Sunday, June 23, 2024

Old Yarn - The Cinelli Jumpsuit


What do I mean “old yarn”? Well, I thought about using “spun yarn” in the title but that phrase has been taken and I don’t want to confuse the search engines. What I mean is a story that would be from my archives, except I’ve never written it down before. It seems as though I have enough good old yarns, I might as well write them up, and where better to put them but albertnet? (Isn’t it odd, by the way, that “write it down” and “write it up” mean the same thing?) So here is the first of what may become many old stories I’ll post here.

Cinelli jumpsuit

A cycling pal was in Italy recently and emailed our club a photo of a cool t-shirt he found at a bike shop, featuring the word “ciao” with its first letter being the classic winged “c” from the Cinelli logo. (I had a Cinelli bicycle for a while but that’s another story.) This photo got the team chattering, of course, and another pal posted a photo of his niece rocking a sweet tomato-red Cinelli jumpsuit.

I myself have a similar Cinelli jumpsuit in canary yellow, and sent around this old video of it to the team:

It’s been a while since I wore that jumpsuit, but I’ve got some fond memories of it, and you’re in luck: I’m going to share them here. (If that doesn’t seem like luck to you, click here.)

I bought the jumpsuit wholesale when I was working at the High Wheeler (aka Thigh Feeler) bike shop in Boulder, Colorado in 1989. The head mechanic, JB, had one, and as soon as my brothers and I saw it we had to have them, too. (I worked there with my oldest brothers, twins B— and G—, following in the footsteps of our brother M— who’d paved the way years before.) Summer in Boulder is hot, and the lightweight cotton was nice and breathable, but obviously that was just gravy … the real point of the jumpsuits was how awesome they looked, if you didn’t mind certain people thinking you were a complete idiot. That wasn’t much of a problem; at the Thigh Feeler, we mechanics weren’t allowed on the sales floor and in fact were encouraged to enter the store through the alley out back. We in turn tried but failed to ban the salespeople (whom we called “retail scum”) from the workshop area, where they tended to borrow but not return our tools. It was damned unfair.

I suppose part of the flair of rocking the jumpsuit is that it showed you weren’t scared of getting it dirty from greasy bike parts (vs. wearing the standard-issue shop apron). I thought frequently of the line in the classic cycling documentary “Stars & Water Carriers” (at least, I think that’s the movie) where someone says, “The Italian mechanics are so slick, they wear silk shirts.” To complete my look—and because my hair was so long it kept getting in my face—I wore a bright red bandanna with the jumpsuit. Of course, in Boulder when I’d venture out for my lunch break nobody really noticed my attire anyway, as Boulder had all kinds of exotic birds already.

(According to Thigh Feeler lore, when it got really hot some mechanics, possibly including the three Albert boys or perhaps them specifically, worked wearing absolutely nothing but an apron and shoes. I’m not going to say this legend is true, but I’m not saying it isn’t.)

When I moved to California for college of course I brought the jumpsuit, though I didn’t have much occasion to wear it. As a student at UC Santa Barbara, I worked at the Associated Students Bike Shop, but only for very short shifts arranged around my classes, and there wasn’t time to go home and change. I didn’t suppose it would be a good look for a college kid anyway, especially one like myself who was hoping to attract the ladies.

The AS Bike Shop was actually a very good place to be if you were looking for ways to chat up pretty young things, because helping customers fix their own bikes was actually part of our job. Not surprisingly, the guys never asked for help because they were too proud, but the girls often did. And they were invariably pretty. What’s more, almost all their bikes were cheap beach cruisers so the repairs were easy. One dazzling blonde brought her bike in one day and said, “Oh my god, the tire is completely flat!” I replied, “Gosh, that’s too bad. If it were just kinda flat that’d be better, because we charge by the PSI.” She said, “Oh, no! What’s a PSI?”

So what does this have to do with the Cinelli jumpsuit? Hold tight, I’m getting there. There was a supervisor on staff named Willie, who was an older guy who, it was said, had done a bit too much acid in the ‘60s. He was generally fairly grumpy, particularly (it seemed) with me, because he said I spent too much time with the coeds. I would remind him that it’s my job, and these tricky beach cruiser repairs take as long as they take, especially when a total novice is receiving patient instruction. Willie and I would go around and around on this but got nowhere, as the real issue was unspoken: he was apparently discouraged from instructing the customers himself; perhaps that opportunity was supposed to be part of the student employee experience.

The other thing Willie didn’t like about me is how I tended to squeeze in short shifts between classes. Truth be told, I didn’t have enough hours, or a high enough wage, to really earn much money at the shop. This was supposed to be a work-study job where the shop paid half my wage and the university the other half, but I didn’t qualify for work-study. My dad made too much money, you see, and declared me on his income taxes (thinking he was some kind of wise guy, since I’d lived with my mom after their divorce). So I was making half what I should have at that shop, barely over minimum wage. I mainly worked there so I could buy my bike parts wholesale (though factually the cute coeds did factor in as well). The short shifts were a problem because, being a more seasoned mechanic than most, I took on the more complicated repairs, but often didn’t have time to finish them. “Sorry, Willie, I gotta get to class!” I’d say cheerfully. Nobody likes taking over a tricky repair midway, least of all a tired-out guy like Willie, but it was what it was. One day, as I abruptly abandoned a repair, he grabbed the rag off my bench and gave it a vigorous, angry shake, only to discover that the rag was where I’d put all the eighth-inch ball bearings of the headset I was repacking. The bearings flew everywhere and I couldn’t help but laugh.

