Ode to a Bicycle

I’ll admit it was a bit crazy. 20120911-7153Spending close to a thousand dollars on a bicycle in 1983 was way out there. Especially given that I wasn’t riding that much on my existing bike; I was mostly running, though not particularly enjoying it. There was a very active biking group in Rochester at the time, including my good friend and mentor Peter Pairolero. He persuaded me to get some reasonable wheels so I could participate in their frequent outings, which were noted for an eminently sensible balance of exercise and beer.

At some point I found myself with the Performance Bike Shop catalogue. It was a newly opened shop in Chapel Hill, North Carolina: nice folks. Now there are over a hundred of their stores all over North America, and the people I dealt with are probably now enjoying life on a yacht. Anyways, in 1983 there was only one, and they put out a catalogue to die for. Everything was there, arranged in a way to gently pique your manhood and your wallet. “This one is really good, but, if you can handle the best…” Say no more.

At the time, I was a new staff member at Mayo, taking home a reasonable salary, particularly considering my time commitment and the immensely larger contribution that my activities generated for the Mother Ship. But more importantly for this discussion, enough to generate a pleasant monthly surplus. So I could take on the catalogue without restraint–no, make that with a vengeance.

I still remember first turning the pages…towards the middle, upper left, half page. It was pictured in a nice enough red, but available in other colors, including my favorite, blue: a DeRosa Professional frame. The lightest frame in the shop, meticulously Italian made, best outfitted with top of the line Campagnolo components, the bike ridden by world champion Eddie Merckx. And it could be mine.

True to form, pulling the trigger took some time. A lot of pondering. There had to be the obligatory agonizing over frame size, wheels, saddle, gear options. Best read a book or two to help get things right. Call the shop five or six times, just to get the lay of the land. Come to grips with the discrepancy between this gorgeous machine and my talents–something undoubtedly doomed to be fodder for discussion in the peloton.

Somehow, selections were made: frame size, 55 cm.; color, blue; the best Campagnolo components all around; Cinelli stem; Ambrosio rims with Vittoria silk sew-up tires; 42/52 front sprocket; straight block 13 to 18 cluster in the rear. Sorry, but I forget the saddle selection, but it was a high-end leather shark fin configuration of the day (admittedly, to be very much regretted after a decade or two). This bicycle was perfect, and would have been in good company in the Tour de France of the day. O.K., it was certainly a better bike than my skills warranted, but I would work hard to live up to its promise. With memorable trepidation, I picked up the phone–it was 1983 after all–and ordered it…

I got a message a few hours later from my secretary: would I call the people at Performance Bike Shop?  Oh God, had someone told them that my riding skills were too plebeian for such a mustang? Did the frame now only come in chartreuse? No, no doubt due to my stammering anxiety at the moment of purchase, they had gotten the credit card number wrong. Christ, another moment to consider the decision…. A brief dash back into the confessional:  I am not worthy.

Screw it, I gave him the proper number. He completed the purchase as though I were buying a sack of potatoes. Next.

The Unveiling20120911-7142
The box was definitely rectangular, leaning against our garage door in the late afternoon light. It had been an anxious three weeks or so awaiting its arrival–certainly sufficient time to justify a call or two to North Carolina. Not to worry, some components coming in had not yet arrived. But now it was here.

Rectangular yes, but disturbingly small. I did tell them that I wanted two wheels, didn’t I? Or wheels at all?

An exploratory incision with a kitchen knife solved the mystery: within lay a three dimensional embrace of perfection. On top were the anodized rims with tires applied, then the frame with the fork turned back on itself–does that hurt?–and handlebars turned 90 degrees, and the pedals in a well secured little sack. A perfect fit. And the frame–an absolutely gorgeous metallic blue with yellow and red accents. On the seat tube and down tubes, beautifully contrasting, was painted ‘DeRosa.’

Just to move this along, let me say that initial assembly was very straightforward. Everything was already oiled and greased. A little wrench work had me a complete bicycle, save for two airless tires. I knew that I’d need some fine tuning on the set up to arrive at the most comfortable and efficient orientation of the riding position, but there was time for that later. Make some rough measurements for now. Inflate those tires to a little more than 100 psi, and I was ready to go.

First Rides 20120911-7161
At the time we lived on a momentary flattening of a long hill. I walked the bike up to the head of the driveway, for the first time hearing the distinct pinging sound of the tightly trued spokes finding their equilibrium. I didn’t yet have proper biking shoes–ones with a bulbous cleat on the ball that locks with the peddle–but I could still get a running shoe into the toe clip and cinch it down.

I mounted up and coasted downhill. Never had so many things felt simultaneously so wrong and so right. The wrong was that the bike was so light that I felt jittery. The right was that the bike was so light that when I turned at the bottom of the hill to climb back home I was stunned by how I felt one with the machine. The various sounds–clicks, dérailleur shifts, front sprocket shifts–were mechanical precision. It was amazing.

A few weeks later I found some proper shoes–Italian Vittoria size 42 I recall. The shoe cleat fit perfectly into the clips and onto the pedals. With this set up, one was truly one with the bike. I never learned that trick of keeping ones feet in the pedals and balancing the bike at a stop sign–impressive, handy, but with what I would imagine to be a frightening learning curve. So for me, an approaching stop did require some thought as to which strap was to be loosened so I could start wiggling my foot out. Few things were more mortifying than to be with a group and not get your foot out in time, falling sideways into a friend, and worst of all, thus creating a chain reaction taking down two or three people. Very poor form

Weekend Routines
Minnesota and Wisconsin are magnificent for biking, something not fully appreciated until one moves to another locale, as I was eventually to do.  But for now, the car-width shoulders–for snow plowing–and the relatively sparse traffic on the county roads made for ideal riding conditions.

