How the Bike Became My Politics

Charlie at the 2012 Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place conference in Long Beach. Image by Allan Crawford.

Charlie at the 2012 Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place conference in Long Beach. Image by Allan Crawford.

By age 55, if you've learned to ride a bike and have lived adventurously, you have stories to tell.

My bike story is a constant thread in my life and continues to this day. It's filled with tales of youthful insights, near misses, love, courage, cowardice, and crashes.

Along the way I learned how I could influence events of the day using personal, positional and political power.  (And I learned how quickly alliteration irritates.)

My bike adventures took me from suburban neighborhood exploration as a child to riding across Europe and other parts of the planet as an adult. These adventures strengthened my spine emotionally enough to hazard into Texas politics as a college student resulting in running and winning a place in the Texas House of Representatives at 23. I discovered that politics was just like riding a bike into an unknown place. Exotic and exciting. In that world I would be an elected official, a staff member for the governor, a lobbyist, a fundraiser for environmental causes, and finally a biking and walking advocate.

When I took up the idea of championing bike advocacy initially I thought it would be a relatively easy campaign for Texas. How long could it take to put down paint for bike lanes? Ah youthful optimism and ignorance!

Instead bike advocacy became my career,  taking me from the founding of the Texas Bicycle Coalition (now Bike Texas) run now by my dear friend Robin Stallings, to the national level developing and teaching biking and walking advocacy training programs for National Association for Biking & Walking across the U.S., working closely with my friend Andy Clarke now the President of the League of American Bicyclists (who was kind enough to allow me the Western half of the U.S. while he focused on the East. I still feel a little guilty my halfincluded Hawaii), and finally becoming an independent consultant with my own company Livable Communities Inc.

For the past five years I've had the pleasure of living in my dream state of California. Here I've been able to work closely from both the city level (as I've done with the City of Long Beach and others), and the state level (as I've done as a board member of the California Bicycle Coalition.) From both the micro and macro level I've focused on the strategy, tools, tactics and team building needed to help create a great active living state - something that is possible for each and every state in this great country.

My bike adventures have taught me to face life as it unfolds. That the best plan is robust preparation for what is known and zen like flexibility for what is unknown. Here are the experiences that shaped that opinion.

Chapter One: Earnest Adventurer

I committed my first felony at age five in Euless, Texas in 1963. I was part of a lawless gang of three "community organizers" who thought it would be a good idea to collect our neighbors' mail and newspapers each afternoon on our street. Why? I'm not sure. Granted I was the oldest and therefore it must of been my idea. After all my brother Mike was four and my sister Cindy was two. As accomplices they followed my lead and helped to pull the wagon and do our rounds for about a week.

On Saturday my father opened his garage sanctuary and discovered a large box filled with newspapers and his neighbor's mail. After mom helped us with the sorting job we re-stacked the wagon and did our rounds returning the "miss-sorted and unopened" mail to our neighbors personally with mom and dad on the curb listening to their children's first mea culpas.

Lesson learned: Run your best ideas passed management first before execution. They may see some good reasons for doing something else.

Thankfully the statute of limitations passed without incident and we put all that behind us. Lawless gangs and community organizing, however, was another matter.

By age eight our family had moved to a new neighborhood, with new houses on the edge of suburban sprawl. With our father as teacher, my brother and I learned to ride on two big, heavy, old steel bikes with coaster brakes. This new found mobile capability enlarged our curiosity of the world beyond our established one block range limitations. Negotiations with our parents broadened the limitations to about a four block range of quiet residential streets. Free Range = Freedom! Autonomy Rules! We had access to friend's houses, creeks with fish, snakes and crawdads, scrub forests and prairie lands. Those old bikes with balloon tires worked fine both on and off road but were very susceptible to 3 inch mesquite thorns.

The hill between our neighbor Adam's house and ours provided and early lesson in facing a physical challenge and not giving up. Climbing it meant getting up off the seat and pulling so hard your legs hurt and your lungs pumped vigorously.  As a reward for all this effort this hill offered the excitement of downhill speed. We approached it cautiously at first and before long our prowess was proven by racing down it without hands.

Which brings up bike crashes.

In 1968, when I was ten years old, we moved to Englewood, a suburb of Denver, Colorado. There on Tanforan Drive my siblings, new neighborhood friends and I perfected our skills on the trendiest bike of the time, Schwinn Stingrays. The Corvettes of bikes. Cool. We didn't go very far but we went in style. We could pull and ride wheelies, jump curbs, jump ramps and do fishtail skids. Some of us could hold the handlebars and stand on the seat while dazzling our girl friends. All of us have scars as souvenirs of our learning experiences.

