Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Two Fine Dinners

It's a late afternoon in April, '94. We're in the lobby of The Grove Park Inn Resort in Asheville, in the mountains of western North Carolina. Three guests, a tanned young man and two ladies he's never met, ladies a decade or three older, are gathered at the concierge's station.

The young man, a bike racer from the Midwest, is here to train on the area's demanding roads. The ladies take two-week vacations together like this one, a garden tour of the eastern states, every year. They're from southern California and have been friends since their husbands were roommates at Stanford.

They're enjoying their visit; Asheville is a lovely garden-tourist destination and the Grove Park Inn a breathtakingly beautiful, flawlessly hospitable place to stay.

The young man talks with the concierge about where to go to dinner in town. The ladies, too, discuss dining possibilities with the concierge and ask her to call a cab. The cab, it seems, will be slow to arrive. The young man has a rental car outside; he suggests to the women that they can simply take his keys. Use the car. They will not hear of it.

Perhaps we'll join you, they say. Where're you thinking about going?

I hadn't decided, he says, maybe for Italian food. Oh, Italian food; great, they say, let's go together. So the three new friends, a 30-ish bicycle racer and two women nearly twice his age, hop into a rental car for the drive down into town, looking forward to a pleasant meal.

During dinner, the ladies ask the young man what he does professionally; he races his bicycle, he tells them without elaborating. The ladies agree that they have never met anyone who earned a living exactly that way. How interesting.

The conversation shifts quickly from work to subjects less mundane, more mutually stimulating, among them gardening and the collecting of certain categories of antiques.

The friendly, soft-spoken athlete and the two ladies of a certain age discover they share many enthusiasms and have much in common. They exchange names and addresses, expressing a unanimous intention to extend this chance meeting into a fruitful friendship.

The racer soon left Asheville. The ladies checked out not much later to move on to the next garden adventure. Each woman, upon her return home, told her husband about the charming man in Asheville, about his kindness; his varied interests, rare in such a young man; his pride in his family and his uncommon vocation.

They were quite taken aback, each of them, when their husbands recognized the athlete's name. How remarkable. So modest...

A pleasant, frequent correspondence, letters and occasional gifts, ensued. A casual mention in Asheville by the young man that he has at least some Native American ancestry prompted the arrival at his family home of a small library of books on Indian lore and history.

When his wife mentioned her fascination with novels set in China, books began to appear from her two new friends in southern California. When she visits there, she invariably receives an invitation to share a meal, the invitation always accompanied by flowers.

And just as the two women learned that the racer was far more prominent in his sport than he let on, the athlete and his wife discovered that the two unpretentious women and their husbands are widely known in the business world, known especially for their philanthropy, for supporting public television and endowing a library at Stanford.

Last fall, the two ladies learned that the athlete and his wife were soon to visit the Los Angeles area. The young man was to announce the end of his racing career in conjunction with a banquet in Beverly Hills.

They learned that the banquet, at chef Wolfgang Puck's famous Spago, would be underwritten by the generous Korbel Wine people. Korbel would arrange and pay for exclusive use of the restaurant for the evening.

They further learned that corporate cycling sponsors and supporters could buy tables for notables and guests. The tables would sell for serious money, that money, thanks to Korbel, earmarked to benefit the United States Cycling Federation.

Hmmm, they said, did a little quiet research, and called Mark Gorski at the federation.

As you looked around Spago the evening of the banquet, called the Korbel Night of Champions, you saw bike racing and bike industry individuals-of-weight, clustered around tables laden with delicious, elegantly presented food.

Centered on each table you saw cards reading GT or VeloNews or Motorola or Oakley... Except for the table at the front-right, the untitled but universally acknowledged table of honor.

Seated around that table at Spago (Beverly Hills) were the young racer, gardener and antique buff from Minnesota, Greg LeMond, retired from racing only hours before; his gracious wife Kathy; the two ladies, their husbands and two other couples, Southern California friends of theirs.

That table, proceeds to benefit the USCF's Project '96, had been secured by the two ladies, whose names no one at the federation recognized. Two ladies who'd never been the least bit aware of Greg LeMond, the federation or cycling - until they were befriended by a gentleman bike racer.

Two ladies who never dreamed they'd be friends of U.S. cycling - until a chance meeting with a friendly cyclist at the Grove Park Inn in far-off Asheville, in the mountains of western North Carolina.

Fresh Eyes

Because Tamar and I are new to Denver, we look at our adopted home with fresh eyes. For instance, I’ve observed curious customs among local cyclists….

Many, many club cyclists here wear souvenir ride jerseys, not their club’s jersey or plain jerseys or Euro team jerseys. If a guy struggled in (exhausted) in the dark to finish an epic metric century in ’99, he has earned the right to wear the commemorative jersey forever. And he does. As the jersey shrinks and he…uh…does not.

Cyclists here do not often wave to other cyclists, even on lonely roads or bike paths far from populous downtown Denver. The geekier the rider, the bigger the shoulder bag, the more probable it is that he or she will wave. Club riders never wave. They’re far too cool.

Actual racers hesitate, surprised that YOU waved, and then grin and wave back.

Urban commuters on single speeds or fixies lug huge backpacks or messenger bags. Maybe they’re carrying desktop computers back and forth. Or desks.

They wear knickers, cotton cycling caps (no bike helmet laws here) and lace-up shoes. They ride Brooks saddles and even use toeclips, rare items only a few years ago.

