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.


gewilli said...

yup still works...

works well enough to get the eyes a bit misty...

GOB said...


Write another book, Maynard. Please.