BEHOLD THUNDERTHIGHS! Slicing noiseless through the frigid park, uncluttered, kinetic, shoulders 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.
Its 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 citys 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 recurit doesnt 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 companys 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. Sals paternal concernPeople should listen to the salesmanis 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 Genes 77th Street Discount Bikes (300 East) is, how shall I say it, spontaneous, which may be good or bad, depending on your mood. Genes 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 doesnt 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.
Hanging gracefully from the ceiling at Genes is an alluring number called the Le Jeunea 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, Genes 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 Bicyclessix locks on the grill and four on the door. Avenia is a small man with perpetually astonished eyebrows who reads Bartletts 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 Angelos 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 companys 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 Bikemans 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 Bikemans 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: dont chain your bike to anything you dont 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. Genes 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 Bikemans lightness of soul, it seems to defy everything short of acetylene torches. So youre 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 friends shrill pleas to come back.
Bikeman (newest first)