Monday, March 31, 2008

Edwards crashed. Didn't he?

Here's a link to a one-minute YouTube video. It's our own Colin Edwards, the Texas Tornado, on his Yamaha in a Saturday qualifying session for the Jerez, Spain MotoGP race yesterday. Even if you are not a motorcyclist, I believe you'll enjoy watching this. Listen to the frenzied announcers - they know they have witnessed a once-in-a-decade save...

Oh - very probably, watching from the stands or standing in the infield was King Juan Carlos I of Spain, a "keen motorcyclist" according to Julian Ryder, the dean of motorcycle racing journalists.

Oh, fickle, fickle man....

As you'll read, I bought this bike as a frameset new in the late '70s, rode it, raced it, loved it - and then inexplicably sold it, regretting doing it almost from the moment of sale. Amazingly, when I decided that I desperately wanted it back, years later, it appeared, offered for sale. I bought it again and... I'll tell you at the end of the piece.

Absent Friends

In the late 70's I foolishly thought I had real racing potential. The best equipment would help me fulfill that potential, I figured, so that's what I bought. My results continued to be mediocre, but my bikes...wonderful.

Best of all was a Team Raleigh I bought in '78 or '79 from Sunshine Bikes in Fairfax, Marin county, California, where I worked. That Raleigh, one of the red, black and yellow ones, was a TI-Raleigh Racing Team replica. Gerrie Kneteman and Jan Raas each had one; so did a young NorCal amateur named Greg LeMond. And me.

My bike looked exactly like the ones the stars rode. It cost a fortune; I believe the only more expensive frame at the time was the titanium US-made Teledyne Titan. Luckily, I could pay for it out of a series of checks.

My Raleigh was made from the then-new 753, the thin-walled steel tubing that builders had to qualify to buy from Reynolds. Bikies everywhere argued about the new alloy: it was stiff, it was limber, it was strong, it was fragile. They said you could only ride a 753 bike if you were skinny or weak or a time trial specialist. They said every damn thing.

I thought the light tubing gave that bike a lively, responsive ride. It felt nimble, a light-footed thoroughbred on the road, especially when I rode on sew-up (tubular) wheels and tires. I remember once, on a ride in Santa Cruz, a classy British racer and shop owner noticed I had easy-to-deal-with clincher wheels and commented, "Clinchers and a 753: isn't done."

I loved that bike. I finished second in the cat four Berkeley Hills road race and generally did about as well as I've done on any bike I've owned. I was always proud of my Raleigh; they were rare and SO good-looking. But I sold it.

Why? If I remember correctly, I convinced myself that the top tube was too long. I thought I needed a short top tube to get the flat back and 90-degree bent arms I saw in pictures of European pros like Didi Thurau. I probably figured the seat angle was too shallow, too.

Hey, I was well into my thirties, but I was certifiably stupid. I sold it.

A doctor from Marin, Mike Mandel, bought it from me in the early '80s. I regretted selling it, and I'd think of it now and again and sigh. Then, this summer (1990, I think?) I got fitted for a new Lighthouse custom frame. My builder, Tim Neenan, calculated I needed a relaxed seat angle and long top tube.

I remembered my red, black and yellow Raleigh and sighed again.

Ten years ago, I thought, I had the right thing and sold it. So the next time I called Sunshine Bikes, I asked Martin Hansen there if he'd ever seen that old Raleigh of mine.

"The 753?" he asked. "Oh, it's here. The guy who bought it rides his mountain bike all the time now. The Raleigh's hanging in here on consignment. Why? You wanna buy it back?"

I went to Fairfax, took the bike down off the hook and looked it over. Mandel had commuted from Marin to San Francisco through salty Bay fog; the bike looked lightly corroded. Chipped spots on the top tube showed rust. Some of the parts on the front brake quick release had lost their plating and rusted badly.

On the other hand, the paint was all there and the decals looked pretty good. All the parts but the wheels were original. Originally my choices, that is: those bikes were sold as frames only. You equipped them yourself.

I decided the old red rat looked all right. I wanted it, but I had a brand new Lighthouse coming, made to measure, angles and all. Why buy this one?

On the off-chance, I borrowed a tape measure and an angle gauge from the shop at Sunshine. Sure enough, the old Raleigh dimensions and angles measured almost exactly the same as my custom frame would have. Maybe it?s true: There is nothing new under the sun.

So I bought it back, lubed up all the (Nuovo Record) moving parts, touched up the paint, replaced the rusted brake pieces and polished it up. Paradise is regained. That old bike still rides like it's alive, like a purebred.

It's waiting for me now out back, leaning against my garage, Team paintwork (livery, they call it in England) glistening in the early afternoon sun.

I don't believe it goes as fast with me on it now as it did then, a decade ago. I do know that, this time, if I'm not on it, it's not going anywhere. I guarantee it.

Ah, but it did go elsewhere. I wanted something, a bicycle or a motorcycle, and I needed the money that selling the Raleigh would generate. I sold it to a really good guy, motorcycle racer, cyclist and designer Mike Krynoch. I've tried to find Mike via the internet and failed. If you know how to get in touch with him, please send me a note via my blog. Third time's the charm.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Pro racer style - from the early '90s

At the two rain-soaked Tours de Trump, sponsored by The Donald, I worked on a motorcycle carrying the race's official photographer Darcy Kiefel. When this country's biggest stage race became the Tour DuPont, I began working with Mavic, driving a yellow motorcycle, carrying their most experienced race mechanic, Greg Miller. Miller and I would follow the breakaways.

Here are a few of my observations from "the best seat in the house..."

The Attitude

Thinking about the Tour got me thinking about how exceptional it is: the Tour de France is never considered, even by veteran pros, as merely one more race in a long season.

Through the rest of the season, though, pro riders don't turn each race into a life-and-death saga. Here's what I mean.

On the Tour DuPont BMW tech motorcycle, mechanic Greg Miller and I follow Fabian Jecker (2nd place) up Wintergreen mountain and across the finish line. The sky's black, thunder cracks, lightning forks down through the clouds. Spitting rain; soon it will pour.

Miller hops off, I park the motor, drag my yellow Mavic slicker out of the tank bag and walk back to the finish area.

A few riders have crossed the line but most have not. The brutal four-mile climb (seemed farther to me) blew the field apart. I stand maybe 10 yards past the line and watch one totally wasted racer after another pedal across.

Steve Hegg, (Suburu-Montgomery) soaked with rain and sweat, rolls across the finish line. As he passes, he looks over, says, "Yo, Maynard. How're you doin'?"

Hegg's got the pro attitude. He takes his job seriously but doesn't act serious. He keeps a little distance. You begin to sense it if you're around these guys a while. The attitude.

Before each stage, guys would roll by, warming up. Some would stop a minute, say hi, maybe ask about the motor. "How do ya like that thing? Run good?" Or they'd ask if I liked working with my Mavic mechanic, Greg Miller, as much as I'd liked carrying photographer Darcy Kiefel the previous few years.

"Miller's not near as pretty," I'd say. Darcy, incidentally, was in Spain at the time shooting the Vuelta de Espana for Winning Magazine.

Or during races, riders would drop past us on the way back to their team car for water or to chat. Or we'd have some occasion to pass up through the group. Amazingly, to me at least, guys would notice us there and say hi by name, "Hi Greg," or "Hi Maynard," as if they weren't 80 hilly miles into a hard day in the most important stage race in the US.

Perhaps you saw this one on TV: a rider who'd been fooling around for a TV camera fell and took down maybe 50 guys. No one suggested finding a rope and a cottonwood tree. Guys shrugged it off, even Nate Reiss, who broke his arm and had to abandon. Reiss turned his palms up: what can you do?

"That's bike racing," guys said.

When we did wheel changes or helped racers who had problems, the guys we helped were always relaxed, cool. Miller would do the service and push the rider down the road. That was that. No high drama, no screaming. One guy calmly ate his food and watched the caravan go by while Miller laboriously unwrapped the cotton musette (food bag) strap tangled in his rear axle.

Just doing their jobs, those guys ride lots of races. The race organizers, announcers and press, also doing their jobs, will try to convince you that this race today is the most important, toughest, biggest-money race ever held.

But pros know, and "pro" amateurs, that (Tour de France excepted) today's race is another bike race, much like the one last week and the one they'll ride a week from now. Can't win all of 'em. The season's long.

All these guys chose, obviously, to make their living (or at least devote a period of their lives) to racing the bike. Just as obviously, they have to love it. It can't be just a job, just a thing to do - instead of trading securities or selling cars or delivering mail. It’s too hard.

But that commitment is a given among their peers. It goes without saying. And having to endure pain and frustration simply comes with their territory. Davis Phinney loses lots of sprints. Greg LeMond only wins a few races a year. Guys have bad days or bad luck at bad times.

If you ride 150 races and win 10 you're a superstar. You lost over 90% of the time but everyone wants your autograph.

Even though they’re devoted to bike racing on the most intense level, mostly, when you see them, pros don't much want to talk about the race. And when you do hear them talk about races, the descriptions sound different from ones you hear on club rides.

You don't hear guys talking about how much they suffered; they seem outside of it. They describe running out of steam and having to slow down - without mentioning, as mortals would, the pain of "blowing up."

