Friday, July 26, 2013

The Origin of the Tour de France

Once again it’s time to dive into the mailbag and respond to a letter from one of our multitudes of loyal readers. So, without wasting another moment…

Dear Bertha,
July is here and one of the most spectacular cycling competitions of all time is underway – the Tour de France. Could you tell us how this historic event came into existence?
Loyal Reader Norman Piedmont,
Dodge City, Kansas

Dear Norman,
I am often asked this question by many people every time the month of July rolls around – and I’m sure all of them have been very upset with me for ignoring their question year after year. Well this year, I've decided to not be so lazy and to do the necessary research needed in order to give an educated and informative reply to the request.

As it turns out, the seeds for the Tour de France were planted back during the 5th through the 3rd Centuries (BC, that is) – back when the area was known as Gaul.  During this time, Gaul was under the leadership of a guy named Brennus J Anquetil. Now Brennus as it turns out had this bone to pick with the ruler of Italy, Cipollini Caligula-something-or-other, so he challenged him to settle their differences with a bicycle race. At first Cipollini refused but then sent word that he would participate in the race but he refused to leave Italy. This forced Brennus’ army to cycle all the way across Gaul and though the Alps for the first battle – the Tour de Allia. Brennus of Gaul was victorious at Allia but Cipollini was fast and he escaped by sprinting off to Rome. Brennus organized a chase group to follow him and ended up kicking some serious hiney upon their arrival in Rome. Over the course of the next several years, the Gauls would tour from their home base over to Rome, harass the Italians and then zip on back to Gaul. Sometime around 345 BC, they got tired of the lack of competition and made peace with the Italians.

Things were fairly boring for about 220 years when in 125 BC the Italians, after having successfully developed the five-speed rear derailleur and, under the leadership of Julius Campagnolo, decided to organize their own Tour de Gaul and so they sneaked over to the south part of Gaul and smacked all the Gaulonites around quite a bit. In fact, they smacked the Gauls so hard they renamed the entire region Provincia Romana – which was just their fancy way of saying: A Roman Province. For years and years afterwards, the Italians maintained a serious grudge against all that Brennus had stood for – even up until the time around 52 BC when Caligula Julius Coppi emerged victorious against Gaulish Head-Honcho, Bernard H Vercingetorix at the Tour de Alesia. (There wasn’t really anything noteworthy with regards to cycling about the victory against Vercingetorix – I just wanted to type Vercingetorix correctly two or three times during this article.)

The Tour was pretty much ruled by the Italians for just shy of the next five hundred years. It was during this period that the Germans, ruled by brothers BMW Ullrich and VW Ullrich, decided to get in on some of the action. At the time, German engineering really hadn't been too successful in developing a good design for a quality bicycle. Fortunately for them, a young lad by the name of Flanders E Merckx in the neighboring region of De Ballo Gallico (later to be known as Belgium) had been churning out some fairly decent racing frames. So BMW headed west to procure frames while VW headed southeast to scrounge up Italian bike components.  Upon their return, and after a frantic, fast-paced assembly process, the Germans formed three teams: The Vandals, The Oberbecks, and The Zabels, and joined in on the Tour de Gaul. The Germans were ruthless. In addition to wreaking havoc all across Gaul, for the first time in the history of the Tour, the Germans had extended it on across the western borders and into Spain – imposing fierce casualties upon King Indurain and his army.

And so it was for the next fifty years or so – the German teams capturing the top three podium spots year after year after year. That was, until the emergence of a 24-year old cycling phenomenon from the northern area of Gaul – the King of the Franks, Clovis “Big Dog” One. Clovis was more ruthless than the Germans had ever dreamed of being. Not only did all of the Gaulish cyclists crumble beneath the wheels of his team, so too did the German’s and Italian’s hold on the area. By the time 490 AD rolled around, the Tour had transformed into the Tour de Franks. Naturally this name prompted lawsuits from a couple of major sausage/wiener manufacturers and so Clovis had it legally changed to the Tour de Francia.

For roughly the next one thousand four hundred years there was not too much of a significant change in the Tour de Francia. There was that one year though, around 1429, when a woman tried to enter the Tour – a young woman by the name of Joan of Arc. She commanded a really strong team with several victories – including the Tour de Orleans just a few months prior to the ’29 Tour de Francia. Unfortunately, although women had been semi-successful at being allowed to enter some of the lesser tours, they still weren't accepted in any of the Grand Tours. Joan pretty much disappeared from the cycling scene within the next couple of  years.

Other than the Joan of Arc thing in 1429, the Tour boringly plodded along until 1894 when Alfred Dreyfus had an affair – called The Dreyfus Affair.  Five years later, in 1899, the owner of De Dion-Bouton car works whacked the President of France, Emile Loubet, on the head with a walking stick. Local newspapers got involved and by 1903 the only way they could figure out how to settle their differences was to battle it out during the Tour de Francia – or Tour de France as it had become known by then.  The French were victorious in the 1903 Tour as Maurice Garin (actually born in Italy) dominated the race to take first place and Dreyfus was acquitted from his affair. From there, the rest is modern history.

