The Pleasure of Bicycling throughout Newton During the Early 1950s: In September 1952, a few of my bike-riding buddies and I were about to start 8th grade at the old Weeks Junior High School in Newton Center. It was a time much different from today. We felt safe biking on almost any street or sidewalk in Newton, and motorists had far more patience with cyclists than they do now. Bicycles were used almost exclusively by kids, and most drivers also had kids who rode bikes. Just about all parents in my neighborhood let their kids ride without adult supervision, and those that didn’t were considered a bit odd. We avoided major roadways because we had a network of side roads throughout Newton before the Mass Pike wiped most of them out.
Two unrelated developments were radically transforming how fast and how far we could go on a bicycle. The first was the introduction of improved lightweight Raleigh 3-Speed bicycles from England. These were dramatic upgrades from the Schwinn balloon-tire models that were popular immediately after World War II. We purchased ours with money from summer lawn mowing and house painting. The second crucial development was the opening of Route 128, one of the state’s first fully divided highways.
The Pure Joy of Biking on the New Route 128: The day before school opened, we made a spur-of-the-moment decision to sneak our Raleighs onto the new highway. We made certain there were no cop cars anywhere in sight, and we headed north.
The road was wide and open, and the surface was smoother than anything we had ever ridden on before. Picture it like a gigantic version of today’s bicycle paths where cars and bikes mixed nicely with complete deference to one another. Our bikes hit full throttle and I felt a rush of adrenalin and a sense of total freedom that was indescribably empowering. Our goal was to reach the top of Bear Hill in Waltham, and we got there in less than half the time we thought it would take. On the way back, we raced even harder and were quite giddy when we reached the turnoff to Route 9 and home. We liked school and we liked school sports, but not nearly as much as we loved the freedom of experiencing all of this in a single day. It was the first time I felt anything close to a spiritual experience in life, and I immediately wanted more of it.
We were avid butterfly collectors, birders, campers, and hikers. Our Raleigh 3 speeds allowed us to reach places we knew nothing about just a month earlier. The following year, we organized overnight camping trips and a year later, three of us embarked on a two-week bicycle trip to Mount Monadnock. We carried a banged up portable radio in those days before rock and roll to listen to classical music on CBC Toronto, but more to country and Appalachian folk musicians who came through late at night from WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia.
A Fearless Start to Summertime Racing: During the following winter doldrums, we began thinking about starting a summertime racing program on Route 128. There were times I thought we were nuts to even think about doing this, but one mild Saturday morning in mid-February we tested an 8-mile course from Newton to the top of Prospect Hill in Waltham. Everything clicked nicely. Over the next two summers we drew kids from Newton and beyond for weekend late-afternoon races. We peddled without helmets or other types of protective gear and knew nothing about head injuries or basic rules of the road. The pressure to sluff off safety concerns and increase our speed intensified with each outing or race. We imagined that we were fearless and totally invincible.
A Humbling End to Our Illusion of Invincibility: Near the end of August in the second summer, a swift reckoning for our foolhardiness came hard and fast. I was racing at top speed down the steep incline of Prospect Hill Park Road with eight cyclists bunched closely behind. I hit a giant pothole just as we entered a side street that led to Routes 117 and 20. My front wheel collapsed, jettisoning me over the handlebars and onto the street, where I was immediately hit by the first three bicycles behind me. A few seconds later, four of the five other racers crashed into us. I was able to look up briefly to see that we were all sprawled on the hard road surface.
I was banged up far more than the others and it would take six painful stitches to fix the damage; but our immediate concern was explaining this mess to our parents. They knew we were out biking, but they had no idea we were racing on 128 or that we had been doing so for more than a year. I told my folks only that it was a “freak accident” when we called for help in getting home. Much to my relief, they accepted our story without too many questions, but I began to feel a sense of deep guilt about how this incident could have threatened the trust they placed in me and in my judgment.
Clear, Timeless and Compelling Memories: The crash put an end to our racing days, but we were close to turning 16 and thoughts of getting driving licenses, dating girls, and travelling to even more distant places had become all-consuming obsessions. We thought that cars would give us even greater thrills than Raleigh 3-Speeds, but they never really did. Memories of those two years have remained the clearest and most compelling for all of us over the decades as we keep recalling the lure of open and unexplored roadways, how we became self-starters who organized all details of our trips and races, and the way we bonded as close friends who never had a serious argument.
The Present: On a recent weekday, I was traveling north on Route 128 looking over at a 20-mile backup of bumper-to-bumper traffic inching south from Wakefield to Route 9. At least two-thirds of those vehicles contained just one passenger each, and it was pretty apparent that the stress of long work commutes and scattered family obligations left most of those folks with no other real choice. I could not help thinking that almost 65 years earlier, my friends and I had biked home from Lowell along that same route around midnight in a torrential summer “Northeaster.”
A day or so later, I was driving on Walnut Street in Newton, giving wide berth to just 8 courageous individuals who were cycling to work. These two examples – a huge snake of a traffic jam and just a few dedicated cyclists – sum up the unfortunate imbalance between motor vehicles and other forms of transportation that has become the norm since World War II. In the 1950s, Route 128 was a highway of boundless freedom when we hit it with our Raleigh 3-Speeds. It’s anything but that now for those who must commute on it daily. The same is true for almost all of the main commuting routes around and through Newton.
Village 14 has presented a robust and often contentious set of discussions about these and other serious transportation and development related challenges. I have some thoughts from my past professional experiences that I’d like to share in the coming weeks and months. I hope others will also share from their experiences as well.