"It was fast," you might hear, "I could hang" - or "I couldn't."

They do what they can. Maybe it's enough at the time to get the job done, maybe it's not. They recover and do it again. You hear it all described, as I've suggested, as if they observed it, not lived it. Minimum drama.

We impose the drama, you and I. It's in our eyes, I believe, the eyes of us fans. To the racers, after dozens or hundreds of races, each one's a task, part of the job, just "bike racing."

I watched Erik Breukink calmly win the DuPont at the last minute in the Wilmington Time Trial. Breukink, just doing his job, pedaled (by my Beemer speedo) 42mph on flat sections, 25 up short hills, seemingly as calm as my mailman, who just delivered the latest VeloNews.

Their descriptions of their respective work days might sound somewhat alike, at least in tone. Two men at work, Breukink and my mailman. I'd rather watch Breukink. However nonchalantly he might describe his job, it looks awfully dramatic to me.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

He just thinks he's an athlete...

Since I began posting old stories on my blog site, I have brushed aside the cobwebs and entered the tomb of ancient floppies. This piece, written in WordStar for the edification of you historians, must be from the early '90s. It's one of the stories I submitted to Velo Press for my second book, Half-Wheel Hell. Let's say it's 15 years old.

As you'll read in it, the "old bikie days" were past, and the new era of the aerobic-athlete-on-a bike had begun. As I ride the bike paths here in Denver (I love the bike paths here in Denver) I revisit some of the old feelings I wrote about in this piece. Almost nothing has changed. Oh, except that there are more cogs on the cassettes and more idiots on the bike path...

Something Happened

Cathy said she’d been riding with her friend John, a new rider getting used to clipless pedals. At a traffic signal, he forgot for an instant how to release his foot from the pedal. He toppled over, still attached to his bike.

At that very moment, another guy on a bike appeared, going the same direction as Cathy and John. Cathy told me he looked to her like a bike rider, in Lycra and a helmet. The guy saw John lying momentarily helpless in the crosswalk.

"Hey, get the f--k out of the road," the guy yelled.

Let's postpone looking at the man's anger. We can amuse ourselves guessing what he thought John was DOING, foolish and helpless on his side in the street. Did he think John CHOSE to lie precisely there, to present a guy-and-bike-size obstacle to motorists, pedestrians and cyclists?

Did he assume John did that same number at every stop sign? Had he never himself toppled, feeling stupid, off a just-stopped bicycle? Had he never done even one klutzy thing? Guess not, huh?

But the anger, after all, fascinates. I'm afraid, as cyclists like this guy vent their anger in antisocial bursts at pedestrians, drivers and other cyclists, cycling itself will be blamed. It'll be "those bike riders."

It's not cycling's fault. Guys like that one bring their anger into the sport with them. It seethes inside them someplace, only boiling to the surface at exercise-elevated pulse rates. Probably they think of all that frustration and animosity as motivation, as competitive fuel. Grrr.

They think they're athletes. They're assholes.

The worst part is there are so many of 'em. Just about anywhere you go in our society (at least the urban variety), friendly, considerate, reasonable behavior is no longer the norm. Uh-uh. Go to the movies, pay the six-fifty and see for yourself. Or drive a car.

Or, when you're on your bike, smile and wave at every cyclist you see coming the other way. Please don't hold your breath till someone waves back.

Or watch groups of cyclists training four-abreast across a road, blocking car traffic. Then watch 'em flip off the drivers, who (puzzled by the reluctance of two-foot-wide vehicles to let themselves be passed) eventually manage to blast by.

Watch as "serious" (read "brain-dead") cyclists practice that seriousness in absolutely inappropriate situations. You see them on multi-use bikepaths, bellowing on-your-rights and on-your-lefts, swerving among the baby strollers, skaters, recreational cyclists and skateboarders.

We bike riders complain about driver behavior, but are we better? Are we more considerate? Do we also act as if we own the road?

Is it truly, as we like to think, them and us? Or is it just one colossal us? Aren't we in truth one huge frustrated mobile citizenry, each of us ready to vent that frustration ("Hey, get the f--k out of the road!") at the first real or imagined excuse?

I'm afraid driver and bike rider are more alike under their thin skins than cyclists would like to believe. Driver and cyclist alike: driven, tense, hair-triggered. Hostile.

Wasn't always like this. When cycling was a lonely counterculture statement we all waved. We all looked weird together in our stretched wool shorts and shrunk wool jerseys. We didn't know anyone who made money riding a bike. We thought 100 miles was pretty far. We had heroes whose names we mispronounced.

We did not boast that our stressful, successful careers drove us to ride ever farther, ever harder, to unwind in our restless off-hours. Mostly, we didn't have careers. We were proud we'd opted out of that "trap." We weren't achievers, we weren't exactly athletes. We were bikies.

We worshiped Eddy Merckx or Fausto Coppi, studied the great tapestry of European cycling history. We were not then disciples of the great insatiable god Fitness, in whose name abuses beyond number are performed. We didn't do workouts; we rode our bikes.

We used to think - correct me if I'm wrong - that riding a bike made you mellow. Such mellowness made it easy to tell us from car drivers: we were generally thinner and not nearly so angry.

Mostly, we weren't getting ready for anything. We hadn't heard about pain, gain, personal bests, target pulse rates and amino acids. We weren't proving anything. We liked to ride our bikes.

We were less obtrusive on the road not merely because we were fewer but because we weren't each on some mission. We weren't dedicated to the righteous, relentless pursuit of fitness today. We liked to ride our bikes. What happened?

If you're the guy who yelled at Cathy's friend or one of the oh-so-many bikepath bullies just like him - strike a blow for quality of life. Stay home with your Soloflex. Thank you.

Light bulb

I wrote this ten years ago for Velo Business, a short-lived trade journal published by the Velo-News folks in Boulder. My friend Bruce and I worked together at the Tour du Pont and later at the Tour de Trump, "driving" support motorcycles: Bruce carried race doctor Andy Pruitt; I carried Greg Miller, a Mavic mechanic. I lived in Berkeley at the time. I can't recall why I was in Colorado riding with Bruce when I found a needed a taillight bulb...

Hi Guys

My Tour DuPont motordriver buddy Bruce and I rode our motorcycles out of Boulder, looping through charming Lyons, Colorado. Lyons seems to be on the routes of lots of fun rides, bicycle and motorcycle.

We swapped motorcycles for a few miles up Boulder Canyon. As I followed him up the curving road, I noticed that one of the two bulbs in his taillight, MY taillight, wasn't burning. I'll fix that today, I thought.

Rolling through Lyons, we saw a line of used motorcycles, maybe half a dozen, in front of two open garage doors.

No sign announced it, but we were unmistakably looking at a primitive motorcycle shop, evidently a repair shop. We could see toolboxes, oil and paint cans and partially dismantled motorcycles in its poorly lit, messy recesses.

Bruce, I said, let's stop here and see if we can fix my taillight. Sure, he said, good idea.

A skinny guy in a good-ol'-boy undershirt greeted us, saying he wouldn't be open for a week or so but would help us if he could. I said I thought I needed a new taillight bulb. I asked to borrow a Phillips to take off the lens and look at the old bulb.

He dug out one of those reversible socket screwdrivers, put the smaller Phillips bit in position and handed it to me. He said he wasn't sure he had any bulbs but he'd look, and told me about an auto parts store down the road that would surely have one if he didn't.

He and the other four guys hanging around there spoke in what I'll call an unpolished manner. They were not urban sophisticates. They did not belong to trendy health clubs or talk about current cinema, but they were glad to see us. Hi guys.

I fought with the two tight screws and eventually got my lens off. The skinny guy found a couple bulbs after all, new or used, hard to tell. I took my old bulb out and stuck in one of his. Lit up fine.

He said, here, try this other one, maybe it's better. I did, and it was. Brighter. Super. Another roadside repair completed.

I borrowed a can of WD-40 to spray the lens screws. The guys watched me clumsily replacing the lens and never so much as chuckled. They chatted with Bruce and me, friendly as family, friendlier than many families, if I'm honest.

Lens reinstalled, I put the screwdriver back where I saw him pick it up, the WD-40 back on its shelf.

How much do I owe you, I asked. If you give me a dollar, the skinny guy said, I can replace that bulb. I gave him two dollars, borrowed on the spot from Bruce. We shook hands all around. The guy said to come back anytime, he'd be officially open soon. We said we sure would.

As Bruce and I rode away, I looked over at him and asked him if that had been a fun stop. Sure was, he said, nice guys. Really nice, I said.

You'd imagine a visit to a motorcycle store would be intimidating, a brush with more macho, badguy theater, beer-bar camaraderie than you'd wanna put up with. Typically, it's not like that.

In most motorcycle shops you don't have to prove you're worthy of respect. You're a good guy until you reveal somehow that you're not.

Thinking about that, I said: Bruce, compare that to a stop in a bicycle store where no one knows you. Might be a different experience, huh?

Good chance, he said.

Walk into such a shop. You can be a skinny, middle-class white guy with some college, a Bronco and an 18-speed bike with aftermarket wheels, just like the employee you ask to help you. May not matter.

Bruce and I were separated from the guys in the Lyons motorcycle shop by barriers of social class, education and accent. Didn't matter. We rode motorcycles: We were okay.

