Vintage Bicycles Done Proper :: Portland, Oregon
Lookout Man of Steel, you’ve got some competition.
In the early ’70s, the United States was in full stride of the bike boom. Many were slipping into their caged pedals and taking wobbly trips around their neighborhoods, amid automobile traffic, for the first time ever. Education was needed to harmonize the two types of traffic now dubiously sharing the roads. A new sheriff was needed to give the straight facts on the rules—and in 1975, Sprocket Man entered the scene.
“The sheer number of bikes in use these days shows that the days when bikes were merely toys for kids are bygone and that the anarchy of the cyclist can be afforded no longer!” trumpets Sprocket Man in his first lines of the 1976, second edition Stanford University–born comic book.
Sprocket Man was the brainchild of Louis Saekow, a premed student working as a file clerk for an urban research institute on the Stanford campus in 1974. Saekow observed his supervisor muddling through the idea of an illustrated bicycle newsletter. After Saekow proclaimed that the product was “horrible,” the boss fired back, “Yeah, you think you can do any better?”
In pedals Sprocket Man.
Sprocket Man takes the serious subject of bicycle safety and “fights crime” by highlighting basic rules of the road, cycling etiquette and common vulnerabilities making learning amusing, personable and, most importantly, enjoyable. He tackles tough, often controversial topics such as coexisting with automobiles, being predictable and courteous, and respecting pedestrians. He also powers through other common urban blight issues such as preventing theft and keeping watch for the always-present threat of opening car doors.
Sprocket Man stands mainly as a safety advocate for all roadway users. He also touches on bicycles solving many of the challenges we currently have in urban transportation. He stresses how cycling can be part of a solution for everything from traffic congestion to air quality and public health. All this from a clean, reasonably priced mode of transportation that can also pass as light exercise. What’s not to like about that? With so many trips made that are less than three miles long, Sprocket Man encourages everyone to consider the bicycle to increase the health and vitality of the city.
Today, Stanford University celebrates the only platinum-level “Bicycle Friendly University” as awarded by the League of American Bicyclists. Is the early adoption and embrace of the bicycle decades ago responsible for its success? Perhaps. Sprocket Man’s cult following led to a revival in 2002 with a slightly bigger and buffer superhero. His bicycle was also updated and although it is unclear if Sprocket Man is still riding a steel frame, his message to ride safely and have fun still rings true today.
Looking back at this wonderful piece of cycling history from today’s high-quality, digitally enhanced perspective may portray, on the surface, a basic, almost crude, comic book. But the topics covered here are the same controversial issues that continue to pester nearly all cycling-focused US cities. The images may be dated, but the content’s remarkable relevancy shows that the subjects are sadly just as persistent, applicable and worthy of discussion today as they were when they were hand drawn, and colored, nearly 40 years ago.