Life Cycles: Time has never been better for cycling
About 30 years ago, Lewis O'Kelly started riding his bike to work.
By car, it took 15 minutes, he spent another 15 minutes finding a parking space and then needed 10 more minutes to walk from his car to Manning Hall at the University of Memphis, where he taught physics for 34 years.
The entire affair took 15 minutes on the bike. "I've been near-frozen and almost drowned. I've done the trip when it was 10 degrees. It got easier over time, but the problem was I kept getting older." Now 76, O'Kelly doesn't ride anymore. He had one knee replaced years ago, and the other one continues to give him problems. Though he no longer spends time on the bike, O'Kelly remains a passionate cyclist.
His love of cycling in Memphis grew after joining the Memphis Hightailers in 1983. He started riding as many as 50 miles a week. He rode everywhere on a bike, and spent his free time on the weekends riding with the Hightailers.
"It's nothing to get from East Memphis to Downtown on a bicycle," he says. He and the Hightailers would ride a still frequently used "East-West Passage" from Audubon Park to the river. "We rode in Raleigh and Frayser, and even had a route down McLemore all the way to Martin Luther King Jr. Park."
Riding bicycles is as much about socializing and building relationships as it is working out and burning calories. O'Kelly remembers that his friend Charles Finney encouraged him to stay in the saddle. "Charlie would ride by my house at 6 a.m. and whistle just to make me feel guilty for lying there."
Finney, who I knew as "Mr. Bicycle" during my early days as a Memphis bicycle mechanic, founded the Memphis Hightailers in 1963. Finney has been cycling since at least 1938, when he was hired to work as a delivery man for Western Union. He was riding his bike everywhere anyway, so why not get paid for it? After starting a family, Finney put the bike away for awhile, only to find his love for cycling was rekindled after a ride to Sardis Lake with his son in the 1950s.
When Finney founded The Memphis Hightailers Bicycle Club, it was a resource for bicyclists. In the 1960s, only one bicycle shop was operating in Memphis and riders had to help one another plan routes, find equipment and complete repairs. The foam bicycle helmet common to our time had not even been invented.
O'Kelly and Finney are in the company of more than a century of bicycle commuters. While bicycling is nothing new in Memphis, today more Memphians are looking to the bike as they look away from the gas pump.
The gas crisis actually offers Memphians an opportunity. O'Kelly and Finney fell in love with riding when bikes were heavy and a comfort bike was an oxymoron. Today, the equipment is better than ever, we have actual helmets, and in Memphis it is possible to take back roads almost everywhere.
In fact, though Memphians have been bicycling for decades, the time has never been better to be on a bike.
Memphian Anthony Siracusa is a student at Rhodes College, a member of Memphis' Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee, executive director of Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop and a daily cycling commuter. Contact him at revolutionsmemphis.com.