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?”

Friday, November 20, 2015

Greg LeMond Introduction

I wrote this and read it from the podium at a pre-El Tour de Tucson dinner, probably in the early 2000's. Greg was the Guest of Honor, as he damned well should have been...

Twenty years ago in cycling, Americans were outside looking in. We could love cycling, but it could never be OURS. We'd never excel like Belgians, Dutch, French and Italians.

We were too soft. European racers were tough lads who saved themselves from the mill or mine by pedaling hard. We'd been sissified by indoor plumbing, power steering and too much TV.

We thought there could never be a Merckx from Illinois or a Gimondi from Arizona. We just didn't have it. We'd never produce a Tour de France star. No way.

After all, just finishing the Tour was hard enough, even if you were a stoic European pedaling machine. An American finisher? Unthinkable.  

So, as an American bike rider, you learned to pronounce European names and bought European bikes with European parts. You wore European clothes and read European magazines. You resigned yourself to living in a third-class cycling nation.

Unless, that is, you were Greg LeMond.

If LeMond ever picked up on that sense of unworthiness, he never bought into it. Never. He showed us what a load of rubbish it all was.

Even as a fresh-faced kid, LeMond was always competitive with the best seniors. He was never tactical or economical. He'd break away if he could, and often won alone. He'd grin, braces sparkling in the sun, and ride away from guys with famous names.

He just kept getting stronger. When he left to race on European teams, when he won the world's championship, we watched unprepared, unbelieving. He wasn't JUST American; he was SO American.

Suddenly, we were staring at photos of cycling superstar Bernard Hinault on a horse, Hinault with a cowboy hat and a Winchester rifle. Hinault, who had crossed the ocean to visit LeMond at his Nevada home, to welcome LeMond to his team. 
Still, we feared LeMond would win a few more races and then fade from the scene, merely a fluke, our fluke. We'd return to cycling obscurity.

That's not what happened, though, is it? Nearly everything a bike rider could do, Greg LeMond did, and in style, always in style. And drama? Too much drama.

All that drama kept what he did from looking too easy, as if he were simply born to win and nothing could stop him from doing so. It didn't look easy for LeMond to triumph; it looked hard, on the bike and often off it, too. He did it anyway.

He made us believe we could do it, too, or a few of us could. He made us believe that he could keep doing it, that he would keep doing it and would never become distant and difficult and too good for us.

He was the new American contender, the American world champion, the American Tour winner and a brave American shooting victim. Then he was the American comeback hero, the American winner of the closest Tour in history in 1989.

And what better guy to come from our ranks and go out to meet the world! Who's a better guy than Greg LeMond? Always willing to sign the autograph, always good for a thoughtful quote, always happy to meet fans, always patient with everyone, always Greg LeMond.

We knew he was a terrific guy, one of us, and we trusted him. We knew he was open-minded, curious and progressive about equipment so we paid close attention to his choices. We based purchases on his choices.

Do you wear sunglasses when you ride? Are they Oakleys? Do you own aero handlebars? Do you wear a Giro or some other sleek helmet? Do you ride clipless pedals? Got a cyclometer? Is your saddle pushed way back? Do you ride a LeMond?

Greg LeMond changed bike-racing forever everywhere, changed pay scales, attitudes and ambitions. He played on a world-size stage. At the same time, he was and will always be our guy, one of us: Our first genuine Eurostar, our three-time Tour winner, our trendsetter, our ambassador to sport, our champion.

Until Lance Armstrong arrived with his own style and his own drama, Greg LeMond was the only bike rider Joe Sixpack had ever heard of, ever cheered for. No other rider changed our lives the way Greg LeMond did.

Maybe, if you think about it, you're riding bikes or supporting El Tour today because of the glow Greg LeMond put on cycling. It's my feeling that we've never had a more appropriate guest of honor at El Tour...

