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Bikeman
by Owen Edwards

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BEHOLD THUNDERTHIGHS! Slicing noiseless through the frigid park, uncluttered, kinetic, Campagnolo derailleursshoulders low and chin jutting (or vice versa), held off the unforgiving pavement by a hand-tooled chrome coat hanger with the merest hint of wheels, he seeks satori in the slightly gritty wind.

It’s Bikeman, soft-hat hero, champion of clean air, quietude and motorless machismo. And his time has arrived. He is Homo sapiens at peace with the machine. Pollution-free transportation is his, in its purest form: superbike, bella machina, hobby horse of the gods, the perfect evocation of Italian finesse a few pounds heavier than a Gucci moccasin, eleven gears more than a Ferrari, as starkly beautiful as a Giacometti torso. See what it does to him! Under a little housepainter hat stenciled with mythic names, his eyes are slits of distilled concentration. His hands, in little gloves with holes that drive women mad, rest cat-like on the handlebars, ready to spring forward in a trice to the brakes. His legs? Veritable pistons. The discipline of the samurai pales. The machine cost Bikeman more than $300, and any fool can see it has made him different.

The superbike is to bikes as Captain Marvel is to Billy Batson. It is the one great leap for someone who has tooled around the park on a three-speed English bike but wants more. The superbike is a lot more.

To the man or woman outside the magic circle trying to get in, a first trip around the city’s bike shops may be confusing. At a glance all bikes with turned-down handlebars look pretty much alike. But there are certain general characteristics that elevate a bike to super status. First, a superbike seldom costs less than $200 (and sometimes more than $400). It has ten or more gears. It should weigh less than 25 pounds soaking wet, give or take a little. And above all, it should command knee-jerk respect (if not envy) among the cognoscenti.

The prospective buyer should be aware that bicycles, like other machines, are collections of parts, and all bike manufacturers are mainly assemblers who build only the frame. There are a limited number of top name parts that go into the best bikes. The result is that superbikes tend to resemble each other closely, often varying only in frame and name. The buyer should study specifications of various makes to decide what combination of parts turns him on the most. The same names recur—it doesn’t take long to get into it. That prices can range from just under $200 to twice that and over is indicative of the numinosity of names. Of course some bikes are expensive because their owners want them to be expensive, but as one salesman frankly admits, “odd names help.” And no matter how much people pay for their superbikes, in conversation they invariably tack on a little more.

Bikeman does not poor-mouth. The superbikes available in the city are made by Peugeot, Schwinn, Raleigh, Frejus, Legnano, Atala, Le Jeune and Gitane. Most of these manufacturers make a full range of bicycles, from mini-Fonda choppers to relatively inexpensive ten-speeds, but the superbikes are the thoroughbreds of each company’s line. Except for the Schwinn Paramount, which is assembled in the U.S. from European parts, all the superbikes are built in Europe. As with pasta, shoes and hysteria, the Italians are unquestioned leaders in the field.

At Stuyvesant Bicycle and Toy Inc., 178 First Avenue at 11th Street, the star is the Atala “Record.” The other star is Sal Corso, who owns the place with his brother. Sal likes to talk about bikes maybe half as much as he likes selling them, which is still a lot, so Stuyvesant is as good a place as any for the buyer to start his education. The “Record” frame is made of double-butted Columbus Steel, which, along with Reynolds 531 double-butted steel, is what superbikes are always made of. The prospective bikeman will lose precious time trying to determine why these two types of tubing are the best and would do well to take the matter on faith. On the subject of transmissions (called derailleurs by the knowing) Sal says, “Campagnolo Record is the magic name,” and magically enough, a quick look reveals the Atala has just that transmission. So, it happens, do all but two of the superbikes. There are ten speeds. If your best friend has ten speeds and you were to approach Sal with a checkbook and ask for fifteen speeds, you would probably get fifteen, but Sal is an honorable man and he will tell you that die extra five gears are nonsense, as if that had anything to do with you and your friend. The tires on the Atala are Pirelli Specialissimos, which I mention purely for the feel of it on the tongue. The “Record” goes for $250.

