Live to Ride, Live to Read

Next to riding a bicycle, few activities are more pleasurable than reading about bicycling. Biographies and autobiographies of racers, travel narratives by adventuresome bike tourists, bicycle company histories, club histories, stories of classic races: I love ‘em all. American readers have yet to develop a passion for cycling narratives, however. Search for bicycle books on Amazon. Nearly every title that turns up is a how-to book: how to fix your bicycle, how to time trial, how to tour, how to train. Almost the only cycling narrative listed is Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About the Bike. The way for a book about an American cyclist to sell, it seems, is for its title to announce that it is not about bicycling.

Switch over to Amazon-UK and do the same search. Amazon-UK has a subcategory titled “Cycling History and Biography”; Amazon-US has no such category. Look at the wonderful cycling narratives available to British bookbuyers: autobiographies by Mark Cavendish and Laurent Fignon; biographies of Fausto Coppi, Marco Pantani, and Tom Simpson; bicycle touring tales by Mark Beaumont, Anne Mustoe, and Tom Kevill-Davies. American readers are missing out on some great stories.

One reason bicycle narratives have never caught on in the United States has to do with cycling’s heritage. In this post-Lance era, there are more American bicycle racing fans than ever, yet few know the sport’s history. Louison Bobet won the Tour de France three years in a row, but Americans have hardly heard of him. Soon after I became a bicycle mechanic, an old-timer brought a Bobet bicycle into the shop; though I had been actively cycling for three years by then, I had never heard of Louison Bobet. The local man turned out to be a regular customer (and a regular pain); I and my fellows bike mechanics nicknamed him “Monsieur Bobet.” For the longest time, the only Bobet I knew was that annoying customer at the Spoke-n-Pedal.

To encourage people to read more cycling books, let me mention one work published in the UK a few years ago: Tomorrow, We Ride, an English translation of Jean Bobet’s Demain, on roule. In this book, Jean Bobet relates the close relationship between himself and his brother. Jean Bobet was a fine racer in his own right: he won Paris-Nice in 1955. Yet he is also an intellectual. At times, his writing goes beyond memoir to plumb the depths of the cyclist’s psyche. Partway through the book, Jean Bobet defines a feeling he labels la volupté. His definition provides an example of the wonderful little gems you can find while reading books about bicycling: “The voluptuous pleasure that cycling can give you is delicate, intimate and ephemeral. It arrives, it takes hold of you, sweeps you up and then leaves you again. It is for you alone. It is a combination of speed and ease, force and grace. It is pure happiness.”

Where the Sidewall Ends; or, Black and Tan Fantasy

Before the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) earlier this year, I added its RSS feed to my homepage to get the latest images from those framebuilders who would be exhibiting. One image depicted a model by Winter Bicycles called “Strado Classico.” This model attempted to recreate a Campy Super Record road bike, circa 1980. The bike’s craftsmanship was fine, but Winter Bicycles did not quite get the details right. For one thing, the bike had strap-on shift levers and a braze-on front derailleur. Winter’s most glaring anachronism, however, was its choice of rubber: blackwall tires.

Around 1980, blackwall tires only came on cheap bikes, bikes like English racers from Western Auto and Sears Free Spirits. Good ten-speeds came with black rubber and tan sidewalls. Nowadays, of course, nearly all high-end bicycles have blackwall tires. These new-style tires offend my aesthetic sensibilities. I keep asking myself: are blackwall tires really uglier than black and tan tires, or has my personal experience conditioned my response?

Here’s my conclusion: as a color scheme, black and tan is aesthetically superior. The world of dogs offers plenty of proof. Think of Zeus and Apollo, Higgins’s twin Dobermans on Magnum P.I. What could be more handsome than one black and tan Doberman standing guard than two Dobermans standing guard? Or think of the Manchester Terrier, the Doberman’s Mini-Me, a dog that exudes taste and class: why, it used to be called the “Gentleman’s Terrier.” And then there’s the Rottweiler. With a neck thicker than its head and a chest as twice as thick as either, the Rottweiler is the fullback of the dog world, a symbol of strength and power. Black and tan: the colors of evening and earth. The contrast embodies the evanescent mystery of night and the solidity of the soil beneath our feet.

From now on, I resolved, I would only buy black and tan tires.  Little did I realize how hard they would be to find. Nowadays, major tiremakers retail only blackwall tires. After extensive searching, I located three different brands with tan sidewalls: Veloflex, Challenge, and Grand Bois. The Veloflex tires, though handsome, are too lightweight to suit my riding style. The Challenge model, Parigi-Roubaix, seemed ideal for me, but I disliked the company’s oxymoronic characterization of the tire as an “open tubular.” It’s a clincher. Call it that. I settled on the Grand Bois, a lightweight, yet high-profile Japanese-made tire ideal for my style of riding. I put a pair of Grand Bois “Cerf Blue Label” tires on my Engin (my favorite bicycle). They are beautiful, and they are smooth. As the tires on my other bikes wear out, I plan to replace them all with Grand Bois tires: the perfect combination of performance and aesthetics.

Road Rash and Broken Bones

For some months now I have been thinking about starting a bicycle blog. I was riding like a fiend in January and (he boasted) even rode my first century of the year before the month’s end. For some reason, a huge number of dogs harassed me that month. It suddenly occurred to me to write a public service blog. I would title it “Oklahoma Dog Blog,” and it would describe the meanest, orneriest, most dangerous mutts in the state and the country roads where they are wont to run loose. But I never could get motivated to start it. I needed a topic that was less ephemeral and more cerebral.

While riding on a rainy day three weeks ago I was broadsided by a GMC Yukon. I was going straight, and the motorist turned left right into me. My left leg was bruised from hip to ankle and the ankle bone shattered to bits. After impact I went flying into the air. Two ribs on my right side broke when I landed, and my Bell helmet cracked in three places. The emergency room doctor told me, “Y’know, that helmet saved your life.”

It’s not the accident that gave me my idea for this new blog, but its aftermath. When I hobbled into work with my leg in a cast a few days later, I had to tell my story countless times to countless co-workers, who responded similarly. “You’d never see me riding on such busy roads,” one replied. “I bet you can’t wait until they finish the bike path around the city,” said another.

Unwilling to trot out all the arguments against bike paths, I replied simply,  “Bike paths are for children.” I often chuckle to myself when I see people riding high-dollar time-trial bikes on the bike paths around Lake Hefner. As I watch these Lance Wannabes, I always think, “If you want to go fast, why not ride on the road like a grown-up!”

My co-workers’ responses were well intended. What they do not understand is that bicycling is much more than exercise. If all I wanted was exercise, I could buy a stationary bicycle. But a bicycle ride is both a physical adventure and a journey of the mind. To feel the machine move through space solely by muscle power; to see my breath on cold days, feel my sweat on hot ones;  to dance on the pedals on the way uphill; to feather the brakes on the way down, maintaining a fine balance between speed and control; to feel on my face the sun, the wind, the rain, the snow; to ride a flat road at a steady cadence that works better than any meditative “Om”; to think about life and philosophize. Far more than a form of exercise, bicycling is a philosophy and a way of life. Road rash and broken bones are merely part of the lifestyle, a small price to pay for the feelings of freedom that come with riding a bike.

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