Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Cycle Cinema: American Flyers

After looking at the history of the Red Zinger/Coors Classic bicycle race -- America's unofficial national tour of the 70s and 80s -- I promised I would delve into the 1985 film based on the event: American Flyers. Written by Steve Tesich, the bicycle racing fan who also wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Breaking Away, and directed by John Badham, who earlier directed Saturday Night Fever, American Flyers certainly raised bicycling fans' expectations but didn't quite live up them. I'd call it a "must see" for anyone who really likes bicycling, cheesy 80s movies, or Kevin Costner -- but on the whole, it isn't exactly a classic piece of cinema. Nevermind that I own it on DVD. I'm a self-admitted bicycle geek, so I don't really have any choice, do I?

A shot from the very patriotic opening credit sequence.
American Flyers is about a bicycle racer and sports physician, Marcus Sommers (played by an excellently mustachioed Kevin Costner), who tries to reconnect with his less-focused, aimless younger brother David (David Grant), who has dropped out of pre-med to study "Eastern Philosophy and cowboy movies. The yin, the yang, and the bang-bang." Marcus convinces David to join him to race in "The Hell of the West" stage race in Colorado, which is the thinly veiled Coors Classic (albeit reduced to just three stages). But to keep the movie from being strictly about bike racing, there is a complication designed to bring out some family drama. From the description on the back of the DVD: "While training and racing together, each fears the congenital ailment that struck down their father (a cerebral aneurysm) could suddenly strike one of them." The characters are rounded out by Marcus's girlfriend, Sarah, played by Rae Dawn Chong, and Becky (Alexandra Paul) whom the group picks up along the way and becomes David's love interest. Of course, there needs to be a "bad guy," and that would be Muzzin, aka "the Cannibal" (Luca Bercovici) -- a former teammate of Marcus's, and Sarah's ex-husband. Oh yeah, there's also a stereotypical 80's-movie Russian named "Belov" who is supposed to be an Olympic champion cyclist, but looks more like a wrestler.

Michael Aisner (right), the race director of the real
Coors Classic, makes a very brief appearance in the film.
Look closely and you'll see his hat says "Coors Classic,"
not "Hell of the West."
Much of the racing footage in the film was shot on location at the Coors Classic -- some real race footage was shot during the 1983 race, while other scenes were re-created in and around the actual race locations with actors and extras. According to the film's producer, Gareth Wigan, Category 2 and 3 racers from Colorado were selected as doubles and extras, being paid about $100 a day for a period of up to six weeks. In some of the re-created race scenes, the filmmakers were able to get right into the action with special camera mounts -- on handlebars, wheel axles, and the backs of saddles. The real and staged footage were then combined and integrated fairly effectively -- though sharp-eyed viewers can spot "Coors Classic" and "Hell of the West" logos alternately interspersed throughout the film.

Costner wasn't really a cyclist, but he looked fairly natural on a
bike. But he seemed more natural as a ball player in Bull Durham.
Although there were cycling doubles for the principal actors in the film, Wigan said that about 95% of the riding in the film was done by the actors. "They had four weeks of physical training and learning bicycling under Specialized's Bill Woodul," said Wigan, in an interview for the Coors Classic Official Magazine. "After the first ride they did, only two and a quarter miles, they collapsed. They worked, they dieted, they did weight training, they did race training, they worked to the point that when we would shoot a twelve hour day, they'd still go out for an hour ride in the evening." Luca Bercovici (Muzzin) reportedly crashed at one point during filming, breaking his collarbone, but continued on with the shooting for the next couple of weeks with a brace. Impressive.

Nice wheelie -- though I'm guessing this was one of those
scenes performed by a stunt double, not the actor.
Rae Dawn Chong won the respect of a lot of cyclists
with her expert wheel change.
One scene in the movie where the training paid off was a scene where Kevin Costner's character gets a puncture during the race and Rae Dawn Chong performs a pretty inspiring wheel change. According to the producer Wigan, Chong worked for two weeks with Bill Woodul learning how to change a wheel. "In one shot -- there's no cutting, there's no futzing around -- Rae Dawn comes up with the wheel, takes the old wheel off, throws it away, puts the new wheel on, and it's eight and a half seconds! She could get a job with Specialized changing a wheel like that."

Well -- that's some of the good. In what ways did the film not live up to expectations? Where to begin?