Stuyvesant also carries the Raleigh MK II Professional, a limited edition (whatever that means) English bike with a Reynolds frame and mostly Campagnolo parts that lists for $319, enough to stiffen the most flaccid upper lip. Sal’s paternal concern—“People should listen to the salesman”—is thrown in free, and you can get good advice whether you buy a bike or not. Sal claims that he sold 6,000 ten-speeds last year. Others in the business say that Sal is hallucinating, but then, people who sell bikes in the city genially contend that their competitors are liars, thieves, trash-pushers and crazy.

The atmosphere at Gene’s 77th Street Discount Bikes (300 East) is, how shall I say it, spontaneous, which may be good or bad, depending on your mood. Gene’s is the home of the Peugeot PX 10E, Gallic answer to all those dazzling Italian syllables and probably the best-known and largest selling ten-speed superbike on the lists. It is also the most demotically priced, at around $190. The PX 10 has a frame of Reynolds 531 and is unique in having not a single Campagnolo part. A question of honor, one supposes. The Simplex derailleur system is made partly of plastic (DuPont Delrin, to be exact), a fact that elicits terrible thin smiles from bikemen astride all-metal Italian devices. The word is that the Simplex is dependable but less smooth than the Campy. The PX 10 is ten-speed, and on the subject of gears one of the Peugeot salesman observed acidly: “Most of the people who ask about fifteen speeds are under fifteen.”

While the Peugeot doesn’t have the same impact on conspicuous consumers as the sexier machines from the south, it has a good reputation and can give you legs like Nureyev.

Peugeot bike from middle 70s Hanging gracefully from the ceiling at Gene’s is an alluring number called the Le Jeune—a track model, very clean, no gears, no brakes, just eighteen pounds of absolute, unrelenting purism. Pristine, tempting. By nature, though, Bikeman is a dilettante, and the track bike smacks of product endorsements and dirt under the nails. “People who buy Le Jeune track bikes are the kind who get hot about where a front fork bends,” a salesman says, expecting to be understood. But as luck would have it, the Le Jeune also comes with a ten-speed transmission and brakes and a thunderously impressive $395 price tag.

Tucked off in the fluorescent shadows is the Gitane “Tour de France,” another French bonbon very similar to the Peugeot (though less well known) with much the same equipment, Simplex gears, and an identical $190 price.

For those souls who get nosebleeds north of Union Square, Gene’s operates 14th Street Discount Bikes (351 East), with the same stock and possibly the same long-haired salesmen.

The acknowledged guru of the superbike scene in the area Is Thomas Avenia, 131 East 119th Street. True to the mystical tradition, Avenia keeps a small shop, out of the way, marked only by a modest sign that says “Bicycles”—six locks on the grill and four on the door. Avenia is a small man with perpetually astonished eyebrows who reads Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, slides off the subject of bikes to put forward elaborate political theories without pausing for breath, and sells two of the big names, Frejus and Legnano. The Frejus can be had with either Reynolds or Columbus steel. Just to make that decision implies power and knowledge beyond the ordinary man. Most of the key parts are made by Campy. The brakes are Universal center-pull (all superbike brakes are center-pull type, with stopping pressure applied equally to both sides of the wheel rim). The Legnano Company is now owned by Frejus, and the bikes are basically the same, except that maybe Legnano sounds a little dirtier. Both cost about $250.

If you figure that each additional gear is a step up the socio-acquisitive ladder, Avenia can be a wet blanket. Surrounded by gleaming ten- and fifteen-speed machinery, he enthuses for the simple regimen. Plead for many gears and he insists that you are better off with none. None! If you are strong enough to persist he will start bursting bubbles, telling you that a fifteen-speed has the same high and low as a three-speed Raleigh, and explaining with a straight face his theory for putting 140 gears on a bike. Like other maturing artists, he is concerned with peeling away the non-essential and he refuses to understand that there are reasons for a lot of gears that have nothing to do with riding the bike. Avenia is a hard taskmaster for Bikeman, who has certain nontechnical needs and may admire a man who rides to Port Washington on a one-speed Frejus without wanting to be him.

