Saturday essay: Banana bike curls

| Friday, May 17, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

Al Fritz died this month. Don't know the name? That's not surprising. Many don't. But if you were a child of the 1960s and '70s, you probably idolized his invention and its many knockoffs.

Mr. Fritz, who died at 88 on May 7, is credited with creating the Sting-Ray bicycle, that 20-inch bike featuring high-rise handlebars, a seat in the shape of a banana and, in some cases, a single- or dual-stick gear shifter mounted on the crossbar.

Actually, “creating” is a misnomer. Fritz, as the Schwinn company vice president for engineering in 1962, exploited an idea that kids had been employing in Southern California. His mass-marketed version eventually had sales of more than 2 million.

My Sting-Ray wasn't a Sting-Ray but a knockoff. And the front wheel was smaller than the back. The old man, putting it together one Christmas Eve, thought someone had made a mistake in the packing department and almost took it back.

The “banana bike,” as I called it, was a game-changer for a kid who, until then, had to “suffer” with the hand-me-down bikes of his older brothers. And it was a life-changer, too.

I was convinced, somewhat dourly, that riding that bike for hours on end had changed my hair color from dishwater blond to chestnut and, go figure, made it curly, too.

Convinced, that is, until my mom explained the facts of life to me and that puberty, not Al Fritz, was to blame.

— Colin McNickle

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