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What A Difference 30 Years Makes by Rick Oberle

That Sunday morning is as clear today as it was in 1971.  The Blade headline asked “Who wants a Harpoon V8 when you can have a 10 speed Cinelli?”  Muscle cars were all the rage then and bicycles were, at best, a fringe factor in modern society.  A photo of the thousand-strong TOSRV start on the steps of the Capitol illustrated the increasing interest in pedal power. It may or may not have been that moment when I decided that I wanted to become a cyclist but since I have still have the clipping, it had to have been an important article.

In the early 70s, there was a lot of talk about a bike boom.  Ten speeds, while hardly common, were not all that rare.  Schwinn Varsities were $99 and for an extra twenty you could get a Continental – with or without fenders and a kickstand.  European bikes began to enter the market in much larger quantities and if you went on an AYH ride, you would probably see a few of them. They were impossibly expensive for a 16 year old– Peugeot PX10s were $175 and a Cinelli twice that much!  I never did the math to figure out how many hours I would have to wash dishes to get one of those babies.  A Peugeot PX10 became my fantasy and goal sometime after the 1971 TOSRV.  One of my most vivid memories of that first TOSVR is the sight of somebody slinging their bike over their shoulder and carrying it up some stairs.  Now that is something I gotta try, I thought.  I am pretty sure that when my back hurts, it’s because I tried to hoist my department store English Racer over my shoulder all those years ago.  That episode probably motivated me more than anything to pursue that PX10.

I had met Rita Gleason a few times and even gone on a ride she led for the Toledo AYH.  She was my idol.  She had a Cinelli!  She was probably 23 to my 16 years at the time.  What really amazed me was the fact that I could go faster on my 3 speed than she went on her 10 speed.  It would obviously take a few more years before I understood the relationship between the rider and the cycle.  Somehow I learned about the AYH and began to work my way towards all the patches.  First there was the 25 miles in 3 hours, then 50 in 5, 75 in 7 seemed impossible (you had to go over 10 miles per hour!) and then there was the ultimate quest: 100 miles in 10 hours.  How could anybody do that?”, I often wondered.  But I wanted to try.  It probably took a Cinelli…..  It all seems pretty silly in view of the fact that I ride 25 miles in a little over an hour now, but it underscores the fact that we all have to start somewhere.

It must have been the fall of 1972 that a handful of people met at Rita Gleason’s house in the old West End.  After a little refreshment, people began to discuss the merits of a bicycle club.  Frankly, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the AYH.  After all, they were next to God since they had created TOSRV, the self-proclaimed Single most Important Bicycling Event in North America.  How do you improve on that??!!  But nobody either read my mind or asked my opinion and the Maumee Valley Wheelmen were born.  Other than the potato chips, I still recall the discussion of when the next meeting should be. Opinions on the frequency varied, but I still to this day recall some wise sage saying “Perhaps the less we meet, the more people will come.”  Dilbert would be very proud of those early Wheelmen! 

It seems to me that most of the people involved with the club in those day were college-aged or in their twenties.  Chuck Conner was the lone exception.  He was 36 as I recall.  Nobody was in their 40s and 50 something seemed incomprehensible. Being a Springfield HS student, I could probably not even spell dinosaur then.

As a charter member of the MVW, I had the same opportunity to go to meetings, organize rides, and make new friends as anybody.  Unfortunately, I didn’t do much of that.  I think it was at that first meeting that I met Mark Tyson to whom I expressed some interest in racing.  Now, I had no more idea of how to race a bike than how to race a horse, but I had gone faster than Rita Gleason’s Cinelli.  Maybe I could do it.  Plus, I spent the next summer in Northbrook, IL which just happened to have a velodrome. Wouldn’t you know that I could ride faster than all the stock bike riders.  I was hooked!

The Wheelmen became my life.  Every day I was the townie in Breaking Away, trying to get as good as the Italians. As those early newsletters prove, nobody knew much about training, diet, strategy, etc.  In the Nike spirit, we just did it.  My recollection is that there were only a handful of dedicated riders in the club. The “in the club” part is really unnecessary as we were everybody.  There were no hide-outs.  To see another bike racer, you had to go to another town, like Cleveland, Columbus, or Detroit.  And even then, the numbers were still small.  Typical races would have only 25 to 30 people.  There were no classes other than Junior, Senior, and Veteran.  Being a junior, I had a little easier time of it than the older guys, but the competition was still very keen.  Ohio had a lot of good riders including that year’s national champ, Ted Waterbury.  The next year’s national champ was from Detroit, Pat Nielson.

                                             Mark Tyson
As the  distance of our travels increased, we began to see Olympic riders like the Stetinas and Mike Neel. They always won everything, of course.  In Ohio, that is.  In the Olympics, they were distant also-rans somewhat akin to the Jamaican Bobsled Team.  All the Americans were completely out of their league in European racing.  I suppose Greg Lemond, Lance Armstrong et al know this, but American cycling really has come a long time in a very short time.  The MVW really is a mirror of the development of cycling in the past 30 years.  In the early days, people just rode bikes as fast as they could and today, the Americans ride with the best of them, just like the MVW.

Information about cycling was exceedingly rare in the early 70s too. So even if you were dedicated, there was no place to learn other than the school of hard knocks.  The Bible was Eugene Sloan’s Handbook of Bicycling which covered everything from kids bikes to racing.  It did have a chapter on racing complete with a few photos.  One of the photos was a match sprint with Jack Disney, the 1970 national champ.  He was well into his 30’s and I couldn’t imagine how a guy that old could go that fast!  Such silly thoughts on two levels:  First, 30 something looks pretty young to the world now, and second, I eventually came to realize that tactics were much more important than raw speed and power.  Today many of the Keirin racers in Japan are 40-something and they routinely beat their juniors. Same principle….

