By John Howard
My love of cycling really kicked into gear when prominent St. Louis bike shop owner Ray Florman offered to assist me in getting to a few area bicycle races. One thing led to another, but what I mostly remember was Ray’s treasure filled basement, sleeping on a cot, looking up at his collection of racing equipment, especially the wheels that hung from hooks on the ceiling. To my young mind nowhere on the planet existed such a collection of wheels. Where else could you find those beautiful Air-light hubs from the `40’s laced to spider-like Weltmeister, balsa wood filled rims seamlessly covered with a thin gauge of aluminum and drilled with a mere twenty-eight spokes compared to most everybody else’s heavy thirty six’s?
Ray’s wheels were always mounted with the sweetest aged Clement Setas, which in the day were the crиme de la crиme for time trialing. Ray’s dingy basement may have been the fuel of my imagination, but it was his check book that got me to the world championships in Bruno, Czechoslovakia when the Amateur Bicycle League of America had no money to send me. Ray’s bet paid off. Riding his fast wheels I was the first and only US rider to finish the hardest mountainous road race I had ever ridden. The year was 1969.
Ray Florman: In the days when disabilities were ignored.
Back in Missouri, with Ray’s continued support I won the state road and pursuit championship on the Penrose Park track every year I contested them beginning in 1967. With Ray in my corner I took my first national road championship in the Agoura mountains (featured in the 2010 Amgen Tour of California) in `68. From my home in Springfield, I made the trip north to St Louis on old Route 66 (now I-44) to race bicycles nearly every week.
St Louis was the hot bed of Midwest racing in the 1960’s and 70’s. The proud motto of the St Louis Cycling Club, America’s oldest continuing bike club, started in 1887 proudly proclaimed “Headquarters in the saddle.” With that creed entrenched, I piled on the miles in the Ozark mountains and with Ray’s tutelage I progressed. Ray’s support didn’t stop with coaching and financial assistance; he campaigned hard with the coaches at the Mexico City Olympics to get me, the novice, on the 100 K team time trial.
Years later, I read Greg LeMond’s account of a battle between myself and Smilin’ George Mount in the high Sierras. I won that race and inspired Greg to race bicycles. George went on to inspire all of us with his 6th place in the Olympic Road race in 1976. That continuum was alive back in 1965 when I got my first look at racing. I was so inspired watching Chicago standout Tom Garrity’s solo victory in the 50 mile Tour Of Florissant that I knew I’d be in the field the next year because Ray was there for me. The next few years we traveled the country together. Ray always packed his blue `65 Ford Econoline van with every tool and part imaginable because anything that broke, on anybody’s bike, Ray would fix it; that’s the sorta guy he was.
As an unemployed college student I swapped race prizes for gasoline to get to St Louis. Once I got there Ray would always cover the expenses and it didn’t matter what things cost. We raced in Kansas City, Indianapolis, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Southeastern Ohio, Georgia and most of Florida and the whole East Coast all the way into Eastern Canada. In 1982 Ray served as my crew chief during the historic first Race Across America. I took second place to Lon Haldeman in that first venue called the Great American Bike Race. Wherever the races were, that’s where we were; I raced because Ray was there, and I always did well when he had my back.
Ray himself had been a Missouri State champion in 1936 and `37 on a single cog with an inch pitch chain. Derailleurs were yet to be. He narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympic team in the road race in 1948 after finishing sixth and fourth in two 135 mile road races, over hilly terrain. Don’t let me forget to tell you that Ray accomplished this and a lot more with only one hand. He may well have been one of the first disabled athletes to successfully compete with able-bodied athletes, at least in cycling. In those days there were no races for “handicapped” athletes, and if one happened to be born with a birth defect that robbed him of a hand and he wanted to compete, he would damn well do so against elite cyclists.
Ray was up to the challenge, and rigged his bike with a tandem lever to activate both brakes at once and somehow he managed. If you think racing bikes against the best riders of the day is easy with one hand, try it sometime. We can only wonder how he might have fared on a level playing field. According to cycling historian and mutual friend Ed Ruesing, whom Ray coached to two state junior championships and two podium finishes at the nationals, Ray was also a master frame builder. In the early 1970’s Ray designed his own custom frameset and called them RaySports. I remember a gleaming row of them in his Kirkwood shop. Ray’s first frames were built on handmade jigs, brazing the tubes with a wielding rod secured to his wrist with a Binda toe strap.
After I retired from bicycle racing to begin a 10 year triathlon career, Ray and I drifted apart for most of a decade. I knew of his final contribution to international competition in the 1990’s when his shop, A-1, Bicycle sponsored a new club known as The Spirits of St. Louis under the coaching of Jim Schneider. From the Spirits came Kevin Livingston, a young pro who would later serve as Lance Armstrong’s lieutenant on the US Postal team and later in the same position with Jan Ullrich, Armstrong’s chief rival, on Team Telecom. The chain had another link.
The last time I saw Ray was at the top of the podium with a gold medal around his neck at the masters nationals in Tallahassee in ‘98. It was a complete and welcome surprise reunion for both of us. I was there on a whim to re-launch a cycling comeback and unbeknownst to me Ray was there to do the same thing! He was 81 and after 60 years of assisting us all, he had returned to his sport to race one more time. In March of 2001, with spring approaching, eager to ride his bike again, Ray Florman departed this world from complications of colon cancer. He will be remembered for the ebullience of his spirit and steadfast willingness to lend a hand to any young rider who mirrored his own powerful work ethic.
So, who lit your fire? I’d like to know.
John Howard is one of the pioneers and true legends of American bike racing, with palmares including: 3-time Olympian, Ironman world champion, bicycle landspeed record, USA Cycling Hall of Fame, and elite and masters national champion. John is also an active cycling coach and the author of Mastering Cycling. Check out more information about John and his coaching at www.fittesystem.com and www.johnhowardsports.com.