When it came to what Willie took as my poor job performance, he didn’t have much recourse because I was on great terms with the manager and the school administration. The manager liked me due to what modern corporate America calls “affinity bias”—we were both from Boulder. He’s the one who bent the rules in hiring me in the first place. The school administrator liked me for a similarly non-work-related reason. We were required to submit a daily report with our hours and a description of what we were working on. The answer—“fixing bikes”—was just too boring for me, but I was unable to wiggle out of submitting the reports. So I just made up something inane every day, according to my whim. “Cultivating raisins,” I’d write, or “Stroking my ego.” One day the administrator phoned me up and drew my attention to my highly unorthodox reports. “Am I in trouble?” I asked. She replied, “No, not at all, I just wanted to tell you to keep ‘em coming! My job is really boring and your reports are the highlight of my day.”

So what does all this have to do with the Cinelli jumpsuit? Hang on, I’m getting to that. So, every year our cycling team put on a race weekend, including a criterium on campus. The riders (when not racing) had to help in various capacities, and the AS Bike Shop chipped in, and I volunteered to help Willie with the pre-race bike inspections. The main thing we checked was that the tires were glued on properly. Most racers back then used tubulars, aka sew-up tires, which didn’t have a wire bead that hooked into the rim, but were rather glued on to the rim with this messy cement, and it was hard to get right. An improperly glued tire could roll right off the rim during hard cornering, which almost always caused a crash and frequently a pile-up. So we’d try to roll the tires off with our hands during the inspection; if we could, the bike wasn’t safe to race, and the rider was basically screwed because he’d have just a few minutes to try to find another wheel to put on his bike. Most guys got really pissed off about this, but Willie and I backed each other up. “Hey man, this guy did you a favor,” we’d say. “Better you flunk the bike inspection than cause a big crash.”

Willie seemed to really relish flunking bikes. He even wore gloves, to increase his chances of successfully rolling tires. When a wheel/tire passed inspection, we’d stick a colored sticker on the rim to indicate it was race-ready. (The color wasn’t determined until the day of the race, so riders couldn’t cheat and bring their own stickers.) Every time we flunked a bike, we’d put a sticker on Willie’s wheel truing stand, like a victory marking on the fuselage of a fighter plane. Our cooperation during the bike inspection marked the best we’d ever gotten along.

And that, finally, is where the Cinelli jumpsuit comes in. Here I must confess I’m a bit hazy on the details … either I showed up wearing it and Willie looked so totally envious that I rode back home, changed, and brought it back for him to wear; or, perhaps I just figured he’d enjoy wearing it even more than I would and brought it just for him. Suffice to say, he got to wear the jumpsuit. He had kinda long, scraggly hair, a big moustache, and wire-rimmed glasses, and those features—along with his zany personality—made the jumpsuit a perfect fit. He was so stoked to be sporting it.

Well, the next year, a day or two before the annual criterium, I was working away at the shop and Willie came over and—without the normal brash, tetchy tone he used for nagging me about the coeds—he said, “Hey, um, you’re working bike check with me at the race, right?” I assured him I would be. “So, yeah, well, I was wondering if, uh, well, like last year, if you could—”

“Sure,” I interrupted him. “I’ll bring the jumpsuit for you.” He grinned hugely (a rare sight, to be sure), and the next day he again enjoyed rocking the jumpsuit at the race, where we added many more stickers to his truing stand. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he hassled me less at work after that … but actually, when I really think back, it was no different. He was still a pretty grumpy guy.

During my second year at UCSB, I applied to transfer to UC Berkeley and was accepted. That June, after my last final exam, I made a final visit to the AS Bike Shop. “Done with your last final, huh?” Willie said. “That calls for a beer!” As he opened the mini-fridge he remembered I was transferring and said, “Wait, this was your last final ever here, right? That calls for champagne!” I kid you not, he had a bottle chilled, and popped it open. There weren’t too many guys at the shop at that moment, so I ended up drinking a fair bit of it. And then I realized, “Oh, shit! I’m supposed to meet the guys to go ride!” I raced home, changed, and met a few of my teammates for an 80-mile road ride. The first 15 miles or so were just awful, trying to get my rubbery legs and buggered motor skills to cooperate. Then my body seemed to burn through the alcohol, and everything was just fine. Kind of odd, that.

Well, I moved away, up to Berkeley, where I got a proper bike shop job, with real pay and real hours (due to the higher cost of living in the Bay Area). I wasn’t teaching the art of bike repair to customers anymore, so it wasn’t as much fun, but it paid the bills. I was still racing, now for the Cal team, and in the spring we headed down to do the races at UC Santa Barbara. Obviously I wasn’t on the hook for helping with bike checks anymore, but nevertheless I headed over first thing to say hi to Willie. He seemed legitimately glad to see me, asked how I liked Berkeley, etc. Then his expression changed and he said, “Hey, I gotta ask you something. By any chance, did you … did you—”

“Yeah, Willie,” I said. “I brought the jumpsuit.”

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