The bicycle is a chameleonic item: a bike can be a hobby for a rich man, or a necessity for a poor one, and its basic design will look about the same. A bike can be a demure conveyer of sedately paced beach rides, and an aggressive ascender of ramps that sends to dizzying speeds and heights (and the occasional hospital gurney). It is the vehicle at the center of green living and the slow growth movement, and generally a good place from which to broadcast one’s idealism. But the bicycle equally serves the pragmatist who tires of paying high gas prices, or simply prefers to do his exercising outside the gym. Regardless of where you stand, a versatile item like a bicycle deserves a versatile city, and Benicia, a city with a waterfront, a skate park, a bridge, and some powerfully steep hills does a fine job of accommodating—and challenging—a wide swath of riders.
Recently, the town’s reverence for bicycling and “smart growth” development had a screeching collision with the downtown’s celebrated old timey feel when the city installed black hoop racks along First Street. These egregious, if useful, products will be relocated to schoolyard settings, where the premium on historical cohesion is a little more lax.
But this minor kafuffle doesn’t undermine sincere efforts on the City’s part to make the town more bike friendly. Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, an avid cyclist, says, “Bicycle safety has long been part of our general plan. We’ve come a long way with bike lanes and other projects. Back in the 1990’s, a huge number of concerned citizens lobbied BCDC for a bike lane on the Benicia-Martinez Bridge. Since completion of the bike lane, bike traffic in the state park has increased significantly.” Patterson would like to see funds from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, as part of the Intermodal Train Station project, used to in a “major education program” to increase the level of awareness for safe cycling. She would also like to see more kids encouraged to bike to school. “One way to see a breakthrough in kids riding their bikes is to help parents find a comfort level with bike safety, particularly parents who don’t ride themselves.”
And not all the good biking occurs on regular roads. The state park offers a wonderfully smooth ride for both beginning riders and speed demons. Further, the whole provenance of the park has been expanded since the path paralleling the onramp connected the park’s middle to Rose Drive, thus segueing two once distinct neighborhoods.
Rose Drive might be a little steep for the novice, but it and other pronouncedly vertiginous hills of Southampton have tidy bike lanes and those who can climb them are rewarded with calves that look like they’re smuggling bricks. Of course, many don’t always want to go in for this torture, and their wishes have been accommodated by modern technology.
The Bakers, a family living in Southampton, boast a garage with a variety of bikes. Joey Baker, consultant and mother of two, conventionally rides for fun and errands (including taking her son to school on a tandem bike), but as an active resident of Southampton, she’s smitten with her Pedego Electric Bike. “There’s no place in Benicia you can’t go on this bike…it’s pure genius.” The bike can reach speeds of twenty mph purely on the strength of its battery, allowing riders to ascend steep hills and travel large jaunts without breaking a sweat, or eliciting snickers from kids on the school bus. Ms. Baker’s not the only member of her family with a reverence for variations on the bicycle. Her husband rides a unicycle for exercise in their cul-de-Sac and suits up like a power ranger for the daily commute to Alameda he makes on his Ducati Motorcycle.
But biking isn’t purely a physical activity; it’s a practice, and the classic bike design offers much for the mechanically minded to work with, and still honors and accommodates the amateur tinker and the true independent craftsmen, and there’s a growing specialty market to keep this passion financially afloat. Ed Brennan custom produces bikes under the Farnsworth brand name, a nickname assigned by a family member to make light of his “reserved personality…which seemed English [to the family member].” Mr. Brennan is well- spoken and cordial, but it’s hard to imagine him breaking out into a rendition of “Make ‘em laugh.” And the products of his patience and orderliness are proudly displayed all over his workshop in the Lincoln Street building he fittingly shares with artists and architects.
Mr. Brennan works with Italian suppliers, uses steel tubing rather than carbon fiber, and makes vehicles that emphasize their metallic roots, sometimes in humorous ways: one of his custom built pieces is called Spare Change and has quarters and nickels rounding off the bolts around the fork crown. He also specializes in Investment Cast Lugs that join the tubes together in an aesthetically pleasing manner. He catches up with other enthusiasts and shows off his work at the rotating North American Handmade Bicycle Show. But his prototypes aren’t museum pieces. Mr. Brennan makes occasional rides to Walnut Creek for work.
Speaking of biking to Walnut Creek—and beyond—May 12th is National Bike to Work Day, and a great occasion to take that bike in the garage on a maiden voyage across either of our bridges.
For those looking to blow off some steam post-work, there’s the X Park. The park may lie near an elementary school, but its fiercely high ramps and dizzying transitions don’t exactly court the patronage of the novice riders. In fact, the X Park is technically only open to bikes on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for bicycle-only sessions. Nevertheless, the park has a reputation among the BMX community, and the owner of STFBMX in Martinez occasionally brings out crews who ride for Volume, S&M Bikes, or other reputable brands to ride the ramps and commit their moves to film.
The new park differs dramatically from the old, which was basically a series of cement Twinkies arranged around a parking lot. While it’s heartening to know how much community support went into creating the X Park (commemorated 2007), there’re plenty of folks of my generation who feel a pang of loss every time they think of the old park.
One of these is my friend Johnny Higgins, who as a young lad bucked the mountain bike frenzy that overtook his elementary school peers and calmly requested a BMX for his birthday present (he keeps the ‘78 Diamond Back frame mounted in his garage). Now the father of a two-year-old daughter (and nimble tricyclist), he remembers the glory days of BMXs, when crews from Vallejo would “ride in by the herd, 15-20 guys bombing toward the skate park in one big group…Occasionally you’d be sitting there watching one of them and suddenly someone would yell ‘train!’ and the whole crew would take loops around the park riding right next to each other.” He’s since become unmoored from the BMX community, and regards his bike purely as a hobby that keeps him healthy.
And that, commuting aside, is the beauty of biking. In a world trying to cram as many activities as it can into a smart phone, the bicycle is a resistant party that requires you to be there, be alert and pedal—at least until the battery kicks in. And it’s a healthy town that bikes a lot.