Twenty-five pounds and $350 worth of American dream machinery, the Schwinn Paramount resides at Angelo’s Bicycle Service, 462 Columbus Avenue (between 82nd and 83rd Streets). The Paramount is a class piece of work in every sense, with Campagnolo parts throughout, a Reynolds 531 frame, Weinmann center-pull brakes, and, in true Detroit style, a gaggle of options at extra cost. Most of the magic has been wrung out of the Schwinn name by years of association with the company’s lesser marques, but there is strength of character in the man who can turn away from the siren song of foreign accents and buy American. Maybe leaving the price tag on would help.

Happily for faithful Bikeman, after the initial purchase there is a lifetime involvement in accessories. Tires for superbikes are a worthy field of study for any serious doctoral candidate. There are two basic types of bike fires: the standard rubber tire with tube (called clinchers) that adorns prosaic models, and tubulars, or sew-ups, (which are, in fact, sewn up under the rim) found on most superbikes. Tubulars are light, weighing as little as four ounces, and are made of everything from cotton to silk. They have fantastic names like Viper, Supalatti and Imperforabile. The Complete Book of Bicycling, a helpful guide written by Eugene Sloane and published by Trident (and known in the trade as “the ten-dollar book”), presents a partial list of 28 different tires, and hints darkly of dozens more. Sew-ups can be pumped up unmercifully without blowing, they are quickly changed, and they fold easily so that extras can be clipped under the seat (a touch that only intensifies Bikeman’s obsession). The trouble with fabric sew-ups is that they are easily damaged on city streets, so the best course is to avoid silks (despite the temptation) and use gum rubber. Extra tires generally start at $4.50.

There are other accessories that aid the body and the ego about equally. To go with the gloves with little holes there are shoes with little holes. And for winter, ones without little holes. The shoes have steel shanks to protect Bikeman’s feet against the steel grips of the pedals, and cleats to make him more a part of his machine. The fact that you can do nothing but bicycle in cycling shoes can only be viewed as a plus. Most of the stores mentioned carry shoes priced from $10 to $25, cleats included.

Certainly the most essential accessory for the urban bikeman is something, anything, to keep the superbike from disappearing. Bikes are easier to fence than color TVs, and the rule of thumb has long been: don’t chain your bike to anything you don’t want stolen. New York is probably the chain proving ground of the world. The plastic-covered combination lock trinkets that many bike shops sell may be all right for less serious-minded cities, but here they are parted with a chuckle. Bike shop owners get used to seeing the same faces over and over again, each time deeper red, as customers’ bikes are ripped off. Gene’s 77th counters the tradition with what looks like the largest chain anywhere not attached to an anchor. It is made of some devilish stuff called cam-alloy and produced by Campbell Co. With a one-pound Wally lock, the protection weighs about six pounds and costs $20, and despite the obvious effect on Bikeman’s lightness of soul, it seems to defy everything short of acetylene torches. So you’re about half-safe.

Bikeman, in one of his myriad incarnations, is a friend of mine. He is over 30, fashionably hirsute, works downtown and lives in his own Park Slope brownstone. Until recently he was a mortal being who thought not infrequently of his wife, his children and his plumbing disasters. Now all that is forgotten. He has fifteen speeds! On his face is the look of a man forever meditating on his first encounter with sex. Unbearably exotic names issue casually from his mouth. If left alone for any length of time he starts kneading his thighs dreamily.

