Work vehicles of many shapes and sizes are used on Kwajalein, but it’s the bikes that first catch the eye. Because no one has a personal car, everyone rides a bike — the young, the old, the athletic, indoorsy, even the two pack a day smoker. Everyone. Bikes are a necessity and, how can I say it, they are also a little different here. Like the birds of the Galapagos, a species of bike in this little island community has evolved to possess characteristics unique to anywhere else.
The beach cruiser, the most prominent species on Kwaj, sports broad comfortable seats, big wheels and wide handlebars. My loaner bike, which I’ve nicknamed “The Old Girl” is one of these. Now I’ve ridden bikes most of my life and have even done a few races, so I’m pretty comfortable in the saddle, but returning to a foot-braking bike with a rear basket has taken some adjustment. But The Old Girl has grown on me — from her rusty front fender useless in its protection from the backsplash of puddles, to the kur-clank that emanates from the front wheels with every revolution — twice when I hit a bump, to the gearshifter that dupes you in to thinking you have variety in pedaling resistance. I’m told most bikes last about 6 months due to the salt air and lack of protection from the rain and I suspect The Old Girl is close to needing life support.
From the basic beach cruiser evolved some pretty hysterical bikes variations, particularly in the handlebar region. I’ve seen the stem, the vertical tubing between the main frame of the bike and the handlebar, as long as 3 feet with a straight horizontal piece attached at the top for handles. The fatigued commuter can simply rest cross-armed on this chest or head high handlebar without so much as a slight shift forward in his seat while pedaling. I’ve also spotted sweeping handlebars reminiscent of a chopper, a low dipping U-shape with horizontal handles angling slightly back toward the rider. Some handlebars are the reverse, an inverted U with sweeping downward handles. There are clearly no rules here.
I inquired about these peculiarities in the bike and scuba shop in Macy’s and was told these variations have been around for years and evolved out of comfort for the rider. The fellow there offered me his bike for a test ride and I have to agree with him. Although the chest high handle bar felt a little silly and as if I should be wearing face paint and an oversized red nose, it was in fact comfortable.
Other variations in the species spotted on the island are the three-wheeled bikes with large cart in between the back wheels, a recumbent bike, and even a unicycle. The mountain bike and road bike are rare breeds on this island. Some bikes have various accessories including front baskets, rear baskets, child carriers, tassels on the handlebars or other fun decor. Many a Kwaj bike can be seeing pulling a small cart, handy for transporting scuba gear or groceries.
So I can see how form follows function in the evolution of the bikes, but why only here? Is it the isolation from other species of bikes? Is it the rich biodiversity of the bipedal species found to rotate through here? Was it a practical joke that backfired in to being a best kept secret in transportation? I haven’t learned the answers, but for now I will just be the humble observer and user of one of these great Kwajalein bikes.