Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Double-Oh Thirteen: Licensed to Race

This story appeared in Winning Magazine, Bicycle Racing Illustrated, and in my book Tales from the Bike Shop. It seems timely while the new James Bond movie is still in first-run theaters. Happy New Year and I hope you enjoy the story!

He lived there in a cabin in the Vermont woods, riding the fixed-gear into town once a week for groceries. He saw no one. He tried to forget.

Mornings he’d sit in the sunlight that beamed through an opened window, eating whole-grain cereal with very little milk.

He kept himself fit because he knew no other way. No, not as fit as when everything was at stake, but fit. Fit enough. Weights in the morning, it was, then a plain yogurt and half an apple before the 10-mile run in spiked ‘cross shoes, carrying a rusty Varsity on his shoulder. Enough; that was enough.

His life was good, he thought, except when he’d climb off the wind trainer at 2:30 in the morning and just have to have sushi. Except for then it was almost too good for too long.

The message surprised him, though it was delivered the usual way. Messages were not coming, not supposed to come. He was past it now. He found this one in his mailbox inside what appeared to be a dandruff shampoo sample.

Inside the sample box he found a Campy Super Record derailleur. Inside the derailleur, wrapped around the lower pivot bolt, inside the spring, he found an oiled paper. Written on that paper was a date, a time and the initials of (so-called) Inspector 22.

“Here it is,” he said to himself. “Here it is.” And sure enough there it was.

His deeply hooded, grimly dark but warmly sensitive eyes scanned the leafy Vermont distance.

“The world,” he thought, “is a small place indeed.”

[Author’s note: The world is small. Small, that is, until you’re hungry and out of food on a lonely country road, your only spare already flat, and you’ve got 18 mountain miles to ride just to get to the first place you can buy a Hostess Fruit Pie. And it looks like rain. Then, the world is big.]

He sat at his perfect rolltop desk to set his affairs in order as he always did before these “trips.” He reread his will - everything to Pedali Bodiddley Bicycle Club. He’d never met a member but he liked the name.

He scanned his insurance policies and checked for mistakes on his USA Cycling license. He found the word “united” misspelled twice but quickly forgave the federation its error. “It’s their second language,” he said to himself.

Satisfied now that his papers were in order, he rose and entered his library. Leaning on a perfect antique chair was an old Frejus racing bicycle with a rod-operated front changer. When he deftly pivoted the changer lever seven millimeters toward the old bike’s seat-tube, a wall of books slid noiselessly aside.

The varnished bookcase revealed a secret, flat-gray hidden wall densely mounted with gleaming cycling gear. The hardware glistened against the dull finished wood, lightly oiled, ready.

“Ready,” he thought, redundantly.

He looked at the wall and saw several complete bicycles: road bicycles, track bicycles and some that were said to go both ways. He saw wheels: disk wheels, spoked wheels, jockey wheels and freewheels.

He saw special tools for every imaginable cycling need and some for which, if you can imagine them, shame on you. He saw tools to fix things that, as of this writing, have never broken.

He saw conical stacks of freewheel cogs, bundles of butted spokes, six dozen stems and seven spare saddles. He saw a gallon of Phil Grease and two hats-full of headsets. He saw supplies enough to last the clumsiest novice racer through his first season. He surveyed the plethora of cycling paraphernalia and grunted. Good.

His hand, which could be cruel, gently brushed the top-tube of a Gios. He snapped back the bike’s rear derailleur, listening to the solid thunk as it sprung forward.

He spun a freewheel, listening to its smooth ratcheting whirr. He squeezed and released a brake lever, click, click. He slipped a wheel into the Gios fork and tightened the skewer: noise of tightening skewer.

He selected his favorite wrench, a Campy T-tool. It had been painstakingly smoothed, polished and black-chromed by an aged Austrian bike mechanic whose identity had vanished from the world’s computers. He looked at it, a perfect, realized T-wrench. He smiled.

He began to pack items from the wall into cases built by another old European craftsman, a Spaniard unknown to the Austrian or to anyone outside a select society, all of whom zealously guarded his identity and whereabouts. Always referred to by number, the Spanish artist’s skills remained enveloped in mystery, even to his wife, who had no idea what he did all day.

The cases were designed with infinite patience and cunning to look like shoddy copies of inauthentic replicas of cheap designer luggage. Inside though, ingeniously fitted high-density foam protected each handcrafted glistening component. Cases full, he snapped each latch closed. He smiled again.

He imagined the cold curve of the plastic-wrapped handlebar in his inhumanly strong but strangely graceful hands.

He smiled once again, a thin smile, almost cruel, and carried the cases out to the car.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Our Favorite Customers

This is a motorcycle story, sorta. It twists and turns on itself and does not end up where you'd expect....

Happy Holidays, everyone!

I told Ross I'd have the chimichangas, coffee and water, thank you, and handed him my menu. I sat on the patio watching some of the world roll by and the rest pull into Zoka's for breakfast as I had. I heard a loud motorcycle approaching, not the only one I'd hear that morning. I looked up and by golly it was a trike, a red, white and chrome Gold Wing- or Valkyrie-based one, with a man and a woman on it. No helmets.