Whatta guy! Ladies and gentlemen: Greg LeMond!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

From 2004, more or less: The Sunnyside Women's Road Cycling Clinic

This piece ran in the Bicycle Paper, a free Pacific NW cycling newspaper. The clinic ran in the days before the Cascade Classic Stage Race in Bend, if memory serves.... What fun!

Every July for the past five or six years, Sunnyside Sports, a great bike shop in Bend, has promoted a weekend road cycling clinic for women. I’ve helped out at all but one of them and promoted two of my own in Tucson. My two followed Sunnyside’s model faithfully. Why fool with a successful formula?

You wonder why you’d need to educate cyclists. Can’t they learn all they need to know from books or magazines or their computers? I’m afraid they cannot. No diagram ever taught a new rider how a pace line rotates or how hard to pedal while at the front.

No series of photos or drawings ever made a safer, faster downhill bike-handler. No article has conveyed the feeling of drafting at 25mph or riding confidently elbow-to-elbow, chatting the miles away on some sun-dappled country road.

And it has become difficult to learn group skills on local group rides. Few want to teach and few seem happy to be taught. Perhaps our veterans are reluctant to act like self-appointed experts – and newer riders act as if they know all they need to know – especially, if you ask me, new guy riders.   

Whatever the reason, many club cyclists ride for years at the same scarcely adequate skill level. They don’t have the tools to enjoy road cycling fully.

So Sunnyside Sports initiated the Women’s Road Clinic. Here’s how it works – and how I organized my own clinics. No reason you couldn’t do a similar event where you live.

This year, in the weeks before the clinic, Sunnyside did bike fittings for each participant, making sure each woman was comfortable on her bike and in a position of control and power. At previous clinics, we’ve done that during the weekend, but it is time-consuming and depends on careful scheduling. Fittings are best done before the clinic weekend.

On Saturday morning, the staff divided the women into groups by estimated comfortable road speed. This year we had about 15 women total, divided into two groups. Each group enjoyed the attention of three instructors.

Our group rode a few miles out of Bend to a quiet road, where we stopped and got off our bikes. We talked about basic group riding, technique and etiquette, and about pace.

We talked about fear of following close and how to maintain a steady pace uphill and down. Staffers talked about delightful, often unexpected, conversations we’ve had on rides. We said we think of cycling as a social sport, and we’re thankful that it is.

The women formed into lines ON FOOT and walked through the motions of two common rotating pace lines, so everyone understood how they worked. I don’t know who came up with this training method, but gosh it’s effective – and safe. Try it at home.

Then we rolled out onto the lightly traveled road to practice our new skills. Raggedy at first, soon the women were riding like the USPS “blue train.” We’d stop a time or two to discuss what was happening and to listen to suggestions or questions.

By the time we’d ridden up and back, we were a pretty doggoned accomplished group. We rolled back down the highway into Bend looking red-hot. For many of the women, this was their first “sitting-in” experience, as it has been every year at the clinic. It’s amazing how fast the transition happens: cautious solo rider to polished pace-liner.

Makes even cynical, white-socks roadie instructors proud.

After lunch, each woman “fixed a flat” on her own bike. Each demonstrated that she could remove and replace her front wheel and her back one. Each indicated that she knew which brake lever operated which brake and how to properly apply them.

The students then listened to a presentation about turning a bicycle. Then they mounted up for cornering practice on a twisty course in a parking lot that sees only weekday use.

On the grass nearby, the women learned to ride close together. They bumped elbows. They jumped their bikes over (or reached down and picked up) dropped water bottles. They briefly touched the rear wheel of the rider in front of them with their own front wheel.

For many of the students, this was scary and adventurous beyond their expectations. They performed like veterans nevertheless, scarcely revealing what must have been wide-eyed fear. Bravo, says this old roadie!

Saturday evening after dinner, a grizzled magazine columnist read a few truly boring stories to an increasingly sleepy-eyed group.

“Could I have more coffee, please. Yes, caffeinated will do just fine.”

After dinner in Tucson, by the way, a woman staffer talked about woman-specific issues and a male staffer discussed riding safely and confidently in urban traffic.

