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A little over a year ago my wife, Anne, and daughter, Louisa, gave me a bicycle for my 49th birthday, and almost immediately it began to change my life. Now I have two bikes, normal blood pressure after years of high-average checkups, a lower resting pulse rate, leg muscles that I flex for friends at slight provocation and. having taken off 25 pounds, the bean-pole build of a teen-ager. What's more, I have gained a window on an all-but-invisible American subculture—competitive bicycling.

In late August this year, a week after my 50th birthday, I pedaled off on a 700-mile solo bike tour. Anne was writing a book. Louisa was heading back to school, and I had some vacation coming, so it was a perfect time for such a journey. And I had a couple of goals: first, to make a pilgrimage to the Saratoga Springs. N.Y. shop of Ben Serotta, the craftsman who built the frame of bike No. 2; second, to thumb my nose at encroaching age. I had begun to be concerned about that some months before the birthday bike, a middling-quality 10-speed, arrived. The cause of my concern was a Manhattan street scene in which a persistent hooker and I were the actors. Angered by my rebuff, as a parting epithet the lady had snapped, approximately, "You white-haired old fornicator."

White-haired I was, and am—prematurely, of course. But old? How could she have been so cruel. Admittedly, after more than two decades of magazine writing and editing, years of heavy smoking and frequent deadlines. I couldn't pass for a kid anymore. I knew I could stand some exercise. But I despised jogging and, being a heavy-boned sinker, swimming was out of the question. But to my astonishment, I took to bicycling like a raccoon to garbage cans. Soon I was doing 20, 30, 40 miles a day on the lightly traveled roads near my home in the exurbs north of New York City.

As I studied up on bicycling, I began to get a yen for a "nice bike." an ultralightweight number of the kind racers ride. After seeing a report on a Serotta in Bicycling magazine, I ordered one. On the day after Christmas 1978, I drove over to Park Ridge, N.J. to get it. There is no Santa Claus, you say? I give you two—Ben Serotta and Walt Grotz, the latter a former intercollegiate and New Jersey state track racing champion and onetime holder of the U.S. 25-mile road record, who runs the Cyclesport bike shop and is Serotta's retailer in my part of the megalopolis. Grotz and a helper. racer Dave Rosencrans, spent the afternoon patiently, expertly completing the assembly of a dream of a bike. When they were finished, my glistening blue Serotta frameset of Columbus tubing was hung with Campagnolo brakes, cranks, pedals, derailleurs and such, 3ttt saddle and stem, Cinelli bars, Mavic wheels and Clement sewup tires.

That bike was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen. And, oh my, what a beaut on the road. At 21½ pounds—compared with the 30 of old No. 1, which I kept for bad-road, bad-weather riding—and with a shorter wheelbase. smaller fork rake, steeper angles and those sewups, the Serotta was to my other bike as a quarter horse is to a lead pony. That I paid close to $900 for it struck some of my friends as extravagant. But I regard it as perhaps the best and most sensible purchase I ever made. It is not merely functional for fun and fitness; it is a work of art.

As I began planning my I'm-50-but-don't-feel-it tour, I wasn't crazy about the idea of hanging luggage panniers and a seat bag on that racy bicycle, but of necessity I did, and on a gray August morning, wearing black bike shorts and a T shirt and with cleated shoes strapped into toe clips, headed toward Saratoga Springs. 190 miles away.

A broken spoke two hours out was a minor, easily fixed annoyance. The Housatonic River in western Connecticut was a frequent companion as the miles floated past. Four deer came down from a steep green ridge of the Berkshire foothills to eye me and nibble at windfalls in an orchard, where I took refuge from a sudden rain-squall not 300 yards from the day's destination, the White Hart Inn in Salisbury, Conn.

I did 65 miles on Day 1, and at dinner in the inn that evening, attired in a "dress" outfit of red polo shirt, green trousers and orange lightweight running shoes—a clash of colors that would have sent Anne up the wall had she seen it—I was euphoric. The ride had been invigorating, the scenery splendid, the passing motorists courteous, as they would be throughout the tour. I felt young.

The next day's ride, to Williamstown, Mass., brought the first of the tour's three flat tires (with uncanny foresight I had packed three spares) and momentary doubt as to whether I should have switched to the more common clincher rims and wired-on tires. Standard wisdom says to tour on wired-ons, but I found the feel and lightness of the more vulnerable sewups irresistible. Still do. Glass fragments caused two of the three flats, and I realized I might have prevented both if I had used "tire-savers" or run a gloved hand over the tires more often to brush away the roadside debris they picked up. My failure to do so makes me no less angry at people who throw bottles from cars. The aggravation they cause bicyclists nationwide must be enormous.