Belov looked more like a Russian wrestler than a cyclist.
The actor probably prepared for the role
by studying Boris and Natasha.
For one thing, I'd put it down to some one-dimensional and less-than-believable characters. Take the Russian, Belov. As already mentioned, he looks more like some kind of wrestler than a cyclist. He's essentially no different from any Russian portrayed in any 80s movie -- or anything made in America since Rocky & Bullwinkle. And when was the last time anyone saw a top-level cyclist with a full beard? (apart from Dave Zabriskie in the off-season, that is). Belov is supposed to be the 1980 Olympic gold medalist, but looks completely unnatural on a bike. The film's other foil, Muzzin, makes it pretty clear that Belov's Olympic victory was only because the Americans didn't get to compete in Moscow (then again, that is the exact reverse of the claim some people make about some of the American victories at the '84 Los Angeles games).

"Enough of this Sunday stroll. Let's hurt a little bit!"
That then leads me to Muzzin -- the "Cannibal." OK, anybody who knows bike racing knows that the Cannibal was Eddy Merckx, so it would have been nice if they had come up with something original. Ironically, Merckx makes a cameo in the film as himself, so maybe they just figured their predominantly American audience wouldn't know the difference? Muzzin has a pretty huge chip on his shoulder, seems to have no compunctions against cheating, gets off on attacking the press (verbally berating a female reporter in one scene, and attempting to run down a photographer in another), and spends half of his scenes growling or roaring -- Rrraaauuuugggghhhhh! On the other hand, Muzzin also gets some of the best cliché lines in the movie. "Enough of this Sunday stroll. Let's hurt a little bit!" That's my favorite.

Muzzin to reporter: "I'm not riding for America lady. I tried riding for America. I spent four years of my life working shitty jobs so I could train and make the Olympic team and ride for my . . . Look at me! And then some fat-asses in Washington started having opinions. The Olympic Committee started having opinions. You, you bitch, I know you! You started writing your opinions. So we boycott the Olympics. I was in the best shape of my life in the summer of 1980 and I got beat by opinions."
Reporter: "Still, the fact remains. . ."
Muzzin: "You wouldn't know a fact if it banged you all night long!"
The real Cannibal, Eddy Merckx, made a brief cameo in the film.
That's a starting gun -- not used to shoot the impostor Cannibal.
Despite all the efforts to make the cycling in the movie believable, American Flyers still falls a bit short. For instance, early in the film David tells Marcus he rides "a lot -- 30, 40 miles a day." That might be a lot for an aimless college student who watches lots of cowboy movies, but it is not the kind of mileage that makes for a world class bicycle racer. Yes, the two brothers train and ride much of the way between Marcus's home in Madison, Wisconsin (lots of great American cyclists came from the Madison area, by the way) and Colorado. And Marcus tries to impart some knowledge of race strategy to David along the way. But it seems awfully unlikely that this would be enough to take a kid who has never raced and prepare him to race against the best in the country and from around the world.

I sometimes read or hear criticism about the film for the fact that it seems to over-simplify bicycle racing, strategies, team dynamics, etc. -- but I won't level that against it. If the film focused enough on those aspects to satisfy hard-core bicycle racing fans, it would totally lose any other audience. But a scene near the end, I believe, gets pretty ridiculous (SPOILER ALERT: if you haven't seen American Flyers and actually want to watch it someday, skip the rest of this paragraph and screen shot!). When Muzzin and David Sommers are racing along the edge of a big cliff, and Muzzin tries to force David off the edge -- I'm sorry -- but that just seems beyond belief, even for a guy wound as tight as Muzzin.
Illustrating the old adage, "If you can't beat them, push them off a cliff."
Add to those issues the fact that some of the family drama in the film gets a bit melodramatic, and the synthesized pop soundtrack is pretty cheesy, and you start to get the idea why American Flyers never became the beloved bicycling-themed movie that Breaking Away was. Still, I enjoyed it -- even for its clichés and other flaws.

Some wonderful-awful scenes and lines:

David learns that Marcus's "training buddy" Eddy is a pit bull.
"That's Eddy? -- Marcus, you son-of-a-bitch!"
Muzzin's teammate, Jerome: "I'm Jerome. You're a damn cannibal.
That's a big rock. Let's get outta here - we got a race to win."
Becky to Sarah: "Well, I'll be a Fig Newton. I'm standin' here next
to a lady with a past."
Jerome: "Are you alright? You sound half-human."
Muzzin: "I AM half-human."
"How can you be sick? Look at yourself . . . you got a mustache and everything."
Some trivia about the film: 

The pit bull, Eddie, is named after Eddie Borysewicz, or "Eddie B," who was the prominent coach of the U.S. Cycling Team.