Dear Bertha,
Once again I find myself asking, “Why in the world did I even bother to ask you a question?”
Lord only knows why I am Loyal Reader Norman Piedmont,
Dodge City, Kansas

Dear Norman,
Enjoy the Ride!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Mountain Biking in the 70's - Midwest City Style

As many of you know from my previous articles, I grew up in the middle of Oklahoma – in a little town spawned by the announcement of the development of Tinker Air Force Base in the 40’s – Midwest City – which, in turn, was home to the one and only bike shop in town, Vic’s Bike Shop on 15th Street – whose owner, Vic, was himself a retired Air Force something-or-other. So much for the opening geographical paragraph to set the scene.

I started working for Vic at the beginning of the 10-speed boom of the 70’s. There was nothing more that I loved to do than to come to work right after a big delivery of brand new Schwinn Continentals and Varsities(along with a few Nishikis and Motebecanes and Orions) and start tearing open boxes and building up the new shiny road bikes. But alas, my specialty seemed to be repairing the old klunkers that Vic had the contract on from the neighboring Tinker AFB.

Let me take a moment to describe these Tinker klunkers. Imagine something like a 1930’s Schwinn Excelsior balloon tire bicycle. Now imagine that bike with forty-plus years of hard, hard, usage and abuse and then multiply that abuse times seven. Then imagine, in an effort at some point in time to make the bike look semi-new again, someone decides to give the bike a paint job – so, they get a gallon of enamel – let’s say like yellow – and then get a big old 5” flat paint brush and paint the bike – yellow. We’re not talking paint the bicycle frame – we’re talking paint the bike yellow – frame, wheels, handlebars, spokes, tires, seat… you know – paint the entire bike yellow! Or maybe green or maybe blue – whatever. This was possibly before the invention of masking tape. And then at some other point in time a tire goes flat or something gets bent or broken so that’s when the bike gets hurled towards a big pile of other yellow and green and blue bicycles at the end of Tinker Building 3001 and once or twice a month Vic will stop by and toss them all in the back of his Chevrolet El Camino and haul them all over to the bike shop…

 …for me to fix!

And so began my love of the old balloon tire cruisers - the good ol’ klunker - the trusty steed that was the fetus of the modern day mountain bike. And there I was, with a seemingly endless supply of worn out frames and parts to work with. My first all-terrain cruiser, Ol’ Trashmo, was built from a 1940’s Schwinn Wasp and rigged with Suntour shifting system and Universal center pull brakes. I, unlike the morons at the Air Force base, even put a fairly nice paint job on it – black frame with baby blue rims. She was a beauty.

Now, Midwest City is a fairly flat city – not the kind of city that one could ever garner any hopes for being known as the birthplace of anything that would eventually contain the word “mountain” in it – such as mountain biking. But there is this spot in the city where Key Boulevard goes under the train tracks that offers up a pretty decent downhill run. As kids, it was the first place we’d head for with our big pieces of cardboard – aka toboggans – right after any kind of a decent snowfall. The perfect place for a mini-downhill test of Ol’ Trashmo. In fact, all along the right-of-way beside the tracks offered a fairly decent run to enjoy some off-road riding with a quite a heaping helping of obstacles to maneuver around and attempt to jump over. Thus, in the fall of 1972, in the heart of the flatlands: The Birth of the Mountain Bike.

Unfortunately, as the spring of ’73 grew near, I found out I was horrendously failing Home Ec – which in turn caused me to have to take it in summer school – which I also failed so I had to take it the next semester - in the morning and the afternoon—as kind of insurance in case I failed one of them. Needless to say, I didn't really seem to be the Home Ec kind of person but my mother pretty much made me keep taking it until I finally got a passing grade and could graduate from high school. Also, needless to say, this took serious time away from me fully developing and marketing my invention of the mountain bike.

I’m pretty sure that there were spies in Midwest City in the early 70’s – especially since we were right there next to Tinker AFB – because what I discovered that had taken place during those nine years while I was in high school trying to pass Home Economics seemed just a little more than coincidence the way it mimicked those exciting moments that me and my bike shop buddies experienced on the downhill slopes of the Key Boulevard train track crossing. You be the judge:

1973 – Joe Breeze, Charlie Kelly, Tom Ritchey and Gary Fisher build and ride klunkers (old Schwinn cruisers adapted for off-road riding).
October 1976 – The first Repack in Marin County at Mount Tamalpais.
1977 – Breezer One is completed.
September 1979 – Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly founded  MountainBikes.
May 1981 – Bicycling magazine features MountainBikes.
1982 – 500 Specialized Stumpjumpers are released in the United States.

I am fairly certain that had it not been for my mom forcing me to pass Home Economics, those 500 bikes would have been Ashtabula Trashmo Bikes (ATB’s) – in any color you want as long as it’s black with baby blue wheels!

Enjoy the Ride!

PS—For what many to believe to be the real history of mountain biking, check out the time line at