Friday Group Ride #443

Friday Group Ride #443

Sometimes I think in titles. I am fairly certain that’s not the way writers are supposed to write, coming up with the title first and then filling in the ideas after. It’s especially ironic as an opening for a piece that has, for the last 9 years, traveled under one, numerically incremented headline, Friday Group Ride, but there you go. The title in my head this morning is, “Talking with the Wright Brothers About Bicycles.”

In my mind, this is a story about a person who wants a bike, someone ordinary and earnest like me, who might be aware of the brothers’ boondoggles related to flight, but really just wants a way to get around town. The brothers put him off with vague promises of a delivery date, because they need the money, but what they’re doing all the time is calculating lift quotients (I made that term up just now) and constructing wings for a machine that might as well be a dream catcher.

I’d love to talk with the Wright Brothers, just to see what they were like.

I’d like to spend time with Major Taylor, too. Here is a man, the first black superstar, who rose to the very top of our sport and gained worldwide fame decades before anyone would have guessed that was possible. It’s hard, casting your mind back, to fathom the depth and strength of his character. I’d like to travel with him for a stretch, just to understand what he went through, what it might have felt like.

Tom Simpson might seem an odd choice. Simpson was famously fun, gung ho, daring, swashbuckling, ambitious, but my interest in him is as one of the first casualties in what has turned out to be a long war between humans and their limits. The opening salvo in that conflict might have been Icarus and his wax wings, a mythic tragedy that has morphed somehow into an energy drink slogan. Simpson thought amphetamines would deliver him victory, but they only killed him, at 29, by the road side in France. I would just want to give him a preview, in that way that time travelers never should, of the things to come. I’d like to warn him that what he was doing wouldn’t, couldn’t, produce the result he hoped for, and that he would be the first or last to throw his life away.

This week’s Group Ride asks, who from cycling history would you like to speak with? Who is the character you’d like to understand? What questions would you ask them? I have the sense that, in the context of the moment, it’s not entirely possible to discuss events that turned out to have been historic. To me, what is most fascinating is the mundanity of the moments leading up to breakthrough. But you might choose to land on March 13th, 1984, the day after Bernard Hinault’s infamous brawl with striking shipyard workers and ask, “Badger, what were you thinking?”

Image: The Wright Brothers Bicycle Workshop

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12 comments

  1. Harris

    This is going to be interesting… I’m going with Tullio Campagnolo or Raphael Geminiani right now, because those were the first coming to my head. I have a video with some old interview footage of Geminiani on it and he seems a very sardonically hilarious guy. I have a book on Jacques Anquetil on my shelf I am trying to get to also. Great nod to Tom Simpson, and my 9 year old and I were talking about the Wright Brothers as bike mechanics the other night.

  2. Aar

    I’ve got two – Andy Hampsten and Mark DiNucci. I just think Hampsten’s the most likely very successful former racer to be genuine. DiNicci to my limited line of sight understands bike fit, geometry, materials and the way they all interact better than any living human, especially English-speaking. I know that I probably couldn’t come close to holding up my end of a conversation With either of them but I hope they could meet at my level,of comprehension

  3. TreyH

    Rob English comes to mind. I’d like to know how he, an accomplished rider of traditional bicycles in his own right, is able to move his frame(s) (pun intended) of reference in such a way that he is unrivaled, I think, in the processes of creative problem solving. He seems to have found the sweet spot between embracing tradition but welcoming pragmatic change. His travel frames? Goodness gracious.

  4. Hoshie99

    To get a sense what the Wright brothers were like, I’d recommend reading David McCullough’s biography of them. After reading it, you may wonder why they aren’t referred to as the Wright Family because their sister was pretty fundamental. The story gives a vivid portrait of the entrepreneurial spirit and struggle as well as the personalities and politics involved. Fantastic.

    For cycling, I’ll go w/ Gino Bartali and would feel blessed to ask about his efforts to save jewish Italian citizens during WWII. A quiet hero.

  5. toro toro

    Carlos Sastre. Watching “Overcoming” all those years ago made me feel many things, but above all that I wanted to be mates with this guy.

  6. Fausto

    Riding buddy from across the pond trained with Simpson in France and Belgium. Trained with him for Paris Roubaix although he did not race it, he got to ride with Tommy into the velodrome and take a shower. His stories give me goosebumps. He has been around PRO racing since the late 50’s, and even he said meeting Eddy was pretty thrilling.

  7. Jeff vdD

    Robot, your Q prompted me to wonder who invented the “safety bicycle.” Per Wikipedia, it’s John Kemp Starley, who died too young a month and a half before his 47th birthday. “In 1885, Starley made history when he produced the Rover Safety Bicycle. The Rover was a rear-wheel-drive, chain-driven cycle with two similar-sized wheels, making it more stable than the previous high wheeler designs.”

    As a side note, it was only two years after the Rover’s launch that John Boyd Dunlop developed the pneumatic tire. At that point, there apparently wasn’t all that much improving to be made to our favorite mode of conveyance.

  8. Jack

    As a professional mechanic and wheelbuilder with an interest in the history of the mechanics side of things, I’m intrigued by the truing stand in the photo, and the stories it’s users could tell. I was fortunate enough to stumble into a shop in upstate NY while visiting family to get to see one of those in use.
    I would also love to talk with the Wrights and any of their contemporaries. i would love to know the history of the simple presta valve, which compared to the Schrader or even the Woods valve, there is very little info I’ve been able to find. I’d love to meet the person who came up with it.
    Major Taylor is another fascinating figure in the history of sport, not just cycling. He was sort of Jackie Robinson, fifty years before Jackie Robinson, except he was perhaps a more widely known (globally) athlete in his prime, and died in relative obscurity.

  9. Michael

    The people who most intrigue me are the ones riding beat-up bicycles across huge expanses. I’d like to talk with the people who first rode around the world, or from Paris to Vladivostok, or across Africa, the people who did it when there was little likelihood they’d meet someone who had ever seen a bicycle before so they’d better be prepared to fix that bike… Few of us know who these people were, but I bet they’d have great stories.

  10. David Arnold

    TDF racers from the 1920s….Dutch and Flemish classics riders from 50s and 60s…The Bustram Bros. from RIH cycles who used to build custom steel frames in a week for you in their Amsterdam NL shop.

  11. TomInAlbany

    I’ve never been that person that thought, “I’d really like a chance to speak to so-and-so to learn such-and-such.”

    When I think about it, though, it feels like Padraig is taking us along on his ride on The Pull. And, I’ve enjoyed those quite a bit. Some of the conversations have been really thoughtful and even provocative.

    I’ll never be a great interviewer. I just want people to tell me about stuff. Not make me drag it out of them! 😉

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