CLEARWATER — Chip Haynes is known in his neighborhood as "the bike guy.'' People see him riding at all hours — on one of his 36 bikes.
"Once you hit 20 bikes you've reached critical mass,'' he says. "I didn't stop.''
Haynes, 58, commutes by bike to his job as a graphic artist for Pinellas County government. He rides to the grocery and to the ice cream shop. At night, people sometimes mistake his bike for what he calls the "rolling disco inferno.'' Lights hang from his handlebars like mirror balls.
Neighbors see him in his garage working on bikes on Saturdays. They see his favorite bikes lining the driveway on holidays. He has adult tricycles, fat-tired paperboy specials from the Eisenhower era and an assortment of folding conveyances. He might be the one person in Clearwater — if not Florida — who boasts his very own bicycle rickshaw.
He just wrote a witty book called The Practical Cyclist (New Society Publishers, $14.95), in stores this week. "It's a bike book for real people,'' he says. He means you — you there, eating a Western omelet with a guilty expression on your face — and not Lance Armstrong or some other narrow-hipped immortal.
He owns no midlife crisis bicycles. It would never occur to him to spend thousands of dollars on a bike, though, if it did occur to him, his wife, JoAnn, a practical woman, would ask, "Why do you need a $6,000 bicycle when you can get one for free?'' And he would nod his head because JoAnn would be so right.
He scavenges bikes from junk piles and ditches. He finds them abandoned and broken. He likes giving unwanted bikes a good home. Mostly, he likes having fun.
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Americans don't seem to be having much fun these days. If we do, we're not supposed to admit it. Better to be worried about restless leg syndrome, sexual dysfunction and blemishes that have turned into moles the size and shape of Africa. We can't eat fried chicken as we once did, our teeth are yellow, and the guys on cable television are shouting about the coming apocalypse.
You know what the bike guy does when things have him down? Ride, baby, ride. Just for the heck of it.
"I have no intention of beating you over the head with an organic, free-range, well-hugged tree to try and make you feel guilty about driving your car and not giving it up for the good of the planet,'' he writes in his book. "I drive a truck. There. I've said it. You know the truth. Let's not dwell on it. I won't ask you what you drive, and you won't ask me to help when you want to move. Fair enough? This is a book about the joys of bicycling.''
Years ago, he rode a bicycle of his own design across America. Still has it. He has one he calls the "Just Go Runt" he bought for 20 bucks and renovated. It has one speed and 6-inch wheels. It's good for crossing the driveway.
He bought the Schwinn Typhoon adult tricycle for $5 at a garage sale and used parts from eight other bikes to bring it up to snuff. He built a cargo box for the back. It has a tailgate and cup holders. He likes to lend the trike to friends and watch them try to ride. Usually they give up quickly. "It's harder than it looks,'' he says. "But hey, old people do fine on them.''
He found the old Sears Three Spirit 3-speed in a ditch. He rebuilt it from the wheels up, dubbed it "Queen Anne's Revenge" and painted it satin black.
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He wishes he had his first bike, a J.C. Higgins with 16-inch solid rubber wheels. He broke the frame. His dad, from whom he inherited his mechanical genes, fixed the frame. His younger brother's hobby is disassembling automobile engines and putting them back together.
"People in my family are good with their hands,'' he says. When his wife met him 20 years ago, he was performing at one of those Renaissance fairs, where folks gobble enormous turkey legs while pretending they're in Merry Olde England. At the time he was juggling. Machetes.
They live in an ordinary-looking house on a quiet Clearwater street. Inside, their dwelling is extraordinary — more like a kid's dream clubhouse than a suburban home. They have a jukebox loaded with Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys, a pinball machine and sexy mannequins relaxing on the sofa. When they need to contact friends, they head for their phone booth. It's in the hall.
"I've always been immature,'' the bike guy says. "With no kids of our own, we haven't been forced to grow up. We can corrupt other people's kids.''
On Halloween, trick-or-treaters enjoy navigating the pirate ship they erect in their yard.
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He has commuted to work by bicycle for a dozen years and never been hurt. His only serious injury, ever, was the time he was horsing around on an antique two-wheeler whose seat was a good 6 feet off the ground. "You almost had to make an appointment to put your foot down,'' he says. When he fell, his left leg snapped like a dog biscuit.
He finesses dogs. Don't try to outrun them; can't do it. Baby-talk the meanest hound while slowly retreating from its territory, he advises. In a pinch, keep your bike between you and Vicious. "Don't take a swing at a dog. A dog is faster than you and has points on its teeth. And you taste like chicken.''
The bike guy's second-favorite thing is eating. On weekends he and JoAnn ride to Tory's Café on Highland for a belly-busting steak sandwich. From there they pedal over to Dairy Kurl for shakes. The banana is especially tasty.
Steak sandwiches? Banana milk shakes? Of course, Lance Armstrong would disapprove. But what does Lance know about having fun on a bicycle?
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.