They rolled in and stopped in a space just below my table. He shut 'er down - to general relief, mine certainly.

I admit it: I don't get trikes. What's the attraction? If I rode one, I'd wear a helmet and wouldn't feel as free as if I were driving a car with the top down. And the trike wouldn't lean - so I wouldn't enjoy controlling it as I do steering a conventional motorcycle. I figure they're for guys who are getting old enough to distrust their strength or balance. Maybe I'm wrong though. Often I am, and not just about trikes.

The guy climbed off the converted Honda, leaving the woman in the saddle. He was a big dude and solid, well over six foot and over 225. Maybe about 55 years old. He had silky blond hair parted in the middle and hanging to his shoulders, like Mary Travers (R.I.P.) from Peter, Paul and. Jeans, a biker belt, t-shirt and a vest. Tattoos down both arms. Maybe I remember a studded leather wristband, black in color.

Standing next to the left back wheel of the trike, he pulled a comb from his pocket and eased the in-the-wind snarls from his hair. I don't think I want that guy to hit me, I thought. I don't even want him to notice me. I don't like who he says he is.

Maybe you don't feel as I do. Maybe you don't feel that the way people present themselves means anything about how they are. Life's a huge costume party, right? I look at a guy or a woman outfitted as one kind of person or another; I believe that's what they are. When people dress in a connotative way, I figure they're aware of the impression they're making. There's nothing accidental about it. They're trying to produce an effect.

Call me old-fashioned. If an urban kid looks like a cheap gangster, I believe he's what he appears to be. If a woman dresses like a boy-toy, I figure she wants me to think she is a boy-toy. If I don't get to know her, I'll never realize that she's not - she's a missionary and neurosurgeon and not a bit promiscuous.

When I see a guy in biker gear, resplendent in body art and riding with his feet stuck out in front of him and without a helmet on his head or silencing devices in his exhaust pipes, I figure he aims to intimidate. Or would he claim that a black leather vest with a patch on the back is effective protective clothing? Warm on cold days? Keeps the rain off? What good is it except to tell folks how bad you are?

A guy in biker gear wants folks to think he's anti-social and downwardly mobile. That he holds society's norms in low regard. That the woman on the back seat is "riding' bitch." Isn't that what all that stuff says?

The big blond guy's woman, heavy-set and gray-haired, was still sitting in the saddle of the trike. She's no hot Daytona biker-bar chick, I thought. She's kinda dowdy, like a waitress in a Midwestern small-town cafe. Warm your coffee, honey?

As the seconds passed, I began to wonder why she didn't climb off and walk up the steps onto Zoka's patio. Then I saw the guy holding a cane with four rubber-tipped prongs at the bottom. He handed it to her and ever-so-gently reached under her arms and lifted her up and off the saddle of that trike. I'll bet it took 30 seconds of lifting before her right leg slid over the seat.

Until and after she got both feet on the ground, he had his arm around her. To call it gentle doesn't half describe it.

They stood there for a full minute, I'd say, looking at the wooden steps. Then they very slowly walked, his arm still around her, to the stairs and yet more slowly up them to the patio and the cafe door. He opened the door for her and helped her through it.

I thought: This is maybe the sweetest thing I've ever seen.

So when Ross came back with my water and coffee, I said, I just watched the guy with that trike help his wife off the bike and into the restaurant. Really somethin', I said.

He said, "They are genuinely nice people. Come in three or four times a week, always on that trike. He takes care of her and fusses over her every time. They're like among our favorite customers.

"Something happened to her, some illness, I think," Ross said, "maybe 10 years ago. He's been taking care of her since. As I said, we see them really often, and it's always the same thing. He can't do enough for her. Cool, huh?"

I said, "Super cool," but I felt foolish. I'd weighed the evidence, the heavily chromed trike, the loud pipes, the bare heads, the tattoos, the biker clothing...and was led to the wrong conclusion.

I want to say to the guy: Hey, until I saw you in a better light, what was I supposed to believe?

You look like you're under FBI surveillance but you behave like someone I could trust babysitting my pre-teen daughter. Maybe you were a hell-raiser at one time. But you're not raisin' hell now, are you? You're a loving, patient man, looking after your ol' lady.

If you are a loving, patient man who reveres a woman or all women, why the bad-guy outfit? Why do you try to look scary? When people see you and choose to walk on the other side of the street, does that mean you've earned their respect?

A black leather vest isn't just clothing, is it? It's an emblem. It advertises who you are. That's the idea, right? You don't wear it expecting no one to notice. They will notice and they will make assumptions about you, as I did.  Until I saw that cane, you had me fooled.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Frangible Framesets

This is one of the stories in my first book, Tales from the Bike Shop, so it was written in the '80s. It's a bit dated: Who remembers WATS phone lines and short- or long-reach brakes? But in many ways it is truer today than ever.... Hope you like it!

