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.