My Life – Bike by Bike
February 7, 2017 § 3 Comments
Other than walking, and maybe sleeping and eating which can be considered activities, cycling is an activity that I have engaged in pretty much, most of my life. When I was young it seemed like all the kids had some kind of bike. I can only assume that I started on a tricycle in nursery school, and later at home, as I do have memories of my youngest sister riding my tricycle. Myself? Not really.
My earliest bike memory was the next bike. I haven’t a clue to what kind of a bike it was, other than it was a used bike that my Mom or Dad had picked up somewhere. It had been sold as a red bike, but by the time I got it, the red was faded, and the frame was rusty. They don’t make bikes like this any more. BMX still rules for young riders, and after that everyone gets a hybrid or a trail bike. This was a medium build, single speed clutch brake fat tire bicycle that was built like a tank and you could roll over anything with it. The clutch brake meant that under the right circumstances, at speed you could jam down hard on the brake and lock the rear wheel thus propelling yourself into a controlled skid if you were able, or over the bars onto your head if you weren’t. Once you got the hang of it, controlled skid was the way to go. One day I was out riding that bike around the neighborhood with local friends, when it came time to go home. Our house was 76 Oak Tree Drive, in the (kept) White Privilege town of Cedar Grove, NJ. The road had a slight grade downhill and our driveway was a medium upgrade. Down the street I raced, and up the drive I turned and when I hit the edge of the driveway and the yard, the front wheel turned and I fell onto the exposed metal end of the handlebar thus chipping a small chunk out of my upper right incisor. Traumatic events have a way of permanently fixing themselves in long term memory, and this is about the only event I can recall from that time.
After moving to the racially diverse town of Montclair, NJ my parents bought me my first bicycle with gears and non-foot operated brakes. My Schwinn Collegiate was gold colored, had chrome fenders, and a chain guard that had the Collegiate name written in decals right across the face. The rear wheel sported a 5 speed rear freewheel with a rear derailleur that was controlled by a shift lever mounted to handlebar stem. The handlebars were bullhorn style with molded rubber grips, and the bicycle had a front and rear brakes, both of which were controlled by levers mounted so that the levers could be reached by each hand from the grips. Cable wires flew out of these levers, contained by a cable housings that either terminated in the front brake unit, or to a raised notch braised onto the frame. Here the cable would be exposed along the top tube until another notch and a cable housing to take the cable to the rear brake unit. The derailleur cable was routed similar to the rear brake cable, except it was routed down the down tube, guided by a slot under the bottom bracket, and then along the right chain stay to a short cable housing that curled back onto the rear derailleur. The seat was a fairly large spring supported bench that could be ridden for quite a few miles in comfort.
Not many of my friends had a bike like this. Many kids, the cool ones for sure, had Stingrays with the banana seats, and the chopper style handle bars. These were still clutch brake based at first, but they were popular, and soon they too sported a rear 5 speed derailleur and to top it off, a stick shift! Those bikes were hot. My bike was not hot, but it was pretty fast. The big 26 inch tires, and the 48 tooth front chain ring gave this bike a pretty nice range of gear ratios that could both go fast, and climb hills. It just wasn’t that cool. I rode that bike to school and home almost every day. The Collegiate I rode pretty much all around Montclair. If I rode that bike to another town, then it would have been either Verona, over the hill, or to Bloomfield. My next door neighbor Brian Lundy, had a friend, Neal, who lived in Bloomfield, and we may have ridden down to see him. I learned my first bike maintenance tasks on this bike. Cleaning the chain, using rubbing compound to rub out some of the rust corrosion that plagued steel bikes. Tire repairs.
I think the Collegiate might have bitten the dust when I loaned it to another friend, Chris Regan, who while riding it down to Watchung Plaza, took the bike down a connector path between Midland Ave and Park St. This was a narrow path that started with a descent so you could build some speed. However at the bottom, you crossed a creek on a bridge, and then the path hit a disjoint in property lines, and made a hard left, and then a right. Chris didn’t make that left and slammed into the fence thus breaking an arm (one of many broken bones), and possibly trashing the bike. That I don’t remember as well, but by that time I was working at Photo Cullen, my Grandmother’s store, and earning some money, and I went down to the Schwinn dealer in Watchung Plaza, and bought a Yellow Schwinn Continental.
