Friday, September 25, 2020

From the Archives - The Bars: a Family Saga


This tale, from my archives, concerns an emotional tug-of-war between my father and me which ended up putting my innocent 15-year-old nephew John in harm’s way. Here are John and his father looking none too pleased about it.

If you love bike lore, there’s plenty here to dive into. If you don’t, but enjoy a good tale of intergenerational family turmoil and/or have a yen for Schadenfreude, read on. If you don’t care about bikes or families, click here.

The Bars – September 2008

The family saga begins with this email from my brother:

From: Bryan Albert

Sent: Friday, August 29, 2008 1:57 AM

To: Dana Albert, Geoff Albert, Peter S, Mom, Joanne J

Subject: RSVP


Guess what? I'm going to tell you about our big RSVP ride, the Ride from Seattle to Vancouver and Party. [Much detail about the route, etc. omitted here; they did “only” the first day, a 108-mile trek from Seattle to Bellingham.] The ride was great—the weather was awesome, even getting good and hot at some points. [More detail omitted here, including details of sprinting to all the city limit signs, which is SOP for all our family rides throughout time.]

The ride was not without incident, however. Sometime before noon, while climbing up a small hill, John announced that there was something wrong with his bike and that we ought to pull over. To my horror, he demonstrated that his handlebar had cracked and was about to break off altogether! All those sprints flashed before my eyes, and I was very grateful that it decided to break on a climb and not some high-speed sprint. Can you imagine? That would be a crash for sure! So what’s up with that—handlebars aren’t supposed to break, are they? These weren’t even the drilled bars [i.e., holes we drilled so the brake cables could run inside … very cool but widely considered a foolish practice for reasons of safety].

Anyway, it was clear that we wouldn’t get far before the whole right side of the bar would fall off and his buzz would be seriously shackled. He’d have to ride along holding the bar up so that it didn’t get stuck in his wheel or something. He’d probably end up throwing his back into a spasm, and he’d never ride again. So we arranged with Jean [Bryan’s wife] to stop at the next town and effect repairs. The whole way there I was contemplating what might work... Anyway we hit the thrift store first, then the hardware store. I eyed a used golf club at the thrift store that I might break into splints. John might have liked that, with the golfing theme and all—I could have even left the club end of it hanging off like a medallion or something. But I finally settled on a hickory hammer handle, which I lashed to the handlebar with a webbing strap. It wasn’t pretty, and John didn’t hammer any of the remaining sprints (though he did power to victory on one sprint from in the saddle, having gotten a good jump on me), but it did get him home without incident. So that was cool.

[The rest of the story is my response to his email, which I wrote with an eye to one day reaching a far more general audience, as I’m now doing.]

On Sep 12, 2008, at 5:46 PM, Dana Albert wrote:


What a great story! What a great time you guys had. The misadventures make the experience that much more memorable. Think of how the Donner party would have sunk into obscurity had everything gone smoothly. (Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit here.)

That’s crazy about John’s handlebar. I have to admit I feel some guilt about that handlebar cracking, since I put those bars on the bike for John. I was actually relieved to look at the photos and see that it was the starboard side of the bars that broke. Why, you ask? The fact is, those bars were bent when I put them on there (though on the port side), and I knew it. (You can see it in the photo in fact.)

That bike, when I bought it from my teammate, sported these Scott Drop In bars, which instead of stopping where dropped handlebars normally do, have longer ends that turn in 90 degrees and provide a second platform for the rider to put his hands on. When I started working at Square Wheel in 1990, those Drop In bars were getting a lot of attention as Greg LeMond had just won the Tour de France with them. The shop owner predicted I’d purchase a set within two weeks. I said, “Oh yeah? I’ll bet I won’t.” I didn’t, and within the year nobody else was using them anymore either. [In fact they’ve been called the #1 all-time worst piece of road tech by BikeRadar magazine.]

So when I got that bike I had to come up with some different bars for John. No nephew of mine is going to go around with those ridiculous Scott Drop Ins. Fortunately, I had two pairs of Cinelli bars, either of which would work with the bike’s stem. (They wouldn’t work with the more modern stems of my current fleet so they were just malingering in my old gear stash.) One pair of these bars was old and slightly bent. Another pair was newer and not bent. At this point you’re guessing, “Oh, so Dana simply gave John the old bent pair because children don’t deserve the best.”

