This morning, after a thoroughly enlightening meeting over coffee with Lou Kuhn of The Pony Shop, I staggered back to Hyde Park for an atypically busy morning in Tativille. First up was a chat with a young woman planning a solo bicycle tour through the Andes mountains. We spent the bulk of our time discussing volcanoes (“I’m an anthropologist first, lepidopterist second, amateur volcanologist third.”) before getting down to the brass tacks of tire pressure, portable tools, handlebar bags, and the all-important titanium spork. She left with a hour’s worth of marginally useful advice and an orange Rhodia pencil.
Next up was a young Divinity School doctoral candidate. Having dealt with a number of Div School cyclists, I knew all too well that veering away from the topic of bicycles would likely prove foolhardy and probably embarrassing as well. So I tried to keep things tidy.
“Where did you grow up?” I asked.
“A town in Minnesota called Winona.”
“Like Winona Rider?”
“Well, yes, but also Princess We-Noh-Nah, from the romantic legend of Maiden Rock.”
“Yeah, like Winona Rider.” he said.
In fact, I knew about Winona, but I tried not to let on. We only had a half hour, and in that time we’d need to get through so many things: the differences between Retul and Serotta, titanium and aluminum, Gaulzetti and Primus Mootry. We’d never make it. We’d never make it, especially if I allowed myself to tell my Winona anecdote. And like all of my anecdotes, it would be complicated, and take a while to elucidate, and at the end probably wouldn’t be all that interesting.
But of course, I couldn’t help myself.
“James Earle Fraser is also from Winona, you know,” I began.
“Fraser was a sculptor. He designed the Buffalo nickel, the one from 1913.” I said.
He didn’t look all that interested in the story, but there was no going back now. We were still nowhere near the punchline.
“Actually, he moved to Chicago in the 1890s to study at the Art Institute at age 14. He lived in what is today Bridgeport and became friendly with the bicycle messengers of the day, and even himself rode solo from Chicago to Milwaukee and back one summer. He then moved to Paris, another city dominated by cycling culture. He developed a fondness for absinthe and opium and midnight rides through the city. He would carouse all around Paris from dusk until past midnight, ride back to his tiny studio and work until dawn, then sleep throughout the daylight, and repeat it again. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most productive lifestyle.”
“I had no idea. Not too many famous people come from Winona.”
“Well, so, after several years of this, he got his act together and set up shop in New York, focusing on numismatic work. And a decade later, he was commissioned by the federal mint to design the Buffalo nickel.”
“Isn’t that the one that’s really collectible?”
“Yeah, some are worth thousands, but most are worth about a hundred dollars.”
“Well, for a nickel…”
“Yeah, for a nickel. Anyway, when I was a teenager I worked in a shop that was owned by an old Belgian guy. His family had moved to the states after the war. His father was a jeweler and a watchmaker, and his father’s brother had been a professional cyclist and owned a shop in Ghent. The brothers bought a small building and set up shop. On one side, the father repaired watches and did a bit of custom jewelry - but mainly he dealt in rare coins. On the other side, and down in the basement, the brother built a bike shop. By the time I started working there, the brothers had died and Henri ran both businesses.”
“I was far too unskilled to be of any use outside of the bike shop, where I spent most of my time gluing tires in the basement. But I was a bit of an amateur coin collector myself, so I liked to check out the glass case in the jewelry shop from time to time. One day, Henri set out an complete set of 1913 Buffalo nickels that he’d recently acquired. I had a couple of Buffalos, but they were really worn and were probably work only a few dollars each.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, but… I need to get to class in about fifteen minutes.”
“Right, almost done here.” I said. “So… where was I? Oh, right. This was around the time that I started to ride with the other guys at the shop. I wasn’t racing yet, but was starting to pick up all the little skills, like riding rollers. We had a few sets that Henri had built himself in the basement. They were really tiny and narrow, but had steel supports, so they were impossible to move. This, I found a little unnerving, because you’d end up essentially elbow-to-elbow if more than one person wanted to ride.”
“I don’t want to ride rollers.”
“Oh, I know. This isn’t about rollers. Actually, it’s about what you learn after you learn to ride rollers. It was maybe a month later, after I’d gotten pretty comfortable riding indoors, that the winter training began in earnest. It was really fantastic, actually. Fifteen or sixteen of us would go out for two hours at a time. We all had exactly the same gearing on our fixed gear bicycles, so it was so smooth, and quiet, and perfect. We’d do a double paceline the entire time. It’s kind of sad to say it, but those first few years might have been the best riding of my life.”
“Wait, how does the nickel relate to this?”
“Oh yeah! That was the point, wasn’t it? So, one of the drills we used to do on these training rides was to take a penny and stick it between two elbows: yours, and the rider’s next to you. And you couldn’t let it drop!”
“No way, that’s impossible.”
“It’s not as hard as it sounds, but yeah, they’d drop and you’d have to pick it up. And then you’d get dropped, and it wasn’t so easy to catch up, so you learned pretty quickly. Anyway, I was pretty bad at this one. So to teach me a lesson, one day Henri showed up to the ride, but instead of a penny, he gave me a mint condition 1913 Buffalo nickel. It had to be worth hundreds of dollars, even then. It looked to have barely been in circulation at all. I was so afraid! But I made it through the first sector of the ride without dropping the nickel. That simple experience gave me so much confidence on a bike. It sounds dumb, but from that point on, I felt like I could do anything.”
“Wow, now I kind of want to try that.”
“You should, it’s a lot of fun.”
“Hm, I kind of need to get to class, and we haven’t even talked about bikes yet.”
“Really, I think we just did!”