Sunday morning, staff and students assembled at a wide spot in the road east of Alfalfa, Oregon, for a real road ride – with hills and wind and maybe a drop or two of rain. We talked about climbing, about standing up and sitting in the saddle, about gear selection and pacing oneself on the hill. We talked about descending, relaxing on the bike and remembering how to use the front and rear brakes.

Each staffer rode with only three women on that Sunday. As I watched my little flock, I could see lessons the women had learned at the clinic come to fruition.

On the way back, we split into two tiny, two-rider packs. We flew back to the cars, forming and splitting, forming and splitting again as our climbing or descending skills separated us. Again, I was proud of my students. I couldn’t have selected one of them as “most improved.” They were all “most improved.”

Please do put together a clinic like Sunnyside’s in your community. For your instructors, select four or five riders who are empathetic and enthusiastic about cycling, who are, to be frank, nice. Use Sunnyside’s model or design one of your own to meet your particular needs.

When I did my first one here in Tucson in 2001, I had no problem recruiting qualified, volunteer instructors. Afterward, several of them said they’d enjoyed the experience far more than they could have imagined. A few called the clinic weekend “life-changing.”

Sharing your love for cycling with excited riders is life-changing. It changes all those riders’ lives…and it changes yours.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Not Green -- about my old Bianchi Specialissima

In 1976, I was riding a new, black Raleigh Competition - but I longed for a more distinguished mount.

The Raleigh was a “neo-pro” as we called entry level racing bikes in those days. It was a mix of Reynolds tubing varieties as most bikes were then; deciphering the various Reynolds decals was an art of no particular usefulness, like reading bar codes at Safeway.

Though my Raleigh rode and handled just fine, and exhibited no vicious habits, I felt I should have a bike befitting the rider I intended to be: a faster, stronger, tougher, more graceful version of the adequate club cyclist I was. Ah, vanity.

I made that longing known to Tony Tom, then (as now) proprietor of A Bicycle Odyssey in nearby Sausalito. I told him I could not afford to buy a new Masi or Ron Cooper, desirable as they may have been.

Instead, I wanted to buy a used frame to build up with parts I’d remove from my Raleigh. Weeks later, Tony showed me a homely old Bianchi, its paint stripped off in preparation for a new finish that had never been applied.

Oh my, a Bianchi, I thought: A bike for the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, for the hairpin turns of Alpe d’Huez, for the bike path from Sausalito to Mill Valley...

Ugly and unready for prime time as it was, the old Bianchi was romantic. And it was cheap. Tony looked at me, knowing I was imagining the jerseys a guy with an older racing Bianchi might wear – and the embroidered shorts. He smiled.

I bought the frame. I never saw it with a square inch of original paint on it. Nearly 30 years later I can’t remember if I even knew what color the factory painted it. Not green, I remember that much.

We guessed that it dated from the early ‘60s, so it probably needed paint by 1976. It was a Specialissima, Bianchi’s top model. Made from Columbus tubing, far heavier than today’s featherweight tubesets, it was entirely conventional except for the “integrated” headset, much like those of today.

Unique to Bianchi for years, the old headset design had long been abandoned by the mid-’70s. The headset in the frame was trashed. I searched and found a new one at an old shop in Berkeley, last old-style Bianchi headset in the world, it seemed. Luckily it never wore out in the years I rode the bike.

I took the frame home to my apartment. On my tiny patio, I removed the rest of the paint with foul-smelling liquid stripper. I sanded and sanded the frame, which was entirely chrome plated. The areas of chrome that had not been painted were polished. Areas that had been covered by paint were not.

I decided I’d have it painted sand-and-sable, light brown and chocolate brown, a color scheme common on older British automobiles. The lugs and a panel on the down tube would be tan. The rest would be a rich-looking chocolate. Sounds lovely, huh?

That’s exactly how it turned out. Lovely.

I couldn’t find old-style Bianchi decals so I thought I’d have the name hand-painted on the down tube and the emblem hand-painted on the head tube.