The "team van" that the brothers use for the race really is an old 7-Eleven team van, and Muzzin rides for the 7-Eleven team (albeit with only four members). In fact, most of the teams depicted in the film are meant to duplicate real teams of the time to help ease the integration of "real" and "re-created" race footage.

As mentioned, Specialized provided a great deal of technical support and training for American Flyers. They also provided bicycles and equipment. The bikes that the Sommers brothers race on are Specialized Allez SE bikes -- which back then were classic-styled lugged and brazed steel bikes built in Japan. They mostly had SunTour components. Another scene has a person riding rollers on a Specialized Expedition touring bike.

Well, there you have it. There aren't many bicycle-themed films available for viewing, but American Flyers is one of them.

Monday, April 28, 2014

America's Tour: The Coors Classic

Years before many Americans knew anything about the sport of bicycle racing, before any Americans had competed in the Tour de France, and before many even knew such a thing existed, the Coors Classic was developing into America's Tour. Starting life as the Red Zinger Classic in 1975, the race changed names and sponsors and grew in size and prestige until the final Coors Classic was run in 1988.

The inaugural year artwork.
(From StoryArts Media.)
Looking back on it, the founding of such a race seems entirely improbable. Mo Siegel, one of the founders of the Celestial Seasonings tea company in Boulder, Colorado, by chance saw a small bicycle race near the University of Colorado that must have absolutely entranced him because he quickly set to work organizing a race that would promote his growing tea company. Named after their spicy Red Zinger tea, the inaugural 1975 race was just two days long and was won by American racing legend John Howard, who was a dominant force in this country's nascent racing scene -- 3-time Olympian, 4-time National Champion, later an Ironman Triathlon World Champion, and holder of a human-powered land speed record.

By 1979, the Red Zinger had grown to eight days, and expanded into other Colorado cities such as Vail and Aspen. After the '79 race, the event was sold to promoter/race director Michael Aisner -- reportedly for just $1! Aisner managed to get Colorado brewing giant Coors to sign on as the title sponsor, and the Coors Classic was born. Jonathan "Jacques" Boyer won that first Coors edition, a year before becoming the first American to compete in the Tour de France. Celestial Seasonings would continue to support bicycle racing in other ways over the years, such as team sponsorships.

Racing against the Rockies as a backdrop: Andy Hampsten,
Doug Shapiro, Jeff Pierce, and Alexi Grewal
(from the Coors Classic Official Magazine)
Under Aisner's leadership, the Coors Classic continued to expand in its importance and scope, adding stages in California, Nevada, Wyoming, and even Hawaii. During that time, it also grew to more than two weeks of racing, becoming the fourth-largest bicycle race in the world, after the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, and Vuelta a España. In the earlier years, much of the racing emphasis was on criteriums -- short, fast races with multiple laps around a tight circuit -- at the time, probably the predominant type of racing in the U.S. Because of the compact nature of the race courses, criteriums were ideal for spectators, and more spectators were good for the sponsors. Over the years, the race became more "European" in its style, with greater focus on longer road courses, especially over the rugged and beautiful mountain passes of the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, but the criterium circuits were still a big and popular part of the racing spectacle.

Chris Carmichael climbing "The Wall" of Morgul-Bismark
on his way to a stage win in '84. The picture was used
in ads for Specialized, which provided race support.
One of the more famous road stages passed through the Colorado National Monument and was evocatively named the "Tour of the Moon" for its dramatic landscape. It necessitated closing a U.S. national park, which was the first time that had been done for a sporting event (park service policy changes since then make it unlikely to happen again, at least on the same scale as the Coors Classic). The Morgul-Bismark circuit was another storied stage that routinely ended with a sprint up a 12% grade known as "The Wall." Some notable stages in California (beginning in 1985) included a time-trial hill climb up to San Francisco's famous Coit Tower, and a criterium on Fisherman's Wharf -- featuring a hairpin turn on Pier 45 that was so tight and so close to the water that it was amazing nobody ended up taking a plunge into the bay.

Racing the Coors Classic could sometimes be unpredictable. In the 1987 event, which featured stages in Hawaii, one of the routes had to be changed just weeks before the race because of a road closure due to lava flow. I'm pretty sure that never happened in the Tour de France.

