Greenville man turns his 2-wheeled dreams into riding reality

By Mike Taylor • Last Updated 9:39 pm on Friday, August 09, 2013

Retired Greenville engineer and mechanic Denny Russell stands with some of the classic and custom bicycles he has built or restored over the past two years. Russell says he “turned to bicycles” after losing interest in motorcycles. — Daily News/Mike Taylor

GREENVILLE — “Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I have hope for the human race.”

These words, written sometime around the turn of the last century by author H.G. Wells, ring as true today as on the day they were first set to paper. There is a certain liberation of spirit that comes with riding a bicycle; an exhilarating escape from the limitations and demands of the internal combustion engine.

On a bicycle, the passenger is the engine and all resources requisite to forward motion are those he or she was born with. A man on a bicycle is — for a moment, at least — master of his own destiny.

These are feelings every serious bicyclist understands, this intimate melding of rider and machine, each giving and taking from the other toward a common goal — momentum.

The tail light of Russell’s “Streamliner” bicycle is nonfunctioning, but oh, so cool. — Daily News/Mike Taylor

To really understand a bicycle and all its intricacies, however, one needs to do as Greenville resident Denny Russell does: Build one. In the past two years, Russell has built not just one bike, but many.

Some are restorations of antique bicycles, others are creations altogether original, culled from Russell’s vivid imagination and extensive engineering and mechanical experience.

Some he has sold, some given away; others he simply can’t part with.

“The ones I’ve sold I didn’t really want to sell,” Russell says, “but I just had too many.”

This attachment to the instruments of two-wheeled, self-powered transportation are particularly surprising, considering Russell has been interested in bikes for only a couple years. Before that, he was a motorcycle aficionado.

“I’ve been into motorcycles for, like, forever,” he says. “Then a couple years ago, I was at a big motorcycle swap meet in Ohio. I was walking around thinking, ‘Well, the motorcycles just aren’t doing it for me anymore.’”

It was at this point he happened upon an old bicycle for sale, a classic in need of serious restoration.

“That’s how it started,” he says.

This unusual restoration project was built by the Firestone company and features a “train light” headlight. When Russell first found the bike in a barn, it was, he said, “…a piece of junk.” — Daily News/Mike Taylor

From that point on, Russell began putting much of his free time toward fixing up old bikes and building new ones. His garage was transformed into a bicycle workshop complete with every tool needed to turn his two-wheeled dreams into reality.

His current collection — it’s always growing and changing — consists of several “concept” bikes and a few vintage cycles. One, a particularly beautiful cruiser model from 1939, is not only rare, but quite valuable.

“It was a piece of junk when I bought it at a garage sale,” Russell says. “I paid $40 for two of them the guy had. The tires were rotted away. They were just gone, there was nothing left to them.”

The frame and chrome work also were thoroughly rust-covered. Much sandblasting, sanding and powder coating later, the bicycle now looks like it did the day it rolled off the assembly line; fire engine red and ready to make some kid’s Christmas the best ever.

Russell sets its value at somewhere around $1,200. Just the original kickstand for the bike — when you can find one — sells on Ebay for around $200.

Though he maintains a special affinity for his vintage bicycles, his own creations are the ones that generate the most comments when he’s out riding around the neighborhood. Russell’s racing green Streamliner, for instance, was built from a section of auto exhaust pipe and the rear blinker light from a 1950s-era Cadillac.

“It was just sort of a welding project,” Russell explains. “Just something to do.”

Another “welding project” bike looks a bit like the skeleton of some prehistoric beast, assuming prehistoric beasts had shocking pink bones.

Though Russell has on occasion done a little work here or there on the bikes of others, he’s really not interested in turning a profit. Retired from Federal Mogul, where he worked as an engineer and mechanic, he prefers instead to spend his days tinkering with new designs and working the kinks out of old ones.

Some of the designs may seem patently impractical, but Russell is quick to point out there are no “art for art’s sake” creations in his garage.

“I can ride each and every one of them,” Russell says. “if I can’t ride it, it’s not worth anything to me. There are no trailer queens here.”

Russell’s current two-wheeled effort is a bicycle constructed entirely from bubinga wood. — Daily News/Mike Taylor

One of his most radical designs is the one he’s currently developing, a bicycle made entirely from bubinga wood, harvested in equatorial Africa. Though the project’s not going exactly as he had planned, Russell says he figures the end product will still be “nice.”

Russell himself seems a bit bemused as to why a man his age would suddenly find himself pulled from a lifetime love affair with cars and motorcycles in favor of bikes.

“Maybe it’s because I was always the neighborhood bicycle mechanic when I was a kid,” Russell says. “After all the cars and trucks and motorized stuff … now I’m back where I started. I don’t know if I’m progressing or regressing.”

Either way, it would warm H.G. Wells’ heart to see Russell out there in his shop, screwdriver in hand, shaping two-wheeled reality from his bicycle visions.

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