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Pedaling in your great-grandfather’s shoes

June 26th, 2013 by tristan baurick

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Tristan Baurick here. On my way back from Colorado I got a chance to represent Bainbridge in a unique bike race. Here’s my story…

Your great-grandfather would have told you that a long day of bicycle riding is a bone-shaking and nerve-racking affair. He would have advised you to mind the smoke from your brake, and bring along a hunk of wood to drop like an anchor if the overworked brake gives out. And if a prostitute offers you whiskey in a hail storm, take a swig. You’ll need it.

I know all of this because I rode your great-grandfather’s bike – a 97-year-old, single-speed steel contraption – for last month’s L’Eroica Junction to Glenwood Vintage Bicycle Race. The 102-mile, one-day trek through western Colorado combines sports, history, and a touch of theater. Also, a lot of wool knickers and several waxed mustaches.

I came as Bainbridge Island’s representative. Most participants were locals or buddies of Chris Brown, the race’s founder and the owner of a Grand Junction, Colo. bike shop. He and Bainbridge’s Classic Cycle have something of a rivalry. Both shops boast vast collections of vintage bikes, and both love a chance to dust them off and get them out on the road – creaky as they may be.

Classic caught wind that I was in Boulder for a nine-month-long journalism fellowship at the University of Colorado. I’m not a bike racer, nor do I know anything about vintage bikes – but I do enjoy riding and I am prone to agreeing to do things I probably shouldn’t.

“We have a champion heading your way,” Classic’s owner, Paul Johnson, boasted on Brown’s Facebook page. “(He) will be representing the great state of Washington astride a 1919 Mead.”

At the finish line in Glenwood Springs, Colo.

At the finish line in Glenwood Springs, Colo.

The Mead Ranger – which Classic later upgraded to a somewhat more impressive 1916 vintage – was shipped to Boulder in an imposingly heavy box. I imagined a tangle of archaic parts that I’d need a historian to help me reassemble. Surprisingly, it took just a few twists of a wrench to get the bike road-ready.

A ride around the block made me realize that our great-grandfathers were pretty tough. The leather seat – despite its horse hair padding and springs – was far from comfortable. The mustache handlebars restricted me to just one ache-inducing position.

The bike’s single speed was fine on flat roads but forced me to stand on the pedals and put my full body into overcoming hills that my modern road bike could erase with a few clicks of the shifters.

And then there was the brake. Johnson wasn’t sure the old coaster system would hold up on a long ride. But he had plenty of folksy advice on how to keep from crashing.

“If the course involves long downhills, you should think about a period-correct dragging brake. They used to drag pine boughs behind the bike to manage the speed,” he wrote in an email. “If the coaster brake starts to fade out or smoke, you can add a few drops of castor oil in the hub oiler port.”

Fortunately, most of the course was either flat or uphill, so I decided to pack the oil and leave the pine bough at home.

Race day began at 6 a.m. with what looked like a community theater casting call for Mary Poppins. There were plenty of of wool caps, pilot goggles, argyle socks and bow ties. A few female riders wore frilly dresses, and I heard one bragging about the corset underneath.

Riders get points for how well they place at the finish line, but even more points can be had for the age of the bike and the authenticity of the costuming.

A judge in a three-piece suit gave me 24 points for my bike and 22 points for wearing “the full get-up,” which included wool knickers, stockings and a newsboy-style cap that I swapped for a modern helmet once the race started. Classic supplied me with a 1920s-style wool cycling jersey with “Bainbridge Island, Washington” splashed across the back.

“And your vittles?” the judge asked.

I had ditched the usual sports drinks and plastic-wrapped bars in favor of plain water, almonds and bananas. “Authentic time-period nutrition” scored me another six points.

More points were available for “welding broken frame at a farmhouse or repairing bike with broken broom handle,” according to the scoring sheet. A whopping 18 points would be awarded if a rider slept “overnight in an animal carcass.”

A man sporting an gracefully curved mustache and suspenders commended my attire. Then he noticed my bike.

“Sucker,” he said.

Like most of the riders, he had a modern bike and old-style clothes, allowing him to ride fast and easy, finish well and mine the costuming category for dozens of extra points.

The bulk of the group shot ahead of me during the first 20 miles. I fell in line with Brown, who also eschewed carbon fiber for World War I-era steel.

Our slow pace allowed him to fill me in on the race’s history. Named for a similar throwback-themed ride in Italy, the Colorado L’Eroica follows an old training route cyclists rode in preparation for an annual race between Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs. The race, which ran from 1899 to 1915, was fewer than 20 miles. For some reason, Brown decided to make the modern version five times as long.

I passed Brown on a steep hill just before the road’s pavement gave way to dirt.

At the half-way point was Miss Prissy’s famed rest stop. Prissy is a local historian who masquerades as a Wild West madame for the race.

“Come on now and visit with Miss Prissy, lest you wanna git shot,” she said, pointing a toy rifle at my head.

She offered whiskey from a heavy jug, promising that a sip would garner an untold number of bonus points.

I demurred, preferring to stay sharp for the miles of downhill switchbacks that awaited me.

That’s around the time that the rain came, and then the biggest hail storm I’ve ever experienced. I soon wished I had warmed up with some of Prissy’s whiskey.

The bike clanked down the slippery and deeply-rutted road while hail stung my neck and arms. The front wheel would have rattled off if I hadn’t noticed the bolt had spun to its last three threads.

My weakening brake smoked and coughed up blackened oil. I used some compressed hail to cool the oiler port before refilling it. The revived brake eased my fear of a crash, but I soon had to contend with lightning that flashed so close that my eyes hurt.

I took refuge in a tractor, thinking its rubber tires would save me from electrocution. Just as I settled into the cab and knocked the hail out of my helmet, the storm let up.

I finished the race somewhere in the middle – maybe in 25th or 26th place, according to a somewhat confused scorekeeper.

I learned at the awards banquet that Brown had came out on top – beating me and all the racers with low-tech clothes and high-tech rides. But how had he outscored me, I wondered, when our bikes and costumes were about equal and I reached the finish line several minutes before him?

Then I remembered – he drank the whiskey.

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