I met my friend Bikeman in Prospect Park last week. With a tight mouth he allowed me to straddle his spotless Legnano. The air was brittle, the road as salty as an anchovy. I felt lost with all those gears, in over my head. But after ten wobbly feet nothing mattered. Two Peugeots passed in the other direction. My ears burned with the instant esteem of my peers. The machine worked beneath me without a whimper. There were some people walking, people with dollar-sign coats and perfectly matched teeth, motor-driven Hasselblads and Old English sheep dogs, people I would have been forced to envy if I too had been walking. But now I was different from them, elevated far beyond. I was Bikeman, and I could bask in the ultraviolet glow of their envy for as long as I could stay aboard that shimmering silver bit of ecstasy and ignore my friend’s shrill pleas to come back.

EDITOR’S NOTE

Join a thriving worldwide online community for Bikemen and Bikewomen by visiting the Classic Rendezvous website and signing up to receive their free CR E-mail List.

Learn more about Campagnolo componentry, news and Campy bikes worldwide at the Campy Only website. Purchase copies of vintage Campagnolo catalogs at the Campy Bike website.

And, view great pictures of many of the bikes mentioned in Bikeman at collector Chuck Schmidt’s Velo-Retro site on his Velo Rendezvous Event pages.

See beautiful handmade bicycles that embrace the craftsmanship of the great masters at the HandMade Bicycle Show... see Bruce Gordon’s, Richard Sachs, J.P. Weigle’s, Rock Lobster’s artistry.


Feedback To Bikeman (newest first)
9/15/2005
I first read Bikeman a few years ago. An unknowing cycling buddy just e-mailed it to me again. What a great read. I’m 51, grew up in NYC. Bought my Atala from Sal Corso, which I still have & ride as an errand bike. I too spent most weekends with it in Central Park, envying the guys atop superbikes like the Frejus Professional Record Supercorsa. I would see them in many color schemes & never knew who sold them.

I now (thanks to eBay) own a 1962 Frejus in Black & White. Purchased from the original owner who lived in Cleveland. I also have an original Thomas Avenia (the guru indeed) price list framed on the wall. I now live in San Francisco, last winter I totally restored my Frejus, I ride it a lot. Love its spunky ride. Many people don’t look or care about it. But those who know have chased me down the street to get a better look at it. I pulled up to a light, where a bikeman was sitting atop a De Rosa Pista. I complimented him on his steed, we took off on the green, at the next light he bellowed “you`re riding the Holy Grail man!” I just had to smile cause this young man Got It!

I currently own 9 superbikes. Most of them period pieces. I have collected a vertical tasting of Campagnolo Gruppos. Most of them Italian but I do own a Raleigh Professional MKV in Mink Blue & Silver, 6 speed Nuovo Record & Clement sew-ups. This love we all share for the machine & our oneness with it, keeps us healthy, happy & quite alive! We are Bikemen slicing thru the park with pride in the fact our souls are free to ride & roam wherever our steed points us. To all of you bikemen, RIDE ON BROTHERS & SISTERS. I’m going to NYC soon to see the rock legends Cream reunite. I’m shipping my trusty Atala back ahead of me to ride through Nanhattan, as in the old days! Cheers to one & all. Paul

3/27/2004
Roger (second letter), your response to Bikeman has perked the ears of a number of old riders and friends of Heinz Linke in Cleveland. No one is quite sure whom you might be, so if you would, please identify yourself because three of the AOM (Angry Old Men) group led by the late Heinz Linke need to know. You can email me at bikecg at att.net.

I have loved bicycles my whole life and knew that the ten speed racer was for me when I witnessed some guy, on a cold spring day, do a track stand at a traffic light on some bronze-colored derailleur bike, I think a Paramount. I was fourteen at the time and it was the early 60s.

In the mid-eighties I met Heinz at his shop in Lakewood, Ohio. Never knew him before; just knew of his reputation. I had an older Gitane that I was upgrading with more contemporary parts. But if you put lipstick on a pig, itís still a pig. I wanted a new, light, fast bike. Heinz showed me Peugeots (although not PX 10s, as they were history) a second-hand Colnago and Cinelli and other bikes. He glossed over the great Merckx and taught me what real Bikemen do. He invited me to ride with his group on a Saturday ride that be said would be only 20 miles.