In the bicycle store, there's a chance that if the guy who helps you doesn't recognize you from photos in VeloNews, you're out of luck. If you're Sean Kelly, you're probably okay. But if you're not...If you're just a bike rider...You may get no respect.

Curious, isn't it? Hey, you ARE a bike rider. You're not a pain in the butt. You're in the shop to spend money. Still, if you want to be treated as more than a poser, more than a clueless consumer, you still have to prove who you are.

You somehow have to show the young man: Who you know, how fast you are or how many trophies store dust on your mantel. How many legs you've broken.

You do not represent a threat to this guy, right? You don't want anything he has. You don't want to beat him in a training ride sprint. You don't want to steal his girlfriend.

Why is he so wary? Why doesn't he welcome you the way the guys at the motorcycle shop welcomed my friend Bruce and me?

Those guys had next to nothing to sell us. They did not have thousands of dollars worth of parts, accessories and bikes displayed in their store. They were simply glad to see us, glad to have kindred spirits drop by their place of business on a beautiful day in Lyons, Colorado.

Did it matter that neither of us was Kenny Roberts? Evidently not.

After all, motorcycling is a hobby for most folks. The average biker rides 1500 miles a year, maybe a couple rides a month. If Harley dealers had to rely on dedicated riders (as many bicycle shops do) fewer Harley dealers would be millionaires.

By contrast, regular cyclists are ALL dedicated. Cycling demands dedication. It's way harder than motorcycling. Any cyclist has done hard things, climbed long hills, fought endless headwinds, been hot, been cold, been soaked. He or she has endured. Cycling's hard.

And cycling is more of a lifestyle than motorcycling. Most cyclists think about eating right, staying hydrated, getting quality rest. They think about performance clothing, about bike fit, about physiology, about victimization by drivers, on and on.

Cycling's hard. Bike shop visits shouldn't be. Cyclists or prospective cyclists deserve respect, Sean Kelly or not.

Cyclists shouldn't have to show no stinking badges.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Two Weeks in Milano

In the early '90s, Timberland decided to open a store in Milan. My wife Shelly worked for them then. They asked her to help out at the store for a couple of weeks, to make sure the place felt authentically "American."

Sure, they said to her, take your husband. We'll book an appropriate room.

And they did, in a rockstar hotel in Milan, brutally expensive but convenient to northbound roads leading to Monza and Lake Como.

I took my RB-1 Bridgestone. It had LeMond Drop-In bars given to me by Boonie Lennon, the inventor. I wore a Giro helmet. Italians stared and asked me questions I couldn't understand.

I'd clack through the hotel lobby with my bike. The guys working there treated me as if I were Francesco Moser. Only bigshots stayed there, stuffy types, not cyclists, so the bellmen got a kick out of me.

I'd ride north, never looking at my map, trying to get lost. When I'd succeed, I'd think: You're lost on your bike in the north of Italy. Better to be lost in Italy than know precisely where you are anywhere else.

One time I got genuinely lost and asked at a cafe for help. A guy hopped on his Vespa, directed me to follow, and took me at bicycle speed to the road I was seeking.

I rode to the shrine at La Madonna del Ghissalo. I rode to Como and had lunch at a lakeside cafe. I rode to Bergamo and hung out with the US National Cycling Team. The guys were staying in a pizza place-hotel called something like Mother's.

They were racing in a big pro/am stage race based in Bergamo. One of the national team riders, a hell-for-strong kid from Texas who'd just given up triathlons, won the thing. His win surprised everyone but his teammates, who knew just how strong he was.

Later in the decade, that same guy won the Tour de France.

Don't call Sunday midday...

...because MotoGP is on TV!

MotoGP is the highest level of motorcycle road racing. I did not watch any motorcycle racing for years until alerted to the addictive fun of MotoGP by my friend Jim Widner in Bisbee, Arizona. Now, Tamar and I pay for an extra cable TV package so we never have to miss a race.

You could say that MotoGP is the Formula One of two-wheeled motor sport, but that would be selling MotoGP short. For whatever reasons, Formula One is fascinating to knowledgeable enthusiasts - and MotoGP is just fascinating. It's fun and human and accessible.

The season is 18 races long. It began in Qatar in the Middle East, with a first-ever night race (imagine lighting a 2 1/2 mile road course) a couple of weeks ago. It continues on Sunday with the best-attended event of the season in Jerez, Spain - 150,000 crazed fans in the stands or wherever there's a place to sit or stand.

Please, even if you're a staunchly unpowered two-wheeler, catch a MotoGP broadcast on Speed TV. Be sure to watch the interviews post-race with the guys who made the podium. Experience Valentino Rossi and Nickie Hayden and the other stars as they share their often from-the-hip comments.

The MotoGP from Jerez airs at one in the afternoon on Sunday. I haven't yet turned off my phone for one of these race broadcasts...but it could happen...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Sweet old story...

I wrote this piece for Winning in the mid-'80s, meaning I wrote it longhand, I guess, and then typed it so I could fax it off to the magazine. I meant it to be nostalgic even then, so it's super nostalgic now but it still works as a story, I think. See what you think...


I guess it had been there forever. I know it was already there in the basement, covered by an old tarp, when I first started to hang around Bob's shop. No one had disturbed the dust and cobwebs on it for years; it looked like the oldest racing bicycle in the world.

Not that it was all that ratty, really. The paint had faded but you could still read the decals. The colors in the enameled Cinelli emblem on the head tube stayed vivid all that time. I was struck, when I first saw the bike, by the strange old-fashioned shapes of some of the parts: the gear changers, the rusty toeclips and the bottle cages.

The cage on the handlebar was empty but the one on the downtube held an oxidized aluminum bottle with a cork stopper, like you'd see in old racing photos. All the bike's alloy parts had dulled and filmed over with age.

The cotton tape on the bars had lost its color and frayed above the brake levers. No one had fussed over that old bike for years.

Occasionally, after I started working at Bob's, my tasks took me down to the cellar; naturally I sneaked a curious look or two at the old Cinelli. When I asked Bob about it he said it didn't belong to him; it was just stored down there. I should ignore it. After a while I forgot about it almost completely.

There was no reason to think about that old bike when Bob's nephew Charlie began staying with Bob in the summers. Charlie was 16 or 17 when he started spending two months at Bob's house each year, helping out part-time in the shop.

At first, the shop was just a place for Charlie to work. He'd keep the store looking straight and he'd sell parts when we got busy. Quiet times, he'd kind of stand around and stare out the window as if he wished he were someplace else.

Bob gave him a reasonably nice used bike to ride around. Charlie got from place to place on that bike but he by no means seemed interested in bicycle riding, if you know what I mean. I don't know how he felt about us bikies, dressed funny and smelling like wet wool, but he was always pleasant if a little distant. We were nice to him because he was generally OK and, after all, he was Bob's nephew.

Most of the year Charlie lived with his mom, Bob's sister, in a town smaller than ours an hour's drive away. Bob told me the boy had lost his father in a car accident when Charlie was just a kid. When I would see Charlie and his mom together, it seemed to me they didn't get along so well.

In fact, he didn't appear to be especially close to his uncle, if you ask me, or to anyone else. I wouldn't say he looked unhappy but he kept to himself and watched what went on.

The second year he worked for Bob, Charlie had grown taller and more curious. He'd added a couple inches of height by magic during the school year and he seemed more interested in us bike riders and in cycling.

He wanted to know how far we rode and how fast. He wanted to know if we raced all the time or did we just pedal along and look at the scenery. He asked me if we felt trapped, locked to our bikes by the toeclips and straps. A couple of times I saw him heft my bike, then his, then mine again, shaking his head.

He began riding more, spins around town at first, then longer trips on the country roads we trained on. Once our group met him on the road; he fell in with us but took another route after a few miles. It was as if he didn't care if he rode with people or alone.

He still had no actual cycling clothes even though Bob would have sold him anything he wanted at cost and let him work off the price.

Bob didn't act any different around Charlie than he did around the rest of us. He answered his nephew's questions carefully but he didn't appear to be just jumping up and down over the kid's new interest in cycling. Bob was getting in lots of miles himself at that time but he never, as far as I know, went out of his way to convince Charlie to join him on a ride.

Bob, too, kept mostly to himself and watched what was going on.

We began to see Charlie on his bike in the mornings, when we'd be out on our training rides. Sometimes he'd sit in a while and drop out, or he'd start up a hill with us and not be able to keep up and we wouldn't see him again. He invariably insisted afterwards that he was glad we'd gone on, that he wouldn't have wanted us to wait for him and spoil our ride.

As the summer went on, it took longer and longer to drop Charlie. He still rode in cotton shorts and sneakers but he kept that loaner bike immaculate. He raised and lowered the saddle and bars and adjusted the brake levers until he looked pretty good on his bike.

Soon he wasn't getting dropped at all. He became one of the boys, riding in the mornings and helping his uncle in the afternoons. He showed all the signs: his suntan was arms-and-legs-only and he had suspicious dark patches on the backs of his hands.

He began to take more time with Bob's customers, especially those who were just getting started in athletic cycling. Since his own knowledge was only a few weeks old, he could understand beginner problems better than the rest of us.