With the Continental, I doubled the number of gear choices because this bicycle had two front chain rings. This required a front derailleur and another shift mechanism. This bicycle was my first foray into a bike style that was called “racing” bikes. 27″ wheels, and a low profile with “drop” racing handle bars allowed a low profile which allowed you to cut through the wind a little more aerodynamically. To add to the features, this bike sported toe clips so you could “affix” your feet to the pedals and thus gain extra power. The last feature change is the change in brake levers to a more traditional hood based lever arm that you had to shift your hand position to squeeze the most power out of, or if you were “riding the hoods”, which simply meant that you wrapped your hands around the top of the hoods resting the hood between you thumb and index fingers. In this manner you could apply the brakes for subtle control, and enough pressure to stop in most circumstances.
As it so happened, my Dad purchased a Schwinn Super Sport, which was totally a kick ass bike. He had the leather shoes, the leather hair net, the leather cycling gloves, and silly looking wool clothing, and together we would ride down to Brookdale Park on Sunday mornings to ride with a crew that met there and do laps. Each lap was a mile or mile and half, and had a slight hill on the West side, and a nice descent on the East side. This made for a pretty fast lap, and the crew who met there went around and around. I could keep up for a few laps, but then I would be dropped, eventually my Dad retrieving me for the ride home. It was a lot of fun.
My next door neighbor Brian Lundy, had a Schwinn Varsity, and together we explored. This was probably the time in my life when the town boundaries truly fell by the wayside, and “adventuring” all over Essex County became a weekend play activity. I don’t remember if we had water bottles or anything like that, but we probably had a little money, and we rode. My sense of direction was pretty decent even then, as I used to pay attention to the routes my Dad would drive, memorizing the street names, and the towns, and the main thoroughfares between towns. We ventured out of Essex County into Passaic, and Morris Counties, and once even up into Bergen County. Somehow we ended up on Route 46 once, and that was a real scare. Somehow we always found our way home, and all this adventuring helped me later when I got my driver’s license because I knew my way around.
My last bike before getting my drivers license was a bit of a change. Schwinn was the staple name in cycling as far as I knew. Their premiere model being the Paramount with Campagnolo equipment was the frame the pros rode. Another make on the scene were Raleigh bikes from England, and in some cases Motobecane. Besides these models I was pretty ignorant. Had I known, I probably could have gone into the city to explore other brands, but cycling was beginning its expansion, and one of the first brands to pop onto the American market was Peugeot. I can’t remember where I saw them; It could have been the shop where I had purchased my Continental, and it could have been elsewhere. I am not even sure of the model, but I do remember that the bike came with Simplex components. It was definitely an upgrade bike. It was probably a little lighter than my Continental, but this bike probably still weighed in the low 30’s, but this bike felt like it wasn’t as hard to push along. I don’t have as many memories of this bike, because this bike was my last bike before getting my drivers licence, and since my Dad gave me his 1967 Volkswagon Beetle, I rarely if ever, rode my bike again for a couple of years. Most of my friends didn’t have a car, so I was one of the transportation providers, and I provided transportation. All the wandering I had done on the bikes, translated into late night drives with Brian and Rob, or with Chris and other friends.
I didn’t get another bike until I ran into some financial issues. The engine in the 67 Beetle failed prior to the xmas holidays while I was ferrying Chris back to Altoona from Morgantown. I still had a couple of exams, and the plan was then to drive home to Jersey, but I lost compression in one of the cylinders late at night. After a scare being greeted by a shotgun toting homeowner, we limped back to Morgantown. That began a new adventure to get the car home, which we’ll fast forward to. After repairs, I sold that vehicle, and purchased a 73 Beetle, which I decided not to keep when I started my Junior year. I was moving to the main campus in State College and was again planning to live off campus. I would need transportation of some sort to augment the bus operation, so I sold the beetle and paid a visit to a new bike shop in Montclair called The Montclair Cyclery. They sold Fuji’s which was one of the Japanese manufacturers that was making inroads into the growing American market. My purchase was a Fuji S10S 12 speed, black with Suntour components. This bike was so sweet. This was the bicycle that turned cycling around for me, and showed me how much difference a decent bike can make while riding. There is just so much less wasted energy with a good bike, than with a piece of shit. It is hard to describe, but you know what I mean when you ride one.
