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Taking life for a spin

A medical crisis spurs David Crouse to discover his true mission: a bicycle in every garage.

By LANE DEGREGORY
Published July 20, 2006

photo
[Times photos: Chris Zuppa]
David Crouse, a.k.a. the Squirrel Guy, cleans up a bicycle in his back yard in Tampa. He has reconditioned hundreds of bikes.
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Crouse adjusts the seat of a Rallye Celebrity. His favorite memory from childhood involves a heady bike ride.
TAMPA -- The ones he can't save, he piles by his patio: twisted spokes and rusty rims, tires and handlebars, pedals, brakes, a tangle of greasy chains. Remnants of 40 bikes, maybe more. David Crouse lost count a long time ago.

"Those are the organ donors. They're just here for parts," he says, unearthing a black banana seat from the heap behind his home. "You never know what might come in handy for the next one."

His "maybe" pile is under the clothesline, three dozen more beat-up bikes that might be turned into masterpieces.

"These here, they're my 'definitelys,' " Crouse says, walking to a stack propped against his shed. Skeletons of Schwinns and Cannondales, Mongooses and Raleighs, an ancient chain-driven tricycle, a psychedelic yellow chopper, a bent bicycle built for two. Most are works in progress, partly taken apart, somewhat pieced back together, Frankensteins of frames from one bike, gears from another, fenders off some gem he dug up in a barn.

"I bought one yesterday just for its chrome speedometer," Crouse says.

He's big and tall, 48, with a soft voice and handshake that belie his size. His fuzzy, gray-brown hair sprouts above the ear pieces of his round glasses. As soon as he meets you, he'll offer you a root beer. He keeps a cooler of cold cans on his porch. He'll tell you to call him "Squirrel. The Squirrel Guy. Big Rocky, as in Bullwinkle." He has this thing about squirrels.

And bikes.

 

* * *

 

On this steamy Saturday in July, Crouse drags 21 of his latest creations into his grassy showroom: his front lawn. He sells bikes on eBay and Craig's List and at Saturday yard sales at his home in Tampa. A hand-scrawled 8-by-10 poster taped to his mailbox says simply, "Bikes."

There's a 1958 Columbia Fire Arrow, red and white, with blue tassels on the hand grips, red pedals, a red seat and a gold-trimmed tank that used to hold a tiny tool kit. Next to that, Crouse props a 1927 Peerless, "sold by Sears," he says. A metal brace straddles its thin handle bars. "They had to reinforce it because steel was so soft back then."

He has never raced bikes, done tricks or careened down a mountain. He has never cranked a wrench in a cycle shop or cruised with a pack. But Crouse knows the history of every bike he puts his hands on. He can tell you when the first bike was born, how bikes have evolved, why you can't find any from the '30s. Every bike he builds has a bell, horn, reflectors and a kickstand, plus "The Squirrel Signature" - two plastic dice, the same color as the bike, drilled and fitted over the tire valves. Each bike comes with a story.

Since January, more than 100 people have driven from Sarasota, St. Pete and Brandon to buy "Squirrel Bikes." Some drive an hour just to talk two-wheelers with Crouse. Folks love hearing his tales, learning the background of his bikes, how he found each one, researched and revived it.

Most don't know Crouse's own story - how, three years ago, a Schwinn 2000 Cruiser Deluxe helped save his life.

 

* * *

 

As a boy, Crouse was obsessed with bikes. Freedom, speed, independence: Bikes were a kid's car. When he was 11, his parents bought him a Sears three-speed Spider, with a banana seat and coaster brakes. He grew up in a Tampa neighborhood near the zoo, not far from where he lives now, and had free rein to ride.

"That bike had steel forks and weighed 85 pounds, more than I did back then," Crouse says. "I took it apart, then severely customized it: red and blue headlights, chopper handlebars with matching grips. I made it look like Peter Fonda's motorcycle from Easy Rider."

His favorite childhood memory, one he still dreams about, is from when he was 12 and set off pedaling. It was cold, he says, Christmas break, and he flew through the streets, slicing the fog. He didn't know his destination; he just kept riding, up a bridge, across the causeway, all the way to Clearwater Beach.

He had never escaped so far on his own.

After high school, Crouse got married and had a son. He worked in hotels, sprayed homes for bugs, sold guitars, mowed lawns, dug graves. Bikes were nothing more than his cocktail: a wind-down when he came home.

His day job now is editing textbooks for an online college degree company. To tell the truth, he says, it's not all that interesting. A couple of times a week at lunch, and almost every evening after work, Crouse skips out to pursue his true passion: the resurrection of bikes.

He doesn't keep a computerized inventory or even a written log of what he has, or what he needs. "It's all in my brain," he says. "What's left of it."

 

* * *

 

A couple of hours into his yard sale, Crouse stands on his front porch, drinking root beer. His 2-year-old granddaughter, Gracie, is zooming around his legs on the red Radio Flyer trike he reconditioned for her. His wife, Anna, and 21-year-old son, Michael, are in the house.

When a van with would-be customers pulls up to the curb, Crouse sends his granddaughter inside.

The driver, a man, gets out. The woman in the passenger seat stays put.

"Isn't that a great bike?" Crouse calls to the man, weaving between rows of bikes. "I've been working on that for almost two years. It's a custom. You're welcome to take it for a spin."

The man examines the bike, a canary yellow concoction with high-rise handle bars. "That started as a Ross," Crouse explains. "Its frame is like a Schwinn 10-speed fastback."