Highlighting the unpredictability of stage racing in the U.S.,
this bunch of horses broke loose through their fences and started
running among the racers in the '82 Coors Classic.
(from Bicycling, Nov/Dec. 1982)
Connie Carpenter and Greg LeMond share the winners podium in 1981.
(from the Boulder Daily Camera)
Doug Shapiro of the 7-Eleven team powers on to win the '84 edition.
(from the Coors Classic Official Magazine)
In the '85 edition, Andy Hampsten of the Levi's team kept the pressure
on eventual winner Greg LeMond. Hampsten's performance was so
impressive that year, he would be invited to join LeMond and Bernard
Hinault on the La Vie Claire team in '86. (from Bicycling, Dec. '85)
Raúl Alcalá took the victory in the 1987 race -- the first
(and last) to visit the state of Hawaii. (from Cyclist, Feb. 1988)
Although primarily a showcase for American racing talent, Aisner worked to make the Coors Classic an international racing event, inviting professional and amateur teams from all over -- most notably the East German and Russian National Teams. Just a year after the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, American racer Greg LeMond (who was part of that Olympic team) got his chance to race against the Russians at the Coors, and won. LeMond would go on to win again in 1985, the same year he was denied a victory in the Tour de France by his teammate Bernard Hinault. The following year, Hinault would win the Coors himself -- his last win before retiring from the sport in 1986.

Grewal showboats his
way across the finish
at Morgul-Bismark, '83
Like any good racing event, the Coors featured plenty of drama and some good rivalries. One such ongoing rivalry was that between 1984 Olympic gold medalist Alexi Grewal and his adversaries (and once teammates) on the 7-Eleven team. The temperamental Grewal was often a foil to the powerful 7-Elevens, and though he never actually won the Coors overall, he sometimes seemed to be riding as much to prevent them from winning as he was trying to win himself. Grewal could be unpredictable, but that just fit with the nature of the race. In 1983, after riding for a solo win in the Morgul-Bismark stage, he famously jumped off his bike just short of the finish line and danced across the line with his bike held high in the air. Some people loved him. Others couldn't stand him.

Connie Carpenter says goodbye to fans
after her last Coors Classic stage win before
going on to take gold in the '84 Olympics.
(from the Coors Classic Official Magazine)
The most decorated racer in the history of the race was 7-Eleven's sprinting star Davis Phinney. Winner of numerous Coors stages, he won the points classification every year from 1981 through 1987. He was the overall champion in the race's final year, 1988. It seemed fitting.

Another thing worth mentioning about the Coors was that it was one of the premier events for women's bicycle racing, and in that regard it has not truly been eclipsed even through today. Though generally shorter and with fewer stages than the men's race, the women's race was held every year except 1976. Olympic gold medalist Connie Carpenter was a three-time champion ('77, '81 and '82). French racing powerhouse, Jeannie Longo, also won the women's race three times ('85 - '87). The success of the women's Coors Classic was the inspiration for the Tour de France Féminin (later called the Grand Boucle Féminin, now defunct.)

At the peak of the race's popularity, it was featured in the 1985 film American Flyers, starring Kevin Costner and written by Steve Tesich who had won an Oscar for his screenplay in Breaking Away. Although the race in the movie was renamed "The Hell of the West," and was only three days, much of the racing footage was shot on location at the Coors Classic -- particularly the Morgul-Bismark and "Tour of the Moon" stages. Great film? Well, no, not really. I enjoyed it, but I also recognize its weaknesses. I'll write about American Flyers in detail some time in a future post.

The most decorated racer in Coors
Classic history - Davis Phinney at last
took the overall title in the final
1988 race. (photo from Diane Huntress)
Unfortunately, the Coors Classic began to lose a bit of its lustre in the last couple of editions. In 1987, the year the race traveled to Hawaii, getting the race into and out of the island state turned out to be a logistical headache which got the red ink flowing. Worse still, race scheduling conflicts and a perceived lack of big prize money kept a lot of the European teams and competitors away. Mexican racer Raúl Alcalá, with the 7-Eleven team, won that 1987 race against a diminished field of only 10 teams. The 1988 edition would turn out to be the last, as the Coors Brewing Company decided not to renew their sponsorship deal. Nobody else was willing to step in to fill the void for a race that was so indelibly linked with Coors that fans would probably call it the Coors Classic regardless of who the title sponsor was. Davis Phinney's hard earned victory that year made the departure bittersweet.

With the loss of the Coors Classic, attention was turned to a new stage race in 1989, sponsored by self-promoting real-estate mogul Donald Trump. Unlike the Coors Classic, the Tour de Trump (classy name, right?) was held up and down the Eastern Mid-Atlantic states and consisted of 10 stages in its first year, and 13 in 1990. That race would change sponsorship and be re-named the Tour DuPont from 1991 through 1996. The closest thing we have to the Coors Classic today is the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, which started in 2011. The USA Pro Cycling Challenge races over some of the same territory once covered by the Coors, so comparisons are inevitable. It seems to me that it may have potential to grow, but for the time being it is a smaller scale event than the Coors Classic was at its peak.