Bob saw all this happening and supported the boy in his off- handed way. He sprung for a pair of cycling shoes for Charlie, sold him some shorts for half of cost and gave him an old but not so worn jersey of his own.

He showed the boy how to wash wool clothes and how to shine the whole leather cycling shoe, sole and all. When it needed it, Bob would work on Charlie's bike while the boy watched. Mostly, after watching once, Charlie could do the repair himself the next time.

Late in July, Bob asked the boy and me to stay after closing on a Saturday night. He disappeared down in the basement for a moment, emerging with the old Cinelli on his shoulder. I thought, oh wow, he's going to give that bike to Charlie.

Bob stuck the bike in a repair stand and asked us if we felt like doing some restoration work. Sure we did, we said, and Bob handed us tools.

I took off the wheels, cut the spokes and threw them and the old rims away. I repacked and polished the hubs and laced up two new rims, ready for Bob to true.

Bob took off the cranks, bottom bracket and headset, cleaned the parts in solvent and reinstalled everything.

Charlie removed the derailleurs, shift and brake levers and brake calipers to clean and relube them. He polished the aluminum parts and rubbed down and waxed the frame.

He and I put on the changers, levers, brakes and new cables. We taped the bars while Bob finished the wheels. Bob glued one tire; Charlie and I did the other.

Bob got out a tape measure, checked the bike Charlie had been riding, and set the Cinelli seat to the same height. We all three stood back and looked at the resurrected old bike. Bob asked Charlie if he'd like to ride it around the block, under the streetlights.

As the boy went out the door, Bob reminded him to be careful on the freshly-glued tires.

You're going to give that bike to him, aren't you?, I asked.

I can't really do that, Bob said, it's already his.

I don't understand, I said.

That bicycle's been his since he was five years old, Bob said. That's his daddy's bike.

Finally - a spin-free statement about the upcoming election. Be of good cheer!

More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

Woody Allen

It's a motorcycle story - about bicycling!

I wrote this in 1995, I think, based on the motorcycles I owned. It ran in CityBike, the San Francisco free monthly motorcycle paper that has provided me with my longest-lasting job ever. You will read a subtle reference or two near the end of this piece about loud exhaust pipes and the folks who defend them, claiming they are safety items. See what you think...

Saving Lives

Every so often CityBike Publisher Brian Halton asks me to write about bicycling and motorcycling, about what's the same and what's different.

Usually I resist. I can't imagine many CityBike readers caring much about bicycling, but perhaps my attitude is outdated. I remember when few motorcyclists (except motocrossers, who used them for exercise) saw bicycles as anything but toys or rolling roadblocks on the scenic routes. Mountain bikes changed that perception, I expect.

Then, when I got numbers of letters from experts about road safety, I began to rethink Halton's request. There are some aspects of bicycling that might interest CityBike readers...

My friends and I do six or eight or 10,000 miles a year, every year, on our bicycles. Ninety-five makes 20 years for me. I'm not bragging about that, I'm only telling you what's true.

Bicycles aren't like motorcycles - if you want to ride with your friends on Sunday and you'd like to have a pleasant time, you have to get out a few times during the week. Do that week after week and the miles add up.

I know people with 35,000 miles on a bicycle, a damn bicycle, on its third or fourth paint job.

People by the thousands ride 100 miles on a weekend day, all kinds of people, men and women, young and old. Just like motorcyclists, some of them are better riders, safer, more skillful, more considerate than others. Just like motorcyclists, a few are assholes.

Most of us ride on tires an inch and an eighth wide. Our brakes are simple devices that squeeze rubber pads against the sides of our wheel rims. No ABS. We don't have horns or full-time lights.

We're out there every day, on the same roads you ride on your scoot. We average maybe 18mph, 10 or 12mph up the hills, 25 or 30 or more down them. So if there are 100 cars on one of those roads, at one point or another we're in close proximity to all 100; they all come by.

On your motorcycle, you're close to two cars; one in front of you and one behind. You feel funny about them, you want to get away, you gas it. We don't have that option.

We intimidate no one. No one thinks we're armed. No one worries that if they piss us off we'll chase them down in their V-8 pickup, drag 'em out and kick the shit out of 'em. It could happen; the sky could fall.

When I'm not on a bicycle, I'm typically on one of my BMWs. I believe there's an affinity between bicycle people and BMWs. Certainly, BMW has supplied bikes for marshal use at major bicycle races for years, here and in Europe. Kawasaki supplies dozens of bikes to the Tour de France.

I've put 30,000 miles-plus on my R80ST in three years, and about 10,000 on my K-bike in the last 14 months. I've ridden a few thousand miles on rented and borrowed bikes in various places: back east, in Oklahoma and Atlanta and Minneapolis.

I know men and women who put lots of miles, I guess, on all kinds of motorcycles, not just BMWs. In all conditions, all four seasons, all kinds of roads. My buddy Simon has over 200,000 miles on his '87 K75S. Garve Nelson racks up big miles on several Hondas and his big Yamaha.

I know lots of riders with 50, even 100,000 miles on their odometers. Without exception, their motorcycles are hardly louder than a ten-speed right after a thorough chain-lube.

Somehow, by some miracle, out there in that same world you cruise on your scoot, on those same mean streets, all those high-mileage motorcyclists and all my bicyclist friends have managed to survive.

Tell me loud pipes save lives and you can kiss my sweaty Lycra-clad ass.

Saving lives has not a goddamn thing to do with it.

The truth is: You want to be loud. You want to be the cock of the walk, to force people to notice you as you pass through their lives. Obnoxious is a word you apply to other people.

Be loud. Be whatever you want. Don't wrap safety-consciousness around yourself like a goddamn Volvo ad. If the highways were empty, would you put stock pipes back on?

Loud pipes save shit.

Teenage girls ride more miles on ten-speeds in a year than you do on a $13,000 motorcycle. They save their own lives - by learning how to ride.

You could do the same. You won't.

Honest I wouldn't....

I would not so frequently provide links to Dave Moulton's blog site if Dave would just stop writing great posts. Here as you'll see he has done it again.

Dave wrote in this post about the mistreatment of cyclists in traffic by (the significant minority of) insane motorists. Bob Mionske's article in today's VeloNews Online talks about the very same subject. When we ride on the roads, we are elbow-to-fender with Americans at their worst.

Between us, I am afraid that thinking about our exposure on the roads to hostile motorists is not good for me personally.

As the years have passed and incident piled on incident, I have felt less and less welcome on the roads and happier on off-street bike paths. Luckily we have 100s of miles of them in Denver. Hazards are limited to rude cyclists and inattentive pedestrians - pesky but not homicidal.

I do okay on city streets or lightly traveled suburban roads, but if I had to ride on fast, wide streets lined with multi-exit strip malls, I'd have to quit - for my own emotional wellbeing.

As fuel prices rise, distractions multiply, the housing crisis deepens, as millions of boomers realize that they aren't going to live or remain society's darlings forever, as dependency and depression spread across our socio-economic spectrum, life on our streets will be scary.

God forbid it gets worse.

Blaming the victim is stupid and transparent. Drivers treat pedestrians and one another just as badly as they treat cyclists. We don't have to do anything. We're just there.

I don't know how to stop thinking about this and I don't know what to suggest we do about it. If I did know a way to put it out of my mind, trust me: I would.

Read Dave Moulton's blog post and Bob Mionske's VN piece, both thoughtful and well presented. I'm going to try to think about something else.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

About my old Bianchi - from the Rivendell Reader

In 1976, when the events of this story happened, I was living in Marin County, CA. I was a new road cyclist who'd been lucky to have fallen in with savvy old-timers who showed him the ropes.

Not Green

In 1976, I was riding the Raleigh Competition I mentioned fondly in my recent Reader interview, but I longed for a more distinguished mount.

The Raleigh was a “neo-pro” as we called entry level racing bikes in those days. It was a mix of Reynolds tubing types as most bikes were; Deciphering the various Reynolds decals was an art of no particular usefulness, like reading barcodes at Safeway.

Though my Raleigh rode and handled just fine, and exhibited no vicious habits, I felt I should have a bike befitting the rider I intended to be: a faster, stronger, tougher, more graceful version of the adequate club cyclist I was. Ah, vanity.

I made that longing known to Tony Tom, then and now proprietor of A Bicycle Odyssey in Sausalito. I told him I could not afford to buy a new Masi or Ron Cooper, desirable as they may have been.

Instead, I wanted to buy a used frame, then build it up using the parts from my Raleigh. Weeks later, Tony showed me an homely Bianchi, its paint stripped off in preparation for a new finish.

Oh my, a Bianchi, I thought: A bike for the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, for the hairpin turns of the Alpe d’ Huez, for the bike path from Sausalito to Mill Valley...

Though it was romantic, as ugly and unready for prime time as it was, the Bianchi was cheap. Tony looked at me, knowing I was imagining the jerseys a guy with a racing Bianchi might wear. The embroidered shorts. He smiled.

I bought the frame. I don’t believe I ever saw it with original paint on it. Twenty-five years later I can’t remember if I even knew what color the factory painted it. Not green, I remember that much.

We guessed that it dated from the early ‘60s, so it probably needed paint by 1976. It was a Specialissima, Bianchi’s top model. Made from Columbus tubing, far heavier than today’s featherweight tubes, it was entirely conventional except for the headset.

