One of the best lessons I ever learned as a reporter was how to strike up a conversation with anyone. No matter what their age, color, sex, religion, nationality, rich or poor, if I ever wanted to get someone talking—excited, even—I’d ask them about their bicycles.
Because with most people, once you get them talking about themselves they’ll usually keep on going no matter where the topic goes.
Spaulding Gray was a genius at it. His New England “Town Hall” interviews were famous for drawing out the most honest, intimate and surprising information from pretty much everyone who dared to get on stage and have a seat. Gray would start with simple stuff and in minutes, citizens of a hamlet in Vermont or New Hampshire or upstate New York who had convened in their local church or hall would offer some kind of answer to damn near anything he asked. But I digress….
Think about it. Do you know anyone without a “When and where I learned how to ride a bike” story? Of course not. It may have been months or years since they’ve ridden, but they still learned how.
And unless you’re unlucky enough to run into that one-in-a-million guy who poked his eye out on a tree branch learning to ride, those bicycle stories are told with sly smiles, delicious details and near swooning nostalgia.
The current exhibit at the Longmont Museum and Cultural Center—Bicycles! 150 years of Gears—is most excellent not only for the fantastic photos, artifacts and bi- and tricycles on display, but for the stories that those relics evoke.
And there’s no better source of great bicycle stories—from Hollywood to Japanese manufacturing royalty to Good Old Days Americana—than Howie Cohen, the godfather of the bicycle industry.
A couple dozen items at the Longmont Museum are from his personal collection of bicycle memorabilia and artifacts, which numbers in the tens of thousands of items and by itself is a national treasure. Seriously, this 71-year-old Lafayette guy has amassed a collection of all things bicycle. From plates to cuff links to original paintings of Marilyn Monroe to an original Schwinn side-by-side tandem bike, his house is wall to wall artifacts that serve as testimony to his love of two wheels.
“I fall in love with every bicycle-related item I touch,” Cohen says. “When I touch something, I usually remember where and when I bought it and who I bought it from (or who gave it to me). It brings back warm memories.”
And his memories could captivate those who will be stopping by the Bicycles! exhibit (which runs through July 3) for days. Too bad there’s not a grant available that would pay Cohen to just hang out and tell stories. My favorite is how he came this close to NOT getting a bunch of his popular Kuwahara BMX bikes used in the movie E.T.
Cohen started his career in the bicycle industry working in his father, Leo’s, bike shop in Los Angeles back in the mid-1940s. From those humble roots Cohen became a force in the burgeoning American bicycle industry. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the wholesale arm of Cohen’s business was the first to reach out to and strike deals with Japanese manufacturers—companies with names like Shimano, SunTour, Kawamura, Taihei, Hatsune, Tsuyama, Kuwahara, Ishiwata and many others.
Today, Cohen spends hours going through his extensive collection, cataloging and photographing the items and writing personal stories about each and posting them on his ever-growing Website: howiebikeman.com.
If you’re lucky, you may run into Howie Cohen at the Longmont Museum, but if not, there is no shortage of stories to be had from the other visitors who will find their own memories evoked by this outstanding exhibit. If you don’t think so, just ask.