Bicycle: Bridge to the future

DOWNEY – The classic 1969 film, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” includes a whimsical scene in which the late Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy—leader of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, professional train robbers—shows off his bicycle skills to the female lead.  A playful bike scene in an old-fashioned Western, it seems utterly incongruous, especially considering the plot’s fatefully downward trajectory and tragic, though unseen, ending. But in fact, critics have described the entire movie as a reversal of the traditional “Western” genre.  Rather, the film is seen as a symbolic metaphor for the end of an era, both in the lives of the movie’s protagonists, and in the icons of a culture whose preeminence is waning.  At the end of the scene, Butch wrecks the bike, wisecracking, “the future’s all yours, you lousy bicycle.”  In another scene, a bicycle salesman declares, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls . . . meet . . . the future!”

The bicycle portrayed in “Butch Cassidy” is an historically accurate chain-driven front-steering two-wheeler, also called a “safety bicycle,” by contrast to the dangerous high-wheeler (also called “penny-farthing”) which immediately preceded it in the evolution of bicycle design.

Today, the bicycle—not that much different from its 19th-century progenitor—can also be seen as a symbol of hope and transition out of a declining era.

Three current societal problems point to the bicycle’s potential. An example of one such problem is a broadcast series that debuted last Friday on KNX News Radio, titled “Driven to Gridlock,” which explores the increasing traffic difficulties confronting the greater Los Angeles area.  A second related issue—climate change due to fossil fuels—was the subject of a high-profile New York Times editorial last Monday.  Personal health, especially obesity, is another widespread problem throughout the entire U.S., including here at home in Downey.  Once again, the bicycle may be seen to symbolize the potential for change and progress.

The City of Downey has in fact embraced the promise of healthy living, as enhanced by the bicycle, in a number of ways.  One of them is evidenced by the Downey Police Department’s just ended series of bicycling guidelines, which appeared in The Downey Patriot over the past several weeks.  Downey City Council, the Downey Unified School District, and the City’s Healthy Downey Partnership have all begun to promote bicycling in town, and not to mention the support for bicycling through a number of service projects sponsored by the Kiwanis Club.

These incipient trends are the reason why this writer will be inaugurating a monthly column on bicycling in upcoming issues, including some history, some philosophy, some editorial opinion, and the personal stories of some local bicyclists.  Stay tuned.



Published: April 3, 2014 - Volume 12 - Issue 51