It feels like I’ve ridden road bikes forever, but in actuality, I remember my first, because it was almost my last. Not in a Death Bcomes Bot kind of way, but merely because a change in gepgraphical location encouraged a change in technology. I started riding mountain bikes in Junior High, as is expected in an urban environment that involves curbs, glass, runaway cars, and cheeseburger meat. However, fate struck me a welcome blow, when my KHS was locked up behind another friend’s bike, globally cable locked to a guardrail at the local mall. Not THE local mall, which was a den of gang activity, but the second most local. The former hosted the movie Colors, and was host to a subsequent riot and thrashing that caused it to close down. The latter hosted bike thieves. We came out of a flick and discovered his bike remained, cable lock hanging as if still attached to the gaurdrail, and mine, long gone. This would unfortunately be only the first unhappy merging of movie theaters and bike thefts for me, reinforcing my comfort level with the alternate, currently occurring moviegoing scenario, wherein I watch films on the plasma with my bike within visual range held upright by a pedal tight to a floor column. Anyway, the mountain bike was gone, and I needed a new ride. Enter the Nishiki.
The Nishiki was an entry level road bike, not designed for serious riding, but more like the sort of general road riding use 10-speeds have enjoyed around the world since their invention. It wasn’t a racing bike by any stretch. But it was a road frame, hardy Japanese steel, with multiple gears, skinny tires, and good brakes. It’s impact was unexpected. I went from the sort of general ride mashery any kid does on a bike, on that KHS, the wild, erratic pedal pumping in short spurts followed by distracted coasting, as one finds in BMX bike-wielding young toughs moving from hang-out plaza to hang-out plaza, to a discovery of how to ride… fast. Efficient shifting, low rolling resistance, tucked in riding position. It was unheard of. I had seen my parents’ old timey touring bikes, with the wide bars and the once-comfy leather seats now housing spider nests, and never thought anything in that lineage could be fast. I think one of them even had a fender part wound menacingly INTO the spokes of the front wheel. Terrifying, when you think of them taking lesiurely rides around the park, 66" from cranial injury…
Now, this was also my first introduction to the bike shop. A place where all they did was sell bikes, bikes of all shapes and sizes, glass countertops and cases filled with arcane pieces parts, some VHS video playing TdF footage from the late 80s, and that musty smell of rotting cork tape and bike grease that you don’t find much of anymore, but those little shops certainly offered in spades back then. I was steered in the direction of a road bike by the owner, who assured me that if I tried it for a few months, I’d get it.
Of course, my riding route was 6 miles of shelled, bombed-out, flaming wreckage-sprawled occupied territory, from my rough part of LA, to the promise of non-child-bearing girls and sun-bleached hair and Catholic School skirts, in the beach community that housed my high school. I was a Freshman. On a new, awkward bike technology. Riding on a boulevard with 6 lanes. They have those in Los Angeles. I quickly learned that cars don’t see you, but drivers sometimes do, and aim for you, that buses don’t see you and have a tendency to point you into a scalene triangle of death, and that there’s more crap on the road than in the opening credits of Sanford and Son. I also learned how terrifying the sound of traffic can be, especially when going over a hood. So I learned, also, thereafter, that earphones helped tune out the chaos, and focus your attention. Better or worse. Haven’t had as scary a crash as that first one.
So, about a year into riding that Nishiki, I decided to pursue these event rides. Event rides are like bike races, but where the majority of riders didn’t get the memo. The funds go towards setting up the ride, coning it off, getting the police on board, and preparing a cookout at the end, as well as funding what meager SAG support there might be (a long-haired wild-eyed guy wearing trifocals driving an Abductinator van with peeling paint, and three beat up frames hanging out the back end, which was twined closed. Circa 1988-1989) and the riders were families, kids, older types, all sorts. Having a good time. Riding on streets with less death implied. Looking forward to BBQ. Eventually, I did a number of these, got my friend, the one with the unmolested mountain bike, interested, and eventually worked my way up to centuries.
Centuries are 100 mile rides. These days, we see a lot of metric centuries, which means, predictable, 66 mile rides or so, and I quite like them, because you remain functional afterwards, whereas a full century, or even our longer weekend rides today of the 70-80 mile range, blow you out at the end and you’re basically on pizza/BBQ/ beer/sleep life support the rest of the evening. Anyway, I did a double-century (ish) before I did a century. The double was a two day ride from San Juan Capistrano to San Diego. It was about 180 miles total, so 90 a day. It was my first (and only) overnighter, and it was a hell of a lot of fun, chielfy because I was riding, at that time, with a girl I knew, who was amazing to ride behind. I admit it. I don’t remember her deal: was she a classmate, or someone I met on an event ride? All I know is she had blonde kinky ringlets and a very tight physique and these amazing glutes. So. That was a nice, seemingly effortless two days.
But the last century I did around that time, or maybe around 1990, was one of these more aggressive ones where there’s lots of climbing, 100′s of feet of it over 100 miles. I had several thousand miles into that trusty Nishiki by that point. It served me well. And I was strong as hell, big muscular thighs, and a healthy suitcase of rancor from fighting with my father all the time for no reason. So I was a rocket. My friend with the non-stolen mountain bike came along on that one. At some point about half way through, he blew up and had to drop out. I remember he wasn’t doing the miles I was at the time. Anyway, during the big climb of the day, about 5 hours into the thing, I started having chain slip. It was slight at first, but gradually became more and more obvious, and I was losing power on the climb. Pretty soon I realized that my big chainring, the 53 or whatever it was, was failing. As a last resort, I dropped to the small ring, let’s say a 39, and spun the rest of this looooooong climb.
This was 1990. Spinning a climb, though some of the older, slower riders had figured it out already, was not common. The way you rode a road bike was you mashed. Biggest gear you could, out of the saddle, and leaning forward. Eventually, in the next decade, the practice of managing cadence instead of speed would become more understood in the mainstream, in so much as it would trickle down to regular recreational riders like me. But at the time? I felt like I was noodling in place, my heart was exploding, and the hill went on forever. By the time I got up and over, I was blown. As they often do on centuries, they make the last big climb lead to a loooong recovery descent, a short flat sprint, and the finish line. I was flying down that hill, but on the flat I could barely turn the pedals over. I had been passed, not only by the last riders of the day, but even the SAG van full of crazy. By the time I got to the parade grounds, they had CLOSED down the BBQ, and cleaned up the event. No water bottles. No schwag. No food. I was so exhausted I literally rolled onto the grass, and just let myself fall to the side, and lay there. And then they turned the sprinklers on!
My parents arrived, with my friend in the station wagon, and picked me up. They didn’t understand what had happened, just assumed the mileage was too hard for me. But when I went to service the bike later, I found that the teeth of the large chainring had worn to the resistance side, and then deformed. It was simply too much mashery for that gear, and I broke it. Now, it sounds tough, but really, it was old, heavy metal parts, and not really intended for the abuse I put it through. It could have died on the way to the comic shop. But instead, it died on that terrible climb.
I rode smaller rides through the rest of HS, and didn’t bring that old Nishiki with me to college, where the winds and terrain favored mountain biking. It wasn’t until three harmonious years of living in San Francisco that I decided to take up road biking again. And even though the technology is much better, particularly at the build level I purchase now, and my technical skills, endurance and strength are far, far better than they were when I was 17, when I’m on a climb? Sometimes I my mind can play tricks oN me and I can become convinced that my chainring is warping.
I pour the first sip out for my ole Nishiki, without which I’d never find myself trying to drag my fixed gear up a climb tonight!