Unique to Bianchi for years, the headset design had long been abandoned by the mid-’70s. The one in the frame was trashed. I searched and found a new one at Velo-Sport in Berkeley, last one in the world, it seemed. Luckily it never wore out.

I took the frame home to my apartment. On my tiny patio, I removed the rest of the paint with foul liquid stripper. I sanded and sanded the frame, which was entirely chrome plated. The areas of chrome that had been exposed were polished. Areas that had been covered by paint were not.

I decided I’d have it painted sand-and-sable, a British staple, light brown and chocolate brown. The lugs and a panel on the down tube would be tan. The rest would be a rich-looking chocolate.

And that’s exactly how it turned out. Lovely.

I couldn’t find old-style Bianchi decals so I thought I’d have the name hand-painted on the down tube and the emblem hand-painted on the head tube.

I found a painter, and he got it dead right: Having never seen a Bianchi emblem, he painted an eagle on the head tube that was nearly perfect, its head facing in the proper direction. He got the script perfect on the down tube sides, too.

I began building up the bike with the Raleigh parts. I realized that from the time I began dismantling the Raleigh until the Bianchi was together, I had nothing to ride. Gave me a sense of urgency I might not have had.

I bought a few things as I remember, perhaps a seat post because of size, and a bar and stem because I just couldn’t face putting anything on my Italian thoroughbred but Cinelli or TTT.

When I got the bike together, it rewarded me for the effort. Solid and long from axle to axle, it glided down the road, steered flawlessly and gave me confidence on twisty descents.

It felt deluxe, if you’ll forgive the old-fashioned word: smooth, expensive, capable, unflappable.

At that point, I had only one set of wheels, the French-hub set from the Raleigh. I had the TA 3-pin crank; Brooks B-17 Narrow saddle; Huret derailleurs and shift levers, and crummy Weinmann centerpull brakes from the Raleigh.

In a matter of months, all those parts went away. I bought Japanese sidepull brakes because I couldn’t afford Campys. I could afford a used set of high flange Campy hubs, though. I bought them cheap and replaced their bearing races. Tony built me my first set of handmade wheels.

I bought a worn-out Nuovo Record rear derailleur and put a new spring, pins and bushings in it. I bought a Cinelli Unicanitor saddle.

I learned a lot as I built up that Bianchi and as my relationship with it evolved. I learned to trust Campagnolo: the two-bolt seatpost, the everlasting hubs and pedals, and eventually all their parts.

I learned how to wrap cotton tape, and how to break and re-rivet chains. I learned how to ride a paceline and sprint for city limit signs. I learned to stop for coffee after rides. I learned how much I enjoyed the company of cyclists.

I was preparing for my career, but I thought I was only having the time of my life.

I rode the Davis Double Century on that Bianchi, the one and only time I did it. I began racing on it, met my girlfriend while riding it, made dozens of friends while I had it who remain my friends today.

I wonder who has that old Bianchi today... Perhaps a Rivendell member has it, and doesn’t realize his old two-tone brown Specialissima made so much difference in one cyclist’s life.

If you do own that bike, let me know through the folks at Rivendell. I’ll come visit. Be good to say hi after all these years.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Club life here - and there

I've just returned from Meet Greg LeMond Day at River City Bicycles in Portland. The LeMond appearance went well, and we had a surprise guest, Lance Armstrong, who was in Portland on entirely different business.

Between Lance and Greg, we had winners of four Tours de France there (note: at that time, in 1999, Greg had won three and Lance his first) at River City. And two of the greatest comeback stories in any sport: LeMond from his accidental shooting, Armstrong from testicular cancer.

They hadn't seen each other since Armstrong's Ride for the Roses in Austin in April. So it was historic, both American Tour winners together in Dave Guettler's River City bike shop. Ya shoulda been there.

After Greg's talk, I chatted with an English couple living in Portland, Jon Walpole and his wife Kirti. In '96, I'd ridden in England, in Leistershire, not far from where they grew up. While there, I rode with the Coventry Road Club, to my mind a typical (terrific) UK bike club.

We talked about clubs in the UK and US and agreed: Club life THERE is superior, so superior that John and Kirti have been trying to replicate British rides in Portland. I'll try to explain why.

English people generally are joiners -- not just the cyclists. Hobbyists of all types form clubs there, happy for like-minded company. Often, British cyclists stay in one club their entire cycling lives, 50 years or more. Clubs meet often, the entire club, not just the board of directors. Lots of clubs rent or own a clubhouse.

Many British cyclists hang out with riding friends OFF the bike, too. In England, your bike club may be a vital part of your social life. Few US riders would call their club membership a major social benefit.

A club ride in England starts at a pub or cafe, same one every time. The ride goes rain or shine. If it's raining and there are no mudguards (fenders) on your bike, you will be asked to stay at the back so you won't pelt others with road grime and water.

The ride proceeds in a side-by-side paceline at a pace most people can sustain. Seasoned riders teach newer ones how to follow a wheel and ride in formation. Veterans pass along helpful information, not barked criticism. Everyone speaks softly, is my impression.

Mid-ride, the group stops at a cafe for tea and a biscuit, some sort of cookie or pastry. More information and cordiality circulate at the cafe. New riders are encouraged to feel welcome -- they ARE welcome.

Jon Walpole became thoughtful as we spoke of that comradeship. He said he felt that Brits were more willing to sacrifice their own needs for those of the group. Americans, we agreed, focus on themselves, on their own fitness or training. We're more individual, somehow.

"It's in the constitution, after all," he said.

Club rides as described above have been happening in England since bicycles became common. Many British cyclists (and Europeans from the continent) have been riding for decades. They've gotten over their Olympic dreams, if they ever had them. The urgency is gone. They enjoy getting out on the bike with their mates.

If they compete, they ride time trials, competing against themselves, trying to beat their best-ever times on some course or other.

Brits ride lots of time trials -- races against the clock over measured courses. Sometimes the course is 10 miles; sometimes it's 25. Sometimes it's 12 or 24 hours. We hold very few time trials here; they do hundreds or thousands annually in the UK.

I mentioned to Jon and Kirti that when I was in England four or five years ago, I rode a "10," a 10-mile time trial. What fun, I said. They said they loved time trials too, and had done many of them.

In all but the most sparsely populated areas in England, a cyclist can ride two or three evening time trials a week. Many RIDE their bikes to and from the events. No car necessary.

In spring and fall, when days are shorter, you may need clip-on lights for the trip home. You need a little money for your entry fee and you need a helmet, but that's it.

You certainly don't need a special bike or even a new bike. Some of the Coventry clubbers had been riding the same old bike for years and years; it didn't seem to slow them down or dampen their enthusiasm.

In these club time trials, you show up at the start/finish, just a place along some highway somewhere. All your riding friends are there. You pay your entry fee and swap pre-ride lies.

When your number is called and someone says GO, you ride 10 miles or 25 miles by yourself. You aren't allowed to draft, so you won't ride close to other racers. You don't take big risks. Crashes are rare.

You merely put your head down and ride fast as you can for the distance. If you want to suffer, go as hard as you can; if you don't, don't.

At the finish, someone will have set up a table with urns of tea and coffee and trays of biscuits. A biscuit tastes really good after 25 miles with your nose on your stem. You swap post-ride lies with your mates. Eventually you pedal home or rack your bike and drive home.

You ride the same courses often; it's easy to gauge your fitness compared to last week, last month or 10 years ago.

We prefer road racing in the States. Road racers must have courage and pack-riding ability. Promoters must organize and prepare, plus arrange permits, corner marshals, portapotties, on and on. Time trialing is one rider at a time; road racing is traffic-blocking packs.

In a road race, if you are five percent weaker than the others, you're dropped. You finish all alone, perhaps feeling defeated. No such risk in time trialing. Everyone finishes alone. No one looks like a "loser."

Here in the US, many riders like their cycling tough and without frills. They don't need cycling friends; It's a workout, not a dating service. They don't need to learn about technique or tradition; They learned all they need to in Spinning (tm) class.

They love training with faster riders, limping home alone, fried and hungry. They're motivated by being yelled at, dropped, snubbed and ignored. Our clubs provide plenty of inspiring masochistic rides for those people.

Me? I miss my friends in the Coventry Road Club.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Leaving Las Vegas by motorcycle

I'd ridden my motorcycle to the bicycle trade show in Las Vegas and seen all I wanted to see.

I rode out of Treasure Island's self-park about two in the afternoon. By God, right across the street was a ramp onto the Interstate north. No getting lost leaving Las Vegas THIS trip.

On the freeway I saw a dozen, no, 20 Harley-Davidsons, in staggered formation a few car-lengths ahead. I worked my way through traffic, fell in behind and stayed with them mile after mile through the desert.

I noticed various recent H-D "big twin" models, no Sportsters, and a late-model white pickup following them carrying luggage. Every bike had a Bartels H-D (a So-Cal Harley store) plate frame.

We rode up I-15, took the Hwy 95 turnoff, eventually stopping in Indian Springs, Nevada, for fuel. A woman, maybe 30, jumped out of the pickup, came over and introduced herself. I'm Carol, she said with an accent.