I found a painter, and he got it dead right: Having never seen a Bianchi emblem, he painted an eagle on the head tube that was nearly perfect, its head facing in the proper direction. He got the script perfect on the down tube sides, too.

I began building up the bike with the parts from the Raleigh. I realized that from the time I began dismantling the Raleigh until the Bianchi was complete, I had nothing to ride. Gave me a sense of urgency I might not have had.

I had to buy a few new things. I bought a larger diameter seat post to fit, and a new Italian bar and stem; I just couldn’t imagine anything steering my Italian thoroughbred but Cinelli or TTT.

When I got the bike together, it rewarded me for the effort. Solid and long from axle to axle, it glided down the road, steered flawlessly and gave me confidence on twisty descents.

It felt deluxe, if you’ll forgive the old-fashioned word: smooth, expensive, capable, unflappable.

At that point, I had only one pair of wheels, built on the low-quality French hubs from the Raleigh. I had the French TA 3-pin crank; a Brooks B-17 Narrow saddle; Huret derailleurs and shift levers from France and spongy Swiss Weinmann centerpull brakes, all from the Raleigh.

In a matter of months, all those parts went away. I bought Japanese sidepull brakes because I couldn’t afford Campys. I could however afford a used set of high flange Campy hubs. I bought them cheap and replaced their bearing races. Tony Tom built me my first set of handmade wheels.

I bought a worn-out Campagnolo Nuovo Record rear derailleur and put a new spring and new pins and bushings in it. I bought a Cinelli Unicanitor saddle.

I learned a lot as I built up that Bianchi and as my relationship with it evolved. I learned to trust Campagnolo: the old two-bolt seatpost, the everlasting hubs and pedals, and eventually all their parts.

I learned how to wrap cotton tape, and how to break and re-rivet chains. I learned how to ride a pace line and sprint for city limit signs. I learned to stop for coffee after rides. I learned how much I enjoy the company of cyclists.

I was preparing for my writing career, but I thought I was only having the time of my life.

I rode the Davis Double Century on that Bianchi, the one and only time I did it. I began racing on it, met a long-term girlfriend while riding it and made dozens of friends while I had it who remain my friends today.

I wonder who has that old Bianchi today... Perhaps YOU have it, and don’t realize your old two-tone-brown Specialissima meant so much in one cyclist’s life.

If you do own that bike, let me know through the folks at the Bicycle Paper. I’ll come visit. Be good to say hi after all these years.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Tour Williamette, 2001 - from VeloNews

No use denying it: I behaved badly at Tour Willamette. I whined, I screamed at God and the race organizers, I was not always graceful with my Shimano co-workers. In my defense, I will say that I was not alone.

Strong men abandoned, sat up and softpedaled, chose mid-event to experience the blissful warmth of follow vehicles, climbed off in feed zones, turned around a few miles into road races and rode back to the cars. Quit.

I would have quit, but I had a job. As a Shimano volunteer, I had to carry a mechanic on my motorcycle in the road stages, and there were four road stages. After a short hillclimb TT Tuesday evening, there were road races on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

On Saturday, you'd think you might get a break, but Saturday there were TWO stages, a time trial and a crit. Sunday they threw a 120-mile road race at you, 120 miles over two mountain passes, the frosting on the cruel cake.

Wouldn't be so cruel, but Tour Willamette happens in April in the Willamette Valley, in Oregon, not far from the coast. Other things happen there too at that time, things like cold, rain, hail -- and snow at relatively low elevations. I speak from experience here.

I rolled into Eugene during the prologue and didn't see any of it, but I know it was cold out there. I'd ridden the motorcycle from northern California and been rained on the last couple of hundred miles.

The first road race, Wednesday's, was wet and cold, no fun for me or the riders. You'd be cold and uncomfortable every mile, every mile wishing you were someplace else. Deprived of sun and warmth, I began to lose my sense of humor on this first road stage, but I was a load-a laughs compared to what was to come.