You see threadbare, embroidered Euro team-logo jerseys or warm-up sweaters on skinny, intense, unshaven guys smoking like ‘40s film stars at curbside cafĂ© tables, their old chrome Masi track irons safely locked up nearby.

Late in the last century, I tried to give away an armload of wool cycling clothing; no one wanted it. Too retro, too much hassle. I wonder if wool stuff retains that tobacco smoke smell.

You Can Take the Boy Out of Berkeley...

(Written for the Rivendell Reader, this piece was never published. Grant Petersen was gratified but embarrassed by the attention)

Often, even if at the moment I need nothing material to complete me as a cyclist, I browse the Rivendell web site or paper catalog. I invariably find myself smiling as I read Grant’s writing.

At the risk of embarrassing him, I’m telling you that I love his “voice” in print. This is Grant’s magazine, but this is my page. I can say what I want….

I don’t do everything he suggests, and (like you perhaps) I’m not the precise person he has in mind as he writes, but I love his attitude. I love to watch him draw lines in the sand. All ye Roly-Poly Righteous step over; narrow-tire types can run along home.

As I read the A. Homer Hilsen copy on the web page, it seemed to me that Grant’s position and mine on one aspect in particular are identical. That aspect has nothing to do with Hilsens or Crystal Fellows or Kookaburra Woolwash.

Grant and I are reluctant to assist bike customers with expensive purchases that will not result in benefits that our customers will perceive, immediately or later.

We know that many people have lots of what is called disposable income and that some of them delight in using a bit of it to buy bikes and parts. We applaud that impulse.

But if X-amount of money will buy a product that will provide mechanical and emotional satisfaction now and down the road, we suspect that spending 2X for one percent more sizzle violates some rule about diminishing returns.

Grant and I both came out of Berkeley or its environs in an era when no one had any money or (if they did) they concealed it from others. We didn’t wear blue workshirts, Woody Guthrie-style, but we liked the look.

We came from a time when if you were a new rider, you bought a new-rider-style, mid-range bike: a Sequoia or RB-2 or Fuji Newest, not an Eisentraut or Masi.

We felt that buying a Masi for a first bike was overreaching. What would you do for a second act? Were you able to appreciate such a vehicle’s functionality? If you couldn’t discern its superiority, why buy it? Why pay for differences that aren’t distinctions?

You wouldn’t buy it for what it said about you, would you? As a sort of an embarrassing advertisement?

Those questions seem foolish and quaint now, don’t they? Trust me, Grant and I are still asking them, three decades later. If you can’t discern an enhancement in performance, durability or serviceability, why spend the extra money?

Here’s the passage from the web site text that prompted me to write this. Grant is talking (He’s writing, but it SEEMS as if he’s talking.) about Shimano’s XTR rear derailleur, a good extra-cost option, he says, if you’re building up a new A. Homer Hilsen. He goes on to say:

“You might want to go for an XTR or other superlight cassette, too. We can price them for you, and steer you toward the right stuff, and we'll be careful with your money, making sure you don't do anything foolish or spend more than necessary.”

And about hubs:

“Phil hubs jack the price way up there, but they are Phil hubs, after all. The stock Shimano LX hubs are a great value, really good hubs, and you shouldn't feel funny about getting "only" Shimano hubs on a bike this great. They are worthy, or we wouldn't recommend them. But if you've always lusted after Phil, and you can handle a several hundred dollar upcharge, why not?”

That’s ol’ Grant, watching out for you as you spend your money. Both of us, Grant and I, (and lots of other good people in the bike-biz) retain that Aquarian reluctance to lavish other people’s money on bike purchases.

We want those people to ride their bikes, to be happy with their bikes, and to think of us kindly for selling them such wonderful bikes. We’d like to think we treated them fairly and advised them wisely, just as we would a friend or family member.

Because our customers are cyclists, they do seem like friends or family. They’re often kindred spirits, especially (in my view) Rivendell people.

Certain customers do not appreciate that sort of attention from sales folk. They’re used to buying the best. They feel sure that more money means more bicycle. They distrust a salesperson who assures them that they’ll be happy with less. What’s the angle?

Maybe they will be happy with the LX hubs; maybe they won’t. Why take a chance?

As longtime cyclists and people who work in the bike business know, bikes are not nearly as different from one another to ride as they are different in price. You can pay ten grand for a racing bike today; it’ll be cool but not twice as cool as a bike that costs 1/4 the price.

Bicycle salespeople are told to start at the top, meaning to show customers the expensive models first. If the customer has a lower-cost bike in mind, he or she will say so. It’s easier to start high and slide down the price scale than to start low and sell up.

If you talk about lower-priced bikes first, you risk insulting your customer by assuming that he or she is limited by budget. And again, it’s tough to rave about $400 bikes and then accommodate an upscale customer by praising bikes that cost five times as much.

Rivendell Reader articles often feature sub-$400 bikes. I’m sure, though we’ve never discussed this, that no one at Rivendell assumes that everyone who wants a Hilsen can afford one. And they marvel at the joy and utility experienced from low-budget bikes.

Because Grant and I know that low price is no barrier to fun awheel, and because we were raised on Dust Bowl ballads, we encourage spending what’s appropriate – even if you could easily spend more.

The LX hubs truly are “really good hubs,” even if they suffer the stigma of low price.

Oh….all that having been said, write and tell me: Are you the precise person Grant has in mind as he writes?

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