That afternoon a thunderstorm caught me far from shelter on Route 7 in northwestern Massachusetts. I crouched for half an hour beneath a table tilted up against the rain at a roadside picnic area. Next morning the local newspaper reported that a man had been killed by lightning in the same storm. Irrationally, I suppose, the story reinforced my longstanding belief that the average luck that had marked my life would continue indefinitely. I would cash no million-dollar lottery tickets, but then I wouldn't catch a lightning bolt, either.

What I did catch the following day was a pair of monster hills, both of them ascents of about four miles. I made it all the way up the first one—and most of the second—sitting down, but I resolved to put a freewheel with somewhat lower gearing on the bike when I got to Saratoga Springs that afternoon. Serotta himself supervised the switchover at a bike shop he once owned, and he and his wife. Marcie, kindly invited me to dinner.

I had pictured the Serottas as rugged individualists making it in a world that gets tougher on small enterprises every day, and that proved to be the case. After more than four years of seven-day, 12-hour-a-day workweeks, Ben, who is 26, and Marcie, 26, who contributes importantly to frame finishing by, among other things, using jewelers' files to give an impeccable tapered look to the lugs that anchor the frame tubes, have recently been able to hire an apprentice and, most weeks, operate on a six-day schedule. Their work is done in two small sheds and a third structure, not big enough to be called a barn, situated behind the solid old farmhouse west of Saratoga that the Serottas are fixing up. At peak production the Serottas can turn out 10 Club Special—that is, semicustom—framesets a week; that's the kind I have. They also build custom racing and touring frames tailored to the buyer's most finicky specs, as well as a tandem.

I liked it when Ben said he makes the best frames he can not only because his name goes on them but also because "lives are at stake." By then I had come to like everything about Ben and Marcie, and to feel inordinately proud of myself for having made the buy I did, despite the scant research on the subject readily available to laymen.

Having a Serotta also had given me a rooting interest at bike races, to which I was beginning to go, and here again I was fortunate. At the first competition I saw, the Memorial Day Tour of Somerville, N.J., Pennsylvania's Mac Martin won the 50-mile feature. In September's 100-kilometer pro-am on the boardwalk at Wildwood, N.J., Indianan Tom Doughty came home third. Because both raced Serottas in fields loaded with Italian Masis, Colnagos, and the like, as well as bikes of other U.S. frame builders, that made me 1-3 as a Serotta fan in just two highly competitive races. At Wildwood, Grotz was handling Bill Watkins, a strong rider who was the 1977 collegiate champion when he rode for Army. Watkins' day ended prematurely, because of a wheel failure; but viewing the action with Grotz and his son Mike, a first-year junior racer, I had an unusual opportunity to get the insights of experts and thus appreciate the subtle races within the race.

Except for the leg that took me to Saratoga, I had picked no specific tour route. I wanted to nose into Canada, because that seemed more of an accomplishment than staying south of the border. Plotting routes beforehand had become so time-consuming that I had chucked the deep-think approach and had started out equipped only with an Exxon road map of New England. I used knowledgeable locals to fill in the gaps. Serotta, for example, put me on to a scenic ride along the Batten Kill, a stream I followed from Cambridge, N.Y. to Arlington, Vt. At my Manchester, Vt. motel the next morning, a middle-aged man, who was clearing the swimming pool of leaves left by a storm in the night, spotted me wheeling out my bike. He wanted to know where I was headed and by what road.

"Route 7 to Middlebury," I told him.

"Nope," he said, "take Route 30."

Thus another winner—a Labor Day ride through farm and lake country on roads almost free of traffic. Free of eating places, too. Lunch was three Oh Henry! bars and a quart of orange juice bought at the store at a filling station.

Why had the man at the motel been so firm? It turned out that he was an old racer—and still a racer in his age group, I gathered—who had done "150 miles myself the day before. I have found that it is important, as a novice rider, not to be intimidated by the feats of others. And they are legion. Transcontinental rides are frequent. Seventy-year-olds routinely ride centuries—100 miles in a day. Racers are capable of prodigious speeds over implausible distances. Tour de France stage racers are obviously superhuman.