In the 14 years that encompassed the Red Zinger/Coors Classic, the race became in the minds of many people the USA's unofficial national tour. The race was a showcase for a lot of rising American racing talent, a fostering hand in developing this country's bicycling "scene," and a big step in showing the world that American's could compete with the best cyclists in the world.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Weird and Wonderful? or Just Weird?

I spotted this video on BikeRadar today, although it apparently posted months ago (how did I miss it?). Weird & Wonderful Bike Tech. It is a look at the top 5 technical "innovations" displayed at last fall's Eurobike show. I found it amusing, as I don't even think the reporter took much of it very seriously.

Here are some highlights:

Here we have a classic case of the solution looking for a problem: a bike built with no spokes or hubs in the wheels. OooKayyy. Why? No details were given on this one in the video, but if there's a good reason for this, I'd love to know what it is.
Next we have the Haibike Electric Road Bike. Not electric commuter bike, or cargo bike, or even mountain bike. The electric road bike -- as in racer. Can't be used for racing, obviously (Fabian Cancellara jokes aside). "Everyone is successful with this kind of bicycle," says the spokeswoman. Is that justification for this thing's existence not enough? When pressed for an answer as to who needs this bike, she says, "If you're a wife and you want to do a sport with a man" (and you have a spare 6,000 euros kicking around) then this is the bike for you. Awesome.

Then there is the Softwheel suspension wheelset -- with the suspension actually built into the wheel instead of the frame. Now anybody can retrofit suspension onto any bike. I've never been convinced that suspension was necessary for most bikes, excepting perhaps hard-core mountain bikes (mountain bikes actually ridden in extreme off-road conditions, that is -- not the majority that spend most of their time on pavement and bike paths). So, there are at least 6 linkages per wheel, plus the compression tubes themselves (springs? elastomers? what's in those things?), which means lots of stuff to wear out. How much does this thing weigh, I wonder. How does a wheel like that do on lateral loads? I don't expect to see this one catching on.

Another suspension idea came in the form of this leading link suspension fork from Lauf Forks: carbon fiber forks with glass fiber springs. The creator was involved in the prosthetic industry, making carbon and glass fiber "feet" (perhaps similar to those prosthetic running blades used by Oscar Pistorius?). Leading link suspension is nothing new, having been used on some motorcycles for decades (notably on older BMWs), and even some bicycles. But the glass fiber springs are a different approach. Looks pretty fragile to me, though, so I don't really see the benefit.

For those who want their nighttime bike rides to resemble a night at the disco, there is the Monkey Light LED wheel system. Programmable to display all kinds of images and messages -- even animations -- this thing consists of a battery pack and a band of LED lights that one attaches to the spokes of the wheel. Be safe AND send a message! Also seen on Kickstarter last year where it met its fundraising goal. I wonder if drivers would become so mesmerized or entranced trying to decipher the messages flashing on a cyclist's wheels that they'd end up plowing right into him? 

From the very beginning, bicycles have garnered the attention of tinkerers and inventors -- for better or for worse. Yet despite that, bikes still haven't changed dramatically over the decades. "Innovations" for bicycles keep on coming, but genuine "improvements" are hard to come by. Enjoy the video.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Just Add Bags

There was a time when well-designed loaded touring bikes were all the rage. If you flipped through the bike magazines in the early 80s, it seemed that most -- or at least a pretty large percentage -- of the ads were either for touring bikes, or for touring racks, bags, or other related accessories. In a lot of ways, touring bikes were perhaps more popular than racers. Of course, in the '70s there was less of a difference between the two, as racing bikes back then had much longer wheelbases and more tire clearance than they do now. But by the early 80s, there were all kinds of fully equipped tourers on the market. Recently I posted a scan of a 1979 ad for the Miyata Gran Touring bike, which was one of the first of its type from the Japanese makers. It was ready for serious touring right from the factory and needed very little before one could take off cross-country. It didn't take long before many other manufacturers were following suit with bikes that were ready for touring right off the showroom floor. Take a look at a sampling of what was available in the early 80s.