I spent the summer of of my Junior year living in State College. We had 1 year lease, and it just didn’t make sense to sublet, so I stayed there. I might have taken a couple of classes, and I got a job working at Tony’s Sub Shack (another story) down on College Ave. One day in late July, the front page of the Daily Collegian posted a headline about a recent graduate who had been riding his bicycle across the country, and had just passed through. I was intrigued. The next day I went to the Pattee library, and took out every state highway map as well as some topographic maps, I could find, and started planning my own trip across the country. I decided I would do it the following Summer which would give me a year to get outfitted, and into shape. Though I had the use of my mother’s Datsun 1200 that summer, I was still riding my bike a fair amount. Fall came, and my new roommate, Frank Falcione joined us in our flat, and was soon taken in by my trip planning and asked to come along. Together we sold our blood plasma twice a week, and clawed at saving money for our journey. Frank needed a bike, and I felt like I needed some upgrades. A triple front crank would be nice for those long western climbs, and saddle bags. I already had camping gear, but Frank had to outfit himself completely. He eventually ended up with an 18 speed bike, which I want to say was a Univega, but I don’t think that was it. It was some other Taiwanese brand though. Anyway, the point of this post is not my cross-country trip, but the bikes I rode, and the Fuji, I tricked out with a TA triple crank, front and rear panniers and a shitload of soft spongy bar tape, and rode that bike 5000 miles that next summer from San Diego, to Oregon, and then across to New Jersey.
When I returned to Penn State for my final Trimester, I felt like I should roll this fitness I had into an activity, and I sought out the racing club, and started riding with them. They all had “real” racing bikes, whereas I was riding a “touring” bike, but I was strong, and that was enough to keep with them. Before long, I purchased a year-end Trek Reynolds Chro-moly steel racing frame. With help from my Dad I was able to upgrade a few components right away, and the rest of the stuff I moved over from my Fuji. My days as a bike racer had begun. I stayed at Penn State to get my graduate degree in Engineering, and rode my bike with the Penn State racers. Summers were the best, but we rode all year long. My winter cold weather clothing was nothing like what I have now, but it was decent enough to stay warm, and the Trek rode so well. My favorite loop included a 2.5 mile climb up Tussy Mountain, that was followed up with rollers that rounded the loop out to about 35 miles. I would ride this loop with the club, solo, with Sue Chambers, with Bridget Chadwick, or anyone else that wanted to go. I credit that loop with my ability to climb strong for a big guy.
I eventually converted my Fuji into a fixed gear and used that to commute back and forth to school in all weather. If Chris and I were both home in Montclair, and we had our bikes, we would meet in the afternoon for our daily beat down ride back and forth across the length and breadth of Montclair, and out to Patterson. It was a tough ride, with Chris always beating me in the sprint to his house. I tried attacking all the time, but I never won a single sprint! That was some fun!!
After College I moved back to New Jersey where I started working for Bell Labs in Holmdel, NJ. I married my college sweetheart in 1985, and after a short time off the bike, started a lunchtime ride out of the Red Hill location in 1987. There was Louis Mattere, John Genuard, and John Callahan in the beginning, and later we were joined by Terry Downs and Michael Cruz. We had a nice 20 mile loop that we would hammer each other on day in and day out. We were reasonably strong, and working for AT&T we found out about something called the AT&T Corporate Challenge. A Series of regional team time trials held around the country, and there was going to be one here in New Jersey. Louis, John G, and myself were in, but we had trouble with a third as Terry and Mike hadn’t joined us yet, and the other John wasn’t available. We eventually found a fourth person, who wasn’t up to the challenge when we rode, but with three of us we took third place, and qualified for nationals which were held in LA. I managed to get my boss to fund me, and Louis got some help, and by that time John G was on his way out of AT&T, so Louis got a decent third person to join us and we went to Nationals where we took third once again!. It was here that I met Thomas Weisel of Thomas Weisel Partners, who would later be a player in Tailwind Sports, the organization behind the US Postal Team, and Tom was riding this really sweet custom frame from Landshark. I found out that Andy Hampsten had ridden a Landshark when he won the Giro D’Italia in 1988, and that was enough for me.
