There are several moments in my childhood when I realized the bike held a more meaningful place in my life than the other fancies and desires one experiences growing up; those instants that somehow stand out from the others in the endless stream of memories that hold greater significant than the rest.
One such moment was when I realized that my first bike, a Seventies-era Raleigh 531, had a brakeset that didn’t look like those on the modern bikes I saw in magazines – the break cables sprung up from the brake levers and weren’t hidden neatly away under the handlebar tape. Unable to tolerate this condition, I saved my pennies and, when I had enough money, was off to County Cycles to buy a pair of aero brake levers and a few rolls of Benotto handlebar tape. I still remember the clerk’s name, and exactly where in the shop the bar-tape was stowed.
Another such defining moment was the first time I watched an uphill finish of the Tour de France live on television. I remember watching the stage and the palpable excitement of watching a race unfold that is only possible if you don’t already know the outcome. It left a particularly big impression because live cycling coverage wasn’t available in the US; I was in Europe visiting family and aside from the various perks of being back in The Motherland, there was sun-up to sun-down coverage of a race I had only ever read about before.
I think the aesthetics of the 1990 Tour will for ever be my favorite, for the irrational yet unavoidable reason that the images from that race are more vividly implanted in my mind than any other. Early in the stage, Claudio Chiappucci, wearing the Yellow Jersey, took off over the Aspin and the Tourmalet, causing confusion for the racers behind, who no doubt were trying to decide if it was a brilliant move or an insane one. A chase was organized and, on a descent where he reached speeds of 108 km/h using his (totally rad) Scott Drop-In bars in an insane shoulders-over-the-bars tuck, the defending champion Greg LeMond caught the Maillot Jaune in the town of Luz Saint Sauveur, at the bottom of the climb to Luz Ardiden.
I remember an aerial shot where Chiappucci was leading the group, when Fabio Para launched an attack on the right-hand side of the road. Almost as if he predicted it, LeMond reacted in perfect unison with the move and followed him up the road. Marino Lajaretta followed, and soon everyone else in the group moved across to follow. Everyone except Claudio Chiappucci.
LeMond took control of the race. He piled on the pressure, hands on the tops, shoulders rocking as his gray and yellow Brancale shoes dished out helping after helping of The V as rider after rider dropped off the back. Eventually, only Indurain remained on his wheel, his fluid pedaling style the antithesis to LeMond’s gear-mashing madness.
It remains for me perhaps the coolest finale I’ve yet seen. If I was pressed to name my favorite race, I would probably list of about two dozen scenarios in a stream-of-consciousness list and never make up my mind, but any time I see a photo from the climb to Luz Ardiden in 1990, there’s something that connects to it more strongly than any other race (with the possible exception of when we were at the roadside of the Tour for the first time.)
By 1990, I had unceremoniously dumped the 531 (anyone familiar with the term “regret”?), and my current steed was a black Cannonwhale white paint splatters and hot-pink decals, the first bike I had purchased with my own money. Upone my return home from Europe, I bought a pair of Drop-Ins for my cherished steed. I also immediately purchased rolls of white tape, a San Marco Regal saddle, and adorned the bars with the black and yellow Scott stickers that looked so cool on LeMond’s bike. I also stopped pedaling above 60 rpm, and made a study of rocking my shoulders in LeMond’s style.
Looking at this photo now, I see so many things I like, and so many things that are different from today’s race scene. The C-Record group with my favorite brakeset ever, the Delta’s. Also present are their accompanying white hoods of my favorite-ever brakelevers. The way their rubber hoods were a bit loose and the levers protruded from them is, for my money, the classiest look in cycling. Full-zip jerseys were an innovation at the time, and the fit was much looser (and cooler) than in modern jerseys. Overall, less emphasis was placed on maximum speed and minimum weight; while those things were important, they weren’t sacrificed for comfort and aesthetics.
Another thing I’m reminded of is LeMond’s total disregard for symmetry. One of the cornerstones of my aesthetic sensibility is the notion that things ought to be centered and balanced; a yin for every yang, and everything in it’s place. LeMond, it seems, had no such inclination. His cycle computer is not centered. The Scott stickers on the Drop-Ins are not aligned. The tape doesn’t wrap the brake cables the same way on both sides of the bars, and on the right, they even burst out of the tape like a broken bone. The laces of his shoes are sticking out from underneath their velcro enclosures. These are things I simply can’t tolerate on a training ride, let alone on Race Day.
Apparently, I was impressionable in my young age, but not that impressionable.
A bigger version of the main photo post is available here.