I was talking this guy Dave Nice one time, and I asked him why he didn’t wear lycra when he biked — he was fond of 100-plus-mile rides on his fixed-gear mountain bike, and he would always wear street clothes and skate shoes. He told me he wanted people to see him riding and think they could do it, too; they didn’t need to spend a bunch of money on cycling clothes. He wasn’t trying to be Superman, he was trying to be everyman. He looked like a normal guy, not Lance Armstrong. I liked that. I feel the same way, even about my bicycle. I was offered a “loaner bike” from a bike shop to take on our ride, but I’m wedded to the idea of taking this one, maybe more than partly because it says “Team USA” on the top tube.
I am about to try to bike across America on a bike I bought for $100. I was six years old when it was manufactured.
Last August, I had just crashed and broken the bike I was planning to take on this trip. It was a Surly Cross Check, a fairly new, legit touring bike. I had ridden it to work every day for almost a year, and just like that, I plowed into a car and ruined it.
I get fidgety when I don’t have “my bicycle,” which is my means of transportation here in Denver. I did what I always do in these situations, and called my buddy Nick and asked if I could borrow his Miyata single-speed for a few days while I worked to get something put together. I searched Craigslist frantically for 5 days, and on a Sunday, I saw an ad for a 1985 Raleigh Team USA – $100. I met the seller at his house in Westminster and took the bike for a test ride, up the block and back. It was almost a complete piece of shit, but the steering was OK, and it had about 95 percent of the original paint on it. And the paint was red, white and blue, with white stars on the fork and rear dropouts, which made me laugh because I knew how much my pal Josh would smile when I showed it to him — one of those things people did in the ’80s that they now regret, like big hair and tight-rolled jeans.
I bought it, took it home and took everything off it — pedals, handlebars, stem, wheels, brake calipers and levers, cables, seatpost and derailleurs. I took most of the old components out to the alley behind my apartment, knowing someone would come by and pick them up in the next day or so. I fingernail-polished the dings and spots where paint had been scraped off. I moved everything I could over from my old bike, including the mismatched brake levers. When I was done, it was a Frankenstein, built from parts of three different bikes. To make it fit better, Scott sold me a pair of mustache bars, which are socially about at cool and understood as growing an actual mustache on your face. The resurrected Team USA clearly wasn’t trying to impress anyone. And it was my new ride.
We love our old steel bikes here in central Denver: Peugots, Motobecanes, Bianchis, Treks, and others as old as the kids who rebuild them and ride them all over the city. Steel is tough, has character, and even if you buy an old steel frame that’s not that great, yours will probably be one of the only ones in the city. And when you can build and maintain your own bike and use it to get everywhere in the city, you become part of the urban bloodstream, a rolling piece of landscape. You can experience everything more vividly: The downtown buildings fill the sky above your head, you smell restaurants before you see them, and you learn to differentiate between the sound of the engine of a Honda Civic and an RTD bus behind you.
I find peace riding down on the Cherry Creek bike path late at night, waiting for the lights of the Qwest building to appear above me, the prow of the Convention Center marking the west end of downtown, whizzing by the homeless folks who sleep under the overpasses at Colfax, 13th, Bannock, 6th Avenue. I know where that vicious sewer cover is in the left lane of 17th Street, at the bottom of the steel slot canyon formed by the financial buildings. I know that 5 p.m. rush hour traffic heading northwest on 15th Street is fun and a little challenging to keep up with, but 5 p.m. rush hour traffic heading southeast on 17th will make my heart explode in my chest if I hit all the lights right.
I love my bike, because my bike made me get to know my city, and fall in love with it. Every once in a while, you probably glance at your spouse, or your kids, and everything is perfect and you wonder how you got so lucky. I get that, too, when I’m on my bicycle and I get a half-second glimpse of downtown as I’m standing up and pedaling across 17th, or watching the sunset bounce off buildings as I roll across the bridge at Confluence Park.
That’s my bike. I wasn’t looking for the lightest, fastest, most high-tech thing out there. I was looking for something working-class, and you know, unlikely to get stolen.If this bike can take a year-round beating from Denver, I think it can hold its own on the Southern Tier. As long as the steel is good, I don’t see any reason this thing can’t carry me all the way to St. Augustine. Hell, I built it. If it fails, I did something wrong.
My knees, though, that’s a different story.