Bell Biker, Gallows Hill Road, Redding, CT
Note: Gallows Hill Road in Redding, CT is immortalized (at least in my eyes) in the story about the Revolution "My Brother Sam Is Dead". If you're from the Connecticut area there are mentions of Hartford, Ridgefield, Croton-on-Hudson (NY), a few other places. The bit that gets me is that they walked ("marched") long distances, like Redding to Hartford. Anyway, on to the cycling bit.
When I Got The Helmet
I bought (or rather my parents bought) this helmet for my trip across Pennsylvania when I was 14 going on 15, back in 1982. When I got into cycling I was all about touring - that's the kind of cycling covered by Bicycling magazine. I wanted to ride with panniers, a triple crankset, wide range gearing, long wheelbase bike, yada yada yada.
My mom, ever supportive of my endeavors, found that the local Westport Y offered bike summer camps and requested a catalog. I pored over said catalog like it was a build kit for a bike... okay, maybe not that long, but I pored over it for hours and hours and hours. There were all sorts of choices, from a massive trip from Canada somewhere to somewhere in the US (Montreal to CT? I think it was 600 miles), others that were pretty short.
Because I was a bit tentative I selected a two week long trip that started somewhere way out in western PA and ended in Philadelphia. I think it was supposed to be 200 miles or something. Not very far but enough - the idea was to spend some of the days doing stuff, not just riding from one place to another. It was supposed to be a tour, not a trip.
The drop off was a nervous affair. I wasn't really sure of myself and I had no idea what to expect from the others. I quickly learned that most of the group were kids that weren't really active and their parents thought that dropping them off for a bike camp would get them in shape ("lose weight"). I can tell you that there were some miserable kids on that tour.
In contrast I'd been training in preparation for their quoted max 50 mile day. I wasn't sure if I could do a week of 50 mile days in a row but I certainly could do a few, and I did 72 miles one day in a bikeathon. I felt prepared.
Therefore when we plodded along waiting for the kids that literally didn't ride their bikes before camp I got pretty bored. As a distraction I tried going up one of the hills as fast as I could. The lead ride leader (we had three adult chaperone types) sprinted ahead of me. I tried going hard up another hill and he sprinted again.
I thought he was just having fun. I didn't realize it at the time but the Y policy was that one ride leader had to lead. Another had to sweep. The third one was the only one that could check up on the riders in the middle. We had one male ride leader, a very outdoorsy type, very fit. He was like a little Paul Bunyan. We had two female ride leaders that seemed to be more like daycare teachers, although one was admittedly an experienced touring cyclist. This meant she knew a lot about packing panniers and tents and cooking and where to camp but didn't really feel like sprinting over hills like it was a Strava KOM. The three ride leaders quickly agreed that the male would generally lead the group, especially when I started hammering up the hills.
Keep in mind that when I was 14 I was a scrawny kid. At 17 I weighed 103 lbs (my physical before going to college), so at 14 I was probably in the 90 lbs range. We carried our gear on the bike, for me it was mainly clothes, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, some tent stuff, a flashlight (for a headlight - can you believe that?), and some food. The leaders carried the tents, stoves, heavy food like canned food, and first aid kit stuff in addition to their personal gear.
The male ride leader happened to have a Schwinn Continental. I'd done some research on bikes before getting my Dawes Lightning, and I knew that the Continental was an absolute beast of a bike - 55 lbs or so, and that was without any gear on it! He had to have been easily pushing 100 lbs of bike and gear. My bike was something like 24 lbs and I was probably loaded down to maybe 45-50 lbs.
So basically the ride leader was sprinting against me while effectively pulling a trailer with a small kid in it. If you've ever pulled a small trailer with a kid in it you'll understand - it doesn't seem like much, 40 or 50 lbs, but man oh man when you start going up a hill it's like the bike dropped an anchor.
Into the asphalt.
I don't know if the poor guy was into racing at all but let me tell you, after that week, he had to have been pretty strong. We were sprinting up every hill - it was like a game for me. He made the mistake of telling me that a ride leader had to stay in front of all the camp riders. To be fair he told me this in the context of, "If one of the women are leading don't sprint. You can sprint up hills when I'm leading."
I interpreted this as, "If he was leading we were sprinting."
I'd look at him as we started up a hill, start going faster, he'd go faster, and then we'd end up going as fast as we could up whatever hill. I inevitably blew up and then we'd crawl to the top, gasping.
Then we'd do it again.
Eventually I did beat him. I remember the feeling of triumph when he finally blew up first, then used whatever lung capacity left to yell at me to not get too far ahead. For me that was a huge victory.
Toward the end I was "outclassing" him regularly. I was drafting him on the flats and then popping out for the hills. It wasn't fair, him being handicapped about 50 lbs, pulling all the time, all that stuff. I felt some sympathy so I toned down the attacks.
