Sunday, March 7, 2021

From the Archives - It IS About the Bike: Part 2


Last week I ran the first half of a story I originally published in the Daily Peloton back in 2015. Well, to be more accurate I wrote it for some other magazine honoring the bicycle frame company Serotta, which was going out of business. As you shall see, my literary scruples prevented this from being a useful article to the Serotta people, which is why Daily Peloton got it. Since DP’s servers crashed a couple years back and all their content was lost, I’m serving the story up here.

Speaking of being lost, if you didn’t read the first half of this, go back here and do that now. Or not … you’ll figure out what’s going on eventually.

It Is About the Bike – Part II – January 2015

So, as I was saying last week, having wrecked my beautiful Mercian, I was getting by with an old Cinelli frameset on loan from my friend Nico. For months I’d been waiting in vain for news about getting my bent Mercian repaired. I waited and waited, and pestered and pestered Dave Whittingham, the manager of The Spoke, but to no avail. Eventually Nico wanted his Cinelli back and I still needed a bike. Thus, was time to buy a new frame but I had no money. (I’d spent it all on the Mercian and in fact still owed my dad at least $100 on it.) My brother Geoff, who had earned a fortune washing dishes at  the Flagstaff House restaurant, said he’d loan me the money for a frame if and only if I bought another Miyata. What was I to do?

I bit the bullet and bought a Pro Miyata, 57 cm, light blue with gold panels, for something like $300 (frame and fork). It looked pretty cool, but wasn’t as flashy as that Cinelli and rode just as bad. Of course I was happy to have a bike, but it was still a letdown.

At least it had proper lettering on the head tube, instead of the cheesy badge pictured above. And obviously it didn’t have any damn reflectors.

Nico worked at The Spoke, and I used to hang around with him there, chewing the fat. Not surprisingly, what we talked about was bikes. And what we talked about when we talked about bikes was The Perfect Bike. That it would be a Mercian was a given. The only question was, what color? Those frames came in like 60 different colors and if they didn’t have the color you wanted, you could send them a sample and they’d match it. We decided the ultimate Mercian would be the Colorado model (exclusive to the U.S., with Reynolds 531 tubing, racing geometry, an all-important lack of rack eyelets, and a 531 SL fork), with white pearl paint, red panels and a red head tube. But the red, we agreed, couldn’t be a candy-apple red because that was taken, being the iconic color of Colnagos like the Russian team had in the Coors Classic. So this would have to a slightly different shade: slightly on the plum or burgundy side, or a Moroccan leather red perhaps. We talked endlessly about this.

As time went on, it became increasingly obvious there would be no repair for my poor old Mercian, and eventually this became irrelevant: at fifteen, I’d outgrown my Pro Miyata and was therefore too big for the old Mercian anyway. Fortunately, at the same time I came into some money. An uncle had died three years before and left my brothers and me a grand each. My mom had wisely locked our money up in CDs earning a whopping 16%, and now, the term being up, she agreed to let me buy a new frame with some of my earnings.

So my mom drove me over to The Spoke, and I marched right up to the counter, where Dave Whittingham happened to be standing. I’d have liked to say something amazing and bold, like “I’m here to buy a new frame and I’ve got shit-stacks of money,” but of course I was too shy and polite. In fact, before I could even open my mouth, Dave said something apologetic like, “Look, I know what you’re going to ask, but I just have to tell you: Mercian can’t repair your frame. I’m sorry I got your hopes up.”

Before I could think of how to respond, he went on, “So because I feel bad, and because you’re good kid, I’m going to let you buy any frame I have in stock at wholesale.” As he said these words his glance drifted toward a row of frames hanging from the wall. Maybe he even gestured, ever so slightly, with his chin. And there, hanging right in front, was a pearl white Mercian Colorado with red panels and a red head tube, 60 cm ... just my size.

I couldn’t believe it. There it was, the frameset of my dreams. I asked Dave to take it down off the wall. The red of the panels is hard to describe. It was lustrous, deep, and unique. It was a beautiful frameset. I looked up at Dave. He had an amused expression, much like the one I’d have years later when, in the Red Light district of Amsterdam, I watched hayseeds from Oklahoma ogling the whores in the display windows.

But before making that frameset mine, I paused and reflected. I was in the catbird seat: a kid with many hundreds of dollars to spend, a sweetheart deal, and several bike brands to choose from. For the first time ever, I got to choose my frameset.

“Wait!” you might be thinking. “This Mercian, it was meant to be! You dreamed of this frame! It’s exactly what you’d already identified as the perfect bike! And clearly it had been made to order, just for you ... a leap of faith by this shop manager! Another brand?! That’s insane!”

