Perhaps no other singular event represents the ultimate culmination of the maturation of American cycling than Levi Leipheimer’s upcoming Gran Fondo. On October 3, 2009 more than 3,000 cyclists will converge on Santa Rosa, CA to celebrate what is, perhaps, the grandest tradition in all of European cycling culture.
To get a better perspective on the historical context and the significance of this event, I sat down to talk with the best authority I could find on the subject matter: my dad. An every day bike rider who knows how to turn a pedal but has never aspired to race in The Tour. Not a fan per se, but a student of the sport. I mean, who better to speak on the subject of the maturation of American cycling culture than someone who began riding in an age when most Americans had never even heard of the Tour de France. A rare American rider who became addicted to the sport in a time when not a single moment of bike racing had ever been televised on network television and who rode the undulating waves of cycling popularity in the US all the way to the present day, when every single stage of the Vuelta can be viewed on (non cable) TV by anyone with rabbit ears and a digital converter box.
Although certain things about the sport haven’t changed in the past 35 years, other elements are nearly unrecognizable. To start to understand the context of U.S. cycling in the early 1970s we must first start by taking a look at the equipment.
Me: So Shimano or Campy?
Dad: Hah! I bought my first bike in 1973 at Sam’s Bicycle Shop in Elmwood Park, NJ (still in business) and I think it cost me about $150.
The Raleigh then…
I thought that was a lot at the time. The groupo was Raleigh Record. Good old fashioned carbon steel (not carbon fiber but a heavy pure solid steel with no alloy). It’s the white frame that’s still sitting in our basement! It was actually, all things considered, a pretty serviceable frame.
…the Raleigh now. Still a beautiful piece of workmanship.
The bike came with Huret derailleurs, crankset and stem shifters. These were just awful. It took constant adjustment just to keep them shifting badly. Pedals were steel cage type, without toe clips. Wheels, seat post, stem, bars were all no-name brands and steel.
It actually had a pretty good saddle made by Brooks and it was genuine leather. Buying one of those today could cost over $100, almost the same price as my bike back then. Although uncomfortable at first, after several months of use the saddles broke in and were pretty comfortable. You’d rub neatsfoot oil on the raw underside just like a baseball glove. Some people would hit it with a bat to soften the middle part but that didn’t seem like a good idea to me. I still have that saddle, and I bet I could ride it tomorrow happily.
Me: As a kid I was never allowed out the door without my big heavy hard shell yellow Bell helmet. What was your helmet like?
Dad: Helmet? Are you kidding? The only helmets that existed in those days were the “leather hair nets.” No one wore helmets. In about 1977, I crashed my bike on Martha’s Vineyard and broke my arm.
Josh and his mom at Martha’s Vineyard.
You were on the back of your mom’s bike and were spared the fall. That accident convinced me that bike crashes were serious and I bought my first helmet, a heavy, hot Bell Biker.
The Bell Biker.
Me: How about your other accessories?
Dad: Besides the bike? Bermuda shorts, tee shirt, white ribbed crew socks and basketball sneakers.
Me: So when did the tide change for you? When did cycling go from being a hobby to a sport?
Dad: Mom and I bought our bikes more or less for tooling around town, but I discovered that I really enjoyed riding and started going on longer outings by myself. Our neighbor in the graduate student housing, Mel, was into the sport. He told me a lot about components and a little bit about racing. I used to go riding with him in the afternoon. The usual route was through West Philadelphia, down to West River Drive and back up Kelly Drive, now best known in cycling circles as the flat stretch of the Philly Championship (it will always be the championship to us). We’d do it on the sidewalk.
Me: So without the big cycling websites, race magazines and input from the top experts in the field, how did you learn about training and the equipment?
