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Stanford Report, October 23, 2002

Sprocket Man, the Superman of bike safety, returns

BY BARBARA PALMER

Meet a superhero who doesn't leap tall buildings in a single bound or scale the sides of skyscrapers. His most prominent characteristic, in fact, is that he scrupulously follows the rules.

It's Sprocket Man, the bicycle-riding, helmet-wearing comic book hero who made his debut on the Stanford campus in 1975. He's back -- a little more buff and riding a bike with a few more gears -- on posters and T-shirts and in a series of comic strips to be published beginning in November in the Stanford Daily.

Ariadne Scott, campus bicycle coordinator, met Sprocket Man through Amanda Jones, Palo Alto's alternative transportation coordinator, who owned two comic books drawn by a Stanford student named Louis Saekow. The comic books, which illustrated basic cycling safety, etiquette and theft prevention, were published in the mid-1970s as a joint project of the Department of Public Safety and a nonprofit organization called the Urban Bikeway Design Collaborative.

Sprocket Man advice

The minute Scott saw Sprocket Man, she knew he had to ride again at Stanford. "It's such a fun way to get across a serious message," she said. "Bicycle safety is a subject that people sometimes don't find very interesting."

With the help of the Alumni Association, Scott tracked down Saekow, who now lives in Southern California, to ask him if he would be interested in updating the superhero. The artist, now retired after running a graphic arts firm for two decades, was only too happy to say yes. In addition to helping him pay his way through school, Sprocket Man had given him a career he loved, he said.

In 1974, Saekow was a pre-med student working as a file clerk for an urban research institute on campus when his boss tapped him to illustrate a biking newsletter. Actually, his boss first did the drawings and Saekow told him they were horrible. The boss shot back, "Yeah, you think you can do any better?"

Saekow did think he could do better. Although he had never taken any formal art lessons, he loved drawing comic-book style characters. Under Saekow's pen, the newsletter became a comic book and Sprocket Man was born, inspired by the Elton John song "Rocket Man" and patterned after Captain America.

Sprocket Man not only got Saekow out of filing, but the satisfaction he got from drawing the comics made him rethink his career plans, he said. To prepare himself to become a doctor, Saekow had worked the summer before as an orderly at a Los Angeles hospital. "I remember thinking, this Sprocket Man stuff is a lot more fun. I'm going to be a graphic designer."

In the old comic books, Saekow makes the basics of cycling safety -- navigating intersections, avoiding hazards -- light reading. Student cyclists riding too fast in the rain backend cars ("BLONK!") or slam into right-turning cars ("YEOWPS!"). The artist took pleasure in slipping a few visual jokes past his boss, he recalled. A Playboy magazine is mixed in with the books falling out of one hapless cyclist's arms, for instance, and a shark swims in Lake Lagunita on a campus map.

Saekow said he's not planning on doing anything sneaky in the strips that he is preparing for future publication, but he is hanging onto his artistic freedom. Parking and Transportation officials wanted Saekow to draw Sprocket Man's helmet and tights in red and white, not the blue and red in which he appears. Saekow demurred. It looks good on Cardinal athletic team uniforms, "but it's kind of weenie for a superhero," he said.

Sprocket Man posters are available from the Parking and Transportation Office or at drop-in bike clinics scheduled at White Plaza from noon to 3 p.m. every Wednesday through Nov. 20. At the clinics, Scott and members of a new student group, the Stanford Bicycle Advocates, will register bicycles and install free bicycle headlights. Local bike shops also will offer free mini tune-ups and safety checks at the clinics.

Sprocket Man Cover

Illustration: Louis Saekow