Friday, October 2, 2015

Here's an old story that ran in Winning Magazine back in the Reconstruction Era, shortly after the War Between the States...

The Sweater

I threw away my old blue cycling sweater yesterday. I’d had the thing so long I can’t remember being without it. It wasn’t the first jersey I owned. The first was a light-blue and white one I thought looked like Felice Gimondi’s Bianchi team jersey. I gave that one away years ago without a second thought. The sweater though, was tougher.

I think that sweater was made as the top half of an old-fashioned Italian warm-up suit, one of the ones with pants that looked like pajama bottoms. No one bought those pants; if I think about them I can feel sorry for all those rejected baggy warm-up bottoms. I wonder what became of them and hope they’re doing all right, wherever they are.

The shop where I bought that sweater closed not much later. I remember it as a kind of unfocused shop, one you’d seldom find a reason to visit. My girlfriend had bought one of the sweaters there for $15, a bargain even in those days. I stepped right up.

The label, printed in Italian, couldn’t be decoded. You couldn’t tell if it was wool or synthetic or a blend. I treated it like wool for 10 years.

The full-length front zipper made that sweater easy to put on and take off. If the day got warm you could unzip it part or all the way. Or you could take it off and twirl it by the sleeves and tie it around your waist. Perfect.

That girlfriend and I rode together a lot. I see us in my mind in matching blue sweaters, riding side by side (only when safe, of course) down foggy, wooded country roads. We looked alike and I think we thought alike, then.

She and I rode centuries and group training rides. We took moderate-length tours together. She liked to wear a railroad engineer’s hat. I was learning to wear a cycling cap Saronni-style, down over the eyes in the front, perched impossibly high in back. Saronni, that year, was still being driven to races by his mommy.

Eventually, though I learned to wear the cap perfectly, the girlfriend departed. The sweater stayed on.

I recall once on a late fall ride I got caught in a cold rainstorm. I got soaked but the sweater kept me warm. I remember wringing water out of it in a restaurant bathroom and having to drop it on the john floor for lack of a place to hang it while I dressed. It was still so wet, even after the wringing, that it flopped loudly when I dropped it on the tile. That’s a warm sweater.

I remember it covered in frost down the arms and across the chest on those painfully chilly, clear mornings there are never enough of. I remember how the cuffs frayed after the first couple years but never got worse. I can remember the blue of it bright and the new smell still in it. That sweater was new then and so was cycling. I had yet to discover I had limits.

In those days I felt it was important to wear clean, newish cycling clothes. I saw that some people who’d been at it long enough to own old bike clothing wore their mended, tattered stuff with no embarrassment. Not me though; no patched tights for me.

I thought that if I wore less-than-perfect jerseys or shorts or whatever, I would be considered casual or uncommitted to the sport.

Years passed and I was still riding. I got less impressed by emblems of dedication one could merely buy. I became more aware of subtle signals, like class on the bike, that earlier I might have missed while looking at some turkey’s jersey.

I won’t say I’ve let myself go completely and ride in rags. I did begin to lose interest in woollen (later Lycra) perfection. I came to find certain articles of clothing (and equipment) pleasantly familiar and effective. I didn’t want a new whatever, thank you. I liked the old one just fine.

I liked that blue sweater especially fine as you may have perceived. My new girlfriend found the hole in the twice-mended left shoulder too shabby. She asked me repeatedly not to wear it.

I explained to her about the old girlfriend and the rainstorm and the frosty mornings. I tried to recreate the sound my sweater made slapping the bathroom floor. She was relentless.

I was too classy a guy, she said, to wear a sweater as ratty as that. It was giving a bad impression. So I threw it away. Hey, it was for my own good.


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