And you’d have a point. But remember, I was a teenaged kid. All day every day my friends and I compared bike brands, watched bikes going by, drooled over bike magazines and catalogs, and debated the pros and cons of every make and model under the sun. Which was better, the Colnago Super or the Colnago Mexico? Were Olmos as good as Pogliaghis? Were Californian Masis as good as Italian Masis? Was it sacrilege for a high-end Italian Bianchi to be painted anything but Celeste #227, that milky washed-out green color? And was it even worse for a lower-end Japanese Bianchi—a totally new phenomenon in those days—to be painted Celeste #227? Who made better tubing—Reynolds or Columbus? And where did Bob Jacksons fit in this bicycle pantheon?

And keep in mind, this wasn’t just any purchase. What do teenagers blow their money on these days? Mostly hi-tech stuff, right? Playstations and smartphones? Those are guaranteed to be obsolete in a couple of years anyway. Not so with a bike, now that I was basically full-grown. I might have this bike for years and years, for thousands and thousands of miles. It could be the bike of my life. This wasn’t like buying a consumer good; it was more like buying a horse.

My friends and I loved our bikes like they were family. After a great ride, you’d lean your bike against the wall, gaze at it, and actually sigh with pleasure. I’d even go give it a little pat on the saddle. My bike meant more to me then than a modern teenager could possibly understand. A bike was freedom. My parents never worried about me, so I could ride as far as I want. My pals and I did 80 miles at a shot, day after day (having nothing better to do). Our suntans were asymmetrical from slowly climbing north to Estes Park and quickly descending back south. A friend and I capped off the summer by doing a 130-mile trek over the highest pass in North America. Only a bike could make such an adventure possible. Our bikes were our lifestyle, our identity, our everything.

So: what bike to get? The Spoke carried Olmos, but my brother Max was buying one on layaway and I couldn’t appear to be copying him. I’d never cared for Motobecanes (which all my brothers had had) and the Prolight, Motobecane’s flagship, was rumored to be flex-y. The Specialized Allez was high-end, but it wasn’t Euro. Ah, but The Spoke had Serottas. They sold lots of Serottas.

Timidly, I asked to look at one. Timid? Well, yeah. Obviously it was the Mercian that ought to be my destiny, after all. But Dave had said “any frame.” He graciously took me over to a bright metallic violet Serotta Nova in my size, built up with Campy Super Record. (Back in those days, when all good bikes were road bikes, and when the sales floor didn’t have to accommodate today’s menagerie of mountain bikes, commuting bikes, cyclocross bikes, lifestyle bikes, beach cruisers, and fixies, you wouldn’t believe the deep inventory of kickass road bikes shops could carry, especially in Boulder.)

The deck was stacked against the Serotta, of course, but I had to admit it looked great. Nico, who’d either gone to the shop with me or was there working that day, had to agree. So I took it out.

I hammered away on that bike, taking the corners hard, following the course of The Hill Criterium, one of the big Boulder races. I really put the Serotta through its paces, shoving on the pedals with everything I had. And with a strange mixture of delight and consternation, I realized this bike rode amazingly well ... in fact, possibly better than my Mercian had. It just felt so lively, so quick. I was astonished, and was overcome with the turmoil of deciding what to do.

Maybe, I reasoned, I was just comparing this to the Pro Miyata it was replacing. That Miyata was oddly back-heavy, like the rear triangle had solid tubes or something. From day one I hadn’t much liked it. So I rode back to the shop, borrowed Nico’s Mercian, gave it a good hard test ride, then switched back to the Serotta, then back to the Mercian, etc. I didn’t dare say this out loud, but if anything the Serotta rode better. Could it be the pins the Mercian was built with, that my brothers had taunted me about? No, that’s a dumb gag I just made up. That idea never crossed my mind at the time, and I didn’t kid myself that the difference was a matter of workmanship. Probably the Serotta’s Columbus SL tubeset was lighter than the Mercian’s Reynolds 531. Or maybe the Serotta’s geometry was more aggressive. Maybe it was something else about the bike (lighter wheels?), or maybe I just had a deep-seated, perverse impulse to make trouble for myself.

Quietly, I placed the Serotta back in its stand on the sales floor, next to several other Serottas much like it. And there was the Mercian, up on the counter, standing proud, propped on its bottom bracket and fork tips. And suddenly I had this strange feeling: my tension subsided as it dawned on me what a good problem this was to have. I had money, and I was about to have a new frameset, and whichever I picked, it was going to ride like a dream.

My mom was patiently waiting. I had to make up my mind. I hadn’t ordered that Mercian myself, but it had obviously been ordered according to my specifications. To reiterate, its existence was an act of faith. Teenagers are known for their pure id, but now my nascent superego actually asserted itself: I bought the Mercian. Maybe that was the first truly grown-up thing I ever did.

So did I always regret not buying the Serotta? Did I managed to love the new bike? Of course I loved it. In fact, it ended up becoming, of all the steel frames I ever owned, my second favorite. (And what was my very favorite? Well, that’s another story.)

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