From the Miyata catalog. Their model 1000, aka Gran Touring, was the top of the line and one of the best off-the-rack touring bikes around. All it needed was bags and fenders. Miyata was well known for their quality construction -- the lugwork was simple and clean. They also made bikes for the brand Univega, so one can sometimes find a pretty comparable touring bike with that name when searching the vintage bike market.
Centurion's Pro Tour was another high-quality Japanese-built tourer. It had a good quality lugged chrome-moly frame with clean brazing, and good high-end touring components of the day. And look at that price! (it was 1982, but still. . .) A strong dollar, weak yen meant you could buy some amazing quality in those days.
Schwinn sometimes gets snubbed by serious bike enthusiasts (their Paramount excepted) -- but they had some pretty nice enthusiast-quality bikes, and I've always had a soft spot for them. One of my first good bikes was a Schwinn Super Le Tour. This Voyager SP was almost certainly built in Japan (except for the Paramounts, a lot of the lugged and brazed Schwinns at that time were built either by Bridgestone or National/Panasonic in Japan). The Voyager SP had a nice chrome-moly frame, lots of braze-ons, racks, cantilever brakes, 40-spoke rear wheel, and some pretty serious componentry. Look closely and you'll see that it also came with the really unusual SunTour Superbe Tech rear derailleur -- which was an expensive, beautiful, over-designed derailleur that was supposed to be a revolution, but unfortunately the all-sealed mechanism turned out to be deeply flawed in reality -- too complicated for its own good. 
I'm not sure that Shogun made that big of an impact on the American market, but they were another Japanese manufacturer that turned out some pretty well-made bikes. The frames on these had some features that one wouldn't even find on European-built bikes costing twice as much. Look closely at the seat lug with its reinforced bolt-clamp ears -- solid, not "stamped." No ham-fisted mechanic would be crushing that seat binder. Again -- well equipped for loaded touring, and it even came with fenders!

Here's one from Bridgestone in the days before Grant Petersen got involved with the company. In the 70s, Bridgestone was selling bicycles in the U.S. under the Kabuki name (a lot of those weren't so great) along with making some bikes for Schwinn. By the early 80s, they were making some decent bikes with their own name on the frame. Their Antares LDT (long distance tourer) was particularly nice -- fully-equipped with racks, fenders, and good quality components. Later replaced by the model T-700, and later again by the RB-T in the Petersen years.

Not to be outdone, Trek made a really sweet loaded tourer right here in the U.S. with their 720 model, and a somewhat less expensive model (but still very nice), the 520. It featured a high-quality lugged-steel frame made of Reynolds 531 with an extra-long wheelbase, and top-notch components. Note that the one in the catalog was even equipped with a Brooks leather saddle. The only way to get a nicer touring bike than the Trek was to have a custom builder make one for you.

Today's Trek 520 has a welded frame, unicrown fork, sloping
top tube, threadless stem, and v-brakes. At least they brought
back the vintage-looking graphics. Probably a decent bike,
but as far as I'm concerned, it has no soul.
Of course, some loadable touring bikes are still made today -- but to my mind, there is no comparison between old and new. For example, Trek still makes the 520 touring bike, and it's still built with a steel frame. But now it's welded, with a sloping top tube, threadless stem, and a unicrown fork. Given the choice between any of the tourers made today and a vintage example like the ones shown above, I'll take the old classic without hesitation. Classics from the 80s still come up on eBay and many can be had for bargain prices. In some cases, a person could get a vintage lugged steel beauty, get the frame powder coated (if it's looking worn) and update any worn components, and still come in under the price of some of the new generation of touring bikes. Which would you choose?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Lauterbrunnental Leaflet

I once very nearly named this blog The Lauterbrunnental Leaflet, after a fictional retrogrouchy newsletter from the now-defunct comic strip Yehuda Moon & The Kickstand Cyclery. The comic was a must-read for anyone interested in bicycles, as creator and artist Rick Smith really had his finger on the pulse of the bicycle world.

The comic revolved around a little bike shop, The Kickstand Cyclery, and its owners/partners Yehuda Moon and Joe King. Yehuda and Joe represented two very different sides of the bicycle world. Yehuda was the retrogrouch and bicycle advocate, forever tilting at windmills as he'd ride his bike everywhere regardless of the weather. He believed in waxed cotton bags, fenders, Dutch city bikes, rain capes, lugged steel frames, etc. Joe was the club-racer speed demon who believed in going fast, keeping light, using modern technology, and driving to work when it rains. The shop's other employee, level-headed Thistle, was the woman who tried to keep the universe balanced between those two opposing forces.