“Hello, Frangible Framesets. This is Falconer Frangible. How may we help you?”

“Oh, hi. I’m calling from Fallen Ego, Tennessee. I think I may be ready for a custom frameset. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?”

“Not at all. We feel, at Frangible, that the more our customers know about us and our products - fast frames for fastidious frame buyers - the more readily they will call on us when the buying bug eventually bites.”

“Well, I’m not a bicycle racer but I like to ride around our area with my friends. It’s hilly west of here and mostly flat to the east. We generally ride weekends and a couple of evenings a week after work. Do I need a chain-hanger braze-on? I should tell you I use deep-drop handlebars. I carry one waterbottle and two pumps. And you should know I’m into short-reach brakesets, totally, as was my father before me.”

“I see. Do you have our full-color Frangible Frameset folder? Perhaps if you study it carefully it will help you answer some of your questions.”

“Why, no I don’t. I just saw your ad in Bicycle Fancier magazine. I thought I’d give you a call. We have a WATS line here at work. I’m on a break so there’s no hurry. If you could clear up a problem or two while I have you on the phone....”

“Sure. Just let me turn off this torch. Our customers are more than just frame sizes to us here at Frangible, the Firmly Flexible Frameset for Frankly Fussy Aficionados. Fire away.”

“Gee thanks. Tell me, how do you feel about composites? I mean, I know you have a vested interest in steel but don’t you think steel is, well, yesterday’s technology? If I stand up when I climb, will a Frangible frame flex? Will the gears shift by themselves? Will the chain come off?

“How many frames have you made? How many have broken? Do folks riding Frangible Frames fall frequently? Are Frangibles fast? Have they been evaluated in Bicycle Science Magazine? Do I really need a custom frame or should I just buy my buddy’s baby-blue Bowlachili? It has a bent fork.”

“First, let me assure you that we at Frangible are absolutely, positively, unequivocally certain that steel is the foremost material for frameset fabrication.”

“But isn’t it heavy?”

“More or less. But Frangible Framesets have a feel, a fineness, a flowing oneness with the road. They caress the tarmac with an almost sensual sureness, a supple rigidity. Excuse me, are you over 18? Oh, good. We think that the ineffable Frangible feeling principally depends on the flexible firmness of steel.”

“Sounds terrific. But are your frames straight? I’ve heard some builders hardly check to see if their tips are parallel....”

“Straight? Straight? Why our framesets are so forcefully straight we’ve had to curtail sales in certain neighborhoods in San Francisco and Atlanta for fear of rejection. Our alignments are done on a flat table - so flat that other builders send their tables here to measure just how crooked they are. Fishhooks on our premises will straighten themselves out, untouched, in seconds. Roads in our area never bend.”

“How do I go about getting sized?”

“Excellent question. Generally we work from full-length skeletal X-rays. We have an in-house sports physician on our team here at Frangible. He examines each prospective owner’s bone structure and factors in such aspects as musculature and riding habits, typical gear selection, intended frame use, geographic area and barometric pressure.

“We do all that in an exhaustive effort to extrapolate the perfect, ideal and totally correct frame configuration for you and you alone. Naturally, that process can take some time but finicky Frangible riders appreciate our dedication.

“We usually correspond by registered mail in cases of far-off applicants like yourself. I would allow about $25 for postage during the fitting procedure and $50, more or less, for the frontal and lateral X-rays. It’ll be worth it. We believe a properly sized bicycle has a classic symmetry, a recognizable rightness that none but a Frangible owner can count on.”

“Fascinating. Do you do your own paint work?”

“Frangible finishes are justifiably famous. First the frameset is filed, a process that can take our team of four first-class filers 16 to 18 hours. Then it is dipped for several days in an anti-corrosive to preserve it for the quality minded cyclist post-millennium.

“Only then is it finished in the most painstakingly patient process using ultra-expensive materials. This consumes so much time that work on an individual frame may be handed down from father to son. After the optional and beautiful Frangible transfers are applied, we tenderly spray 12 coats of clear sealer under surgically sterile conditions, virtually guaranteeing several decades of satisfaction with the finish.

“We are proud of our craftsmanship here at Frangible. You yourself can experience that same pride in the form of your own personal one-of-a-kind frameset, signed by myself after a meticulous pre-shipment inspection. Signed for all your admiring friends to see - Falconer Frangible.”

“Gosh Mr. Frangible....”

“Call me Falconer, please.”

“Oh, sure, uh, Falconer. You know, I’ve called a framebuilder every day on my break for almost three weeks now. You are by far the most confidence-inspiring. You’ve got me really interested. If I decided to begin the Frangible Frameset selection process, how long would it take before I had my frame in my hands?”

“You’re in Tennessee, you said? Let me see. I could have one there for you UPS in eight or nine days, less if we ship Blue Label. Even sooner if you can get into metallic green. Can you ride a 61? Want a headset? VISA or MasterCard?”