Candy apple red with chrome-plated fenders, a white leather seat with a tool kit hung off the back, white handlebar grips, a chrome-plated tire pump clipped under the crossbar, a Sturmey-Archer three-speed transmission, hand brakes and skinny tires. That was my graduation gift from the eighth grade at School 77 – a Raleigh English Racer!
Looking back, how my parents could afford to buy that bike I have no idea, but I was sure glad they did because I loved it.
I rode that bike all over the West Side of Buffalo, to the zoo, to Ted’s Hot Dog stand under the Peace Bridge, down Policeman’s Hill, near Front Park, at what seemed like 100 mph (and lived to tell about it), to the Reese Street swimming pool near the State Hospital on Forest Avenue.
Across from the pool there was a tiny food stand that sold the best french fries I have ever tasted. Served in a paper cone with a couple squirts of vinegar and a little extra salt, they were pure heaven!
For a few weeks one summer I was even charged with getting my younger brother to summer school at Lafayette High School. He would ride on the crossbar, watching for cops and complaining all the way about how uncomfortable he was. Wrapping the bar with a bath towel and some friction tape didn’t seem to do much good. I think he probably still has the groove across his butt to prove it!
Those were the days when you used to register your bike at the neighborhood police station. Precinct 5 on West Delavan near Grant Street was where I signed up and got the miniature version of a standard automobile license plate. A metal plate in the same color combination as regular car plates, it had a slot on each side to accommodate a metal band with a tamper-proof closure that you attached to your bike, either to the frame or through the spokes of a wheel. I put mine on the frame so it wouldn’t interfere with the playing card that was strategically positioned to flap against the spokes and create a sound that, I was certain, sounded exactly like a Harley.
Most of my friends had bikes, but none like mine. The “commoners” I hung around with had hand-me-downs or fixer-uppers that just provided basic transportation – grubby things, usually with no fenders, only one speed, coaster brakes and fat, generally bald, tires.
On our excursions I would fly like the wind, gearing up and down as conditions warranted, ready for any eventuality with my trusty tool kit and tire pump. And then I’d have to stop and wait as they trundled along catching up. While I waited I would take out my hankie and polish my chrome fenders and wipe down my candy apple red frame. The guys loved this!
One fine day my buddy Bill irrationally challenged me to a race. He on his contraption against me on my English Racer. Really? 15th Street was the venue, between Vermont and Rhode Island. We were neck and neck as we passed in front of Our Lady of Loretto Church, but I was still in second gear. Shifting to third I steadily pulled away and as we approached Rhode Island Street, I looked back over my shoulder to see how big of a lead I had.
When I woke up I was under the front of a 1951 Ford with a leaky radiator and my candy apple red English Racer was a mangled wreck. Bill won!