Today is my birthday. As a kid birthdays were important, then as the years went by they mattered less and less. Now I am much older they have become important again. I guess it has something to do with the sense of achievement in having made it thus far.
People say I look good for my age. That is because I was born at a very early age and have remained young ever since. That’s me in the picture above; the earliest picture I have of myself. Taken in 1936 the year I was born.
I have a memory from about the same time the picture was taken. I know that sounds strange or even impossible, but this memory has always been with me throughout my life. I even have memories of having this memory throughout my childhood. So I know I didn’t imagine or dream it in later life.
My memory is of being with my mother; we were outside and it was a bright sunny day. My mother was standing at the end of a garden, holding me, sitting up in her arms. We were looking over a hedge into another garden.
The most likely assumption is that this was at the back of our house in Surrey, England, so therefore we were looking into a neighbor’s garden. Someone some short distance away was calling “Coo-eee, coo-eee.” My mother was saying to me, “Look, look over there.” She was pointing at the same time.
In part of this memory I was in this little body (The one you see above.) and part of the memory I was out of my body, about fifteen feet to the left, and slightly elevated. I was looking at myself in my mothers arms.
This is the only ‘out of body’ experience I have had, it has never happened since. I can still picture the scene now as I write this. I could hear this person calling, “Coo-eee,” and I watched myself, my head was straining forward to look and listen. My eyes big and round, and my head kept jerking this way and that every time my mother said, “Look, look over there.”
Suddenly, I was back inside this little body, looking out. I can even remember my thoughts at the time. I was thinking, “Who the fuck is calling Coo-ee?”
Now this in itself is interesting, because obviously I had not learned to talk at this time, much less learned the “eff” word. However, I have come to realize that memories of thoughts are in words, and even though I couldn’t talk back then, I have since added the words to describe the feeling of frustration at not being able to see the person calling out to me.
Language is both the gift, and at the same time the curse of human kind. A gift in that I can retain a memory such as this, and even share it with others. It is also a curse in that we tend to hold on to the bad memories and relive them, along with the accompanying emotional pain.
A friend of mine recently had a heart attack at age 40. He knew there was something seriously wrong, and called 911. When the ambulance arrived, he walked out of the house and then collapsed. His heart and breathing stopped, but the paramedics revived him.
He has since made a full recovery, and was recently telling me of the experience. He described an ‘out of body’ experience where he was off to one side and slightly above the scene, watching himself and the paramedics as they revived him.
His experience sounded exactly like mine; convincing me still further that it actually happened. It matters not that you believe my little story, but that you found it entertaining. It will always be real to me.
The weather forecast today calls for sunny skies and temps in the 60s, here in South Carolina, much like the day I was in the garden with my mother. I will be going out for a bike ride later; burn off some calories and make room for cake.
Like most people I never got to meet Sheldon Brown. After reading many online tributes yesterday, this morning I did a Google blog search and came up with around 3,700 blog entries on Sheldon’s passing.
Then I did another search for blogs on Heath Ledger, the young movie star who died two weeks ago, 148,000 blog entries. A ratio of 40 to 1; however, when you consider Heath Ledger was an internationally known movie star, and Sheldon was a bike mechanic; I still find this statistic pretty amazing.
Heath Ledger died two weeks ago and Sheldon Brown passed away last Sunday. The number of blogs on Ledger would have been considerably less just two or three days after his death.
When you also consider Heath Ledger’s death, and the drug related speculation that followed, was all over the media; whereas, the news of Sheldon’s passing broke on a few bike related websites.
The point I am making is this: You can measure a person’s greatness by the number of lives they touch; Sheldon Brown surely touched many lives.
The most common word used to describe Sheldon is “Guru.” It is a word that often gets misused, but in Sheldon’s case fits perfectly. There are leaders in this world, and then there are gurus.
When leaders speak, not everyone agrees; some don’t like the way they are being lead, and they protest and argue. However, when a guru speaks, people just listen in silence and nod their head in agreement.
Sheldon regularly posted on Bike Forums; he will be greatly missed there. His last posting on February 3rd. he helped someone who had a question on freewheel threading.
No one ever argued with Sheldon on Bike Forums, they just quietly nodded their heads in agreement.
This is rare, anonymous posters anywhere on the Internet are not opposed to telling someone they are “full of shit” when they disagree with something.
Leaders often demand respect, but in the end they have to earn it. Gurus never even ask for respect, they come by it naturally. A rare quality indeed; Sheldon Brown had that quality.
February being “Black History Month” I thought I would touch on a piece of history that is just twenty, some odd, years old.
In the 1984 Olympic Games, held in Los Angeles, a young black cyclist who grew up in the projects of Harlem, in New York City, won a Silver Medal on the track in the 1,000 meter sprint.