Dad: I noticed guys doing pacelines in traffic and I thought that was pretty cool. So, not knowing what I was doing, I started jumping in. Probably ruined a lot of guys’ training rides. And I started noticing what equipment these guys had. Mel had a catalog from Bikecology. I think it was black and white and was about three pages long and I started to become aware of higher quality cycling equipment. First I bought toe clips and couldn’t believe the difference. Next I replaced the Huret derailleurs and crank with Suntour products. Suntour was one of the first Japanese component manufacturers.
When I started practicing law and had more money, I upgraded my bike to a Nishiki Comp with higher quality components. I also bought my first pair of cycling shoes — leather lace ups with a cleat nailed to the bottom.
Me: And your first pair of shorts?
Dad: Wool with a chamois (made of real leather) about the thickness of a sheet of paper. After you washed the shorts, the chamois was as stiff as board. You had to rub chamois oil or hand cream into them before they were wearable. In the 80’s Lycra cycling shorts came on the scene. I went over to Pennyfarthing Cycles in Broomall, PA and tried on a pair. I was so embarrassed by how revealing they were, I couldn’t bring myself to come out of the dressing room.
Me: So, give us some insight into the cycling scene at the time.
Dad: Cycling at the time had some popularity, at least in Philadelphia, as a leisure activity. On a Sunday afternoon, the Kelly Drive and West River Drive walkways would have a lot of cyclists. There was also some interest in touring. I think Mom and I started doing weekend bike tours with Vermont Bicycle Tours in the 70’s and the tours were usually pretty well booked.
I think hardly anyone knew anything about bike racing. There probably were bike races in Philadelphia about that time, but I didn’t know anything about them.
Me: Without the internet how could you have?
Dad: I was an earlier subscriber to Bicycling Magazine which, as I recall it, gave more coverage to racing at the time than it does now. From that source I knew there were some domestic riders and that some of them were very good. I think the top U.S. rider at the time was George Mount who finished high in the standings in the Montreal Olympics in 1976. There were also Dale and Wayne Stetina. But I didn’t know much about U.S. racing. I wouldn’t have known a crit from a road race. In the early 1980’s the big excitement in the U.S. was the Great American Bike Race (now RAAM) and Lon Haldeman was a huge figure. I always thought that it was a kind of silly, masochist event.
Me: And the first race you ever saw?
Dad: In the early 80’s someone put on a crit in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum and I loved it. Beside that, there wasn’t much opportunity to see races. In 1984 the Philly Race started, and I went over to Manayunk to see the race on the wall. Wow. I was so impressed that I wanted to get involved. Next year, I drove over to the old Hill Cycle shop and introduced myself to Jerry Casale. Jerry gave me a volunteer job as an organizer of the marshaling function and, until we moved away from Philadelphia in 1991, I was at that race every year. I still love that race and go most years. I hope it survives.
Me: Did Americans know anything about European racing?
Dad: Here’s a story that illustrates American awareness of cycling in the 1980’s. In the mid 80’s, Mom and I got tickets for the New York bike show. The scene was pretty much like today’s Interbike in Las Vegas. They had riders signing posters. There was a huge crowd around Lon Haldeman and John Howard (holds the bicycle speed record at 152mph).
Mom and I were walking around when we spotted Eddy Merckx sitting alone at a table with a stack of posters. Geez, no one recognized him! Wish I hadn’t lost that signed poster. (Can we get an Eddy Merckx poster here?)
Most of my knowledge of European racing came from Bicycling Magazine. The late 70’s and early 80’s were exciting times in European Cycling. Merckx, Maertens, Van Impe, Gimondi, Kelly, Moser, Hinault, Anderson. I found what I could to read and, of course, that was mostly about the Tour de France and, to some extent, the Giro. I knew that the TdF went over unbelievable mountains, that it was a team event, and that it was incredibly strategic and nuanced. I had some vague awareness of the classics, but not much. I can’t say how I learned all of that. I certainly read everything I could get my hands on.
Me: I see the upcoming Gran Fondo as a turning point for U.S. cycling. What were some of the landmark events that you witnessed over the years?
