Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Bike Safety 101: Bicycles Are Beautiful

There hasn't been an entry in the Bike Safety 101 series for many months now, but today's entry is a neat little blast from the past, Bicycles Are Beautiful from 1974, featuring one of the best-known celebrities of the day, Bill Cosby.

Current (and very sad, disturbing) revelations notwithstanding, in the 1970s Bill Cosby was a man on top of the world. After years of standup comedy and numerous top-selling comedy albums, his groundbreaking role on the television series I Spy (Cosby was the first African-American to have a starring role in a network TV series), followed by his first sitcom, The Bill Cosby Show ('69 - '70 - also a first, as the first African-American to have his own eponymous show), a 2-year stint on the Children's Television Workshop series The Electric Company, then his animated show Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Cosby was probably one of the most recognizable people in America, and beloved by people of all ages.

Cosby presents the film from the workbench of a bike shop.
His manner is quite a bit more subdued than the Cosby seen
in countless Jello Pudding commercials spanning three decades.
In 1974, Cosby had BA and MA degrees in Education - his BA from Temple University was in Physical Education, which might explain why he played a Phys.Ed teacher in the original Bill Cosby Show, and it seemed natural that he would be involved in teaching kids to read through The Electric Company, and teaching life-lessons through his animated Fat Albert show on Saturday mornings. It makes perfect sense then that Cosby would be chosen to present bike safety advice by the National Safety Council, which helped create the film with financial assistance from McDonalds. Schwinn was also credited among the film's contributors.

Bicycles Are Beautiful was well-timed for the American bike boom, which reached its peak in 1974, and saw record numbers of adults hitting the streets on two wheels. However, while the film does recognize and validate adult cycling, it still primarily focuses on children in much the same way most other bike safety films have throughout the decades. Social messages aside, it's likely that the first thing viewers will notice is Cosby's unusual way of pronouncing "Bicycle" -- it sounds very much like "bi-SIGH-cle."

"BiSIGHcles are beautiful. Today there are over 70 million bicycling Americans to prove it. . . Lots of people are rediscovering how much healthy fun bicycles are. Getting out in the clean fresh air is good for your heart, your lungs, and your circulation, and your figure."
"And you don't have to stand in any lines to fuel up a bike. 'Cause the only fuel your bike burns is what your body provides. So you're not polluting the air, either.
Bicycles Are Beautiful is not just a feel-good, bike-friendly look at Americans' rediscovery of bicycles, though. The main point is as a safety film, and is mostly structured around the National Safety Council's "Bicycle Safety Test."

No, this is not a presentation of suggested cycling apparel. Instead, it is a demonstration of what can happen when a cyclist gets "doored." This poor guy is prepared to go over the bars in the name of rider education.
There's also a bit of bicycle history, as Cosby brings out several evolutionary steps towards the modern bicycle. Here, he shows an early wooden-framed and wooden-wheeled "bone shaker." 

"If you see a picture of people riding one of these and smiling, don't believe that. They're probably gritting their teeth." He also shows a penny farthing and an early safety bicycle. If I had to guess, I'd say that the bikes were probably provided by Schwinn, which once had an extensive collection of historic bicycles.
As mentioned, most of the film is structured around a "bicycle safety test." Various scenarios are shown with a series of questions that might be multiple choice or true/false. This one was "When driving at night, which one of these is most important?" Anyone? Anyone?
And yes, the film refers to cyclists as "drivers." As narrator, Cosby makes a strong point of that. He says, "The National Safety Council and the new concept in bicycle safety education recognizes the bicycle as a full-fledged vehicle, just like a car or a motorcycle, so you're bound by most of the same traffic laws." Yes - a "new concept" in bicycle safety education. One of the emphasized points of the film is that "National standards NOW call for all cyclists to drive on the right-hand side, with the traffic." It's true that this point about cycling on the right did run counter to what many people believed at the time (and many apparently still believe today), but I'd like to mention that almost every bike safety film I've discussed here, from the '40s through the '70s, tells cyclists to ride on the right, with the flow of traffic - so it was not necessarily "new."