I arrived at the rendezvous site at a home in Bay Village with my Gitane, dressed in sweats and touring shoes. When the riders showed up, I knew I was in serious trouble. I never saw so much Campy, cleated shoes, Peugeots, Cinellis and Colnagos in my life. I knew I was screwed. Truth be told, the ride was eight miles longer than the twenty I was told. I felt betrayed. Two years since my last cigarette still did not afford me the fitness level to keep up with those guys, so eight miles could have been a ride to Beijing. Man could they ride. I vowed that I would not ride again with AOM until I was ready to become Bikeman. A year later, I arrived with a new Raleigh and the entire Bikeman garb. I was ready. In 1988, I became Bikeman. 60 miles was not out of the question from then on.

The group has dwindled down to about three of us, two younger men and one woman. We still are Bikemen and are still AOM. The others have died or moved away or just donít ride anymore. Any day a person can swing their piston-like legs over the saddle is a great day for Bikeman. God speed, safe roads and the wind at your back, Heinz. Carl

3/15/2004
There was a man (Ken:bottom) who wrote in wondering about ways to contact some of the older cyclists that used to hang out in central park. If they're still active, the people at oldskooltrack.com may know of them. Pass this info along if you like. Jon

10/28/2003
I just read the Bikeman article and, although I grew up mostly in Cleveland, everything you said was familiar. My bike-shop memory of NY was of a place called Bicycle Renaissance. I used to have a shirt with their signature Da Vinci man centered in a bicycle wheel. My first good bike was a purple Gitane Interclub; straight-gauge tubing, chrome fork, tubulars, and cottered steel crankset. Regrettably, it was a boom bike (1972) and came through with the awful Huret Alvit derailleur, as apparently Simplex could not produce their Prestige derailleurs fast enough to keep up the demand driven by America's discovery of the 10-speed, that demand further pushed by Eugene A. Sloan's Complete Book on Bicycling, and articles in Popular Science, Life, and probably every big city newspaper.

In 1974, four friends and I finally bought our real bikes, Peugeot PX10E's from the Cleveland bike shop where I worked. Madison Cycle Center (great name), owned by a NASA employee named Heinz Linke (great name) had been around since before anyone outside of New York, San Francisco, or Milwaukee knew what a racing bicycle was, and had been operated sometimes in storefronts, and sometimes, more romantically out of Heinz's suburban Bay Village basement, where the close quarters allowed various esoteric new bicycle odors to concentrate, something I can't describe, or explain, but I'd recognize it now, and don't smell it in shops anymore.

Heinz had several Royal Blue Belgian-made Bauers in his basement shop, still unsold from the late 'sixties. They were ten-speed road bikes with extra-short time trial frames and all-Campy gear. He never brought them to the regular store, once a call from the zoning official (tipped-off by a jealous bike shop competitor) had forced him to open back up in a regular storefront. Over the years, whenever we asked him about the Bauers, he denied their existence. Those bikes were to die for.

My college friends and I used to go on club rides on Sundays from a school parking lot in the West suburbs, twenty miles to Oberlin and back. The club was made up of guys in their forties and fifties, who still rode regularly, but who no longer cared to ride competitively with the local LAW club. It was a democratic group; a couple of engineers and a research doctorate from NASA, a machine-shop owner, and older Irish bricklayer were among the members. Any difference in class was betrayed by the cars they brought their bikes in. At Oberlin, we sometimes met up with Oberlin College students, who rode with us.

