Words & Images: Mitchell Belacone
A bicycle family saga
In 1963, for my eighth birthday, my father brought home a black and white grip-shifting Royce Union bicycle from a discount department store. It was a Taiwanese knockoff of an English three-speed. This was well before the top European brands began the massive cross-pollination of their steeds in the Asian frame-breeding farms. I didn’t know the bike’s pedigree at the time, and certainly wouldn’t have thought less of it if I had. As far as I was concerned Royce Union was the bicycle arm of Rolls Royce.
Two years later I finally completed Central Park’s 6.2 mile loop. In addition to opening my eyes to parts unknown that bike became the conduit to my initial athletic achievement. Before judging, consider that the pipes left over after building this bike’s frame were sold to the Heysham nuclear power station to store radioisotopes. On my best day, I wouldn’t sneeze at summiting the 7.5% gradient Harlem Hill on a bike where the only thing butted was what sat on it.
Twenty yards from my grammar school, P.S. 166, was a horse stable called Claremont Riding Academy. After school I walked over to a perennially smiling guy who sat outside. He wore a fragrance of aged Appaloosa sweat blended with Four Roses whiskey. I negotiated my first business deal with him. I could park my bike alongside the other painted piebalds for a dollar a week. But he never accepted the money. Additionally, I saved myself over a mile of walking to and from school.
Curiosity influenced me to take my bike into the streets north of the park. I soon learned it was an unsafe neighborhood for a ten-year-old. A pair of policemen filled in for my stolen bike and drove me home. We got into the elevator with a psychiatrist neighbor. She asked the cops.
“Was Mitch a bad boy?”
Eight floors later, my mother asked the officers the perfunctory question.
“Is there any chance of recovering the bike?”
The cops only replied with a look that politely questioned her grasp on reality. My father expressed disappointment that I wasn’t bruised up fighting for the bike. After I passed along the shrink’s instant elevator evaluation to my mother, she travelled down six floors to give the misdiagnosing doc an ad hoc, decibel-rich counselling session.
Sometime afterwards, John F. Kennedy Jr. had his bike stolen in Central Park. No “Be serious, lady” expression for Jacqueline. A full court press by the men in blue had the thief surrendering to them a few days later. An awakening to how things really were when your father hadn’t been president of the United States.
A few years and a few stolen Royce Unions later, we moved to the New Jersey suburbs. Shortly after, Then Came Bronson, a TV show about a free spirit roaming the country searching for adventure and the meaning of life, began its Harley-Davidson-mounted run. At the same time, the movie Easy Rider came out. After being flanked on those two sides, my 14-year-old self and my best friend Andy didn’t stand a chance.
My first bike in suburbia was a Gold Raleigh Fireball sporting a wooden three-speed stick shift with handlebars almost as high as my chin. Raleigh’s marketing department must have been a fan of those two shows also, because by the time Andy got around to imitating the big brother he never had the Fireball had evolved into the Chopper. He got a black one with five on the floor. Our riding goal – like our role models – was not to have one. We’d just go in any given direction until we estimated we had just enough time to get home before dark. Subtracting the struggle to hang on to the wheel in front of you, the joys of discovery and adventure are often more pronounced. Without the limitation of skinny tyres we explored golf courses, new towns, old graveyards and the private driveways of mansions.
On one fateful trip we went into a bike shop owned by a well-known race promoter, though before entering we had no idea who he was.
“What do you think of our bikes?”
“They’re held together by paint”, he said.
He herded us in front of a row of powder blue Falcon San Remos with their flaming red letters, styled as if swept back by the wind. He further unveiled his poorly cloaked sales pitch.
“It would be highly advantageous if you started racing at your age.”
In spite of smarting from his opinion of our bikes, I couldn’t help but appreciate the beauty of the Falcons.
I bought his racing bike pitch, but not his bike. For the next few months, I leafed through a 1970 Raleigh catalogue. A mid-price-range Raleigh Super Course became my target. As my dad had just plunked down the cash for the Fireball, the money for the next bike was mostly coming from me, lawn by mowed lawn. A friend of my father’s told us the racing crowd bought from a guy with a shop in East Harlem owned by Thomas Avenia. I came home with a white Frejus Tour de France model with red markings and chromed lower sections of the backstays and fork. When not being ridden the bike was parked in the basement. The water bottle, with its bleeding color rendition of the Tour de France route, stayed in my room.
