Smile Politely

Get To Know ‘Em!: Fred Davidson

Fred Davidson, Professor of Linguistics at the U of I, is one of the pillars of the bicycling community in Champaign-Urbana. If you drop by The Bike Project on Thursday nights, Fred is there rain or shine to lend a helping hand with bicycle repairs. He might even share some sage advice about non-biking matters. He’s also doing his part to shatter the stereotype of fixed-gear riders as ill-tempered emo kids, riding his distinctive green fixie around town and posting regularly on the Fixed Gear Gallery as mrfred.

Over the weekend, Fred shared memories of frenzied bike commuting in L.A. and languid rides to Flatville. He has even more wisdom to share … after the jump.

Smile Politely: What’s your first memory of riding a bike, or how did you get started riding bikes?

Fred Davidson: I vaguely remember having a tricycle as a baby; but my first memory, and this is pretty vivid, is that my dad got me a little 12- or 16-inch bike with training wheels, and I guess I was training on that. I vividly remember the day that he took the training wheels off. He was going up and down the sidewalk holding the saddle, running behind me. I didn’t know it, but he had let go, and I rode all the way up to the Turtons’ house, which was six or eight houses down the street, balancing, and the rest is history. (laughs) … I turned around and he wasn’t there, and then I knew that I could ride a bike. I was probably six or seven; I was pretty young.

SP: Have you ridden bikes consistently since then?

FD: I dropped and picked up, dropped and picked up. Another cool memory is, I guess a couple of bikes later — my first adult-sized bike when I was 12 or so, it was probably like a 24-inch, maybe a small-frame 26-inch, was some garage-sale thing that my parents had picked up. Somebody had painted it silver. I was outside with my dad, and we were going around on the street in Chicago, where I grew up, and I was way out in front of him. A couple of kids came out of an alleyway on foot and started to hassle me like they wanted to jump me or rob me or something. And I said, “What do you want? Leave me alone.”

And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this big, booming voice: “YOU LEAVE MY SON ALONE!” He had ridden up behind me, and he scared them off. I remember that. I was probably 12 when that happened. … I got back into riding in college. Before I went to college, I bought a three-speed Hercules, and I got to be friends with a guy in college who converted his three-speed to a nine-speed using a spring-actuated derailleur and a three-cog cluster that fits onto the spline driver of a Sturmey [-Archer hub]. So, what you would do is, you took your wheel off and you pried the forks apart, and you had this kit that had a very carefully designed set of three cogs that fit onto the driver of a Sturmey hub. And then you fasten this cheapo spring-driven derailleur onto your rear dropout. Then he and I bought skinny tires and drop bars, and we were tooling around town on nine-speeds like they were racing bikes. There were three speeds on the hub and three on the cluster.

[Ed.: Alert reader John Gilpin found the original documentation for this cluster

Then I bought my first good road bike toward the tail end of college, and that was a ten-speed. Then I went to Africa in the Peace Corps and I stopped riding for a while; after I came back I started [back] up. It’s been off and on. And probably the most interesting phase when I rode a lot is when I went to graduate school in Los Angeles, and I commuted in L.A. on a bike, which is pretty dangerous. And this was in the ‘80s, before there was a lot of consciousness about bikes. That was on a Raleigh.

SP: Did you have any run-ins out there?

FD: Yes, I went down twice and hit my head both times. I had my helmet on both times, which probably saved injury. One time, I hit a piece of scrap iron on the road, just a piece of junk. It’s in the house here somewhere, I picked it up. And the other time, I did a panic stop because somebody pulled out of a driveway, and I did an “endo” over the bars. But the first time, I actually bent the fork; that was a pretty serious wreck.

SP: Did you break any bones?

FD: No, I think both times my head would have been hurt if I hadn’t worn my helmet.

SP: So wear your helmets, kids.

FD: Yeah, wear your helmets. There are two kinds of cyclists, those who have gone down and those who will.

SP: So, other than riding in Los Angeles, what’s the silliest thing you’ve ever done on a bike?