Dad: The first was when ABC sports starting covering the Tour. It was one broadcast a week. I don’t recall when that was, but I’m guessing it was 1986. What a great race and with so much drama! Would Hinault torpedo LeMond (and don’t forget that Hampsten came in fourth that year)? That race made so clear the complicated and fascinating nature of cycling. It was the first time you could actually see European racing action. The second was, of course, the 1989 Tour. On the last day of the Tour I knew (from the New York Times) that Lemond was less than a minute down. I didn’t turn the TV or radio on all day so I wouldn’t know what happened. Late in the afternoon ABC’s broadcast came on. How could you not be hooked? After reading Lemond’s book, what I had been watching on TV finally began to make sense.
Me: As a typical, obsessed bike racer myself, it’s sometimes hard for me to imagine how someone could be so enamored with this sport while simultaneously being content to just ride for fun…
Dad: While I was interested in following racing, I never thought much about participating until you started competing.
Josh’s first bike.
The first races I did were the Pennsylvania Bike Club weekly time trials around the Schuylkill (still going on today and, frankly, I went with you because I thought it was a good father son activity, not because I wanted to race. You may recall I truly sucked and was usually the second to worst finisher.
I was also getting up incredibly early on Sunday mornings to drive you up to those God-foresaken places around Pennsylvania where junior races were held. Once you said, “As long as you are going to the course why don’t you take your bike and give racing a try.” So I did. But by then I was over 40. That’s really too late to start. Also, due to the nature of my work, I didn’t have more than a few hours a week to train. There was no way I’d ever get good. Occasionally I’d have a good race (which means I’d finish with the pack) and the adrenaline rush of being on the start line kept me coming back.
Me: Hmm, sounds like you need to listen to my CD some more. So here’s what I really want to understand. You spent almost 35 years participating in a sport that Americans had no appreciation for. Scorn would probably be a better description. Then, relatively speaking, overnight Lance Armstrong becomes a household name and you are now participating in a mainstream sport. What is that like? Is there a sense of loss that you had this sport to yourself for so long and suddenly you have to share it with the masses or are you just happy that you have so many more people to ride with?
Dad: It’s great. It confirms that my appreciation was well placed. Plus, everyone watching races asks me questions and believes my answers. They actually think I know what I’m talking about.
I’ve had so many great moments in cycling. I’ve met so many of the great stars: Eddy Merckx, Connie Carpenter, Davis Phinney, Alessandro Petacchi, Bob Roll, Stuart O’Grady, George Hincapie, Freddy Rodriguez, Gilberto Simoni, Graham Watson and others. I’ve stood on the Champs de Elysees for the finish of the Tour d’ France. I’ve walked in the staging area for the Giro. I coordinated the marshals for the Philly Pro Championship. I’ve ridden many of the great climbs of cycling: Alpe d’Huez, the Galibier, the Cormet de Roseland, the Passo Pordoi, Monte Bondone, Croce d’Aune, Luz Ardiden, and the Stelvio. I’ve ridden in Mexico, France, Italy, Switzerland and Ireland. I’ve had great times and seen gorgeous places. Why wouldn’t I want more people to share this beautiful sport that’s brought me so much pleasure?
Me: Next month, you and I will be heading up to Santa Rosa to celebrate your 60th birthday by participating in Levi’s Gran Fondo. You probably have as good or better of an understanding of the lore of European cycling as any American. What does the Gran Fondo represent to you?
Dad: I’ve ridden a lot in Europe, and it’s just different, especially in France and Italy. There is a history and culture of cycling in those countries. These are countries that build statues of their cycling heroes! Gran Fondos and their French cousins, the sportives, are a chance for cyclists to enjoy their sport as a group. I’ve been hoping that some of that cycling culture can be transplanted to the United States. I am looking forward to Levi’s Gran Fondo this fall as a chance to ride with people from all over the country and, hopefully, all over the world over some tough climbs, all in celebration of our sport. Hopefully, I’ll have the chance to meet some interesting people and, if only for a few seconds, to ride with some of the great champions of cycling.