“On April 30, 1993, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) put the web into the public domain a decision that has fundamentally altered the past quarter-century” (GROSSMAN). Although many of our pastime activities included electronic entertainment and movies, the 1980s offered kids a multitude of recreational distractions that may be less relatable to today’s youth. Whether timeless or lost to time, this ongoing series is dedicated to the 1980s activities in which we engaged.
When I think back to the many things I used to do as a kid, nothing is quite as pervasive in my memory as the simple, yet infinitely customizable, act of riding bikes. While this is certainly one of the aforementioned "timeless activities" (a thing kids of today enjoy as much as kids of the ‘80s), there’s also something indelibly retro about it. There’s a reason why new movies and television shows intent on recreating an '80s aesthetic will invariably use children on bikes in their marketing and plots. Just look at Stranger Things and Summer of 84. They both heavily feature kids riding bikes.
Why, when riding bikes is something kids have done before and since, do we so often relate the activity to kids of the ‘80s? Certainly, from an anecdotal perspective, I spent a huge swatch of time astride my trusty BMX. (At least, I think it was a BMX. Unfortunately I could only find this partial photo of my old bike).
My brother and I, often joined by our friends, would ride around Bensonhurst and Bath Beach in Brooklyn. We’d head to the park, 86th street, and over the foot bridge to Shore Parkway. There was this little patch of grass and undergrowth next to the highway, under the footbridge, where we’d sometimes hide out. It was like our own little slice of wilderness. The closest thing Brooklyn kids would ever come to having a tree house. Of course, after a scary encounter with a homeless man who had taken up residence, we never returned.
But we had plenty of other places to explore, and that’s what those bike rides were for. Exploration of our urban playground. The video store, the comic shop, chasing down the ice cream truck, finding new arcades: these future topics of “Before the Internet” were all facilitated by our bicycles, and thus made riding bikes the perfect starting point for this series.
Beyond my own personal experience with bikes, their seems to be further proof of the inexorable connection to the ‘80s in popular cinema of the time. Movies like E.T. would form unbreakable bonds through iconic imagery seared into the cultural zeitgeist of the decade. And it’s far from the only one. Goonies, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Rad, and so many more left their mark.
Does that mean bicycles aren’t as important to the youth of today? Of course not. And really, I’m not sure any of this is actual proof of connection. Perhaps this has and always will be some subjective and elusive thing that we’ll never (especially as adults) understand. Riding our bikes went beyond simple conveyance. Beyond pop culture and exploration. The act of mounting your bike and heading into the unknown was akin to the discovery of fire, because undoubtedly something inside our childhood selves was set ablaze with wonder.
We never did know where our bikes might take us. What new things we might discover. What new friends we might make. And that was the real magic.
What’s your best bicycle-related memory?