Carol and the riders were all French, guys and a few couples riding two-up. They dressed like the biker next door except for some of their Roof (brand) helmets; the fronts swiveled up like BMW helmets or Shoei DuoTechs, but the shields operated differently. You could leave the helmet front up, and pull the eyeshield down. Kinda cool, I thought.

None of them spoke English or wanted to try, so I could only talk to Carol. I showed her on my tanktop map: I was on my way to Beatty, then across Death Valley via Stovepipe Wells. She traced another line with a fingernail: Their route to Death Valley Junction.

We climbed back on and rode together for another 20 miles and separated. Carol waved good-bye. Frogs on Hogs. Au revoir, bros.

All over that part of California and Nevada, I saw groups on either Harleys or BMWs. The Harley groups usually WERE groups, riding in formation. The BMW guys were going faster, strung out along the road. Everyone waved, regardless of brand affiliation.

I'm sure they were Europeans on rented bikes enjoying the desert and mountains. This Euro tour-group thing is invisible to us Californians but it's an industry. There were dozens or hundreds of riders.

I bought gas in Beatty, then stopped again for a Gatorade just before entering Death Valley. Hot as it was, it'd be hotter in the Valley. While I drank, I chatted with a bicycle rider under the awning in front of the little store. He'd pedaled for hours to get there and was happy to sit a while in the shade.

I saw a man and woman on two Harleys in the parking lot and walked over to say hi. I'd barely got my hello out when the guy said: This is my sister. We're splitting up here. I'm going to Salt Lake; she's going to LA. She's worried about riding across the Valley.

I looked at the woman, who was maybe 40 years old. Yeah, she said, I'm nervous about the heat. I volunteered to ride across with her, make sure she was fine. That'd be great, her brother said, and she nodded thanks.

She's gonna turn south to Olancha on the other side of the Valley and pick up 395 south, he added. We'd appreciate it if you'd stay with her that far. You bet, I said.

We'll just say good-bye here then, he said, take us a couple of minutes, and she'll be ready to go.

I wandered back to the shade of the storefront awning and chatted with the bicyclist. Eventually, I could see the guy and his sister climbing on their bikes. I walked back to my Triumph and put on my helmet.

By the time I got saddled up, he'd waved good-bye. When I'd yelled my so-long to the bicyclist and crossed the parking lot, she was already well down the road on her Sportster. I chased and finally caught her, surprised that a woman who claimed to be nervous would be riding 90mph from the git-go.

I followed her for miles, watching her ride that motorcycle well and smoothly. When we emerged from Death Valley, the road straightened and the temperature dropped. She slowed, waved me around, gave me an "I'm okay" sign and waved good-bye.

I never heard her voice except the one time, when she said, "Yeah, I'm nervous about the heat."

I spent the night in Lone Pine at a nice old hotel-motel. Had dinner and breakfast in the cafe next door. You hear as many foreign voices in that place (and everywhere on 395) as you do Yank voices.

After breakfast, I walked to the cash register to pay my bill. There was another sweat-salt encrusted bicyclist sitting in a booth near the door. I could see his Colnago outside leaning on the window, a nice road bike.

I asked him how he was doing and we got in a little conversation. He'd ridden from Valencia, about 30 miles north of downtown LA. He'd ridden all night, had to have been a couple of hundred miles, and stopped for breakfast there in Lone Pine.

After breakfast he was headed right back to Valencia. He didn't say so, but he meant: without a break, without any sleep. He did say he was training for some upcoming endurance bicycle race.

It occurred to me the guy might like to take a shower. I'd already showered; I'd be loading up my bike and leaving Lone Pine in a few minutes. I invited the guy to use my room to clean up. You mean it, he asked.

I packed and carried my bags down to the bike while the guy took what I assume was a welcome shower. When I went back up the stairs for my jacket and helmet, he was standing in the bathroom door, wrapped in a towel, toothbrush sticking out of his mouth.

I asked him to leave the key at the desk when he left. He gave me his card and thanked me again. I put on my jacket and wished him a good ride home. You too, he said, and waved goodbye.

A glimpse into too many lives

I wrote this for Winning in 1988. If you are not a bike racer, competitive runner or other style of aerobic athlete (or married to one), this guy Jim may seem a bit over the top in his habits. He's fine, really, a normal, well-adjusted American. He just needs a few more miles...



"Hi, Frank... it's Jim. How you doin'?"

"Good, Jim. How 'bout you? You over that flu yet?"

"Mostly over it, but it sure is hanging on a long time. I think maybe I'm a little over-trained."

"No kidding? Are you getting in lots of miles?"

"Not THAT many, really, but they're all quality miles. No pain, no gain, right? I'm not sleeping all that well. I have this recurring nightmare: I'm crossing the finish line alone, arms above my head, winning Milan-San Remo after a 100-kilometer solo break.

"Then I wake up to realize I'm just the first guy to the lunch stop in the Pottsville Pedal Pushers Metric Century."

"Oh, that's a bad one."

"Really. And I think maybe I'm getting a little too thin. I got on a bus down on Grant Street yesterday; this little girl saw me and screamed. Oh, and my dog, Fausto, my Basset; I came home from a ride Tuesday, Fausto didn't recognize me, took a nip out of my leg, tore my good tights. Upset me."

"Geez, that's too bad. Poor Fausto."

"Well, my jersey might have had something to do with it. I got this old Look jersey, might have belonged to Bernard Hinault. I resist washing it; might have a little of the old magic still in it. Who knows?"

"How'd you get so over-trained?"

"I thought this year I'd really see if I could do it. I wouldn't hold back or compromise. I decided this was the season I would make my mark, get out of cat four and possibly get a cat three placing or two. So far, no good. I think maybe my early season training was ill-advised...."

"Hey, I remember. Running those stadium steps in full field pack, with the bike on your shoulder...."

"Oh, yeah, back in December. That worked out OK, but in January I ran the stairs in Montgomery Towers downtown in a wetsuit and ankle weights. That was hard. End of January I got shin splints, couldn't run anymore, so I started training seriously on the bike.

"I'd ride short in the mornings. I’d maybe do a few sprints, sometimes a 15-kilometer time trial. I'd come home and eat a light meal, maybe pump a little iron. Then I'd go down to the Y and swim a lap or two. In the afternoons I'd get on the bike and do a real workout."

"Jim, that sounds like an awful lot...."

"It wasn't so bad, really. It would have been lots easier if I'd been eating normally. I was trying to take off a few pounds, give myself a break on those hills. I got pretty hungry, and a little grouchy; I admit it. It was during that period that I bit Fausto.

"And my mother moved out so suddenly, after living in that house for 17 years. She'd never even mentioned wanting an apartment. She was just gone."

"You must've been getting super fit about then...."

"Well, sorta fit. I was starting to do longer rides, trying to cross at least two state lines every day. I'd ride in wool sweaters and leg warmers on the hot days, and not carry water. Paying my fitness dues, you might say. I wanted the hardest bike race to seem like a rest day."

"Learning how to suffer, eh?"

"No, that wasn't so bad, in fact. In March I started following my cousin on his motorcycle. At first we'd go about 50 miles at, say, 35 mph. I'd try to jump around the motor every mile or so.

"Later, we'd pick up the speed; I'd ride a 63-inch fixed gear bike with heavy steel wheels and soft tires. When I felt strong, I'd adjust the front brake to drag. We'd quit when my cousin got exhausted. Whew, when I think of trying to breathe, sitting behind that smoky old two-stroke of his...."

"Didn't the racing start in March?"

"Yeah, some of the early season events. I just didn't go. I'd think about the race and how hard all the guys were training; I'd just not go. There's a bunch of guys who ride every morning from a shop here in town. I don't even go with them.

"I see 'em out there; they have a good time, talk a little bit, do some jumps. I've thought about training with them, but I don't know if I'm really ready. I think I need a little more speed."

"All that motor-pacing? You must have terrific speed."

"I have SOME speed, I guess. I don't have enough base. I want plenty of miles in my legs when I start training for real. I'm not interested in showing up at a race just to get dropped on the first hill. Some of those guys are really serious."

"You sound pretty serious yourself."

"Well, I am in my way, but I think I'm doing something wrong. I'm sleeping so badly; last night I had this nightmare that was so bad that when I got woken up by a charley horse I was grateful. I've been kinda hard to get along with; Fausto stays out longer and longer these days.

"I've been thinking about cutting down my reps at the gym, maybe do fewer squats until my resting pulse rate settles back down. That wouldn't be so bad; a few days with normal pulse and I could pick up the miles on the bike.

"Mileage is what I need. If I was sleeping better and riding more miles, I'd be ready. Hey, I want to be ready. Some of those guys are serious."

Saturday, March 22, 2008

From the Clip-'n'-Strap Crypt - late '90s

No wonder no one talks about maintaining wool shorts these days, or shifting with friction levers. Those are obsolete skills. But pedaling?

Pedaling is how we propel our bikes down the road or trail. We do it; We just don't talk about it. We talk about diet, equipment and training.

So imagine my surprise when a young woman asked me about spinning versus big-gear pushing. By spinning, she meant pedaling her road bike at high cadences, not "Spinning," the stationary health club workout.

"I'm gonna race," she said. "What I don't know is how many weeks or months I should train in low gears, spinning, and when I should start pushing bigger gears the way I'll have to in races."