Jumping ahead, my PX10E is next to me in my office. It is no longer white. I had it Imroned red in 1980, after having dismantled it to have it checked for frame damage after a collision with a '68 Mustang driven by a distracted frat boy. I'm still riding tubulars (they're so cheap these days). The original Mavic rims now have better Mavic GP-4's, Japanese low-flange hubs instead of the Normandy high-flange originals, stainless spokes. The bike now has a gel saddle and Nitto bars. The original bars were the only damage in the collision with the Ford. The MAFAC centerpulls are gone, replaced by Dia-Compe sidepulls, the AFA extension and its exposed suicide bolt head replaced by an SR. The rear cog is a 6-speed with a more modern (maybe 20-year-old) all-alloy Simplex from a mail-order old-parts store. The changer is now SunTour. The bike has a bare chrome fork because when, after a collision with an Irish setter, I ordered a replacement PX10 fork, which was white. I'm on my 4th frame pump. In other words this is an older guy's old bike, and hard to recognize at a glance. Thanks. Roger

8/14/2003
I AM Bikeman... 57 and started riding in the early 70’s . I was introduced by a friend who lived in Sheepshead Bay. I immediately sold my Peugeot A08 along with my wife’s U08 and bought a PX10... New in the box for $199 from a shop in Brooklyn. Even though I lived in NJ, we would ride Central Park and Prospect Park (when finished would ride down Ocean Pkwy for breakfast at Nathan’s in Coney Island). Eventually upgraded virtually everything on the PX10... a French-threaded nightmare; tapped the Stronglight cranks for Campy pedals, added Cinelli 1A stem and Giro d’Italia bars, replaced the crappy Simplex Delrin derailleur with a Simplex SLJ (every bit as good or better than Campy NR), Campy sidepull brakes, and Concor Supercorsa saddle (which I now have on ALL my bikes). I visited all but one of the bike shops mentioned... my buddy owned a Frejus and we would drool over Legnanos. Next I bought a CIOCC Mochba 80 (built for the Moscow Olympics that Jimmy Carter would not let anyone go to), all Campy, and I am in my 3rd season with a Trek 5900... but today I rode my CIOCC with sew ups... WHAT A RIDE!

I am in the process of getting my PX10 road ready, may even sacrifice it for the trainer... but even though the French threading is still giving me fits I hope to ride it this weekend... the Stronglight cranks look great and the Simplex SLJ is a dream... I still have, but don’t dare ride the original wheels with Normandy large-flange hubs... the rims are shot... and, oh yeah, none of the ball bearings (bottom bracket, hubs, headset) are in races... open them up and they plink, plink to the floor... and after you pack them in grease (Campy or green Phil Wood) and get it all back together you feel a bearing under your sock and realize that you have left one out!! This weekend it’s the PX10 (now with Look clipless pedals), 531 frame and large rake fork... can’t wait... I am Bikeman... and the 70s were great... but I am in better shape today thanks to my bikes. Bikeman was a joy to read. Thank you. Richard

2/25/2003
This is the second time I have had the pleasure to read the Bikeman article. I grew up in NYC and now at 55 I can remember buying my first bike at Stuyvesant Bike from Sal Corso. I have fond memories of both Sal and his brother Tony. In my HS years I became totally engrossed in cycling and bought a Fiorelli and then a Gitane track bike which I used both on the street and at Kissenna. I really loved the Saturdays and Sundays at the Park (Central) were all of us bikers would hang at the benches with our bikes and then go do a few laps. I have been desperately trying to locate some of my old buds from the Park like David Sullivan, Peter Aaron, Matt Fazakas, etc. with no luck. Its difficult to do long distance from Boston. I have not gotten biking out of my blood and just realized my boyhood dream of owning a Paramount. I purchased one recently and I have completely restored it. I intend to ride it into Central Park this spring one Saturday or Sunday and hopefully make contact with some of the old crowd from long ago. If you know of anything going on in the park regarding the old bike crowd or know any of the people I mentioned or have any ideas on how I might locate them I would be forever grateful. I guess biking stays in your blood and that is why that Bikeman story is so appealing to me. Thanks. Ken


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