For a ne'er do well like my adolescent self, it was sometimes difficult to see, let alone access, pathways to happiness. And while bicycle racing certainly brought more pain and suffering than joy to my life, it did offer a structure and discipline that would prove useful far beyond the peloton. Cycling was a way to safely experience repeated failure, even in the context of constant marginal gains. I'm so thankful for the fact that I was able to see the world as a horrible and unforgiving place, full of disappointment, brutal and desperately competitive individuals, and broken dreams several years before reaching adulthood.
Something else that was instilled in me early on was a very strong sense of reciprocity. These days, I feel like this can sometimes be mistaken for charity. I don't have a problem with charity, but it's really not the same thing. It can be as simple as: "Young man, I'd prefer for you to not crash me out in the paceline, so I will take some time to teach you how to do it safely and smoothly."
I don't really know how loaner bikes are connected to these ideas, exactly - but it's another concept that seems to have kind of fallen out of fashion lately. I'm sure it has a lot to do with the transformation of clubs from largely geographic, reasonably diverse organizations to smaller, exclusive and homogeneous cohorts. That the typical novice racer is a 35 year old professional rather than a 19 year old yahoo might also have something to do with it.
Back when the shop was located in Hyde Park, a stone's throw from the University of Chicago, most of the Tatitos were, in fact, 19 year old yahoos. I remember distinctly the moment that we decided to try cyclocross as a club. It was on one of those hot and humid August days. We were riding a century out to the Indiana Dunes and back, when the topic of cyclocross came up. There were nine active racers at the time. Two already had cross bikes which they'd been using as road bikes. One was thinking about buying his own. And there was mine. So we had four cyclocross bikes for nine riders. A quandary? Certainly not!
The thought that not owning a cyclocross bike would in any way preclude a member from racing was simply absurd. The first thing we did is put matching pedals (Time ATACs) on all the bikes, and made sure that all future bikes would have the same. Next we took inventory of shoes. A couple of folks with odd duck feet would have to buy their own recessed cleat shoes, but that would be a heck of a lot cheaper than buying a bike. Finally, we cobbled together a couple of additional bikes using 80s road frames with lots of clearance. The narrow Schwalbe CX Pro tires would work fine for the Raleigh and the Miyata!
There were practices three times per week in Jackson Park, and it was understood that the bikes would be shared and regularly rotated, sometimes within the course of a single practice! Newcomers were welcomed, and the loaner bikes offered up to try. And before we knew it, the group of nine had grown to fifteen. This was great, except for the fact that a few of the new folks were too small to effectively use any of the loaner bikes.
That week, I went into the basement and dug out what would later be affectionately dubbed "the Pink Bike" - a tiny custom steel ANT with pale pink powder coat, a matching fork, and 26" wheels. It was built up with a rock soup gruppo: Suntour XC Pro hubs, some old Velocity Aeroheat rims, Schwalbe CX Pro tires, a Sugino MTB crank, third hand Nitto stem/post/bars, a grimy old Flite, and the remnants of somebody's 1x9 Shimano 105 pursuit bike gruppo. It was perfect!
The Pink Bike became so popular that we'd bring it out for every practice and drag it to every race. It would get raced 4 or 5 times in various categories by different people, all through the day. (And it served as a communal pit bike at all other times.) It would get crashed, smashed, tossed, run over, and laughed at. It even crossed the line first a couple of times. Each time a newcomer without a bike showed up to practice, the Pink Bike would be offered up (and would soon end up on the ground). But through all of that abuse, it has held up.
This will be the seventh season of cyclocross training and racing for the Pink Bike. It already looks like Nick, Kara, and Joey will at various intervals, find themselves shredding on it this season. And I'm sure others will be racing it as well. Look for it at Jingle Cross, Cincy3, Trek CXC, and a handful of CCC and WCA events.
One of the most interesting things to me has been to watch this first generation of Tatitos grow up, graduate, and move on with their personal and professional lives. Many, but not all, have stayed involved in cycling in one form or another. And those that have, are showing signs of themselves turning into eventual mentors. The other day, a long time Tatito was chatting with me about his old cross frame. After saving up enough money, he'd recently bought a used Kelly and had transferred over the components from his old frame, a nice but basic Kinesis aluminum jam. "Let's build it up with Retroshift and handbuilt wheels, and turn it into a great loaner bike," he said. I was so happy. He could have sold the frame. He could have spent that money on some sick tubulars for his race bike. But he didn't. And so now there's another loaner bike in the world, and a really nice one to boot.