Andy followed suit at Avenia’s and bought an iconic ‘lizard yellow’ (greenish yellow), Legnano, Frejus’s sister brand. If you rode a bicycle in the pre-bike-boom New Jersey of the 1970s you were a nerd. We embraced that. The two of us made a few other nerd friends on our rides.
Our first trip of note was a fall weekend tour in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Connecticut. It was organized by the American Youth Hostel Tour Company. The first night the whole group sat around a fireplace drinking hot chocolate in the lodge’s cavernous, stone-walled main room. Andy and I were the only teenagers. For the first time, I was among adults in an extended social situation without my family. They made me feel like I was one of them.
On the next day’s ride we got hit with a surprise snowstorm. For one stretch I didn’t change hand positions because I was enjoying watching my red cloth handlebar tape turn white. I further distracted myself from the pain of the climbs by watching the small wakes and the ensuing tire tracks of those in front of me. Even more vividly I recall miming to smoke a cigarette, and then exhaling foggy air in the direction of anybody who pulled aside me. I said I was made to feel like an adult, not act like one.
That summer Andy’s parents and mine signed us up for a six-week, American Youth Hostel trip across the Canadian Rockies. Sam, our adult leader, was a bearded guy riding a bike with all the extra spokes commensurate with his appetite. His caloric requirements were only an issue because there was a finite amount of food awaiting us at each hostel. That food was often kept fresh in icy mountain streams. I better understood the native wild bears’ claim to our shares as they had not been paid to limit themselves to an equal portion.
Sam talked about sex a lot. After he failed to abide by the five 15 and 16-year-old girls’ repeated requests for him to change the topic he was removed. I was in awe that my peers could wield that kind of power. The lady they sent to replace him was a better fit for all. Our group was sitting on a floor in a hostel somewhere between Jasper and Banff when the subject turned to bikes. I told the story of the Frejus and that I had paid $152 for it. I rambled on, telling everyone I was thinking of saving up for the over $300 Super Corsa model.
One of the girls asked, “Why do you need that expensive a bike?”
“I don’t, I just like to hear myself talk.”
The new leader told me I had a way with words and that I should consider being a writer. So the next letter home likely had my parents thinking I’d found hallucinogenic mushrooms on the side of the road. I described the week’s events in pains-giving detail. But one vignette I excluded took place in the woods adjacent to a narrow mountain road. I was on an exploratory jaunt with a girl from another group. She suggested we stop for a rest. Another milestone: call it half-crossed.
Six years after college, while living in Houston, Texas, I ran into a group of racers out training. Before speeding away, they told me about an upcoming race and invited me to join their club. I spun around the neighborhood by myself a few times to prepare. On race day, my bike was approaching 13 years old – it had to be at least partly the bike’s fault! The lanterne rouge-winning Frejus was replaced with a new 1983 anthracite grey De Rosa professional model. I sprang for Cinelli bars with integral yellow leather sheathing, and matching saddle. I joined the club and set off on their 60 mile out-and-back training ride. Corky Kobbs, a Vietnam-War-hardened veteran, was charitable enough to accompany me for the last 30 miles. On the ride, he explained the merits of bringing snacks and eating more than you normally would beforehand.
Other than his kindness and odd name, I remember Corky for one particular occurrence. We were a pack of about twenty, fanned across most of a narrow rural road. A guy driving a pickup truck came barreling along, blasting his horn, coming close enough to hand us water bottles – except he didn’t. Half of our group took one hand off the bars to express their displeasure via sign language. The truck stopped ahead, blocking the road. The driver jumped out grasping a crowbar (which by Texas standards is empty-handed).
“I’ll beat every one of you scrawny faggots within a half-inch of your lives.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you sir, but that would be impossible. Since we’ve taken up cycling, many of us have switched over to the metric system,” Corky responded.
Sprinter-built Corky rolled his bike forward with his hand on the large saddle bag. He calmly unzipped it and reconnected his hand to a prized souvenir from Vietnam. I was ten meters back in the peloton of Guerciottis, Cioccs, deep breaths, and nervous chuckles.
“You think that’s funny, mother f*#@&%?” shouted the driver.
“As a matter a fact I do,” said Corky. “But not as funny as burying you in the ground with only your naked ass sticking out and then using it to park my bike.”