After stressing the importance of keeping a bike in good working order, Cosby talks about consulting some of the many "good bicycle books" that are available with detailed instructions on how to make repairs and adjustments. He then shows a school program in California where, at the request of the students, the shop class curriculum was changed to include a course on bicycle repair. The kids would bring in old bicycles and learn how to take them apart and make them like new again. I would have loved a class like that when I was in Junior High. Nowadays, few schools still have shop classes at all, so I wonder if there is still a program like this one anywhere in the U.S.?
Perhaps anticipating the short attention span of the kids who were the likely target of the film, there is a brief interlude with "Some Really Interesting Stuff About Bicycles & Bicycling."
"The fastest speed ever attained on a bicycle was 138 miles per hour. That's right, it was done in 1973 by a San Bernadino doctor named Allen Abbott." The film doesn't mention that the record was a motor paced record (that is, Abbott was riding behind a pace car which helped shield him from the wind. That's not to take anything away from the record, however, and it stood until 1985 when John Howard raised it to 152 mph. The current record is 166.9). Dr. Abbott was a major force in exploring the speed possibilities of human powered vehicles in the '70s and '80s.
The film also takes some time to talk about bike commuting, the increase in bike infrastructure, and the increase in funding for such projects as bikeways. "There are now over 25,000 miles of bikeways in use in the United States," Cosby tells us. Next, then-Mayor Jerry Patterson of Santa Ana, California talks about his city's projected bike lanes and trails, with the goal that such routes would be within ⅛ mile of every student's home, so kids from "Kindergarten through Grade 12" will be able to ride to school in relative safety. I wonder if the kids in Santa Ana today ride to school at all, or if, like most kids in the U.S., they are chauffeured in a long parade of minivans and SUVs.
As another nod to adult cycling, the film also mentions the growth of bicycle clubs, like the American Youth Hostels, a club that "organizes bicycle tours all over the world," and the "oldest bicycle club in America," the League of American Wheelmen. Cosby mentions how the League's membership dropped to virtually nothing in the middle of the century, but had seen a tremendous resurgence by the '70s.
Then it's back to the safety test:

Here was one of the options for a question about how to make a left turn at a busy, multi-lane intersection. The "correct" answer, at least according to the film, would perhaps be acceptable for children, but would likely seem incredibly tedious, or even unacceptable to most adult cyclists. Remember, for all the mentions of adults using bicycles as practical transportation, much of the film is still aimed at kids.
Another part of the "safety test" involves identifying possible hazards on this young man's bike ride.
At the end of the test - "the moment of truth" - Cosby tells viewers to total up their scores, and there are 100 points possible. "If you got between 90 and 100, you are a credit to the biSIGHcling fraternity. Between 80 and 90 means you're getting there, but you need to study up on your biSIGHcling safety. If you get below 80, you don't know enough to be out on the street alone. . . If you get below 50, you'd better put the training wheels back on."

I imagine that most Retrogrouch Blog readers should easily be able to score 90 - 100% on the test. (If you watch the film, track your score and leave a comment). Yes, I got 100.

After a final (and very dry) message from the head of the National Safety Council, it's back to Bill in the bike shop, ready to go for a ride on one of those fancy 10-speeds with "caliper brakes and Italian derailleurs."

"It's time for a safe little spin around the block. . . Maybe we'll meet down the road somewhere, on a bike of course. And just remember, bicycles are beautiful."
As the final credits roll, one will notice that the producer of the film was Lee Mendelson, who was perhaps best known for producing the beloved Peanuts television specials and films. And the music was composed and performed by Vince Guaraldi, whose music was immortalized in those same Peanuts specials.

Overall, Bicycles Are Beautiful has an upbeat, groovy message about bicycling that reflects the two-wheeled reawakening of the time. Compared to some of the stern or even scolding bike safety films of the '50s and '60s that I've discussed here, this film was a step forward in that it at least acknowledged the viability of bicycles for commuting and transport, and not just as toys for kids. Though hailed by some writers for debunking certain misconceptions about where cyclists should ride, or their very rights to the road, my take on the film is that it is certainly more progressive than earlier examples, but its factual information is mostly par for the course. Nevertheless, in watching Bicycles Are Beautiful, one can't help but feel a fun sense of nostalgia.

I've tried for some time now to locate a good clean copy of Bicycles Are Beautiful, but the only one I've been able to find anywhere is a relatively mediocre transfer (with distracting counter digits imposed in the foreground) in two parts on YouTube.

Here's part one:

And part two:


And if that's not quite enough groovy '70s Cosby nostalgia for you, take about half-a-minute to check out the opening theme from the original Bill Cosby Show - probably the most funk-tastic TV theme song of all time. Hikky-Burr, by Quincy Jones, with vocals by Cosby.


  1. Cool! I had no idea he did that.

    Quick aside? When can we go back to "black" people?

    Seems they as a group don't mind it, anymore than I mind "white".

    African American makes sense as a recent emigre, but once you're 6, 7 whatever generations in, you're no more African American than I am northern European American.

    Sorry, just bugs me, small crusade of mine. It'd be different if as a whole, they were clamoring for it, but I think it was PC for maybe 6months, 10 years ago, and now it's just experiencing a lingering hangover is all....

    Carry on with bikes!

  2. Nice film, wonder how I missed this in the 1970's? Boy, I too would have loved to participate in a bicycle repair shop class.
    I had a Bill Cosby solo comedy act record growing up in the late sixties called: "Wonderfulness". I so enjoyed listening to Cosby's hilarious stories; I even learned how to build a go cart from that recording!

    1. I have that record - still have it, and several others. My friends and I listened to them again and again.