All that first day, I dreaded the next day's race. On Thursday, we knew, we had to drive or ride to the start maybe 45 slow-road miles out of Eugene, then work a 100-mile race on BLM roads in the remote country and get the cold and the rain.

By the time I reached the start on my motorcycle, I was frozen through, my hands unresponsive. I sat in a Shimano car, heater running, shivering in my motorcycle gear -- really good, expensive gear, largely ineffective in April in Oregon.

That race was hours of bone-chilling cold for my mechanic and me, and surely for the racers, who wore plastic rainjackets from start to finish. Lots of guys' hands wouldn't work the brakes or the gears. Guys' faces looked like zombie faces. It wasn't a race so much as a fight for survival.

One section was up and down a steep, mud hill. Some riders had to dismount and walk. We're talking riders who've had their photos on VeloNews covers. My motor slid around under us and coated its underside with Oregon mud. Exhaust heat baked the mud onto the muffler.

The front tire dumped large amounts of Oregon mud into the lower part of my motorcycle's fairing, so that after 10 minutes of post-race hosing in the hotel parking lot, big clods of mud were still washing out. I remember every clod.

I hated it extremely, every minute of it, from leaving the motel at the break of dawn to returning there late in the afternoon, cold and wet and uncomfortable all day long, my motorcycle never to be pristine again.

I was not subtle in my speech to co-race-workers. I told them bluntly what I thought of Oregon, Eugene, springtime and the Tour Willamette. Some reacted with shock at my frankness. I think it was the short, effective Anglo-Saxon verbs.

The next morning, the sun shone on the start area at the appointed time, but alas the start was postponed. By the time we did start, large hailstones pelted the pack and the support motor crew alike. I had to ride one-handed, the other gloved hand covering my face. I felt even more dismay and even less love for springtime Oregon.

The hail and something like snow covered the road as we left Cottage Grove, south of Eugene. Traction? Who knew. Maybe the motorcycle will slither from under us and we will crash to the icy pavement, I thought.

My mechanic panicked a bit. Remember, Maynard, rubber down, he said.

I figured: The cyclists aren't falling down, so my mechanic and I probably won't. We didn't. A blessing.

As we left town, the hail stopped and the sun came out. Nice. The race had been shortened before the start from nearly 100 miles to 75. Suddenly, mid-race, we happened upon an unmarked, unmanned corner on a fast descent. Some riders went one way, some another.

The officials stopped the race, then released the break, then the pack at the latest time-split they had. One race stoppage? Probably a record low for Tour Willamette, and the officials and riders smiled throughout the mess. It's not Le Tour, after all, not brain surgery.

Somehow, instead of the 75 miles we expected, race distance turned out to be less than 60 miles. We loved it, a "rest day" in the weak Oregon sunshine.

Sadly, though, at the finish I noticed that my motorcycle was puking coolant over the side of the engine. When I got it to the BMW store in Eugene, we discovered that the radiator had a hole in it. A new radiator would have to be ordered and would not be in until Tuesday.

The race would be over on Sunday, but I would be stuck in the rain and the cold until Tuesday. Or even Wednesday... The horror.

One of the local guys who'd been helping out on his own motorcycle told me he had another that he'd loan me for Sunday's road race. I borrowed that bike and it served valiantly.

On that motor on Sunday, I was following a Crown Vic sheriff's car down one of the endless descents. The road was a cleared black ribbon between scenes of winter wonderland, nothing but white snow and bits of green from the trees.

Somehow, a snow-bank appeared suddenly behind the cruiser and I hit it. The front end of the motor flicked back and forth three or four times while I said oh sh-t oh sh-t. As luck would have it, we did not crash. Coulda, mighta, didn't. Danger is part of the fun at Tour Willamette. Big fun.

If you race or work races all season, including the Tour Willamette, you will have as many stories from that race as the rest of the races combined. Is that good? Does that make it a great race? You make the call.

Someone said they're gonna move it to May next year. Will I go back? Nah.