And so, taking it nice and easy, I proceeded from Middlebury to South Hero. Vt. on Grand Isle in Lake Champlain; to the Quebec town of St. Jean near Montreal; to Jeffersonville, Stowe and Rochester in Vermont, the last a hamlet 50 miles down Route 100, a big favorite of bike tourists, from Stowe. Then came a glide along the White River to its confluence with the Connecticut and a short pull to Hanover, N.H. From there I followed the Connecticut Valley south, with stops at Brattleboro, Vt.; South Hadley. Mass.; West Springfield, Mass.; and Hartford, Conn. After leaving Hartford. I swung away from the river at Middle-town and headed for New Haven on Long Island Sound. I completed the tour on the 20th day with a 55-mile roller-coaster ride westward back home.

Rain forced me to hole up twice. The backlash of Hurricane Frederick caught me on the Quebec flatlands, and I sprinted for motel shelter in the town of Henryville. Good thing the quincaillerie was open. I had run out of WD-40, Grotz' elixir for anything squirtable on a bike, and in Henryville I found a handy six-ounce size of the water-chasing lubricant. Grotz had said spray "the whole bike" anytime it got drenched. Dutifully I did.

Tropical Storm David produced another day's rain, starting shortly after I departed South Hadley, where the most impressive copper beech tree I ever came across spreads its 100-foot wingspan on the campus of Mt. Holyoke College. I had my only fall of the trip that morning in the nearby town of Holyoke, foolishly traversing a wet grade crossing on wet tires al an angle nut exactly square with the tracks. The front wheel caught a groove and I was down to the left, escaping with the lightest possible damage: abrasions on elbow and knee. Had there been traffic, things might have been a little dicey. Next time I'll dismount.

On the whole the weather was good, culminating in three days as crisp and bright as I had experienced in any late summer. Even in Vermont and New Hampshire, where the temperature dipped to 35 on two mornings and was below 40 on another, with frost reported in "high hollows," I wasn't uncomfortable. A featherweight windbreaker over a heavy cotton turtleneck over a short-sleeved wool bike sweater kept me warm enough. A pair of light wool mitt inserts, picked up at a general store, sufficed to protect my hands.

The problem of dogs I never really solved. Evidently it is a serious one for many touring cyclists. Some riders carry a dog-deterrent aerosol spray. Others kick at or swing tire pumps at dogs, or try to outrace them. I eschewed the aerosol method, because I didn't want to clutter the bars with the can and its mount, but I tried the other defenses. Outspeeding dogs was the best of them, but I thought it was damned unfair to be subjected to a two-dog relay one afternoon in southern New Hampshire. As if they had practiced in anticipation of my arrival on their stretch of road. Dog I took me for 40 yards and then handed me over to Dog 2, who, in his exuberance, got ahead of me. A wheel feint spooked him long enough to ensure my getaway. Serotta calls such dog races a bike tourist's "interval training." Speaking for myself, I would have liked longer intervals between the intervals.

In Pike River, Quebec, I unwisely let myself be startled by the sudden appearance of a dog. I jerked my right foot out of the strap to get in a kick at him. a stupid thing to do, and in the process nudged a pannier rack hook free. That caused the right-side pannier to sag against the spokes and freewheel, making expensive noises. Chalk up some more good luck: the damage was only a two-inch rip in the pannier and a bent rack strut.

Not long after returning from the tour, I pulled away from home on my bike and saw, maybe 30 yards ahead, two little girls on one bicycle, the one forward pedaling, the one aft astride the seat and holding, so help me, a good-sized, squirming dog. I knew exactly what was going to happen. As I accelerated past, the dog got loose and gave me all the speed I could handle.

But on dog days and all the others, the tour had been a sharp, refreshing break from routine. Mileage covered varied from 30 to 65 or 70 a day. A couple of days I rested up and rode not at all. I had gazed at pleasant lakes and streams, farms and forests, and had made a number of interesting ascents and gleeful downhill runs—although none of the "open-coffin" swoops dear to those who fancy themselves daredevil racers. Thirty miles an hour, by my reckoning, was about tops downhill.

While I am now frisky enough to weather the geriatric slurs of street ladies, not to mention friends who come on with the "silver-fox" approach, I haven't quite recaptured the feeling one has, when truly young, that life is endless and foolhardy risks are worth taking. It's probably just as well; I'd like to be in one piece and pedaling next year, and the year after that. There are a lot of other places I want to ride to.