Like two racers frozen in track stands, each waited for the other to make the first move. Fifteen seconds later, the redneck, his bluff called, slinked back into his truck with barely a muffled macho muttering. In those days it was fairly common to drill out parts to lighten your bike. I doubt the irate driver knew how close he came to having his mood lightened permanently by the same method.
I loved the De Rosa, yet I was made to feel that at 60 cm I had bought a bike too big for my 5’ 11” height. If only Lance Armstrong and his two-sizes-too-big bicycle had come on the scene sooner. I sold it and bought a white, blue-trimmed 57 cm Gios Torino. A few years earlier in 1984, on a trip back to NYC, I had invited myself into the warehouse of the US distributor. The owner toured me through the bikes and the real source of his income: espresso machines. He sequestered me in his office to share his enthusiasm for fellow countryman Francesco Moser’s recent besting of Eddie Merckx’s hour record. In 1986, rather than digging through my shoebox full of business cards and attempting to weasel him into a direct sale, I bought from a local dealer. The bike came bent and had a sloping fork rather than the famous flat crowned fork with the coins in it. Years later, I learned that bike shop had put me on the bonus plan. Instead of selling me a bike with just fake coins stamped ‘Gios’ they had forgone those in lieu of counterfeiting the whole frame. I should have been clued in by the unnatural whining of the Campy derailleurs that could never be made to accept their bogus big American cousin. The Gios that wasn’t moved back to NYC with me. I was fine looping the park with it, and taking it on America’s most popular training run, from the boat house in Central Park to Nyack and back.
In 1987 Andy rang out of the blue.
“Do you want to get mountain bikes?”
“What are they?”
Andy had developed a hippie streak and had seen them advertised in Mother Earth News. We called bike shops all over New York and the surrounding states and finally found a store in Connecticut which stocked a few. He bought a red Ritchey Timber Comp, and with the second pick I got the yellow one. We drove out to the country with them 5 or 6 times and rode on hiking trails. It seemed like our secret until a few years later when it became difficult to find a bike shop that sold road bikes. To keep up with the bunny-hopping and shock-absorbing times, a black carbon Kestrel CX-S, followed by a titanium Moots YBB. When speed became less of an issue a Rohloff-geared, Gates Belt Drive, Van Nicholas Zion. Editorial alert: speaking of hippies, those that rail against material possessions have clearly never owned a bicycle.
A Central Park rival of mine, and friend I often trained with, knocked on my door to show off his new Carbon Trek. And just like that I was no longer fine with the knockoff Gios. Thus began my ownership of a triple-chain-ring, 1997 titanium Litespeed Classic. It started life at 18.5 pounds. Months later, going down a steep hill, the she-devil in bike clothing attacked me with the dreaded shimmies. I put her on a diet of better parts, increasing her stability while reducing her weight to slightly less than 17 pounds. The claim to fame of that bike and her successor, a 2005 black Colnago C50 fame, was that in 2015 they got traded to an airline pilot for 4 first class return tickets to anywhere in the world. First vacation, my wife-to-be and I ate plenty of sushi but never made it to a keirin. Second one, we looped Holland, almost all via bike paths on the Van Nicholas Zions we picked up at the factory in Numansdorp.
After the inaugural Royce Union, the first bike I had ever craved was a British racing green Raleigh Superbe, with a key locking fork and dynohub-powered lighting system. To my mind, that gadgetry was the closest I could get to an ejector seat and bullet proof shield on James Bond’s DB 5. That equation and desire stayed with me for over half of a century. A few years back, Ebay became my M and handed me the fork keys to an all-original ‘his and hers’ pair, vintage 1971. Admittedly tempted, I swear I never did the tweed and silly cap thing.
The Litespeed and the Colnago were replaced by a titanium Lynskey R440. Lynskey is owned by the family of the same name who started Litespeed. Other sports knocked my hips out of true. At 64, waiting for my second Andy Murray-style hip resurfacing, I’m unable to walk more than a few blocks. This is less of a problem than you might imagine because I can still ride pain-free for hours. Riding actually relieves some of the soreness. I also knocked my wife’s feng shui out of true by parking two bikes in the entrance hallway. Every time I come in or out, I look over and . . . Ahh, you know the feeling.
This feature first appeared in Conquista 23.