Logical though this guess might be, it simply wasn’t the case. As a matter of fact, I’d been riding the old bent bars on my main road bike for years, and had been using the newer pair on my rain [i.e., backup] bike. The reason is, when I ordered the new bars, intending to put them on my main bike and exile the bent bars to the rain bike when I was first building it up, I had no idea Cinelli had lost its mind and ruined the design of their Model 66 Campione del Mundo handlebars. It is difficult to describe the folly of this move. The best I can do is to compare it to Coke’s decision, in the late eighties, to change its formula. 

If you ask any road cyclist worth his salt, he’ll tell you (albeit in his own words) that for at least twenty years, the Cinelli model 66 was the platonic ideal of handlebar, the thing that they really just got absolutely right. If ever there was a time to leave well enough alone, to not touch a thing, this was it. Studies have shown that a cyclist casting his eyes upon a bike that had the original 66 bars on it would experience a measurable feeling of good will, of soothing reassurance in our unstable world. By “measurable” I mean that you could monitor this guy’s blood pressure and his pulse as he gazed at the bars, and both would go down. Brain scans would show the same changes that you’d expect to see when somebody looks upon a sleeping cat.

But Cinelli couldn’t leave well enough alone, so in the late ‘80s they came out with the Perfections. The Perfections were really similar to the original 66s, except that they had slightly longer reach. And you know what? They really were slightly better! This was the equivalent of an absurd risk that managed to pay off, in a very minor way. (Kind of like Tiger Woods completely retooling his golf swing even though he was already the best golfer in the world—everybody thought he was crazy, but he came back very slightly better.) Now, I never got the opportunity to own a pair of Perfections, because they weren’t on the market very long for some reason that nobody has ever explained. But no problem, I thought. The regular 66s were good enough for Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault, after all. I’d just buy another pair of them. 

[Here are a couple of photos of the Cinelli 66 bars. The first might actually be the Perfections. The second are on Bryan’s Team Miyata ... he still has two of these bikes, both with 66 bars!]

I got the new model 66 bars mail-order, and when they arrived I was horrified to discover that Cinelli had changed the bars yet again, and this time they were a disaster. Perhaps in response to the more modern brake levers, which have longer hoods, Cinelli had shorted the reach on their bars, significantly. The result was a handlebar that looked like the ones that came on department store ten-speeds (back before mountain bikes, when there was such a thing as a department store ten-speed). What was Cinelli thinking? It would be like if for the next James Bond movie, the director decided instead of Daniel Craig it would star Vanilla Ice. So these new Cinellis were totally wrong for my flagship bike, and I continued to use the old bent ones.

 This brings us to the sad tale of how those older bars got bent. Now, I can’t exactly remember what year this was, but I’m thinking 2001 or 2002. Erin and I were living in Albany [CA]. Dad was out visiting, and I decided to take him on a bike ride. Nothing really hard or anything, of course, but just a little cruise through the Berkeley campus, maybe up Old Tunnel road. I’d let him ride my road bike since it’s lighter and more efficient and what he’s used to, and I’d take my slower, heavier mountain bike. It seemed like a fine plan.

Of course, I had to take certain precautions. The last time I’d ridden with Dad was in ‘87 or ‘88, in San Luis Obispo, when Geoff and I loaned Dad the Twelve. The Twelve was our spare bike. Having a spare bike was, for people in our tax bracket, the height of decadence. It was a Miyata 912, which was decent (but not pro quality) road bike. We bought it solely for the use of our guests, and even had a quick-release seat binder bolt for quick adjustments. It had these low-profile Ultegra pedals, with toe clips. They were a bit tricky to get your foot into, and—worrying about Dad’s dress sneakers not fitting well—we loaned him a pair of cycling shoes. What a mistake. I have this vivid memory of him flailing to get his foot in, the pedal spinning around and around, the bike lurching this way and that. I don’t think he crashed, but it was scary to watch, and I think he was embarrassed. So when loaning him my road bike this time, in Berkeley, I took my clipless pedals off and put on these big mountain bike pedals with spacious, roomy toe clips that would easily accommodate even the bulkiest shoe.

Well, it wasn’t enough. Riding along Martin Luther King Jr. Way toward a stoplight, Dad was suddenly unable to get his foot out of the pedal fast enough. I’m not sure how this happened, because he had used toe clips on his own bike for decades and should have been an expert with them. Maybe it’s just some kind of jinx. Anyway, he wasn’t going fast and thus wasn’t hurt, but he ripped my bar tape all up, scratched my brake lever, and, yes, bent my bars.

