1942. That’s the year that my Grandma Virgie estimates was the last time she rode a bicycle. For those who aren’t quick with mental math, that was 79 years ago. My grandma was born in 1924 in the rural town of Panora, Iowa toward the end of the Greatest Generation. She is one of eight kids who grew up on a farm in a town that has hovered around a population of 1,000 people for the last hundred years. She moved out to California when she was 18, following in the footsteps of her older sister. She became a Rosie the Riveter, working on airplanes during World War II alongside thousands of other women employed in factories to support the wartime effort.
By the time I was born, my grandma’s resume had shifted from building airplanes to baking delicious cookies, giving lots of hugs, and making sure I kept up with my French horn practice. She’s always been a sharp lady and was great at balancing playtime with focus and study. To this day, she’s the most dominant Scrabble player I have ever played with, including playing against English/Lit majors in college. She prefers dessert, and she is one of the easiest-going and most non-fussy people I know, regardless of age.
So how, at the youthful age of 96, did I manage to get my Grandma Virgie to step back onto a bicycle for the first time since WWII?
First, a Little Backstory
A few years back, I stumbled onto this TEDx Talk: Cycling Without Age, and I was struck by the simple and yet profound message it contained. A man named Ole, a bike enthusiast in Copenhagen, had started taking folks from nursing homes and giving them a chance to be mobile again with rickshaw rides. Eventually, Ole turned this side project into an organization called Cycling Without Age, with chapters all over the world doing the same thing. People like my grandma increasingly find themselves with fewer options for exploration and less mobility as they age. My grandma gave up driving when she was 95, and with it went her last bit of personal mobility. She can’t walk very far, so she’s limited to wherever family like my mom, aunt, uncle, or cousin can take her in a car. After I watched this Ted Talk, I knew I had to find a way to do something like what it talked about with my Grandma Virgie.
I own an electric cargo bike, the Tern GSD, and have given rides to my partner, my friends, my sister, and lots of kids… but it is decidedly not for a 96-year-old who has a tough time walking, let alone swinging a leg over and balancing on the back of a cargo bike.
As the small-town magic of Santa Cruz usually works, the only dealer for Christiania Bikes (which is one of the bikes used by Cycling Without Age around the world) in the U.S. is in downtown Santa Cruz, one block from my office at Artisans & Agency, run by wife and husband pair Linnaea and Peter. I first became aware of them through a promotional video about the store lighting retrofit that our energy efficiency team at Ecology Action had helped them complete (as if the world could get any smaller).
My wheels really started spinning when they participated in Bike to Work Day for the first time a few years back and brought their table, art, and booth setup in their cargo trike. It wasn’t much time later when I floated the idea to them if I could someday borrow their Christiania electric cargo trike to take my grandma on a tour of Santa Cruz, a small dream of mine for some time.
And Then, It Finally Came Together
Fast forward to April 2021. It had been a full 15 months since I had last seen my grandma, with COVID-19 sweeping through the world and shutting everything down. She and my mom were now fully vaccinated, and I was halfway there, so they were ready for a visit.
I reached out to Linnaea and Peter about the idea again, and they happily offered for me to borrow their trike. I walked the few miles to their home with my dog Mara, got a tutorial on the trike, and had Mara hop in…and off we went! Mara was my first test of the trike, and she was her usual unphased self. In a lot of ways, Mara and Grandma Virgie both share an easygoing nature, as if their motto in life could be “The dude abides.”
Mara and I went straight over to where my mom and grandma were staying and rolled up ready for adventure. I had a Bluetooth speaker queued up with Johnny Cash, one of my grandma’s favorites. My partner Maddie joined us, and off we went. Maddie was on her bike, my mom was on my electric cargo bike, and Grandma, Mara, Johnny Cash, and I were in the Christiana Model Light.
I have lots of different routes I take by bike through Santa Cruz: routes for speed, routes for scenery, routes for safety when towing Mara in the trailer, and more. With my grandma, though, I had the whole other challenge of finding safe, scenic, and not-so-steep options to make sure I could pedal her, Mara, me, and Johnny Cash up the hills. More than a couple of times, I was using my last bit of strength to crest a hill, but it was all fun and worthwhile. I would do it all over again.
Mara and I are used to getting waves and smiles when cruising around town, but adding Grandma into the mix brought it to a whole new level. We had cars honking at us in support, people taking pictures, kids saying they want to do that when they get old, and countless other sweet refrains. For my grandma, she sat as we pedaled all around Santa Cruz to Westcliff, by the Boardwalk, to Eastcliff, and perhaps our most important destination…Penny Ice Creamery. She smiled, waved, and maybe even gave a few thumbs up, highlighting the interactions with people that otherwise would not have happened. The seat was not perfectly comfortable for her, but the stimulation of movement, fresh air, and sunshine far outweighed any discomfort from a less than ideal seat.
Altogether, we rode 20 miles around town and had an absolute blast. The shouts of joy, the tunes of Johnny Cash, and the brilliance of pedaling my 96-year-old grandma around town, showing her places like Neary Lagoon which she would never likely have otherwise seen, opened my eyes to the magic that getting our elders outdoors can offer. My face hurt the next day from all the grinning and laughing we did during the ride.
This weekend was just the beginning, and there are at least a few of us with our wheels spinning on how we can build a program like this in Santa Cruz. If you know of anyone who might want a ride or someone who would want to pedal a cargo trike, please reach out to me and let me know.
Linnaea and Peter just launched a new website for their Christiania Bikes.