Thursday, July 23, 2009

The (other) Bikers

It's a lot different from when we were growing up and used them as essential transportation to get to and from the field (the baseball field, of course, what else was there for a kid growing up in the late Fifties and early Sixties?) or from friends' houses. You might start out with just you and Neil, and then go a couple of blocks and pick up Bobby and then all you headed across the development, to the new Levitt houses, where Tommy lived.

I'm talking about bicycles and as kids there was Schwinn and there was Royce Union, and not much else. These were big, clunky solid yoke metal frame bikes, with balloon tires and white sidewalls. You had a mousetrap in the back, and that's where you kept your glove, baseball inside of it, so that the pocket formed just right. Maybe your dad, or somebody else's dad would remember to get the little can of neet's foot oil at the hardware store and you'd work that stuff into the glove before putting it into the mousetrap.

Twenty-six inch tires on those bikes and maybe, if you had a fancy one, it had front and rear handbrakes, but ours mostly didn't-you just stood on the pedals hard and the rear wheel broke away and wound up sliding to one side or the other. You stopped all right. We all knew somebody whose folks had gotten them a bike with three gears, think of it!, but we didn't have bikes like that. Going up hill, you pedaled hard-if it got steeper, you pedaled harder. Screw up, you fell off and walked up hill holding the bike by the handlebars, feeling (and looking) like a dork.

I was thinking about all of that yesterday as the bikers, not Marlon Brando and The Wild One, raced across parts of France whose towns can only correctly be pronounced by having your adenoids removed. And again this year, one or more people have died along the route at the various stages, and I keep thinking 'nobody ever got hurt when we rode to Resko's house' and that was over an hour back in the day (it'd be like three days in 'now' time).

It wasn't until the LA Olympics in '84, sitting in Germany and watching the highlights of the games the Warsaw Pact boycotted, that I first saw Americans go ga-ga for the most European of sports, in my opinion (unless they make sulking an event). The oval track with the impossible angles of banking, the skinny tires that seemed to be made of solid rubber, the 'Disco in Frisco' skin tight speedo outfits and most especially those 'revenge of the Alien' head shaped helmets, all of it so aerodynamic I thought these guys could fly. Reading about the Tour de France, I learned flight wasn't the half of it.

I was aware of a Frankfurt am Main based Tour de France cyclist, Didi Thoreau, I think his name was (I have no idea as it turns out) and I couldn't understand how you could make a living as a professional bike rider. I had a movie in my head, where Didi is in Munich, perhaps visiting his fan-club (I'm sure he had one) and checks into the Munich Hilton which is right at the Munchen-Reims airport and as he checks in, what exactly does he put under "occupation"? 'Professional Bicycle Rider' And if the concierge snickers across the desk while reading it, upside down, in the ledger, does he offer to prove it with a bike strapped to his back?

Then in the late Eighties, Greg Lemond, an American from I have no idea where, not only became successful on the European Bicycle race circuit (that's hard to believe, isn't it; a circuit for bike racers? 'See you in Naples?' 'No, I'm training for the Bern Butt Buster, see you there.') he won the Tour de France (and why, by the way, is THAT the big race, or at least the one we all think we've heard of). Actually he won it three times, twice AFTER accidentally shooting himself. He recovered, but after those two victories his career seemed to go away (I always wondered where he'd been shot since we're talking a LOT of hours on a bike seat if you follow my drift. Where's that AFLAC duck when you really need him?)

How many times did Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France before most of it even realized it. And then all the great back story: the battle against cancer, the birth of the little boy, more bicycle races, more yellow tricots, Sheryl Crow, no more Sheryl Crow, the retirement and then the unretirement and now after four years, he's back on the bike in the thick of the competition, even though the battalion of announcers (and cameras-I love the mini-cam guys riding backwards on the motorcycles thisclose to the charging riders) covering the event are more often now noting with keener and deeper regret he will, in all probability, NOT win the race. And what does the winner get anyway? A permanent press yellow jersey? The opportunity to write 'winner of the Tour de France' on the hotel check-in form? Do you think Duna could do that?
-bill kenny

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