Now, at this point I wasn’t angry or irritated with him. Nonplussed, sure, but mostly concerned. But he was okay, and we rode home. Now, it did cross my mind that a person in his position might say, “Gosh, Dana, I’m sorry I crashed your three thousand dollar racing bike and messed it up.” Then I could graciously say, “Oh, don’t even worry about it, I’m just relieved you’re not hurt.” But this didn’t happen. Instead, the minute we got home he went out to his car and said, “Is there a Sears around here?” I asked why, and he said that he ripped his trousers in the crash and had to replace them. And indeed, they had a little rip. But his eagerness to drop everything and head over to Sears at that very moment to replace his pants seemed fishy to me. I mean, what’s the rush? Didn’t he pack any other pants? Or was this a little hint that, since it was my bike that crashed him, I should pay for his pants? And moreover, who buys pants at fricking Sears?

I wasn’t about to offer to buy him a new pair of damn pants. Was this my fault, for failing to recognize that a guy who has ridden a ten-speed bicycle with toe clips since before I was born should not be trusted to ride my bike? Or should I have warned him, as we approached the intersection, that he should start working on getting his foot out well in advance just in case he encountered difficulty? Besides, it’s bad enough when your dad buys his pants at Sears—I’ll be damned if my money is going to pay for them.

There was this awkward silence. He seemed really ticked. So I said, “You know, I have some pants I can give you that look exactly like those ones.” And it was true. Many months earlier I’d been at Ross Dress for Less and found some pants called Bugle Boy Basics that don’t have to be ironed. It was an impulse buy because they were like $8, but afterward I had some misgivings—I mean, what kind of grown man wears pants called “Bugle Boy Basics”?—so I wasn’t loathe to part with them now. The funny thing is, they really did look absolutely identical to Dad’s Sears pants. Probably made by the same six-year-old Bangladeshi for the same four cents, I was thinking. But then Dad pointed out, “I see that they’ve done some treatment to these, probably with formaldehyde, to prevent wrinkles. These would probably give me an allergic reaction.” (I am not making any of this up.) I’m not sure what my expression was at this point, or whether or not Dad noticed it, but upon a moment’s reflection he said, “However, the hair on my legs may be bushy enough to protect my skin.” With that he put the Bugle Boy Basics in his car and I never saw them again. (The next day I noticed that he’d mended his Sears pants.)

So, every single time I rode my bike after that, and noting the bent-in bars, I thought of Dad crashing my bike, not apologizing, subtly suggesting that I pay for his pants, taking my Bugle Boy Basics, and not needing new pants after all—and got just a bit irritated. This irritation became compounded, because the memory of how these bars got bent became intertwined with another father/son episode that happened during that visit. I was pulling up to the curb in front of our house in the Volvo, Dad riding shotgun, and I got a little too close to this concrete outcropping in the curb. It juts way out because of some gnarly tree roots, and it had given us trouble before, and also since. The outcropping just barely reached the car, catching the trim on the lower part of the doors, and it just pushed the trim straight back along the car’s body, maybe a couple of feet. It made a horrible noise, like a robot shrieking.

I finished parking and leapt out of the car to examine the damage. It was not extensive: the trim wasn’t even all the way off the car. When I saw how little the damage was, I kind of laughed. Not a this-is-funny laugh, but a relieved “whaddya know!” kind of laugh. But Dad looked kind of pissed. He glared at the side of the car as I zipped the trim right back on there. He gave me a withering look, and I withered. And at this point I slipped unintentionally into one of those split-second fantasies, like the one about him apologizing about my bike. In this fantasy, he registered my withered look, realized he was being a bit harsh, and said, “Aw, don’t worry about it. Happens to the best of us.”

But of course this was a fool’s dream. What Dad did say, rather angrily I might add, was, “You are real lucky you didn’t do more damage.” That “real lucky” gets me. Dad is so punctilious with his grammar that “real” as an adverb must have been used for effect. Indeed, within his precise vernacular this almost works like a swear word. It’s the Harrison Albert version of, “You are good and god-damned lucky....”

(It’s noteworthy that when Dad crashed my bike and bent the bars, I did not say anything like “you are real lucky you didn’t do more damage.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me. And even if he had crashed my bike after the car incident, I couldn’t have said this because these kinds of indictments don’t run both ways in our relationship. He never hesitates to criticize me, but whenever I’m presented with his failings—which are deeper and darker—I always, always bite my tongue.)

I stood there, reeling, wondering why he was so upset. After all, it wasn’t his car, and besides, it wasn’t even damaged. So what was the problem? After much reflection, I’ve decided the problem was twofold. One, his son is so lame, such a lousy driver, that he failed to account for the broken curb and went and hit it. And two, this lousy son, due to a bottomless well of freakish good luck, doesn’t even have to pay for his failures. It’s like Dad was disappointed that this accident didn’t prove to be my comeuppance.

