surprised how many good and inexpensive secondhand bikes there are. You can find them for less than $150, which I guess is about 2,300 South African rands (I checked the conversion). After that it’s just a matter of maintaining and repairing them, which many cyclists do on their own (but not me, though I keep telling myself I’ll learn).

      Liked by 1 person

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