What is in a bicycle? It could be everything, and it could be nothing. Some bicycles are beloved machines that carry the rider over high peaks, down into gouged valleys, or maybe just on a beloved morning commute before undertaking the work of the day. They can mean a great deal to the cyclist, far beyond just a compilation of metal & plastic. Yet, you can walk across any college campus or through a city and see the remnants of formerly working bicycles locked to a pole or post, slowly fading away beneath an orange coat of rust and a grey pallor of grime. What did they do to deserve this?
I stare at bicycles as if they can tell me something. I do this with my dog and cats as well, for while they are unable to talk, I know what they are saying. My bicycles received a degree of care and attention that means I don’t have to stare at them, I don’t have to hope for a few words back; I know, I know. From sitting on them for thousands of kilometers, braving dangerous conditions, and being transported and transformed while pedaling them we’ve developed a connection that allows us to interact smoothly and without confusion. We know one another quite well.
But, when I see a nice bicycle leaning against a grocery store wall or outside a filling station, I find myself staring at them, wondering why they are dressed in such a manner. I’ll see a road bike set up to ride like a hybrid and wonder about how it has come to this. Other days I’ll wonder why the owner has chosen form over function in another way, choosing style over performance to such a degree that I’m left dumb-founded. It might be a lack of bar plugs, a simple tool you jam into the open mouth of your handlebars that serve to protect both of you. For them, they receive a barrier against rain and moisture. For the rider, they’re insured against a gouged or punctured thigh in the case of a fall or even a harsh turn. Sometimes I’ll see those very same handlebars lacking not only bar plugs but handlebar tape. Sore wrists, or worse, a slippery hand and a crash for the sake of what? Can you tell me, Handlebars?
Other bicycles can tell a vibrant, exciting story. They allow me to see into the past of a sport I’m relatively new to admiring. They provide a history lesson, sometimes leaving me with questions, other times leaving me with answers. Yesterday I saw this picture of Mario Cipollini’s race bike from the 2002 World Road Race Championships. In some ways, the bike seems “old,” since a current race bike has many new technological developments that make it seem aged, a machine from a bygone era. But then again, this is a perfectly light, stiff, and fast race bike that would perform well under the legs of a capable rider. It’s blue & white, which are the colors of the Italian teams for the Olympics & other worldwide sporting competitions. The Azzurri wear this shade of blue, usually with a smaller Italian flag and the iconic green, white, and red, included.
I think back to what I was doing in 2002. I could tell you where the World Championship Road Race was held this year, and last year, and maybe even the year before that. But in 2002 I was still riding a converted mountain bike with slick tires on the road, using it for exercise and even an occasional commute to work. I surely had no idea what was going on with the professional peloton. But, there is his bike, the pinnacle of innovation and technology at the time. I can’t help but notice the lack of Campagnolo gruppo. The fastest Italian bicycle racer on the planet was riding components made in Japan. This is interesting to a cycling fan & a historian. His seatpost and seat tube are both aerodynamically shaped, which is again interesting since many companies are currently producing aerodynamic road bikes once again. I wonder if this was the initial foray into such designs on road bikes and, I wonder, what happened in the decade in between, when this technology was heavily used in triathlon bikes, but not necessarily road bikes.
I can stare at this bicycle and wonder. What does it have to say? And why is it dressed up with French wheels, Japanese components, and an American frameset? I wonder. They sole Italian bits are the cockpit (handlebar stem and handlebars) and seat pillar, plus the Selle San Marco Regal saddle. I’m not so sure, but it can tell me one thing: the Lion King secured his very own Rainbow Jersey that year in a sprint finish in Zolder, Belgium. And for learning this about the bike, and the fascination sport of bicycle racing, I’m grateful I stare at this particular machine and asked it some questions. An aerodynamic frame made from aluminum and painted in the less traditional (but still traditional!) blue and white of the Italians, atop which history was made and one rider etched his name into the list of World Champions.