My favorite day was when they leaders polled us the night before about the next day's itinerary.
"Okay, we can do a really long ride tomorrow, 50 miles, and then we can spend the next day at Hershey Park. Or we can do about 30 miles tomorrow, another 20 the day after that, and we'd have a few hours at Hershey Park."
We collectively voted for the 50 mile day. We were out and on the bikes pretty quickly (it was like herding cats getting a bunch of 14 year olds onto their bikes). We ran out of daylight at about 9 PM.
Yeah, 9 PM.
I think we were out there for 10 or 12 hours. I took a wrong turn somewhere, we were in the middle of Amish land, dark farm country with no street lights, and it was getting dark.
The experienced touring ride leader had stayed in the area at some point before and knew an Amish family around the area. She called, we got permission to stay, and we rode through the dark to some farmhouse. It was huge, to be honest, about 15 kids camped out on the first floor with room to spare.
Thing was that during the day we'd go kind of hard for a while, stop, go hard again, so on and so forth. I felt super strong even at the end of ride, at night, I was just jonesing to go out and keep riding.
After a great "farm to table" breakfast (I couldn't bring myself to drink the warm milk but the eggs and ham were great!) we rode what seemed to be a mile or two and then we were at Hershey Park.
Eventually we got to Philadelphia, where a van was waiting to drive us all home. While we were there we ran up the Rocky steps. The statue was up there (I had to Google because I was wondering if it was my imagination). When I ran up the stairs later, during one of the Philly Corestates Race, it wasn't there. I was crushed that it was gone and then wondered if it'd really been there all those years before.
When I got back home I gave the panniers back to the Y, took off the rack, put the skinny tires back on, and my 14-21 "racing freewheel". I rolled down the driveway, turned right, and did a wheelie when I punched the pedals. I sprinted down the road and blew up a few hundred yards later.
It was great.
To me that was riding, to go really fast, to sprint, to go 100%.
The bike racing bug had bitten me hard.
Over the winter I saved up, negotiated a combined birthday-Christmas-months-of-chores present (where I contributed some money also) and ordered a sight unseen Basso for $550 ($50 was an upcharge for the tubulars - the shop laced over tubulars and glued on some tires for that $50). It checked off all the checkboxes:
- Columbus tubing
- Campy derailleurs and shifter
- Campy hubs
- 53x42 chainrings
- 15-21 freewheel for Junior gearing
- tubular GP-4 rims
- Modolo brakes
What I didn't realize is that it wasn't all that.
- The Columbus tubing was Zeta, which is basically their worst tubeset. It was a tank of a frame.
- Campy Nuovo Record front and rear derailleurs and downtube shifters. Fine.
- Campy hubs. They were Tipo hubs. Fortunately back then Campy only had one grade of bearings - excellent - and their hubs were all virtually the same quality. The Tipo hubs were great. But they weren't Nuovo Record.
- 53x42 chainrings. They were on an Excel Rino crankset. I only knew about Excel Rino because Lon Haldeman rode Excel Rino stuff when he won RAAM. I figured it must be good if he used it. It was cast aluminum, the absolute cheapest crankset you could possibly make. But I had no idea and the chainrings were black and drilled out so I loved the crankset. The bottom bracket was the cheapest piece of junk you'd ever seen. The axle had studs on it, you used nuts to tighten the crank down. Horrible.
- 15-21 freewheel. This was a blessing because I didn't understand the gear limit although the sales guy Lou did. Lou was the silver medalist in the state road race the prior year and was a pretty good rider.
- The GP-4 rims were installed in place of the G40 clinchers. At the time there weren't any good clinchers so the GP-4s were a natural. I didn't realize that they'd just glue the cheapest tires on the rims. They both flatted a day apart at the end of my first season. When I went to remove them they popped right off - there was barely any glue on the rim. Yikes.
- Modolo brakes. Not the pro ones. Not even the mid-level Speedys. I can't remember what they were. Cast. Flimsy, But they were Modolos.
I upgraded stuff over the years.
- Campy Super Record front and rear derailleurs. I couldn't install them at the time so I had the shop do it.
- Bar end shifter on the right. I installed that.
- Gipiemme crankset and BB. I think I installed that.
- Eventually got different freewheels, once I was a Senior. As a Junior the 15-21 was all I needed.
- Ambrosio Crono rimmed wheels. I can't remember the hubs but those were some nice rims.
- Clement FuturCx/Futurox kevlar belted tires. I used them for a long time, until I could afford Vittoria CX/CGs (front/rear).
- Modolo Pro brakes. In red no less.