Fifth and sixth grades at College View Elementary in Denver were highlighted by two significant events. this time my organization effort bring positive results. One was a canned food drive our school held for "needy people" in our part of town. My idea was to use our beloved wagon and go door-to-door in our neighborhood asking for contributions of food for our drive. With siblings along again for this project we collected some 150 cans the first year and 300 the next. Our efforts doubled the schools overall drive numbers each year.

Enjoying my new found celebrity in school, I ran for class president. "Gandy, Gandy, he's our man, if he can't do it, nobody can!" My on and off girlfriend Christie also ran.  She had a really nice poster with lots of glitter around a smiling picture of herself. She was beautiful and she won. We remained friends until seventh grade when she dropped me. But I'm ok now and I've learned the power of an expert headshot and good graphics.

By 1970, our family had made Colorado home.  My father had learned that the state was still giving away land high up in the mountains to homesteaders, so we started a family part-time homesteading project. Our property was located about 6 hours west of Denver in Chaffee County on Independence Pass which is still one of the wildest, scariest mountain passes in America. Five miles off the road on a seriously rough jeep trail, our property started at the bottom of the valley at 11,500 ft. elevation and climbed up to the top of an unnamed mountain at 13,000 ft. Approximately 120 acres of creeks, springs, woodlands, abandoned mines, treeline and alpine meadows supported elk, deer, beavers, brown bear, mountain goats and porcupines.

Summer-times we camped, hiked, fished and explored.  Homesteading meant improving the value of the property on a yearly basis so that the property taxes would go up. After ten years of improvements the property was owned by the homesteader. So we cleared timber, cut trails, built wooden bridges across the creek, and surveyed the land. Well, my father did most of this while keeping us kids from drowning in the creek and other calamities.

Also in 1970, at twelve years old, I was ready for bike adventures beyond Stingrays.  Having saved money from various enterprises such as mowing yards, babysitting neighborhood kids, shoveling snow, and washing windows at the grocery store, I was ready to make my first big investment in transportation. My aspiration was for the King of Rides, the Schwinn Continental. Long wheelbase, sleek design, ten gears to climb the uphill steeps and face the fear of speed on the downhills. The ultimate freedom machine.

Alas the $130 Continental was beyond my budget so a sporty Azuki import was my choice. A shorter wheelbase and less quality components, but a sure enough ride for Denver's suburbs and the Rocky Mountain foothills. Now my ability to range freely expanded beyond my parents comfort zone.  They may not have been aware of some of those rides up to Red Rocks or that amazing run up to Evergreen and back down.

Lesson Learned: At age 13, while flying down from Evergreen at 40 miles per hour on my Azuki I learned the value of focus.

It was an early fall morning in 1971 that my life changed in a profound way.  I stepped out of bed and fell to the floor. Every joint in my body hurt and I couldn't walk.  I crawled into the kitchen where my mother was fixing breakfast and she responded with shock at my appearance. Serious fever from a kidney infection had inflamed my entire body, reported our doctor later that morning in the hospital.  And after days of tests he declared that somehow this infection had stimulated Rheumatic Fever and created a heart murmur. Lots of penicillin, two weeks in the hospital followed by being at home and in bed full time for the next six months was the healing remedy.

The doctor also told my parents that while my heart was mostly healthy, it was damaged and weakened. It shouldn't be stressed and that I would be susceptible to future problems. In my head, that made me a sickly kid who wouldn't live long anyway so why not set a stretch goal to live to at least thirty? And why postpone adventure?

The next chapter brings adventures in snow skiing, roller skating, work in high school, ROTC, and how a trip solo rambling around the world at 18 opened my eyes to what bikes as serious transportation. Stay tuned!

About Charlie Gandy

A nationally recognized expert in bicycle and pedestrian advocacy, Charlie is a popular consultant and speaker known for sparking innovation. Charlie founded Bike Texas, created the Thunderhead Alliance retreat for biking and walking advocates, and the Bike Friendly Business Districts program in collaboration with Bike Long Beach.

As a program facilitator he has organized trainings in all fifty states and played a role in launching more than 30 biking and walking advocacy organizations around the U.S. including the California Bicycle Coalition, the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and the Alliance for Biking and Walking. Charlie has recently been featured on the cover of the OC Weekly, on KPCC’s Air Talk and in the Los Angeles Times  for his leadership in bike advocacy.