I did it for the Freedom

As I sat at my friend Laura Ralph’s house on a fine summer’s garage sale day, she suddenly said to me, “My 72 year old aunt rode when she was young, and she had a bike with wooden rims!”

Well, that got my mind off the ennui of waiting for someone to decide to buy one of the vintage tablecloths I was selling, along with the toys & clothes her boy Peter had outgrown.

“No way, that must have been in the 20’s!” I exclaimed.
“Maybe, I’ll ask. You can talk to her yourself, I have her phone number right here.” Laura said.
So I called Laura’s Aunt Anna, who lives in Santa Cruz by herself in a small apartment in the middle of downtown.
Here’s what Anna Ralph told me in a single phone conversation, with a mirthful, matter-of-fact voice:

I was born in 1933, the first of 5 kids by three different men. My mom was a single mom starting when I was 3 . We moved from rural Hollister to San Francisco. We took Grayhound bus, and with our other luggage an’ all, we had to leave behind my precious blue tricycle.…My mother started a new life up on Bernal Hill…and I kept reminding Mother about the left behind trike but she didn’t even want me on anything that could roll. So I never got around to riding a 2-wheeler”.

Mother re-married, had 3 kids with husband #2, got divorced, then, when I was 15, she married the third guy, had a kid, which I was elected to raise while she and him went to work.

Naturally I moved out, having had a fight w/stepfather #2. My little half-sis got the babysitting job. She was only 12, but I had to escape by going to college (SF State). I never had any kids of my own, because of uterine fibroids.
With all this freedom, I decided to finally get a bike! Guess what color?

So I went to Earnest Ohrt’s, a bike shop on Stanyan Street in San Francisco, across from Oscar Juner’s American Cyclery. There was a beautiful dark blue second- hand bike in the back, with wooden rims, sew-up tires, it was English… a single speed, cost me $ 35…It had been rented by Katherine Hepburn whenever she came to San Francisco ….at least that’s what they said.

My stepfather liked to say: I hear you’re pedalng your ass all over town!”. . .

Men where I worked said “You could buy a car for that!” I said: “I don’t WANT a car…I want a bike…” And I taught myself to ride it in Golden Gate Park.

I rode the bike to work every day at this deadly boring insurance company, on the weekends I would ride further and further across the Golden Gate Bridge, until I could go all the way to San Anselmo, which is a 40 mile round trip…and after a couple years, I needed a real vacation. I wanted to see the missions, so I planned a trip down Hwy 101, the inland route to Los Angeles when I was 19. The year ? 1952

Mother was worried about my safety. So Butch, my half brother (age 12), , was sent along with me to keep an eye on me, and by San Juan Bautista he ran out of steam since his bike was way too big–he was kind of short– so I put him and his sore knees and the big bike on the Salinas train back to SF. Back then you were allowed 100 lbs free luggage, and you just rolled the bike onto the baggage car… It was the Daylight Southern Pacific train.

… …I planned to ride for seven days. Ohrt had warned me to get started at 4 am, finish by 4 pm…I’d ride a few hours, then I would have breakfast, then carry on and snack on an apple, cheese…we didn’t have the fancy water bottles , but I did have a bottle carrier under the frame…

Mr Ohrt was the first American that rode in the Tour de France in 1929 … I asked for a lesson in mtn riding, he took me over to the cliffs in the Presidio, and showed me how to keep my left leg straight down when descending….this came in handy in the San Marcos Pass which is so long…back then, there were very few women on bikes anywhere, let alone on a highway. And you would see women in twos and threes, but I prefer to ride alone. Better to see the scenery that way, and no need to keep an eye on another (unpredictable) rider.

Pat Brown was our governor and they were putting in the freeway then, and they had just painted the yellow lines…just past Paso Robles, I was probably the first person to ride on the brand new surface! Truck drivers who did the drive daily began to realize that I was the same person going along 101, many miles further down the road each day, and they would wave and toot their horn. My trip totaled 200 dollars, staying in motels, and taking the train back home.

I can’t climb standing up, my muscles turn to water and I fall over. There were big hills that I got off and pushed. I’m big…. let’s say 180 lbs… and I’m 5’4”. Not your standard racer.

What happened to the bike after that? Well…it’s not a great ending for a bike. Butch stole it about a year after my big ride and pretended he was Evil Knievel, sailed it over a bonfire but he missed. That scorched the frame and took care of the wooden rims…and generated a bit of a family rift…he was a stubborn kid. He joined Pachuco gangs, got into all sorts of trouble…but became the owner of a succession of companies so, on my yearly Christmas card, I unfailingly reminded him that he owed me a bicycle. Forty years later he sent me 2 checks for 50 dollars to settle up.

In 1960, my husband and I rented bikes to ride Highway One through Big Sur, down the California coast. We took too much luggage  got poison oak, and camped or stayed in friend’s houses…Lime Kiln creek was appealing. There’d been some murders there, but we camped anyway…the ranger gave us a patch of ground next to the bathroom on 4th of July. No sleep that night. The next day, you could hardly see from the fog, we were frozen.

We thawed out riding all day to Morro Bay State Park. We told them we’d pedaled from Big Sur, but the surly ranger didn’t believe us, said there was no room, so we stayed in a motel & went to 2 dreadful Elvis movies. Ugh!.

Did I get any road rage? Yeah, a little…on my first trip down, near SLO someone threw an empty Coke bottle at me, and I saw the flying bottle in time, slowed the bike and it whizzed by my face…coulda killed me. My replacement bike was a $250 French make, with multiple gears, I had to wait a year for it due to shipping strikes. I kept it stored at Ohrt’s shop since there was no room at our apartment, and later, I sold it to pay the rent when a roommate skipped town early. I have never owned a bike since.”

~ by jacquiephelan on December 17, 2007.

3 Responses to “I did it for the Freedom”

  1. Fantastic early California cycling history you’re collecting here! Thank you.

  2. Great tale… thanks for sharing

  3. Wow. Incredible story. That belongs in an oral history project, maybe like the one they’ve been doing for NPR… but with a focus towards bicycling. Thanks for sharing!

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