Compare that one book with the scores of titles on the shelf at your local book store, not to mention the specialty titles you can find on the internet and through VeloNews.  Speaking of Velonews, it was about a 12 page tabloid with results of just about every race throughout the country.  Again, Europe was well beyond everybody’s action space, but clearly on the edge of their fantasies.  Compare that with Today’s VeloNews with correspondents in Europe, color photos, etc.  We have come a long way!!
The evolution of equipment is truly astonishing.  Surprisingly, the fundamentals are pretty much the same – two wheels, pedals, a chain, derailleur shifting, tires, handlebars, etc.  But the similarity ends there. All the high-performance wheels were tubulars with the very temperamental sew-up tires.  Those *&&$!@#$% tires would blow out on a moments notice and if you got more than 1,000 miles out of any of them, it was a veritable miracle!  Having said that, I have not ridden a wheel that is as sweet as Fiamme Yellow Label wheels with Clement Seta Extra tires pumped up to 120 pounds.  As the legendary Gene Portuesi of Cyclopedia fame put it, “Does anybody expect Indy tires to last more than one race?”

All drive trains were ten speeds in those days, two in front and five in the back.  People subscribed to many theories of gearing and there were many choices of front chain rings and rear freewheels.  Among the most common were 42 or 45 with a 52 in front with a 14 – 18 straight block in the back.  That was for criteriums only.  BTW, a 14 was as small as they got in those days.  Gear charts would go up to 110 which you could get if you paired a 53 with a 14.  So is it any wonder that people can go faster today than in those days??  If you wanted to shift, you reached down for the downtube shifters.  There was no shifting on the fly!

One of the biggest advances has been in pedal systems.  Until the mid 80s, shoes had a slotted cleat that you had to nail on yourself.  You had a choice of a few different cleats but they were all essentially the same.  And yes, the nails did pull out from time to time.  This cleat was coupled with toe clips and straps.  For some reason, I save one shoe – my first.  It has the stiffness of a tennis shoe but it is very light.  The strap abraded the leather to literally nothing which makes me wonder just how comfortable they could have been.  Compared to tennis shoes on a bike (in which I rode many thousands of miles), they were heaven!

As far as I am concerned, the biggest single improvement in equipment is in helmets.  They were for race day only in those days and to be honest, I am not sure there was a lot of difference between the helmet and nothing.  They were just padded straps from the front of your head to the back.  Think Knute Rockne and you are pretty close to what they were.  Unfortunately, people did crash in those days too and there were many serious injuries, many of which would have been prevented with a modern helmet.  It’s great to see everybody protecting themselves against the unforeseen hazards of the road, both training and racing.  You must understand that I once smacked my head against one of those iron poles that ring the Northbrook track.  Other than waking up in the hospital, that’s all I remember.  Then another time, my chain slipped and I recall Mark Schaberg’s pedals going by at eye-level.  A skull fracture and many scrambled emotions later, I came to be what I am…..  Crazy, isn’t it……  Aren’t I?  I get those phrases mixed up!

Fast-forwarding to 2002, it is easy to see a complete revolution of the sport.  Actually, that’s too bad a pun for publication and besides, it’s more like an evolution.  Cycling has moved from the kid’s world to serious adult recreation for many and avocation for a few.  Prizes in the 70’s were water bottles and other spare parts from a bike shop so nobody made a living at it in the US then. It has moved from an oddity to the main stream of culture.  Even though cycling has waned a bit in the past ten years, its popularity still eclipses the era before the first bike boom. 
So what has cycling done for me?  First, I don’t look my age but at least I don’t get carded any more when my kids are with me.  The contrast is striking!  My involvement in cycling has provided me with many phenomenal opportunities and a career.  I do market analysis and database development and many of my clients are bike related.  But my life’s most gratifying endeavors have been with the rails-to-trails movement.  Some people call me the father of the Kal-Haven Trail which runs from Kalamazoo to South Haven.  All I did was motivate the troops to get the job done and write a bunch of grants.  See more here. That was in the 80’s.  In 1992, I was lucky enough to meet the good folks at the Detroit Free Press who made the Detroit Free Press Michigander possible. The Michigander crosses Michigan on mountain bikes, mostly on rail-trails, without the benefit of much pavement.  Since I don’t even own a mountain bike, you can see I was into it for the advancement of the cause, not my own hedonism….

In raising money for the Kal-Haven Trail, I got better acquainted with the folks at the Lansing Club which put on DALMAC, Dick Alllen’s Lansing to Mackinac Tour.  It’s a 350 to 400 mile ride over four days on every labor day weekend since 1973.  If you ever want a great way to spend a few days, this is unbeatable.   Having done 15 of them, I speak from first-hand experience.  We need some new blood now that the Wolverines are slowing down a bit.  See details here.  They gave the trail $20,000, BTW.

This ramble all started because I rode most of the 2002 CFC with the MVW.  It was great fun and being nearly 50, you can see the irony of much of my thoughts of yesteryear. I owe much of my success to the Maumee Valley Wheelmen early nurturing.  It was a great time and it is very gratifying to see such a vibrant club after all these years.  I rarely come to Toledo anymore so it will be up to you all to make sure that the club is at least 100 times better in 2032 than it is today.  Impossible??  It has to be at least 1000 times better today than it was in 1972!!

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