The man seems interested. He bends to spin the wheel, squeeze the tire. "Say, would you like a root beer?" Crouse offers. The man looks over his shoulder, at the woman who's still in the van. He shakes his head and turns to walk away.

"Well, come back when you have more time. When your wife's not with you," Crouse says.

"I'm on a mission," he calls. "A bike in every garage."

 

* * *

 

Crouse doesn't have a garage, or even a workshop. His single-story home is filled with projects: tricycles in the hall, three-speeds in the kitchen. His wife can barely squeeze into the laundry room because it's so packed with bike fragments.

She says she doesn't mind.

Every time she starts to grumble about the bikes, she looks at that framed napkin on the living room wall.

"The doctor drew that to show me," Crouse says, staring at the pencil sketch.

Three years ago, Crouse started having headaches. By the time he finally went to the doctor, a lemon-size tumor was blanketing his brain. He was sure he was going to die.

When he woke up from the surgery, his wife was there, holding his hand. "Now you have to figure out what makes you really happy," she told him. "You've got to start doing what you want to do instead of just what you have to do."

Crouse thought for a long time. He kept having that dream, about when he was a boy, pedaling to Clearwater Beach. "Bikes," he told his wife. "Bikes make me happy."

She brought bicycle repair manuals and histories of cycling to his hospital room. By the time he was well enough to come home, he knew how to fix a skip-tooth chain.

In honor of his second shot at life, Crouse treated himself to his dream bike: a Schwinn 2000 Cruiser Deluxe, red with black trim, with wide bumpers, seven gears and a snazzy speedometer. He couldn't afford the $500, so he put the bike on layaway. By the time he paid it off, he had recovered enough to ride.

Every morning for months, while he convalesced, he would pedal through the neighborhood, down the highway, over to Al Lopez Park, where he circled the lake.

 

* * *

 

At noon, the man in the van comes back. "See?" he tells Crouse. "I ditched the wife."

He weaves between rows of bikes, crossing Crouse's lawn. He checks out the old Columbia, a blue Mongoose, what once was a yellow Centurion. "That one rides great. I had it out the other day," Crouse says. He test-drives all his creations, believes bikes are like wives: Even the old ones like to be taken out once in a while.

As the man examines the bikes, Crouse feeds him root beer and snippets of history. Did you know the first bikes didn't have pedals? They started in the 1860s and had wooden wagon wheels. You pushed them to the top of a hill then flew down.

"Where do you get these?" the man asks Crouse, admiring the 1927 Peerless.

"Every one's an original," Crouse says, and explains his methods. "You can't find many bikes built before 1940," he says. "All the rubber tires got taken for the war effort, the steel got melted into tanks. But a few relics are still out there. Those are the ones I really enjoy bringing back to life."

He has sold bikes for $25. Most, he asks for $50 to $100. His biggest profit came from a Raleigh Tomahawk he bought at Goodwill for $3. After months of work, he sold it on eBay for $350. "It helps with the car payment," Crouse says.

The man thanks Crouse, says he'll be back the next weekend. "I won't be here," Crouse says. "I'm having a bike reunion ride, to thank all my customers. Come join us. Free root beer! And I'm bringing extra bikes so everyone can ride."

 

* * *

 

He loads his Schwinn Cruiser first, wrapped in a blanket so the other bikes won't bump it. Then a red Fire Arrow, yellow "rat rod," the 1927 Peerless. Five bikes and two tricycles squeeze into his Dodge Caravan. "You'll have to bring the cooler," Crouse tells his wife. "The root beer's already in it."

In the e-mail he sent his customers, Crouse said the bike ride would start at 9 a.m. It's only 7:30 now, but Crouse is ready to head to the park. "I don't want to miss anyone," he says. Then, more softly, "I hope someone shows up."

He reserved Shelter #303 at Al Lopez Park for the reunion. All those months, while he was recovering from the brain tumor, he pedaled past those picnic tables. That was hundreds of bikes ago.

His wife, son and granddaughter show up around 10. Crouse cracks open a root beer and chases Gracie around on her tricycle. She's driving the pink one today, with pink tassels, a light-up bell and Hello Kitty faces on the handle grips.

After an hour, two women roll up. Crouse doesn't recognize their bikes, but one of the women looks familiar. "Hey, is this the Squirrel fest?" the taller woman asks, braking beside a picnic table. "Yeah, it is you," she says. She parks her bike and hugs Crouse. "I'm Amy, remember? And this is Kendra."

"You were one of my first customers," Crouse says, grinning. "You bought a red and white Robin Hood, right?"

"And a blue three-speed Schwinn," Amy says. "Here, I brought a picture." She unzips the saddlebag on her seat and pulls out a photo of the Schwinn. Crouse laughs. "I ride it to work every day, so I'm giving it a tuneup," she says. "That's the only reason I didn't ride it out here."

Amy Kellogg, 32, and her partner, Kendra Lee, 30, rode their bikes from their Carrollwood home to the reunion, more than 12 miles of pedaling. "Can't turn down an invitation to ride with the Squirrel Guy," Amy says.

Crouse dips into his cooler, hands them each a root beer. Then he crosses to his Schwinn Cruiser, kicks up the kickstand and climbs on. He pedals to the sidewalk, smiles and calls to the women. "So, you ready to go for a ride?"

Lane DeGregory can be reached at (727) 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 19, 2006, 15:55:02]


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