And ride I did.  It took a month or so to feel totally at ease, to get the seat softened up a bit, and to get the set-up just right, but from then on, things were good.  I never got passed having first moments of discomfort–a sudden hurt in the butt nestling onto the saddle, hands stiff from gloves immobilized by the last ride’s sweat, tight constraint of sinched-in toe clips, shoulders rebelling to the weight bearing position.  After a few minutes, though, these burdens sequentially disappeared, leaving me happily mesmerized by the hum of the chain and the awareness of a delicious disparity between effort and speed.

Riding with a group of friends was beautiful socialism.  Everyone took turns at the lead, ‘pulling the group,’ thus making dramatically less work for everybody in the wind shadow. Buried in the peloton, you can be zipping right along, frequently just coasting, shooting the bull with whomever is in proximity. Pulling, though, is real work, with real expectations:  you can’t wimp out after a minute or two, even in a diabolical headwind, nor can you be an asinine show off by going so energetically as to ‘drop’ the group.  Basically, you go faster and harder than you are comfortable with, and when your legs start to really hurt, and the fact that your feet are lashed to the pedals becomes frightening, you peel off and find respite in the rear.  When breath returns, you can chat it up as you migrate towards the lead again.

Saturday morning rides in Rochester with ten or twelve people were a regular event. We’d often plan a round trip of 40 or 50 miles or so, with the understanding that we’d work hard on the way out, stop around the half way point for something to eat and a beer or two, then amble home. Nice.

I’d also go in some organized long distance rides and races, by and large either 100 miles or 100 kilometers. After doing a few of each, one thing became very apparent–there is a huge difference between the two. The shorter distance is quite civilized and manageable, and I could stay with the competitive pack, though predictably getting dropped by the young Turks in the final stretch. A hundred miles, though, proved too far to go with any competitive intent. Granted I never trained for such a distance, but even if I had, legs of jello at the eighty mile mark would have been inevitable. That was when having my feet anchored to the pedals seemed a dangerous cruelty.

My First Hundred-Miler 20120911-7154
My first hundred miler was quite a story. Every October in LaCrosse, Wisconsin was a hundred mile ride/race. You could take it on either way.  Regardless, it was a difficult route, fairly flat at first, but ending up with 30 miles of murderous climbing and descending the long steep hills in the coulees that approach the Mississippi River.

This was my first hundred miler, so I was pretty apprehensive. The plan was to ride with Rochester friends with the goal of just completing the distance, not competing. As I was assembling my bike, one of my friends clarified the riding strategy: to make things tolerable, we’d ride the first fifty miles hard, and then to stop for a beer at every bar from there on in.


So we actually did around 60 miles with some credibility, though the racing group was already substantially ahead. And then we downshifted to beer mode.

There was never any risk of drunkenness: the beers in question were 25 cent taps that every Wisconsin bar served in the day. Something like 400 to the gallon. And we’d only have one at each stop. On the other hand, there are a lot of small bars in Wisconsin, with some nameless hamlets having two or three. So we’d pull into Dodge, dismount, and hobble into the first bar, settle in at the counter, shoes clanking all the way. Before we could get the beer, though, we had to offer some explanation to the proprietor why we weren’t pursuing that rabbit, or whatever, that seemed to be motivating the other riders who had energetically passed through town earlier. At first, marginally acceptable explanations, like dehydration, were offered; but with time imagination took over. As the number of stops increased, sometimes after as little as a 30 second interval needed to walk the bikes across the street to the next pub, we offered increasingly nonsensical explanations: our bikes are overheating, we’ve already finished and are coming around again to sweep up stragglers. Stuff like that. But we always got the beer, pretty much slammed it down, and were on our way. And so went the last 40 miles or so.

We pulled into the finish area as darkness was falling and the organizers were contemplating calling the State Police to find us. Jean, who had been waiting for some hours, transitioned rapidly from concern to irritation when the whole story came out.

After that experience, I limited most of my distance racing to 60 kilometers, and everybody was happier. I actually got pretty good at it, but never in the league with the fast young group in town, who regularly practiced by doing wind sprints up a massive hill leading into town, which I found proud to conquest once on the way home.

For all the time that Jean and I were in Minnesota, my DeRosa accompanied us. If we were going North to visit Jean’s family in the Twin Cities, we’d throw it in the back of the car, and I’d ride with Loren, Jean’s brother in law and an incredibly fit triathlon athlete. I had to work to hang onto his wheel. If we were visiting Jean’s folks in LaCrosse, a really fun thing was to be dropped off just as the road started its long descent through apple orchards to the Mississippi.

Probably 2 or 3 nights a week I could get away from our condominium for a solo ride before dark. These cleared my head and guaranteed a good night’s sleep.

The Rochester Move
The move to Rochester was obviously not done with high consideration of my cycling experience. Near death experiences brought on by pot holes, oblivious passing cars, and rock throwing pedestrians made for some horrific memories. This was the mid 1980’s, before bicycling gained its currently tolerated aggressive status on the roadway. By and large I rode solo, while now there are large organized rides in our neighborhood several days a week, where appropriation of a lane of roadway might piss off drivers, but, like the school of fish, the safety component for the cyclists is exponentially increased.

The Closure
Work, physical decline, and, of course, my losing battle with cancer has kept me off the DeRosa for now close to 20 years. She is on a secure wall rack in my garage. I used go in there from time to time with a dust rag, and I gave the pedals a spin and the gears a shift or two. She still exuded pride in her crisp precision of sound and motion.

She’s right. 20120911-7127
No more time for selfishness. We’ll find a good home for her.

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