This notion Dad has of other people’s unfair good luck has precedent. He’s fond of saying, when noting somebody’s wealth, “He really landed with his nose in the fat.” No pulling up by bootstraps for him; no, just unearned good fortune. This would be laudable if he applied it in a general way to people of privilege like us, acknowledging that our own hard work in life comes on top of a mountain of circumstantial luck, like being born in America to a middle-class family in a good community with decent schools and plenty of opportunity. But Dad doesn’t seem to recognize his own overall good fortune, preferring to focus on specific incidents—the “knuckle-dragging cretin” boss who wouldn’t give him a promotion, the university dean who wouldn’t give him tenure because he (Dad) wouldn’t socially promote the dean’s son, the Navy ROTC overlord who interfered with his application, etc.—that show how he never got a fair shake.

And then there’s the case of the drinking glasses. When Dad visited Erin and me in our San Francisco apartment a few years before, he purchased a dozen drinking glasses from the restaurant supply store down the street, for something like ten bucks. Then, his visit became awkward right at the end, because I got in an argument with him about his stubborn refusal to buy health insurance. (He was about 60 at this point, still too young for Medicare.) He was arguing, amazingly enough, that he didn’t need insurance, that it wasn’t worth the money. It was rare for me to disagree with him, much less argue about anything, and he didn’t know how to deal with it. So he ended his visit abruptly, and in his haste to pack up and drive off he forgot his box of drinking glasses.

I was a bit chapped at having to mail them to him, especially since I’d have to pack them really carefully, which would be a lot of hassle. But then I had this great idea: I’d kill two birds with one stone by mailing the glasses without any padding whatsoever: just sitting in the box, nothing but that single layer of cardboard protecting them. And, the masterstroke: I wouldn’t insure them. He’d get this box of totally smashed glasses, I mean just fricking powder, and he’d call me up and say, “How could you not pack them carefully, with some padding?” I would shrug it off and wait for him to ask about insurance, which I could casually mention I didn’t bother with. When he erupted afresh about this, I could say, “Wait, let me get this straight. You won’t pay to insure your own health, but I should insure these cheap drinking glasses? I’m a little lost here. You valued those glasses more than you own life?!”

Alas, my plan backfired. He called me up and said, “A miracle has occurred. The glasses arrived intact.” This incident would have naturally struck him as more proof that some people are simply blessed, and can stroll blithely through the minefield of life without even looking where they’re going and be just fine, whereas other people like him were constantly beset with unfair challenges and setbacks.

And that’s how I came to associate the concrete outcropping of the curb with Dad’s preexisting sense that nothing I’ve achieved in my life is my own doing—that I’m one of those guys who fall with their nose in the fat. When Dad crashed my bike, it was one more example of the bad luck that follows him around. When I screwed up with the car, and when I foolishly mailed something with neither padding nor insurance, I got away with it because I’m just lucky. It’s no exaggeration to say that every time I drove up to my house and saw that broken curb, I thought of Dad’s stern words.

Some time after Dad’s visit to our Albany home, my wife Erin drove up to the curb and did exactly the same thing I had, only this time the curb outcropping zipped the trim all the way off the car, and it got a bit bent and I couldn’t get it back on there. I tried as hard as I could to keep a straight face as I said to her, “You are real lucky you didn’t do more damage.” By this time it had already become a running joke.

Erin knows there’s nothing she can do to prevent this curb/scorn association, but when I mentioned at one point that every time I rode my bike I thought of the crash/pants episode, she said, “Dana, this is obviously bothering you, why don’t you just ditch those bars and get some that won’t bum you out every time you look at them?!” She had a point. So I finally swapped out the old bent bars for the new, inferior ones. Sure, the curve of the new bars wasn’t as elegant, but that’s just a bike industry problem … it doesn’t bring home bad blood, doesn’t cause me to hear “you are real lucky” or “a miracle has occurred.” And when it came time to get John’s bike ready, I naturally gave him the better bars, with the original design—the ones I’d have wanted if they didn’t make me think of Dad’s reproach. After all, John wouldn’t have any negative associations with these bars, and he deserved the proper, perfect Cinelli bend.

So, now I’ll be sending you the newer Cinelli bars to get John’s bike running again.  Of course the young lad will have to make do with the inferior curvature, like the bars on a damn Huffy, but shoot, these young whippersnappers don’t know a proper handlebar bend from Shinola. I wonder if John had even realized that the left side of those original bars was bent in. Anyway, I’m so glad he noticed that the right side had cracked, before catastrophic failure. You might say that he is real lucky....




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