Much of the content of the comic was introduced through the day-to-day operations of the bike shop and interactions with the customers who would come and go. A few regulars included "Captain Dashboard," who had every known gadget attached to his handlebar; the "Bicycle Hypochondriac" who always worried about imaginary bike afflictions; the bearded "Recumbent Rider" (self-explanatory); the neighborhood kids; and the visiting ghost of Fred, the bike shop's former owner, killed by a hit-and-run driver -- visible only to Yehuda, Joe, and (sometimes) Thistle's child, Fizz.

Yehuda and Fred get "enlightenment" from the Lauterbrunnental Leaflet.

From time to time, the strip would feature Yehuda perusing the pages of his favorite newsletter, The Lauterbrunnental Leaflet, which according to the strip's creator, Smith, was based on The Rivendell Reader. The real newsletter would be eagerly awaited by fans and devotees of Grant Petersen, the Rivendell Bicycles founder who would espouse such topics as the simple joys of traditional bicycles, the beauty and comfort of leather saddles, and the wonders of beeswax. Yehuda was a full fledged fan of the fictional leaflet, while Joe would routinely mock it.

Fizz dispenses wisdom from the cargo box of a Bakefiets.

YM&TKC often delved into bicycle-world debates I could relate to -- like carbon vs. steel, bike lanes, vehicular cycling, the helmet debate, and more. The debates were rarely ever "settled," but between the various characters, one would often get to see several points of view, and it was usually a good laugh.

The strip ran from 2008 through 2012, with a hiatus that lasted several months late in 2011. Co-writer Brian Griggs entered the picture some time after the first year. The comic strip ended in December 2012, with Smith citing the difficulty in keeping the strip going amidst other obligations. One can still follow the strip's entire run online at and there are four bound collections available for purchase at Bicycle Quarterly Press. There is a fifth volume, covering the 2012 strips, but it seems to be a difficult one to find.

Some interesting background about the strip is that Smith is an Ohio native, and used the area around Cleveland as the setting for his fictional bike shop world. The building that housed the Kickstand Cyclery was based on an actual Cleveland-area landmark, the Coventry Station in Shaker Heights, a little tudor-styled depot next to the rapid transit tracks. It once housed a gas station, but has never actually been a bike shop.

The Coventry Station in Shaker Heights was the basis for the
 Kickstand Cyclery. It was an RTA rapid transit station,
and served as a gas station for a time but it has
 never actually been a bike shop. (from Wikipedia)
Many of the topics and events of YM&TKC are drawn from experiences and conversations involving writers Smith and Griggs. "Many of the characters are based on people in my life, though most represent points of view Brian and I have about the subject or situation at hand in the story," said Smith in an interview published in Vol. 4.

It probably worked out well for the comic that Smith and Griggs, in their own attitudes about bicycles, somewhat resemble Yehuda and Joe. Rick Smith generally identifies with Yehuda. "Like him, the glass is always half full . . . I like to use my bicycle for transportation. What's great is that Brian has some of Joe's sensibilities, which means many of our conversations often turn into comics." Brian Griggs added, "More and more these days, I find myself to be the voice of Joe . . . conversations with Rick can generate some pretty witty jabs back and forth and that can generate some great material."

Yes, I have sometimes felt this way about bike bags.
Yehuda Moon & The Kickstand Cyclery is a fun and sometimes thought-provoking look at our bicycle sub-culture. My guess is that anybody who rides would find something or someone to identify with in the comic strip. No question, I often see a bit of myself in Yehuda, and I'll bet a lot of Retrogrouch readers would, too. If readers aren't familiar with the strip, I highly recommend checking it out -- and for those who miss it, it's worth going back and revisiting old friends at the Kickstand.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Smart Phones, Dumb People

After the post about the self-centered dim-bulb who hit a cyclist while texting then declared "I don't care" I thought I'd diverge a bit from bicycles and look into the problem of phones and texting while driving.

I know a lot of people -- even some retrogrouches out there -- love their smart phones. Some people love them too much. Even though more states are passing laws against texting while driving, it doesn't seem to me that many people are paying attention. At any given time while I'm riding among the traffic, I probably see as many as one in five drivers either on the phone, or very obviously looking at the phone they're holding just out of sight. That's an informal count, but I'll bet others could make similar observations.

In my state, Ohio, our legislature passed a texting law last year that they claimed was one of the toughest in the country. Forgive me, but that is either BS, or other states' laws are pitiful. Our law is a primary offense for those under age 18, but only a secondary offense for adults, making it ridiculous to try to enforce. Unless somebody is obviously a minor, it's very likely that they can text completely in the open with no fear of being pulled over. As a secondary offense, a person can only be punished for texting while driving after they've done something else -- like run a stoplight, (or hit a cyclist, God forbid). According to the Columbus Dispatch, the new law nabbed a whopping 273 people in its first year, carrying possible fines up to $150. That's not much of a deterrent. By comparison, 367,600 speeding tickets were issued in the same period.

