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Retro Pedal Power: Grand Rapids Vintage Bicycle Club

The Grand Rapids Vintage Bicycle Club welcomes spring by takings its shiny wheels and its social ways out in public. Stephanie Doublestein hops on her red 1970s cruiser and gets to know the people behind these beautiful bikes.
When you come upon the group gathered together at Derby Station on a Sunday afternoon, the first thing that catches your eye is the bicycles. They're beautiful, shiny, colorful, vintage creations lined up along the fence like so many lollipops, with the sun shining off their chrome fenders and spokes. But Grand Rapids Vintage Bicycle Club founder Ted Oostendorp says the club, now going into its fourth year, is actually more about the people than the bikes.
"When you say vintage bicycles, that could be road bikes, BMX bikes, Italian racing bikes," says Oostendorp. "But we don't ride distances, and the motivation of the club is not to ride far and fast. This is about a simpler time."
The club, an informal, free social group open to anyone with an interest, is really "about" several things. During the warmer months, the group holds frequent rides around town, with an annual spring bridge ride and a fall ArtPrize ride being highlights. Rides, announced on the club's Facebook page, typically draw between ten and 40 riders, depending on the weather and the time of year.
"We get riders from age 5 into their 60s," says Oostendorp. "Tandems are fun; they allow children to ride on the bike so they can participate as a family." He says the group is made up of all kinds: hipsters, families, neighbors, and serious riders and mechanics alike.
One of those more serious riders is Todd Morris, who helps Oostendorp manage the club's social media and events. Morris, who lives in Rockford and works at Adtegrity, often commutes from his home to downtown Grand Rapids and says the club combines many of the things that he loves.
"I can bring my family, it's casual riding, and it involves other people who share a similar interest that you get to meet face to face and talk to," says Morris. "I'm really active on Google Plus and in the bicycling community, but this is different."
Morris got involved with the club after Oostendorp had already started it. "I made a hot rod bike that I ride with tall handlebars and a low seat and big wheels. After I made it I was searching for like-minded people on Facebook and ran across a post about the club. I invited a friend of mine, we went, met Ted, had a great time and have been hooked ever since." These days, he primarily rides a mid-70s Western Flyer when the club meets up and a mid-80s ten-speed when he's commuting to work and back.
He's since "rescued" several bikes with the help of the club, one from a lady's front yard, where it had been a flower planter for 30 years. "We brought it back to life and gave it to a friend," Morris says. "You can buy a new one, but there's something special about riding a bike that has a story."
In addition to the events that allow club members to gather, Oostendorp says there are also ad-hoc meetings on hot summer nights, when a bike needs repair and the group meets to tinker in someone's garage in a less-organized way. And because several members of the club have learned to restore and repair the old cruisers, he says the vintage treasures often find their way to him in unexpected ways.
"People will occasionally bring us their heirlooms or a bike they found in their grandpa's barn – not that I'm really good at it, but there's no other place to go," says Oostendorp, who keeps a running list of people who want to buy a cruiser of their own and tries to fill the need. "So our bikes are in Toronto, Georgia, California, Texas; these are people who found us online." The interest has gone way beyond West Michigan, and the club's Facebook page gets hits – and messages in other languages – from people in Europe and Israel, asking about rare models and liking the group's activity. And though he says the club has restored bikes as wedding, birthday, and anniversary gifts, the bikes are really best seen as something to connect around.
Sue Curran, a member of the club since 2011, agrees. "Now you have bike connections all around the country that make a network," says Curran, who works at Metro Hospital and rides a violet '67 Schwinn Starlet 3.
She shows off her bike, sounds the horn, and talks about the value of an old-fashioned ride in a fast-paced modern world: "I think it's amazing that it's from 1967 and the tires are original and I can just go out and ride it."
Curran, who has ridden with friends from Riverside Park to Rockford with no problem, says the vintages bikes are just as useful as they are beautiful to look at. "I was ahead the whole way," she laughs. "And it's fun to sit at the Derby and look at the cool bikes."
The club does draw attention wherever it goes, and Curran shares that the ArtPrize ride, in particular, can be interesting. "We ride down there, drop the bikes, and someone stays with them while the rest of us look at the art. People ask, 'What number are you? We want to vote for you.'"
Oostendorp welcomes the attention but wants to keep the club, which has grown from four members at the first meeting in February 2010 to 565 Facebook likes, focused on camaraderie around a shared interest.
"We're just trying to advocate more people pedaling: ride to the farmers' market, get groceries. These bicycles are robust, hip, and they're not very expensive," says Oostendorp. "Really what it is, is it's just fun. We meet at a tavern, have fun, ride a couple miles to another spot."
Morris concurs. "Our club is really built around culture and the social aspect. We say we're a drinking club with a bike problem," he says, adding that the events are always family-friendly as well.
"I guess for us it's not about how fast you get there, it's just about enjoying the ride," Morris says. He adds, "If you have a bike, you are welcome."

Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.

Photography by Adam Bird

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