Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Why Cycling?

My interest in cycling has risen and fallen, matured and been superseded by other interests over the course of my fifty-odd years. Although my story was very personal, certainly it was not unique. Not scripted, but the series of events that I perceived also serve to tell the story of cycling in America over the last fifty years. Like some "Forrest Gump" of cycling, starring me. Looking backwards, you’d think it was Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond before that and grainy images of Tour de France riders with no helmets – but that’s not the way it was for me (I’m older than that!). But first, I'm told that important events occurred before I arrived on the scene.

In the late 1800s the bicycle was the common man's horse prior to the automobile. Bicycle patents accounted for 2/3rds of patent volume during the 1890s. Not to claim too much credit, but the bicycle was, in many ways, the beginning of the women's liberation movement as well. It allowed women to travel independently and led to them wearing bloomers scandalous, I know! Once the ankles were exposed …well, you know the rest of the story.

Henry Ford is often credited with perfecting the assembly line, but Colonel Pope was said to be mass producing bicycles at the rate of one every minute at the close of the 1890s bicycle boom. The next major milestone was the first balloon tire bikes released by Schwinn in 1933, a tire that could roll over broken glass without a scratch.

In the United States, more babies were born in 1957 than any other year before or since. That represents the peak of the Baby Boomer generation. I represent the end of that generation. Those born in 1957 would have been six years old in 1963 and the world was still innocent enough that kids that age could roam the neighborhood looking for other kids to play with.

In 1963, my mother introduced me to the world and Schwinn introduced the legendary Sting-Ray. West coast kids were putting "Texas longhorn handlebars" on old bikes in the style of the chopper motorcycle. With smooth tires and a banana seat with a sissy bar, Schwinn’s new bike made a bold statement. And it was an immediate and unqualified success. This bike sold like no other Schwinn before it. Every kid had to have one including this one a few years on. And just like kids of the 1930s, they took their rides into the dust and dirt, grass and mud. The tires were perfect for skid-outs. The 20 inch wheels were perfect for wheelies. And the durable Schwinns could still take a curb or even a homemade jump.

In the late 1960s, I rode my Sting-Ray clone against a backdrop of red, white and blue images like Don McLean's thumb from the American Pie album, Peter Fonda's helmet from Easy Rider and Evil Knievel. But then the energy crisis rained on that image for my family and every other American's. In 1973 Americans bought 15 million bicycles (1 million more bicycles than cars), but most of them were road bikes. The Boomers were growing up and banana seats seemed childish. I wanted to ride down the road, go to town, explore. I wanted a 10-speed.

Why did I want a 10-speed? Who knows, I was barely over 10 years old. But a different set of images had been filtering into my consciousness.

Schwinn's road bikes became my new obsession. And not just mine. Like the Sting-Ray before it and the balloon tire before that, the Varsity represented a new shift in American cycling. The 10-speed's narrow wheels, drop handlebars, and hand brakes were designed for speed and distance - modeled after European racing bikes.

The Europeans (and the Japanese) had been making high quality lightweight bicycles for years. Brands like the English Raleigh, the French Peugeot, and the Italian Bianchi began showing up in America. It's hard to imagine how isolated small-town America still was, but this seemed like a new thing for us.

For me, in 1975, it was about touring, as we would call it today. Professional racing was not on my radar even though it was influencing bicycle design. In July, 1975, ABC’s Wide World of Sports broadcast the Tour de France for the first time in America. I don’t remember if I watched, but I probably did because Wide World of Sports (followed by the Wonderful World of Disney and the Lawrence Welk Show) were staples of our family TV viewing routine – replete with manually tuning the antenna to minimize the snow.

My appreciation of European-style bike racing started with the 1979 movie, "Breaking Away". The team in the movie is based on the 1962 Phi Kappa Psi Little 500 champions. So apparently other Americans were interested in racing much earlier. But even in 1979 the feeling rang true - professional cycling was for Europeans. Oh sure, there were a few Americans who ventured overseas to race. But I didn't recognize their names: Jack Simes III (who was the son and grandson of pro racers), David Chauner, Audrey McElmury, Sheila Young, Mike Neel, and Jonathan Boyer.

In 1980, we watched the Winter Olympics on ABC's Wide World of Sports. There was no cycling. But Eric Heiden won an unprecedented five gold medals in speed skating. Instant hero. Speed skaters ride bikes in the summer for cross-training. After winning Olympic gold at age 21, Heiden hung up his skates and switched over to cycling – which he had been doing all along, just not racing professionally. I clearly remember the image of Eric Heiden on a bike with his massive, speed-skater build – even though I never saw him race. (That image was recalled when Bo Jackson, another famous multi-sport athlete, said “when’s that Tour de France thing?”) Whatever image I subconsciously had of a thin little European bike racer was suddenly transformed in a big, strong American-style superstar. Now, that was cool! However, cycling in America needed time to evolve and I needed to spend a few years in college.

Heiden’s friend, former speed skating coach and bike racer, Jim Ochowicz, had managed Eric and his sister in the Olympics and thus started a career in sports management. They raced on velodromes in the fall of 1980. “It was raining,” recalls Ochowicz, “and we were sheltering in the barn there. I said to Eric I had this idea to create a pro cycling team like they had in Europe, with a sponsor that was the name of the team, along with full-time managers, mechanics and soigneurs.” With Heiden’s fame, they were able to get sponsorship from 7-Eleven and Ochowicz was able to recruit some professional cyclists who had been competing in Europe.

By the time the 7-Eleven team was founded in 1981, amateur road racing was fully established in North America. But to race professionally, Americans like Boyer, Greg LeMond, Mike Neel, George Mount and John Eustice had to cross the Atlantic to earn places on European squads. By 1983, LeMond had captured his first world championship. His celebrity vaulted in 1986 when he became the first American to win the Tour de France. He quickly became America's first cycling superstar. In 1986, I was graduating college and cycling was fully entrenched in America.

My girlfriend at the time had a brand new Fuji and I bought a used Raleigh. We never actually rode together. But I did many local organized rides, typically 50 miles or less. I was training for the DALMAC ride from Lansing, Michigan to the Mackinac Bridge. On the third of three days, I did my very first century. Neither relationship lasted, however.

A few years later, now in California, I renewed my interest in cycling to help my future wife as she trained for a marathon. We got married; I stopped cycling …until she started cycling. Mostly out of couch-potato-guilt, I started cycling again. And this time I caught the addiction.

In some future post, I'll explain how I got from there to sitting on a train talking to George Mount about him training for professional racing in Europe.

So in case you missed it, why cycling?

  • Because the safe-but-slightly-wild Schwinn Sting-Ray had been born when I was born. And that meant its popularity bread a slew of clones and enough used ones so that poor little country boys like me could have a bike to fit their safe-but-slightly-wild sixties childhood.
  • Because of Wide World of Sports broadcasting the Tour de France in 1975 and "Breaking Away" hitting theaters in 1979. I didn’t relate to the main character, the Midwestern bike racer trying to fit in with the Italians. I related to the “cutters” wearing Converse All-Stars and wearing welding gloves and T-shirts. No lycra for me back then.
  • And because a hulking, world-beating, Olympic speed-skater switched sports and his fame lifted professional cycling to the American consciousness. Enough so, that another Wisconsin speed-skater could launch the very first American professional cycling team to compete against the Europeans (on Wide World of Sports) – and win.
  • Eric Heiden. Not so much Greg LeMond, but certainly he was important. Let’s not talk about Lance.
  • And because I needed some heart-healthy hobby to make sure I could grow old with my wife. For love.

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