Monday, December 29, 2008

The Ferrous Brothers

Tamar and I pedaled to the Confluence, where the South Platte River and Cherry Creek meet, to the Starbucks in our big REI flagship store. We leaned our bikes against a window frame so we could see them from inside the store and went in to get our hot chocolates.

As we walked in, a guy in his forties in an REI apron stepped into our path. 

"How old is your bike," he asked. 

My bike was my Lighthouse, a bright pink road bike made for me by Tim Neenan in 1990. It's model name is Strada (Italian for road). It was designed as an homage to the Italian road bikes we rode and loved in the '70s and '80s. 

It was originally assembled with Campagnolo parts but the only remaining one is the headset. Otherwise, the bike is Shimano stuff, Ultegra or Dura-Ace.

There are little interesting touches here and there on the bike. The bottom bracket is a Cinelli, a design that came and went almost overnight. The shell has a sort-of fin or shelf underneath that the cables pass through. Tim got the lovely scalloped seat stay caps from Mario Confente. The fork crown is graceful - also Cinelli, if memory serves. Pretty bike.

I told the guy that the bike is eighteen years old. His response surprised me.

"Steel is real, my brother," he said.

I hesitated a heartbeat and said, "Whatever you think."

Tamar would have preferred that I be nicer. I didn't intend not to be nice; I just didn't know what else to say. 

When I bought that bike, custom bikes were made of steel. Mine is made of Columbus tubing, maybe SL or SLX or whatever tubeset was current in '90. It wasn't steel because I swore on my mother's health that I'd never ride a bike made from anything else. It was steel because steel allowed builders to construct made-to-order bikes. 

Steel was a frame material option, not a slogan or a fraternity recognition symbol. I am made uncomfortable by secret recognition symbols and especially the use of things we can merely buy as badges of our discriminating tastes. I wouldn't buy a Land Rover or a Harley-Davidson.

I understand that a few people do buy Land Rovers and Harleys because of what the machines DO, rather than what the machines say about them. I bought the Lighthouse, a process that took months, because of what it would do - not because it was a key to the Playboy Club or a cheap secret handshake.

There are all sorts of questions the guy at REI could have asked, and all sorts of comments he might have made. A person riding an 18-year old road bike has paid some dues, unless he or she bought it last week. You just know that or you sense it - and not because he or she is riding a so-called authentic bike. Is every Serotta rider Davis Phinney

If he or she has owned and ridden the bike all along, that person is part of a long tradition of road cyclists. He or she may remember five-speed blocks and 100% wool shorts and Robergel spokes and Techno Tubo Torino. He or she may remember Roger DeVlaeminck and Didi Thurau, the Coors Classic and the Road Worlds at Colorado Springs.

Is the most immediate bond that you can form with him or her your common preference for some frame material? If I am that guy's brother, it's not 'cause of what I'm riding. A bike rider's a bike rider - because of how he thinks and behaves, not because of what his bike's made of. 

I said, "Whatever you think," because I was embarrassed. 

Because of my sweet old Lighthouse, a guy I've never met assumes a huge commonality of experience and taste. And calls me brother. We're authentic, the Ferrous Brothers, at a moment of recognition in Starbucks. I'm still embarrassed.


VC Slim said...

Ride on Maynard. My customary retort to a 'steel is real' greeting is 'yeah, real heavy'.

VC Slim said...

Ride on Maynard. My customary retort to a 'steel is real' greeting is 'yeah, real heavy'.

Anonymous said...

Steel is real, yeah. But then you realize that you rode your last custom bike for 2 decades, and a custom Ti frame is only $4K, so you quit riding steel. It's nice to see youngsters learning about nice classic construction, but will they ever learn to ride a bike?
Earle "I may have paid some dues by now" Young, Madison, Wisc.

Dan Brekke said...

Well, people look for commonalities where they can find them. Not a bad thing, but yeah, a little strange when it's based on something as simple as "hey, you ride a vintage (or "vintage") steel frame." Another thing that makes me feel strange is seeing someone pose their back against a tasteful backdrop for a photo shoot.

On the positive, less-strange side: One of the coolest bonding moments I've ever had with another cyclist was with a guy I encountered riding a rattle-trap ten-speed down Highway 1 south of Carmel. I was doing a short ride -- from downtown Monterey to Big Sur -- and at some point I passed this guy. His bike had steel-wire baskets in the back, and both baskets had garbage bags in them, I think. The guy riding the machine was stopping to pick up cans and bottles along the road. I'd pass him when he'd slow down, and then when we got to any kind of hill, he'd pass me. He was strong. We weren't riding in the city, so at some point I started talking to him -- probably said "Hi" when I passed him or shouted "Go!" when he passed me, or both. I remember that he called back to me, and it was like we were riding that breathtaking section of highway, across that famous Bixby Creek Bridge and past Point Sur, together.

By the time we approached Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where my family was going to meet me after passing me on the road, I knew the guy's name was Jack and that he was picking up empties to help pay for his ride down to San Diego from Sacramento. Yeah -- I was taken with his adventure. That's a long piece of road to navigate on what amounts to spare change. When I spotted our car up ahead, waiting on the shoulder by the state park, I told Jack to stop with me so I could give him some food or something. He did stop, and I introduced him to my wife and to the neighbors we were traveling with. He took a look at me after I took my helmet off and said, "Hey, you're OLD. You're my dad's age." We gave him some of the food we had in a cooler, and maybe a 20 for good measure, and wished him luck. All I can say about the encounter now is that I still think about it, though I have no doubt he made it where he's going. I'd like to think that he's found space in his life to remember that afternoon and remember it, and me, too.

Dan Brekke said...

I meant to say "pose their bike against a tasteful background." Posing their "back" may or may not be strange.