It'd been a long time since I'd thought much about spinning. Back in the '70s, all cyclists thought about it a lot, and about "ankling," rotating the foot at the ankle to better put power to the pedal.

To ankle correctly, you pushed the pedal over 12 o'clock with your heel down. You brushed the pedal past 6 o'clock, toe down. Then you flattened out your foot as you pulled the pedal back up toward 12 o'clock.

Everyone knew all that back then, just as everyone knew about spinning. Magazines ran articles about both. Smooth, fast pedaling, we agreed, was the hallmark of an accomplished road cyclist. Good cyclists spun. Black-socks dweebs pounded big gears.

The cyclist who could ride with the group in a gear two teeth lower than anyone else...was the classy cyclist. But that was years ago.

So as I answered the young woman's question, in my words and phrases I heard voices from those days, echoes from the clip-'n-strap crypt.

Spinning, the old-timers told us, taught you to apply force all around the pedal circle. Your legs learned to cooperate, not fight each other. Spinning made your leg muscles loose, "supple." Suppleness was the goal.

If you weren't a supple, smooth pedaler, at high cadences you'd bounce in the saddle for all to see. You chain would jump and whip. Your bike would jerk and move all over the road.

Pushing makes you a cart-horse, old-timers said. Pushing big gears teaches you to pedal "square," applying force only on the down stroke. You become a one-speed laborer-at-the-pedals, not a complete bike rider.

Training for miles in big gears makes you tired. It may make you strong but you need lots of rest between efforts. If you "die" in a big gear in a race, they'd tell you, you take forever to recover.

Spinning makes you a race-horse, they'd say. If you train in low gears, it won't make you weak; It'll make you efficient. When you need to turn the big gear, you'll be ready to do it.

We listened. In the winter, many of us put on lower gears, gears that forced us to spin. Wintertime spinning broke bad big-gear habits we'd formed in the racing season, and it kept us warmer on winter rides.

Those same old-timers talked about "snap," the ability to increase your pedaling cadence from 85 rpm, say, to 105 rpm in an instant, without standing up, without a sign of strain.

Tourists, triathletes and time-trialists didn't need snap; they chose their own road speeds. Racers in packs (on road or track) had to respond to frequent sudden accelerations or be left behind. Snap was essential.

You developed snap, those old-timers said, by doing miles and miles of fast pedaling. Pushing giant gears at 60 or 70 rpm deadened your snap.

And spinning won't hurt you, they said. You can do it for a lifetime. We heard that. Cycling for a lifetime was what we had in mind.

We were pretty committed. There weren't so many of us. We were kooks in shrunk wool shorts and puckered wool jerseys, way, way outside the mainstream. We liked it outside; We intended to stay there.

If riding was weird, we wanted to do it forever, or until some doctor said we couldn't. We were determined we'd ride to that last appointment. Women rode to the hospital to have their babies. Couples rode directly from their receptions to honeymoons on solos or tandems.

We wanted to ride forever. How could we do that? If you believed the old-timers, and we surely did, we would bend our elbows. We would wear long tights until the thermometer read 70 degrees, and we would spin low gears. Any questions?

Not much about pedaling has changed since then. We don't pull up against toe-straps anymore, our feet can rotate a bit or a lot, and some of us ride slightly longer cranks. And no one talks about pedaling at all.

Maybe we don't talk about pedaling because we can't do anything about it TODAY. We can't change our pedaling style TODAY; We can't buy anything TODAY that'll improve our pedaling in time for tomorrow's ride.

It takes time and practice to learn elegant pedaling. Not money or gadgets, not technology. You have to learn it on the bike, not the web. We're not so patient these days as we were. We'd rather buy things.

Most of us guy cyclists couldn't buy things in the '70s. Things were cheap but we didn't have much money. We shared dumpy apartments and worked part-time in bike shops. We borrowed cars or drove old VWs on borrowed gas money.

Once we had good bikes and a set or two of spare wheels, we needed money mostly for tires and entry fees. Pancake mix and bananas. Girlfriends, bless 'em, paid for movies.

We did have time, and old-timers who advised patience. "Takes five years to make a bike rider," they said. We didn't want it to take five years, but we trusted them. They'd been right about so many other things.

So we bent our elbows. We wore tights until it reached 70 degrees, and we spun low gears for miles and miles. Most of us are still spinning today, 20-odd years later, and we will be, until some doc says we can't.


Friday, March 21, 2008

Livin' Light - written for VeloNews in 1997

Written as you'll see late in the year, not long before the holidays:

Living Light

Except for all those bikes, he was a perfectly normal, charming guy. He had bikes everywhere in his none-too-secure, urban one-bedroom apartment, so many you had to walk carefully, sideways through them.

He had three dozen bikes and no junk, just beautiful bikes you'd be proud to own, each covered with a plastic sheet, protected from dust and cruel sunlight.

The bikes spanned four decades: mountain, time-trial and road bikes, classy bikes and ordinary bikes, nearly every one gleaming, in perfect running order. Rides them all in a loose rotation, he said.

He'd given them names, claiming each had its own personality, even the two identical model-and-equipment Cannondales. They're different to ride, he explained. He still had the first bike he ever owned: a Bianchi bought new in 1989, and the second, and the third.

He insisted he sells a bike now and then, but the prospective owner must submit to a thorough screening interview. The bike's gotta go to a good home. Uh, okay...

Much as I liked the guy (and you would too), I still got a strange feeling seeing all those inert bikes. Forty bikes, living under plastic shrouds in a sort-of shrine where few people ever even see them. Forty bikes, each ridden a few times a year by its doting owner.

Gave me the willies: Looked too much like a morgue in there.

I thought, hey, all but a few of those bikes need new homes, homes with folks who'll ride 'em, not just love 'em and keep 'em clean, oiled and covered up. What IS an unridden bike? What does it represent in the mind of its owner? Is mere ownership satisfying?

I certainly didn't say anything critical to the guy. It's his business what he owns and what he does with it. All the same, walking into that apartment made me face my own multiple-bike guilt: I don't have 30 bikes, but I do have six, and I don't ride them all.

Then I went to the vintage sports car races at Thunderhill Raceway, near my new home in Chico, California. There, people were racing every kind of old sports car you could name, using them as they were made to be used, especially the purpose-built racing cars.

Does racing rare old cars seem too risky? Too costly? If you watched the racing all day, you’d see a car or two spin out, but not one car get damaged. You’d see no dramatic engine failures, signaled by big clouds of expensive smoke.

Instead, you saw people having fun, using “precious” machines that other people hide away in heated garages so cruel sunlight won't fade the paint.

It looked like so much fun. I lusted to drive many of the cars, or ride in them (those that had passenger seats) while someone more qualified drove. And, cough, cough, someone else took care of them mechanically and paid the bills.

Bicycles, in contrast, are such simple machines, relatively cheap to buy and far cheaper to maintain (even for racing-style use) than the lowest-budget race car or motorcycle.

Beautiful as some of the cars were, I didn't want to own any of them. I only wanted the experience of riding in or driving them. I didn’t even want to own the knockout red '58 Ferrari Testa Rossa. It'd be a responsibility rather than a pleasure. Gravity, not wings.

I crave the wings, the experience some machines can provide: Track laps in the race car, rides in the country with friends on the bicycle. You want to fly, not own an airplane.

Use makes the machine worthwhile. Joyful use. Not mere ownership.

Here’s an ownership story my buddy Phil told me. Phil likes "classical" stuff, stuff you buy at bike swaps from folks who, when they heard about the swap, already had the stuff in boxes to take to the dump.

A framebuilder, Phil's brazing up a Frenchified road frame, recalling early '70s Peugeots, Gitanes and Merciers, bikes we were only too glad to be rid of when they were a season or so old. He’s collecting charming old French parts to equip it: Simplex, Stronglight and Huret. Parts that, like chicken pox, you only get once.

Phil's buddy William, a collector, has approximately eight Ideale saddles, French-made, Brooks-like riveted leather relics, new or nearly unused (Quelle surprise!). Phil asked William to trade or sell him one of them. What nerve, that Phil.

“They're my babies,” protested William, whose house is bursting with stuff, five percent of which he uses. He meant: “NO, I'm keeping them all, shielding them from usefulness and cruel sunlight. I don’t care if they’re EVER used.”

If William is hit by a bus, his heirs will box all that stuff up and take it to a bike shop, hoping for ten cents on the dollar. The shop will look at all that gear, worthless to all but 20 people in the US, and give William's heirs directions to the dump, "second right after WalMart..."

At the dump, the eight Ideale riveted leather saddles will be revealed as what they are, what they've been since 1975: weight. Ballast. In poor William's absence, gravity will determine their value, so much per pound.

The best things are invisible: Love, laughter, hope, joy, respect, honor. I wish you houses-full of each. Sadly, you can’t hoard any of them, nor can anything you CAN hoard, even cool bicycles or old French saddles, secure them for you. Stuff is no substitute.

The best things are invisible. You want to fly. Stuff is hard to get off the ground. More stuff is worse. If you have more stuff than you use, there’s no time like the holidays to pass it along. Give stuff away. Get light.

Fly into the New Year.


Sure it's a cheap shot....

