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Bikes Offer Memories & Modernity in the Brandywine Valley Region

Adobe Stock / Martin Bergsma

Bicycles, which are often some of our oldest and best possessions, provide memories of newly discovered mobility.

Do you remember your first bike—or your favorite bike? For Chester County artist Tim Barr, it was a hand-me-down bicycle. “When I was around 4 or 5—that was in 1961–62—I had a cheap 20-inch bike that my two older brothers learned on. It had a thin, welded gooseneck I snapped off doing a large jump,” Barr says. “The stem struck me in the chin. I landed on the hard macadam with the broken-off handlebars still in my grasp. My dad welded the bars back on, and soon my little brother learned to ride on the same bike.”

Centreville, Delaware, wine merchant Linda Collier was a youngster in a world of bikes. “We had so many bikes growing up I can’t really remember all of them,” she says. “We lived down the Cape [Cod], and at the end of every summer, they sold off all the rental bikes, so we’d all get a new one each year that way.”

Living his teen years in Europe, former Chaddsford Winery owner and winemaker Eric Miller didn’t really do much biking until he pedaled to and from his first winemaking job along Lake Erie. “I think the bike that got me into biking was the one I bought in Fredonia, New York, after we moved there,” he says. “It was a Raleigh—same brand my father once had. Like with American cars, I wasn’t a fan of American-made bikes. It was wonderfully flat along Lake Erie and below the grape-belt-defining escarpment. We lived in that wonderful slice of Ozzie and Harriet America that was totally alien to me.”

If you think about it, it’s memories of life in our younger years that tether us to lots of things vintage and antique—bikes, cars, vinyl records, sporting gear, watches, books, whatever. Memories keep these objects fresh in our minds, often beckoning us to repurchase them (or something like them) for ourselves or for children and grandchildren.

Craig and Mindy Morrow understand this urge in us. They own Bicycle Heaven in Pittsburgh. Billed as the world’s largest bicycle museum and shop, it displays, sells and services all sorts of bikes—6,000 all under the same roof. Vintage bikes from their collection have played prominent roles in movies, borrowed for A Beautiful Mind, Super 8, Fathers & Daughters, Fences and other films.

One particularly fascinating model in the museum is the Bowden Spacelander, British-made and first introduced in 1946. With the first fiberglass frame, it’s one of the most sought-after bicycles. “There are only 30 or so to be found—and we have 17 of them,” says Craig Morrow. “Right now, the BMX bikes from the late ’70s and early ’80s are bringing $3,000 and $4,000, while 10 years ago it was about $1,000.

vintage bicycle

Adobe Stock / Martin Bergsma

Balloon-tire bikes are still popular—but not as much as the muscle bikes from the 1960s that were popular with kids who wanted to do wheelies and other acrobatic stunts. “Muscle bikes and banana seat bikes are very big,” Morrow says.

Collier vividly recalls her own experience with a banana bike. “When we were being transferred to Holland in 1973, I knew everyone rode a bike there, so I bought a pink one with a banana seat, streamers out the handlebars and a basket on the front,” she says. “It had three speeds, and I thought it was cool and fun. When I arrived, everyone laughed at it. They had black, very practical bikes with no speeds, and theirs would last for years and years. I did use it all the years I was there and took my kids to school on it, one on the front and one on the back. They were little, and school was only a few blocks away.”

Collier left that bike in Holland and purchased a more serviceable one to ride from her Wilmington home to work. “Then I bought my little red scooter, which makes getting up the Winterthur hill ever so much easier.”

Getting up hills was also a problem for Barr in his admittedly rambunctious early days. “In 1973, when I was only 16, I borrowed my friend’s Schwinn Continental 10-speed for a long, 60-mile trip to Camp Hill from Hamburg,” he remembers. “I had to see a girlfriend and had no car, so off I went. I took the back way there and rode home on the interstate the next day.”

One particularly fascinating model is the Bowden Spacelander, British-made and first introduced in 1946. With the first fiberglass frame, it’s one of the most sought-after bicycles.

Barr admits that he didn’t have a clue what he was getting himself into. “Both thighs cramped severely when I got to the top of the ‘hill’ that is Camp Hill,” he says. “I bought my own 10-speed after that and rode it all through college, when I was without a car. I rode it to Allentown and back to see an outdoor concert in 1974. I ended up coming home in the dark without a light.”

The ultra-rare Bowden Spacelander

The ultra-rare Bowden Spacelander. Courtesy Bicycle Heaven.

Bicycles, like all things modern, have gotten more complex. According to the Lemon Bin Vehicle Guides, there are now at least 11 different categories—road bikes, mountain bikes, touring bikes, folding bikes, fixed gear/track bikes, BMX bikes, recumbent bikes, cruisers, hybrids, cyclocross bikes and electric bikes.

I remember in the 1950s learning to ride on a 26-inch, adult-size balloon-tire bike with no gears. It was made up of various borrowed or stolen parts, and when the sprocket chain slipped or broke, it often delivered a painful personal blow. So for the next few years, I rode a girls’ bike without a cross bar. It elicited some taunts from friends, but it proved great for fast cornering in bike races—and it was a much less painful way to get around.

Related: Of Landscapes and Bike Shops