The thing that bothers me about texting and driving -- the thing that brings it back to cycling -- is how dangerous it makes things for those of us who ride. A University of Utah study showed that people talking on the phone while driving have the same level of impairment as someone with a 0.08% blood-alcohol content. Texting and driving is even worse, as texting drivers are up to 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident than those who are unimpaired and undistracted. It used to be that if you saw a driver drifting out of their lane, or who was unable to maintain a steady speed, it was a good sign they were drunk. Nowadays, they're probably using their phone. What's worse is that alcohol-impaired drivers are more common at nighttime hours when cyclists are less likely to be on the road, but phone-distracted drivers can be common at any time, making them even more of a threat to cyclists.

Bob Mionske, of, says, "As cell-phone use becomes ubiquitous, there are increasing numbers of documented incidents of distracted drivers hitting cyclists they never even saw. But too many in our society think that they are somehow different and can safely drive while using a mobile device. This is the same delusion that contributes to drunk driving -- people think they can 'handle' the alcohol."

Despite the demonstrable danger to cyclists and others, some states are still balking at passing anti-texting legislation, and those that have such laws are reluctant to make them more effective. Why? Is the telecomm industry putting up resistance? Who does someone have to bribe to get something done? In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry has long been an opponent of a statewide texting/driving ban, calling such legislation "misguided" as he vetoed a law passed by the state's legislators. Perry, along with the state's attorney general, says that he's against any law that attempts to "micromanage adult behavior." (Ironic in a state that defended its anti-sodomy law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court). Meanwhile, one in five traffic crashes in Texas is caused by a distracted driver (Dallas Morning News). I shouldn't be surprised, considering that Texas didn't even have a law banning open containers of alcohol in cars until 2001. Maybe I shouldn't be so hard on our legislators here in Ohio.

I still don't have a smart phone. See, I'm not just a retrogrouch about bicycles. No, I have what I call a "dumb phone." It makes calls, and takes calls. It also takes blurry photos, but I can't figure out how to get them off the phone, so I don't count that feature. My car has bluetooth capability (surprise!) which allows me to make a "hands free" call with voice commands, but the University of Utah study and others have shown that "hands free" doesn't really make cell phones any safer when driving -- so I just make it a personal policy to avoid calls unless I'm stopped. I don't believe I'm suffering in any way by not being connected every minute of every day.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that we as humans may have something in our nature that leads us to self-centered behavior -- look at young children for instance -- it must be in our genes. What's worse, our culture today seems to thrive on that instinct, or maybe even reward it somehow. Constant use of smart phones just makes it easier for people to succumb to that tendency. My big question is how many cyclists, pedestrians, and others will have to be killed or injured before something actually gets done about it?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Driver Who Hits Cyclist: "I Just Don't Care"

This is pretty infuriating to read. 

Kimberly Davis, a 21-year old Australian woman, slammed into a bicyclist while she was texting and driving. This mature and responsible driver wants something to be done about the victim's pain and suffering -- her own pain and suffering, that is.  That's right. She thinks she's the victim.

I'm not self-centered. I just know who's
really important.

"I just don't care because I've already been through a lot of bullshit and my car is, like, pretty expensive and now I have to fix it," she told the police. 

Poor thing. How dare that bicyclist dent up her car after she plowed into him. Oh, wait -- she thinks the accident was the cyclists fault.

"I'm kind of pissed off that the cyclist has hit the side of my car. I don't agree that people texting and driving could hit a cyclist. I wasn't on my phone when I hit the cyclist," she said later. That's right -- everybody knows that talking on the phone while driving is dangerous, which is why she thinks texting is OK.

After her "ordeal" Davis did what any self-centered airhead would do -- she turned to Facebook, where she showed lots of concern for the victim, and a full appreciation for the seriousness of her actions.
From HuffingtonPost. I don't even know what to make of the comments
and "likes" to this dim-bulb's Facebook posts. Her "friends" must be
really responsible and mature people, too.
The actual victim had a fractured spine, requiring surgery and placement in a special spinal cage for three months of recovery. He was absolutely lucky not to end up paralyzed. 
According to the original story in Australia's Standard, Davis was fined $4500 and lost her license for 9 months. The wife of the injured cyclist said she was disappointed that Davis didn't lose her license for even longer. Given Davis's attitude and complete lack of remorse, I think she should never drive again.