I get the feeling that there are many cyclists out there who have never heard of Nelson Vails, or if they have heard of him have allowed the memory to slip into the far reaches of their memory banks. As for the rest of the population, who remembers a silver medalist in an obscure sport like sprint cycling?
I remember because I met then 19 year old Nelson Vails in 1979, or early 1980 when I worked for Paris Sport in New Jersey. I worked in the frameshop at the back of Park Cycles, a bike shop owned by Vic and Mike Fraysee. Just seven miles from Manhattan, over the George Washington bridge, cyclists from New York City would ride the bike path over the bridge to visit the bike store.
It was on such a visit that Mike Fraysee brought Nelson down to the frameshop and introduced him as an up and coming young bike racer. Later on many trips I made to Lehigh County Velodrome, near Allentown in Pennsylvania, I got to see Nelson Vails race.
Nelson was the youngest of 10 children and grew up in Harlem; he was a bicycle nut by the time he reached his teen years.
Entering races in Central Park and at the bumpy, aging velodrome in Queens, he raced with an assortment of miss-matched cheap equipment, and worn out clothing with holes. He wore a pair of second hand cycling shoes that were too big for him, but in spite of this would hold his own against well-trained athletes on better equipment.
By aged 19 Vails was married and had children of his own; he had to make a living. His natural choice was that of a bike messenger in Manhattan. Bike messengers carry everything from letters and jewels to wedding gowns and baseball uniforms, all over the town, at terrifying speed.
The more packages a messenger carries in a day the more money they make. They learn to ride at the speed of traffic when it is moving, riding in the slipstream of delivery vans. Squeezing through narrow gaps in traffic whenever it is stopped or moving slow.
One would think an eight or ten hour shift as a bike messenger would be training enough, but Nelson would ride 40 miles in the morning before work, and he would also ride on weekends.
All this training, plus the turn of speed he developed on the streets of Manhattan took him all the way to a place on the US National team in 1982. He won a Gold Medal in the Pan American games, held in Venezuela in 1983.
Then in 1984 came disappointment when Nelson was beaten by Mark Gorski in the Olympic trials. The structure of the 1,000 meter sprint event was that only one rider from each country could compete.
Then world politics took over and changed the fate of Nelson Vails. The Russians dropped out of the Olympics and this opened up a spot for one extra rider. The Olympic finals was a repeat of the trials earlier; Mark Gorski won the Gold, and Nelson Vails the Silver. Tsutomo Sakamoto of Japan took the Bronze.
What I remember about Nelson Vails was his personality; always smiling, always joking. His attitude on the track was the same as when he was a bike messenger in Manhattan. “Stay out of my way; I have a job to do.”
In 1986 Nelson made his acting debut in the movie “Quicksilver” starring Kevin Bacon. Appropriately, a story about bike messengers; he was cast as “Messenger in Maroon Beret.”
Nelson Vails has my utmost admiration. He came from a poor and underprivileged neighborhood in Harlem, and despite this, through hard work and determination made it to the top, in what could be seen as a middle class white man’s sport.
The last I heard Nelson was living in Boulder, Colorado; still riding his bike, cycling in recreational tours across the country. You can read more about Nelson Vails on BlackAthlete.com.
As a teenager in the 1950s one of the highlights of my year was during the Tour de France when I would order copies of a French sports paper called “Le Miroir des Sports.”
It would arrive in the mail, a newspaper size publication printed on glossy paper. All in French so I couldn’t understand the captions, but I didn’t need to, I could pick out the riders names and the photos themselves told the story.
Over the years my copies got lost, then some time ago I discovered bicycle history enthusiast Aldo Ross has a large collection of these papers. Most people with such a collection would keep them to themselves, but Aldo Ross generously shares these images by posting what he calls his “Pic of the day” on the Wool Jersey site.
I use the word “generously” because scanning and posting these pictures is a time consuming exercise. The pictures give me a great deal of pleasure, especially when occasionally I will remember a picture from my youth. Like the one below of Swiss rider Hugo Koblet on his way to his 1951 Tour win.
You can see from the picture, the road conditions were atrocious, and punctures were a frequent occurrence. Race regulations back then did not allow a wheel change and Koblet’s team is changing the tire. These are tubular tires, glued to the rim.
Often the riders changed their own tires if their mechanic was not close at hand. You can see the spare tire laying at Koblet’s feet; this was probably wrapped around his shoulders, which was a typical way to carry a spare back then.
A second spare tire is neatly folded and strapped under his saddle. Incidentally, that is probably a Brooks B17 leather saddle; I say that because almost the entire Tour de France field rode on a B17 during that era.
Koblet’s bike has a regular pump in front of the seat tube, and a CO2 pump behind it. (Yes, we had CO2 pumps back then.) The bike has steel cottered cranks with Simplex rings. It has early Campagnolo front and rear derailleurs, operated by bar end shifters. (Not shown in this picture.)
