Despite not actually learning how to ride until 12 years old
I was an early adopter of what is now known as a “road bike,”
Because I bought my first one, a Peugeot PX-10, in 1973.
Like a fine wine,
It was imported from France.
It cost almost $300.
No one I knew shared my enthusiasm.
I was 18, and didn’t have a car
Or a driver’s license.
The Peugot had a high-end, lightweight lugged-steel frame of Reynold’s 531 double-butted tubing and all French components, i.e., no Campagnola parts, because
It was from France.
In America? It became “a ten-speed.”
I didn’t know that Americans could race bikes.
I rode it around the Chicago suburbs, on streets
And Forest Preserve trails,
Carefully crafted of unpaved dirt and mud.
I wasn’t real sure how wide those Mavic rims were
Because they were measured in “centimeters,”
Which was French for “skinny,”
And took “sew-ups” which are tires glued to the rim and have the lightweight tube sewn inside the tire.
When I got my first flat I had to buy a book about bicycle maintenance.
I do remember that my original chainwheels (the front gears attached to your pedal cranks)
Were 48 & 52 teeth, i.e. two gear choices translated as “High” and “Higher,”
So, a week after picking up my bike I had it back to the shop and a smaller 40-tooth chainwheel swapped in for the 48.
I looked up how to translate the possible gear combinations into Ratios, so I could
Attempt pedaling uphill.
All this in the Chicago area where anything more than a 1% grade gets called “pretty hilly,”
And where the general public does not differentiate between, “Go up this street to the first corner . . . ” & “Go down this street to the first corner . . .”
In fact, a lot of Chicagoans simply use the word up when they mean north.
My bike-handling skills were “adequate,”
In the sense that I rarely crashed
Unless there was a good reason.
At 13 I had once collided with a tree that suddenly veered into my path
Consequently I never learned to ride No Hands.
Still, I loved riding.
At the end of that summer I hung my bike somewhere at home and returned to university for my sophomore year,
Where I switched back to my old bike, a fire-engine red coaster-brake one-speed with plastic grips on the handlebar ends.
Because I figured it wouldn’t get stolen on campus, and I didn’t mind if it developed one more layer of rust.
By junior year I was ready to take my Peugot to England for my semester away at a small college near Bristol,
An area known to Brits as “The West Country,” a land of scenic roadways, hard cider, and
“Real Ale,” the original craft-beer movement that in 1975 had already started in the UK.
Real ale literally meant that the handle of a pub’s draught (British for “draft”) actually had to be pulled with enough force to draw beer up from the cellar, because it wasn’t artificially pressurized with extra carbonation,
To fill a pint glass (a 20-oz. Imperial-pint glass, not the 16-oz. American version).
This glass contained approximately 135 times the alcohol content of a Michelob, then considered a high-quality American beer. (Your other choice for quality was Lowenbrau.)
My Peugot in May, 1975: Looking pleased with my high-tech rack system. That pump- the French supplied one when the bike was new, but not this one. I still have the soft handlebar bag & the saddle, an Ideale.
Cycling in the UK involved narrow roads, numerous hills, small cars, busy intersections, tons of pedestrians, and
Everybody going the wrong way.
Fortunately my little college was out in the countryside, so I had time to get used to pedaling under the influence of the roads, the traffic, and the Imperial-size pint.
Back then the cheapest meal was always the “Ploughman’s Lunch” consisting of bread, butter, English cheddar, good mustard,
And a pint. You could get the lunch and the pint for under 30p. This was about 50 cents.
I rode most weekends if the weather was OK,
So, about twice a month.
And explored the area, visiting such landmarks as Salisbury, Stonehenge, Castle Combe, Norton St. Phillip, and Bath which was only four miles away.
Spring break was three weeks long and allowed me my first opportunity to ride back to London, about 80 miles that I split into three days so I could see some sights,
Including Winchester where the youth hostel was a historic mill several centuries old, and the men’s shower consisted of a bucket system allowing guys (OK, blokes) to access the mill race through a trapdoor
To dump the startlingly cold water into a small reservoir that fed the sinks and shower.
I do not recall showering.
In London I stayed with my best friend until subtle hints allowed me to grasp the fact that his parents had desired a guest for only one weekend.
And I spent the remaining couple weeks hiking and seeing sights further afield in the English Lake District and all the way to Scotland by hitchhiking, perfectly legal as long as you are not on the M-roads (Brit interstates).
By May my college experience ended, but I took advantage of my plane ticket home (London – Amsterdam – Chicago) to see a bit of Holland and Germany all along the Rhine.
I got as far as Koln (Cologne), where I made friends with a college-age English couple who turned out to be brother & sister not BF & GF which explained how friendly she’d been,
And I had one of the most unusual travel experiences of my life, still never duplicated, of trying to help a guy at the German hostel who turned out to be both French and totally deaf and only wanted some simple questions answered.
I also remember paying for breakfast at a Dutch youth hostel in the countryside, getting up the next morning and finding an all-you-can-eat sandwich buffet laid out for 70 school children who all preferred the Nutella.
A guy on a cycling vacation can eat a lot of sandwiches.
When it was time to fly home I made my way with bike and luggage to Sciphol Airport from Amsterdam by bus with “plenty of time to spare.” All Dutch buses will transport bicycles for free.
Except the one to the airport. The driver refused to allow me to board with a bike.
I considered riding the ten miles but was doubtful with the luggage, but I was lucky because the next driver was no problem.
I had developed my technique of getting my Peugot ready for airplane travel (unscrew pedals & reverse them toward the frame—loosen handlebars & turn 90 degrees so they don’t stick out—release front wheel & use leather toeclip straps to attach it alongside rear wheel thus padding the derailleur —remove saddle) into a routine I could execute in six minutes.
This worked. I arrived home an international cycling veteran. I was 20 years old.
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