Saturday, March 12, 2016

Suckered by a decal

At the risk of pissing off even more bike collectors I will post this thought. I don't mean to piss anyone off , really-it's just a story of an earlier time in my life when learned what I consider a fairly valuable lesson .

In 1976 I began my life in the bicycle business as the lowest wrench at what was then Harry's Hollywood Schwinn. My dream was to work full-time in a bike shop and this was the first job I had that fit that descripion  . I have finished two years of college and was pretty determined not to go back-all I wanted now was to immerse myself in bicycles 24-7. Getting an education at the shop as to what was a good bicycle started within days of my arrival. The head mechanic Salvador Contreras had been a road racer in Mexico and was a career bicycle mechanic.
In the shop we mostly had bikes in the mid-price ranges as the fancy bikes didn't sell at Harry's Hollywood Schwinn. They sold like hotcakes a few miles away at a couple of other shops that were known for that. If I wanted to see high end racing bikes I would have to look in shops other than where I worked.
With some of the info from Salvador and from some magazines I ventured out to all the top L.A. bicycle shops in search of a good racing frame that I could afford. I looked for weeks but everything I saw was twice as much money as I could afford, that was until on day I went into a shop in Santa Monica and saw a Colnago Super for $ 195 with a Campagnolo headset. The frame was that incredible orange and looked to be in very good condition. I asked the salesperson to take it off the hook so that I could check it out. He did but cautioned me that the frame might be too big. It was indeed a 59cm and I would have been much more comfortable on a 56.
Knowing that the frame was a bit big was not enough of a deterrent to keep me from asking if I could put it on lay-away for three weeks. Reluctantly , the salesperson agreed and I put down all the money I had in my pocket to hold the frame. Here it was, my dream bike frame in the color I wanted and the very brand that Salvador had told me was the one to buy. So what if it was a bit tall.....for the price I would make it work.
Three weeks later I came to the shop and paid the balance on the Colnago. For the next few weeks I would cull all the best parts in my tiny collection and seek out whatever I was missing to get the bike on the road. It took about a month but soon I was seated upon the big orange Colnago with a big smile on my face.......no, I could not afford silk tires or the matching jersey, hat, chairing, seat post and stem-but hey, I had the frame and that's what counted......or so I thought.
Within a couple more months I left L.A. and Harry's Hollywood Schwinn and made my way up to Santa Cruz, my new home. Once there I had to find another full time bike shop gig but I was sure that my resume and my bright orange Colnago would make me look a bit more serious than the average schmuck looking for a job. My sister had already circulated my boss's recommendation letter and my work resume to a few shops in Santa Cruz so all that was left for me to do was to make appointments and see if anyone would hire me. I rode the Colnago to all these appointments, of course.
The first place I went was the Bicycle Trip, a very well regarded service oriented shop. The owner talked to me and glanced at my gleaming bike. " That's a pretty fancy bike ya got there..." were his words and said that he had no openings at that time. I went about two miles to the next shop-the Bicycle Center-a high end boutique store with all the fancy goodies from Europe gacing the showcases and walls. This time I was in luck-the boss said " You are a Schwinn mechanic so you have a high qualification ." ( that was really a stretch , truth be told ) He also said " That's a really beautiful bike you have, son ." So there it was......he was impressed enough with my bike to hire me.
So there I was in Santa Cruz, working in the fanciest shop for a decent wage, riding my Colnago all over the hills on mornings and weekends. At this time the Colnago was beginning to educate me into proper bicycle fit-the bike was doing this by being unruly on off-camber downhills and also by making my lower back scream during hard rides and races. I was getting a bit self conscious about the fit of the bike to the point that I raised the seat post enough so that it looked proper. This of course was too high for my legs and I had to pedal on my tip-toes and probably looked like a complete idiot on the group rides. This didn't matter to me as this was my Colnago-I had arrived !  I had the right bike-so what if it was a bad fit and beginning to cripple me.......I was sold-at least for awhile.
The Bicycle Center was blessed with three walls of frames hanging up on display-many of them from Europe but some were made by local builders - Bruce Gordon, Albert Eisentraut, Keith Lippy and the like. I looked at all these frames and thought: " What if I had a frame that really fit me......would my back stop hurting ? Would I stop crashing so much and getting dropped in races ? "  I made it my job to find this out. First I had to get a frame .......this was not to be as I was pretty broke , having moved to Santa Cruz with only enough money for one months rent. What I did have was enough money for a tube set to build a frame. No matter that I had never built one-I knew that I was going to learn how and hopefully wind up with a frame built for me, by me. That was the last frontier for a bicycle mechanic after all......learn how the damn thing is actually made !
I didn't really nail the fit on the first try but by my 4th frame I had built a frame with a 54.5 seat tube and 56.5 top tube. Don't ask me how I came up with those numbers......must have talked to a few people including my boss-those were the numbers and after about 200 hours I had my new frame. I had no time or money to get it properly painted so I just rattle canned it black in the driveway and the next day it was assembled and in the back of my V.W. bug driving up to the Tassajara road race.
This was to be the first real ride on the bike I had built-a Cat. 4 road race with about 95 other racers that was only about 20 miles with one fairly significant climb in the middle.
I spent about a half an hour riding the bike around, warming up and getting all the bugs out before the gun went off. I barely made the start , getting to the back of the pack and immediately rocketing through to the front. I was warmed up and the rest apparently were not. The race went about 10 miles when there was a huge pile up involving about 15 people. Five riders were ahead of the crash but the rest of us were behind it or in it, hopelessly delayed by the bodies blocking the road. At this point I heard someone yell : " Go Go Go !!" and I got through the mess and chased on my own up the beginning of the big climb. Within minutes I had joined the leaders and realized that I was the only rider from behind the crash to do so.
The leaders were running a double pace-line, all of us knowing that prizes went down to the top six so everyone was in the money. Once we got to the top of the climb the group broke up as the two strongest riders rode away into a strong head wind and away from the group. I chased on my own but could not bridge up and was caught by the other three riders behind me. We arrived at the finish and I sprinted from the back to take third place. This was a shock to me as I had never been anywhere near the front of any race, let alone in a position to sprint for a prize. The winner came up to me and told me that I had ridden an excellent race , something I never thought I was capable of on the ill-fitting Colnago. The other thing I noticed was after the race my back did not hurt in the least.....this was also new.
Here I was , someone who had placed in the top-3 and had animated the start of the race and I had done so on a spray painted black bike with no decals, no chrome , no identification.......and I had built it myself. This opened my eyes.........maybe the fit was much more important than the decal, the paint, the hype and even the price. I had built this frame for under $ 50.00 . Sure, I had spent about 200 hours on it but I had no power tools, no jigs and little know-how. How the hell was I able to make a bike that outperformed the Colnago in nearly every way ? It was very simple: The Colnago was not made for me....it was someone else's bike all the while......it just took me a couple of years to figure that out. Not long after that I said goodbye to my orange Colnago for good-I sold it to someone about 6'1" who really fit it a lot better than I. What I learned was that it doesn't matter what someone tells you about a bike. What matters is how you feel on the bike when you are riding. If it doesn't hold you back but it totally looks like hell , it just might be the best bike on earth.

3 comments:

  1. Great story! Some lessons are best learned the hard way.

    P.S. I rode my Rock Lobster today; I can feel the results of those lessons learned.

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