There is no derailleur hanger, the gear is clamped to the rear dropout, and there were no braze-on cable stops. The bike has a full length cable from the handlebar gear lever to the rear derailleur, held to the frame with clips. There are fender eyelets on the rear dropouts; this bike would be used for racing and training.
Koblet’s eyes are focused down the hill, looking to see who is coming up. He was probably leading when he punctured; tall and slender, he has the ultimate climber’s build. He is reaching in his pocket for food, it is almost impossible to eat on a climb like this, so a rider would use a forced stop like this the grab some nourishment. Note that the jersey has front pockets as well as rear, and these are also stuffed with food.
Another puncture in this next picture; (Right.) Koblet is now wearing the race leader’s Yellow Jersey. Even though the picture is not in color I know it is the Yellow Jersey because it has the initials HD embroidered on the chest, for Henri Desgrange, founder of the Tour de France who died in 1940.
Again, his face stuffed with food, Koblet checks his watch to see how much time he has lost.
In the final picture, Koblet has a spare tire crossed behind his back and looped around his shoulders. He has his goggles on his arm, as his pockets are no doubt full of food. Because he has a pump on his seat tube, a second water bottle is mounted on his handlebars.
Plastic water bottles have not yet arrived, these were made from spun aluminum, with a real cork for a stopper.
There are more pictures from Hugo Koblet's 1951 Tour victory on Aldo's page here.
My post on Fausto Coppi last Thursday brought the following comment:
“Coppi was a legend but before making an idol out of him, we have to remember he himself admitted several times that "you don’t win a bike race on mineral water alone"
Interpretations are open but doping was quite rampant.
To read the rich cycling culture from the pages of history is great but it’s not possible to look up to these people anymore, at least for me.”
It was not my intention to bring up the dope issue; I didn’t mention it in any of the pieces I have written about cyclists from the 1940s and 1950s. I felt I covered the topic pretty well in my Historical Perspective on Dope. However, since it was brought up I will touch on the subject again.
European professional cyclists taking amphetamines was an open secret in the 1950s. I knew it as a teenage kid in England, and if I knew, the governing body of cycle racing (the UCI) knew and so did the cycling press. Everyone turned a blind eye, and did or said nothing.
Like your mother always said, “It’s only fun ’til someone gets hurt.” That’s how it was with the doping issue, nobody cared until Tom Simpson died. Then the cycling press who for years had kept quiet, were among the first to cry out for the UCI to do something.
What is, and what is not acceptable in our society changes constantly; smoking is a good example. Fifty or sixty years ago, drunk driving was not the serious issue it is today; people tended to look the other way if someone a little tipsy got behind the wheel. One can hardly go back and criticize a person who did that back then. It doesn’t make it right that society accepted it, but that was then, and this is now.
Think of recreational drug use in the 1960s and 1970s. It was illegal but accepted, not necessarily by all of society, but certainly accepted among pier groups of like-minded people. Dope taking by professional cyclists was much like that; accepted as the norm by the pros and fans of cycling alike.
Street drugs today have become nasty, dangerous stuff; crack cocaine, and methamphetamines; drugs used in the 1960s were mild by comparison. Dope in sport too has escalated. It used to be stimulants only, like amphetamines, now it’s blood doping, steroids, and other body altering chemistry.
A person wouldn’t necessarily denounce their parent or grandparent because they did drugs in the 1960s. It is wrong, in my opinion, to go back and condemn great riders like Fausto Coppi and the others from that era because they took amphetamines. It doesn’t make it right by today’s standards, but it was open and accepted at that time.
If Fausto Coppi on dope rode away from the rest and finished minutes ahead of the others, I can guarantee those chasing him were on the same dope. The playing field was level. Today doping is banned so to do so is cheating; in the 1940s and 1950s the taking of amphetamines was an open secret, so by not taking them a professional rider was cheating himself.
When Fausto Coppi made the statement, “You don’t win a bike race on mineral water alone.” He was being honest, but in doing so, he discredited himself and other riders of that era. They are now judged by today’s standards, and the present anti-doping mindset.
Amphetamines or not, these were tough, hard men. Take a look at the above picture and consider this: These cyclists rode as much as 170 miles a day, on dirt or gravel roads sometimes over three mountain passes. They did this on bikes weighing 25 or 26 lbs, carrying some of their own food, water, tools, and spare tires. I am not advocating the use of stimulants, but it could be argued such a feat was not possible on just mineral water.
I neither condone nor judge the riders of the 1940s and 1950s era, and I don’t pretend that doping didn’t take place. Having said that, they were the heroes of my youth, and they still have my admiration today. Maybe a person has to be of my generation to understand that.