I fell in love with that frame immediately, and so, when I came home, I contacted John Slawa, and started the process of getting myself fitted for a custom frame. I was dealing with DJs in Long Branch, and Jimmy built up a beautiful bike with Campy Chorus components. I purchased Bullseye sealed bearing hubs, and my Landshark was a work of art. I rode that bike until 2006, usually in the warmer months, opting for my Trek in the colder months. The Trek was still a decent bike, but the Landshark fit better. Both bikes were Campy equipped, so parts were interchangeable.
When I built the Landshark, Shimano was just developing their revolutionary “click-shift” design that would change the bicycle industry forever. My Landshark was locked into the technology of the day, which meant a maximum of a 7 speed freewheel, and down-tube shifters. Without sending the frame back to John for a rebuild, that was it. When the Cassette designed hubs came out, and materials began to change, the rear tire hub spacing grew by enough to accommodate 9, and later 10 cogs. All the people I was riding with, at that time, had newer bikes, and the new designs. Being a down-tube shifter, you kind of resisted changing gears because to do so you had to take a hand off the handlebar to shift, and when you are riding in a pace-line 6 inches off the wheel in front of you at 27-30+ miles an hour, control must be maintained. So I didn’t shift. I just powered through and into the hills. Not my friends. Clickety clickety click you can hear everyone shifting to maintain a consistent cadence. I just pushed through. If I was the leading rider, that meant I usually pushed the pace faster on the climbs than people were expecting, but since they were getting pulled along, they came along.
It wasn’t until 2006 that I decided I needed a new bike, and I was going to have the greatest technology I could afford. Shimano Durace components, a titanium frame, carbon forks, handlebars, stem and seat post. My first saddle was actually carbon, but it hurt too much so I settled on a Terry Fly with titanium rails. I was going to spend about 5K on this bike, and it was going to be lighter than anything I had ever owned on wheels. Pez Cycling News had a review of a bike frame made in Russia by “ex soviet titanium welders”, and imported to this country as Sibex Frames. They had made a name for themselves making Titanium mountain bike suspension forks, and now they were making road frames. Excellent quality, and they had stock dimensions that were very close to my Landshark, so I ordered one. Using e-bay I acquired everything else I needed, and then I asked my local shop to assemble the bike, and thus, my Sibex Czar was born. When I stopped in to pick it up, I could not believe how light it was. My Landshark weighed in at about 26 pounds, and my Czar was just over 17. Nine fuggin pounds lighter! The technology had changed so much. Not only was it lighter, but it was stronger and stiffer as well, so that meant even less wasted energy while riding.
That is the last road bike I have purchased, and is still going strong even though I have replaced more than a few components on it. It may still be a great bike, but it isn’t my last bike. 6 years ago, my friend Chris (since 3rd grade!!) told me that he would give me his Cannondale aluminum fixie frame, which he had been riding as his track bike when he got interested in racing the track, if I would build it up as a track bike and come out to race the track. I did that. I found some FSA track cranks, and ordered some chains and rear cogs, so along with the spare set of wheels Chris had in his junk pile, I had a track bike. Problem was that I just wasn’t going to make the two hour drive to Trexlertown Pa to race it all that often. I didn’t know any track racers here in Jersey, so there wasn’t a lot of incentive, until I met Andrew Brennan and his lovely wife Andrea. They ran a winter “fixie” Saturday ride to train for the upcoming track season, and through them I found The Garden State Velo Club who rented Wall Stadium on Wednesday evenings for track racing. The first couple of years, I put a front brake on the fixie, and did the winter training rides, and for the track I removed the brake and raced on the track until this year.
My most recent bike started out as a call out from my friend Johnny Conway. “Hey Bird?!” he shouted. “What’s up?” I replied. “There’s this 61 cm Serotta Track frame for sale on E-Bay, and it looks like a pretty good deal”. When I got home I went to E-Bay and found the frame, and sure enough there were a few bids and the price was still pretty low. Besides the low bid, this frame was gorgeous! A real work of craftspersonship art. A green so beautiful, Irish eyes were crying. I put a bid in and watched it for a couple of days with very little activity. I raised my bid to the max I would pay for it and by the time the auction ended, it sold to me for a song, and then I began acquiring some of the components I wanted on the bike, and Johnny put the bike together for me, and that is my track bike.
That is the last bike in my lifetime of bikes.