I started riding regularly with a group that met at Oscar's Deli on Main Street in Westport, CT. We'd do about 35 to maybe 50 miles, depending on the time of year. At first I was well out of my league. I have no idea how I got home each time, some of the older riders must have been very careful to keep me on route. Part of the tough part was that it was a 10 mile ride to get to the ride, and a 10 mile ride to get home. I was adding 20 miles to the ride just getting to and from the meet point.
As I got stronger I got cockier. Eventually I was trying to match the better riders, one Cat 2 Senior (Morley B, who I worshipped like he was a demi-god) and one super classy Cat 2 Junior, Bill W. There were a couple Cat 3s and the rest of them were Cat 4s. Back then everyone started as a Cat 4 so they were all normal riders. The Cat 3s seemed human but "really, really good". The Cat 2s were demi-gods and properly so; it's where I thought that there's no way I could be a 2 but if I could I would.
(Interestingly enough one of the guys from that era joined my current team Expo Wheelmen, completely unbeknownst to me. A couple years ago I was sitting at one of the meetings, saw him, and thought, wait, I think he was part of the Oscars crew 30 years ago. Then he came over, "Hey, Aki, I can't believe it's you!". And if that's not weird enough when I was doing the shop rides nearby, in 2009-2010, one of the riders doing the ride was also from the Oscar's ride. As we're about 2 hours away from the Oscar's ride location it's amazing that these two guys ended up in the same area as me. Anyway, that's yet another tangent...)
One day Bill W attacked on some random, generic backroad in the Redding/Easton/Bethel/Newtown area. As I was in the "I'm getting good at this" mode I followed, sprinting hard, trying to keep him in sight. The other riders let us go.
We were going fast and I thought, okay, I'm going to catch him, I'll out-corner him because I know how to stick a knee out in a corner.
The road turned hard left, Bill slowed aggressively and leaned really hard into it. I followed at a much higher speed because I was going to catch him and obviously I could go faster than him.
It was a really long left curve, virtually a 180, and very sharp.
By the time I exited it I was on the right curb and panicking. I managed to stay upright but to my horror there was a hard right curve immediately following that left. Switchbacks like these - two in a row - basically don't exist in Connecticut so I was caught with my pants down.
I got the bike heeled over to the right but I had started on the right curb, almost in the bushes. In other words I'd done about the earliest apex possible, the worst thing possible. I found myself skimming the leaves on the left side of the road, the wrong side, the oncoming traffic side.
I started thinking about survival now - catching Bill wasn't the goal anymore, my goal was to not become a hood ornament or to hit too big of a tree.
I tried to slow but the steep hill, my sprint start at the top, and the curves kept me from scrubbing off any reasonable amount of speed.
I exited that second curve on the left shoulder and wouldn't you know it, there was a left curve in front of me.
Three hard turns in a row?! On a descent? In Connecticut?!
I dropped the bike to the left, hoping that I could make this turn, praying that it wasn't a long turn.
I was leaned pretty far over to the left, hoping I'd stay out of the trees, when I hit a severe gradient change - the road basically dropped out from under me (later I realized that even in a car the front tires would momentarily let go of the road - the gradient change was that sudden). My front wheel went light, the front end washed out, and I hit the deck.
I slid down the road, bounced off stuff in the shoulder, and ended up sitting in the middle of the road, my helmet in my hands.
I'd really clocked my head hard, my head hurt, and for a few seconds I sat there trying to gather my thoughts. I almost got hit by the rest of the club carefully descending down the same hill. When I stood up my shoes lost traction - it was that steep. I slipped down the hill uncontrollably and ended up crawling up the hill with my hands on the ground to get back up to my bike.
My bike seemed okay, I wasn't bleeding too badly from anywhere, and we had to get going. I got on the bike.
I gingerly rode back to Oscars, then back home, my head pounding. I felt a little nauseous for a while, like a few days, but eventually it went away. Headaches also, but again, they went away. I don't know what I was like immediately following the crash but I think I was lucky to escape without major problems, based on the nausea and headaches.
I know now I had given myself a concussion, and, in fact, it was probably the worst concussion I've had in my life.
Nonetheless I can't imagine what would have happened had I been wearing my favorite "Kevlar helmet" (my faded yellow Campy cap, which looked sort of like Kevlar colored hence I called it my Kevlar cap). For this reason I saved the Bell Biker helmet as one that saved me.
Note the right side of the picture (left side of helmet) where the foam is not as thick as the left side of the picture.
Note the right side of the picture (left side of helmet) where the foam is not as thick as the left side of the picture.
I didn't think it looked damaged at all, at least at the time. Now that I look at it, or the pictures of it, I realized that the left side of the helmet looks pretty compressed, like maybe to half the thickness as the right side. It must have been a real solid impact. I didn't notice the compressed foam back then so I still wore the helmet after the tumble. Eventually I convinced my mom to buy another helmet for me.
That was the Brancale Giro.