Dave Moulton recently put up on his terrific blog a post about cycling terms here in the US and in his native England, specifically "fixed-gear" vs "fixed-wheel." After a few paragraphs focusing on those terms, Moulton talks about fixed-gear bicycle riders.

Moulton does not mean traditional roadies on ancient, low-geared track irons they pedal for short, warm, leg-loosening workouts in the cold months. Uh-uh.

He’s talking about the throngs of young men and women plying the mean streets of our cities on bikes that: Refuse to coast; feature Korean War surplus pedals; offer a selection of one (1) often ill-chosen gear; will not stop themselves by mechanical means, and will not Light Up the Night or even tiny spots front and rear so drunk drivers will have something to aim at.

You may sense cynicism in my assessment of Today's Fixie Hipster Pilot. Dave Moulton, a better guy than me, sees what we all see. He nevertheless manages to see a potential bright side.

Here’s Dave:

Anyway, to sum it all up as I see it; it doesn’t matter that people are getting into this trend for all the wrong reasons. For a few, cycling will get into their blood and they will continue in some form or other long after this trend has passed.

Just as many took up mountain biking in that craze during the late 1980s, early 1990s, and later switched to road bikes. Many are the hardcore bike enthusiasts of today.

If nothing else, they will experience firsthand what it is like to ride a bicycle in traffic. Maybe as adults they will become better car drivers because of it; at least drivers who are tolerant towards people riding bicycles.

I sincerely admire Dave Moulton. Among his several fine attributes, I’d say, is optimism, a tendency to feel that things will turn out well. I hope he’s right about today’s fixie hipsters – I hope that some will eventually morph into bike riders and some will think to say hi and shrug off the cloak of haughty Eye-tee wool superiority that they scored at Goodwill.

I polled some bike shop worker friends, asking if they think that today’s fixie riders will still be pedaling in five years. (Five years? Five years is an eternity! I should have asked if today’s fixie rider will still be pedaling in five months…)

One guy said that they would not be riding and might not be walking. Their knees will be blown out, he said, because of the macho high gear ratios they have chosen for their lean, Spartan urban stealth machines. Or, I suggested, the ratio that they did not choose but that was on the bike when they bought it from the clueless guy who built it up.

To interpret, that’s a no vote. Two, really.

The young lady rider I asked suggested that fixie faddists will have moved on to some other niche activity. They will not survive watching Joe Dude gleefully jump onto the hand-riveted leather saddle of a stiff-hub bike, parroting a statement they thought was theirs alone to make.

That’s another no.

What do you think? Will they be riding tomorrow?

Will many of them, as Dave Moulton feels, keep riding - like many of the thousands of people who fell in love with off-road cycling 20 years ago?

Will they – as drivers or cyclists – adopt a pose of humility and civility? As drivers, will they wear their seat belts and turn their car lights on at night? Will they turn out to be considerate of cyclists sharing their roads?

Will they sell their collector Zippos with the cloisonné Bianchi crests on Craigslist?

Another ancient campfire cycling tale

I wrote this piece in the mid-'80s. As you will perceive, I was married then; Shelly and I lived in Albany, California, adjacent to Berkeley.

For the writers among you: I had evidently not settled into my short-paragraph, active-voice habits at that point. In moving this piece from an old floppy to my blog site, and excising the old WordStar (word processing program) symbols from it, I made two paragraphs from one two or three times. At 1300 words, it's also longer than pieces I've had the freedom to submit in the last decade or more.

It occurs to me that this piece may be older than you are, dear reader. It's so old that my big chain ring was a 52! Oh, well... I hope you like it despite all that.

Bunny Hop

My wife and I put my bike in the car last September and drove down to the Central Coast area of California. We visited with her folks and spent a night or two in bed and breakfast inns in places like Ojai and Santa Barbara, neat places, especially for people who like to ride around on bicycles.

In Ojai I learned about a regular training ride in nearby Ventura Sunday mornings. I got up early and drove off, my bike on the roof rack. I found the place that'd been described to me as the start; there was no one there. A passing cyclist told me he knew of a ride starting across town, at a bike shop, and told me generally how to get there. After getting lost twice, at the last moment I pulled into the mall lot where the ride began.

There were more people unloading bikes there than I'd ever seen for a training ride. I thought, wow, these Ventura folks really turn out on a Sunday. I said hi to the guys in the car next to mine; they checked out my bike, making sure it met a minimum standard, before saying hi back.

I noticed that people oddly seemed to be pulling out of the lot in small groups. When I asked about that, the guys said it would all sort out down the road. I nodded as if I understood.

I jumped into a likely-looking group of about 15 people, two or three women and guys from about 20 to 40 years old. Right away I liked the pace and the almost flat terrain. You could use the big chain ring nearly all the time; not the case in Berkeley, bruddah, where I live. You could sit in the saddle and pedal in, say, the 52-17. I liked it.

About 15 miles out of Ventura, I asked the guy next to me in the paceline how far these rides usually went. I'd had in mind around 30 or 40 miles. After a moment of confusion, he told me that I had connected with an event called the Bunny Hop Century. Our group, he said, was headed for downtown Santa Barbara and back - about, as I remember, 72 miles.

I thought, hey, I can ride 72 miles, especially in the big ring at 20-plus mph. Also, I thought, I don't believe I can find my way back to the start by myself. So it was Santa Barbara or bust with the hard-riding Mystery Cycling Club, of Deleted, California. Makes you tired just thinking about it, doesn't it? Does me.

As we motored up the coast highway one of the women in our group got dropped and drifted back quite a bit, riding alone. Because I am such a super human being and a road cycling powerhouse, I dropped back and chatted with her for a while, then offered to tow her up to the group. I can't keep up, Susan said. Let's give it a try, I asserted positively.

She sat on my wheel and I brought her back to her double-pacelined club-mates. After a few miles we came to what is called a hill in that area, but might be called a rise or roller elsewhere. Again she lost a few feet and the help of the draft. I watched over my shoulder as she slowed and began to struggle. Inevitably, without the draft the gap in front of her grew rapidly.

Once again, I dropped back, telling her she COULD hang in, that she was, in fact, only a LITTLE weaker, that we'd bridge again and she COULD hang on. She'd see, I said, that all she needed was to pick a smooth wheel to sit on and she could stick.

No, YOU'LL see, she told me, I HAD a smooth wheel. I towed her up again anyway, watched her merge into the back of the group, and rode up to the front.

One guy up there, whose name is NOT Steve, really it's not, seemed to me to be the unofficial ride leader. He spent lots of time at the front and had a watchful, serious way. He looked like a bike rider. I said to him, Steve, (NOT his real name), Susan can almost hang on. If we could hesitate just a second at the tops of the rises, she could ride the whole way with the group.

She's a big girl, Steve said (let's call him Steve); she can take care of herself. I admitted (weak, weak) that that was one way to look at it. I went to the back and thought about our little exchange. Certainly it was their club and their ride and none of my business. Certainly they had evolved their way of dealing with slower people over years of group rides.

Still I didn't like what I felt was the coldness of it. I'd known groups like that before; they felt that if new people wanted badly enough to ride with them they'd do what they had to so they could. If the new riders didn't (or couldn't) get fit enough, it was good riddance anyway.

I told Susan, who had just gotten sawed off again, that I'd asked the gentleman in front, the one up there with the red helmet, if the group could just wait the least little bit. I told her what his answer had been.

She said that's just what she would've expected. She said she'd ridden with that same club for years. Some years she'd gotten really fit and couldn't be dropped. Other years, like this one, she couldn't quite hang on. They'd see her when she reached wherever they were headed. She knew of other, slower, friendlier clubs in her area, she said, but she liked this one, even when she couldn't keep up.

She said that when she first rode with them the effort - trying to hang on just one landmark further - made her fast. At that time, the club had not been friendly to women riders; she'd had to prove she could be fast enough and safe enough to qualify. Eventually they accepted her.

It was clear to me that, even that September day, when no one would wait for her, Susan felt proud of that acceptance.

Susan prizes Steve's (not his real name) friendship and defended him valiantly when I told her about his "big girl" remark. She said that all along he's been the enforcer of the "no favors" code the club practices. After a long period of being unimpressed by him, she wouldn't change a thing about the guy.

What a tough woman, I thought. I don't believe that way of initiating new riders would work with me, were I to start all over again. Nothing encourages me more than a little success. Showing up weekend after weekend, only to lack the horsepower or pack-savvy to survive the crunches in the group, would get me down.

I'd like to think I'd sense how neat it'd be to be one of the boys, so to speak, and keep on trying, but I bet I'd weaken. I know I'd give up long before Susan apparently did.

You won't find any easy answers in these last couple of paragraphs. This isn't one of those columns I do (too often) in which I tell all you out there how things should be, as if I knew. This column tells a story that made me think and may do the same for you.

Clearly, the way Steve and the Mystery Cycling Club dealt with new riders worked great for Susan, as she’ll tell the world. Strong folks like Susan will persevere, enduring mini-failure after mini-failure until ultimately they triumph.

Also clearly, some folks are more easily dismayed than Susan, me for instance. Still, folks like me might learn to survive just as well as she did. They might be just as proud of their progress as Susan is, just as protective of their leaders, if given an occasional few seconds of patient encouragement.

Ride leaders should find plenty of opportunities to provide such encouragement, right at the tops of the hills.