FD: Well, three of the four years in undergrad, my buddy and I who built the nine-speeds, we formed a team in a Race Against Cancer. The way we did that, we used a track, and each team would ride continuously, and you had pledges for as many laps as you could complete. And the first two years we won, and the third year, we were third. By that time, I had my road bike, and as luck would have it, I was the last guy out, right as the time was about to be called on the third year, and I got on the bike. Everybody was screaming at me because if I passed the start point before the bell sounded, I would get one free lap. And I made it by like one second, so I got to do the last lap. That was a lot of fun.

SP: Was it like the format in Breaking Away?

FD: No, because in Breaking Away it was a straight-up race to see who wins, and this was how many laps you could complete. So the winner is the team that completes the most laps, and you have pledges. I don’t know if they still do this, but you got your friends to pledge so much per lap; so really the winner is the one who’s raising the most money.

SP: Cool. So, do you want to tell the folks about what bikes you have now, and which one’s your favorite?

FD: I have a fixed-gear bike, a road bike and a commuter. Lately, I’ve been commuting on either the fixed-gear or the commuter. The commuter is a mountain bike that I worked with Scot [McCollum] before he left. You’ve seen that bike, it’s got the hub gear on the back.

SP: Yeah, it’s pretty sweet.

FD: I commute mostly on that and the green fixed gear, anymore. Then, I have the road bike. I don’t need any more bikes.

SP: Just one more, probably.

FD: Yeah, on the fixie board, they say the number of bikes you need is n+1, where n is the number you have now.

SP: How has the bicycling community in Champaign-Urbana evolved since you’ve lived here?

FD: I would say that since I’ve been here — I’ve been back for 18 years — it seems like in the last four or five years or so we’ve [grown] from really only having one group in town, which was Prairie Cycle Club. Now we have four: We’ve got Prairie Cycle Club, CCB, the bike co-op, the Illini 4000 group. So it seems like there are more people coming together into groups. Each group has a different mandate or mission. That seems to have happened in just that last three or four years.

SP: That’s some of the progress that’s been made. What’s an area that needs improvement?

FD: The biggest drawback is that these groups are all heavily dependent on volunteers. As you know at the co-op, because you volunteer there too, we’re in urgent need of paid staff. So there’s some initiatives going on to ask for money. Nicole [Pion, IMC intern] is applying for this sustainability grant. I guess that’s moved along, and we’re going to send that in in 2009. Really, that’s the biggest challenge right now. I think there were always that many riders around, but the demands on coordination have got to the point where it’s really put a strain on volunteers.

SP: I agree. There’s only so much you can do in your spare time. Do you have any big rides planned for 2009?

FD: No, not right now. I’ll just try to stay in the saddle.

SP: How many miles would you say you ride in a week, or a year?

FD: I don’t know. I don’t do a lot. … I try to commute, and then in the warm weather, get out in the country. Keep it active.

SP: What’s your favorite destination for when you get out in the country?

FD: The one that I like to go to for a decent day ride, that’s also kind of poetic, is to ride to Flatville and back, which from my house is 43 or 44 km. I don’t know what that is in miles, I’ve got my computer set to kilometers. And what I like about that ride is that it’s true to its name, because the only hill is when you go over the interstate. (laughs) It’s kind of cool because when you’re pulling up, they’ve got one of the tallest country church steeples in the country, and you see it from miles away. Have you been out there?

SP: I don’t think I’ve made it to Flatville. I’ve ridden to Kickapoo a bunch of times, and I’ve ridden to Thomasboro and Rantoul, but I don’t think I’ve ever ridden northeast.

FD: Basically, if you get to Thomasboro, that’s 2400 N, turn east to county road 800 and then north, and that’s Flatville.

SP: We’ll have to go sometime together.

FD: Sounds good. I try to go out in the cold weather. I’ve got some cold-weather gear here somewhere, buried. Two things: I’d like to plug the co-op and I’d like to plug the fixed-gear gallery, where I’m an active member of the forum under the handle mrfred.

SP: Cool. It’s nice to be able to actually promote the co-op. I was kind of afraid to tell people about it over the summer when we were so slammed.

FD: This time of year, I think it’s safe.

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