Freshman year in high school is rarely a bowl of cherries, and mine was no exception. And so that summer, I buried myself in bicycles: racing, repairing, reading, and recovering. It was my third year racing, which according to my coach (and Eddie B. and all the other Gods of European Cycling) was the year where it would ALL COME TOGETHER and he’d be able to really sort the wheat from the chaff. “If you’re still racing by sixteen,” he said, “then maybe you aren’t going to terrible.”
“But most of you should quit before then.”
Unfortunately, I spent the spring nursing a broken clavicle and wrist. Early summer results were promising, but a downhill finish crash resulted in a second (and this time compound) fracture, and a solid six weeks off the bike. I was crushed. And like a billion fifteen year olds before me, became an overnight cliche by dying my hair, taking up imported cigarettes, developing fashionable anorexia, dabbling in self mutilation, and tossing all my Air Supply and Foreigner out for Black Flag and The Clash.
And that was after only one week.
Having seen this before, my coach decided to have a chat with me. He began as gently as he possibly could. “You are an idiot,” he said. “But all boys are idiots. You don’t have anything in your life other than cycling, and so this is why you behave like an idiot when it’s taken away.”
I shrugged, and began to worry that he was going to force me to come to his church again. “All the great cyclists are Catholic,” he had said at the time. He was correct, but my new found religion didn’t fly at home. But instead, he handed me a greasy spiral bound notebook.
“We need barriers.”
“Barriers, like cyclocross barriers?”
“But, we have them already.” I said, referring to the wooden planks and railroad spikes we’d use at races.
“We need portable barriers that you can ride with, and practice with.” he said, tapping the notebook. “The specifications are written here. You will build them.”
The notebook, it turned out, was the entirety of coach’s cyclocross coaching manual. There were pages with cornering diagrams, and pictures of footwork that looked like dance move instructions. There were crude sketches of shouldering technique, and miniature gear inch charts and lists of cadences for racing and training. He had one page for each of us that listed our height, weight, and tire pressures used at every race, with an asterisk next to our names if we’d made the podium. And he had one page with a drawing of what looked to be portable cyclocross barriers constructed from plumbing equipment.
Two weeks later, after filling a sketchbook of my own (using grid paper of course) with properly scaled renderings of the portable barriers, making a half dozen trips across town to the hardware store, and finally a weekend of experimentation, cutting, grinding, and assembling and disassembling the final product: I was ready.
Coach met me in the shop basement. I had built two barriers. One was disassembled and stored in a potato sack to which I’d sewn a long shoulder strap. The other was on top of a work bench, covered in a tarp. I walked over to the bench and set the potato sack on the ground. The pipes made a loud clanking sound as they settled, and I noticed coach glance at the bag with an odd expression. No matter. “TA DA!” I yelped, as I removed the tarp to reveal the coolest, shiniest, most perfect portable and compactable 40cm tall BRASS & COPPER BARRIERS you’d ever seen.
“What are those?” asked coach.
“They’re portable barriers!” I said, motioning to the joints. “See? They split into smaller pieces, so you can carry them in the bag.”
Coach stood up, and walked over to the bench. He looked at the barrier. Then he looked at me. Then he looked at the potato sack and picked it up. “How many barriers are in here?” he asked.
“One.” I said.
“It weighs a ton! And they won’t last a day! See how easily they bend?” he asked, as he took a piece and turned it into a U before my eyes.
“Plastic, you idiot. P.V.C. Like for gardens. Do it again.”
In the end, he was right. And thirty years on, we’re still making PVC barriers. But it wasn’t a total loss. I ended up using the brass bits after all, and got to learn brazing in the process. And it made a fine trellis for my mother’s sweat peas.