Phil Tomlin, one of the people who knew Jack Pritchard best, put it this way: “Everyone knew a small piece of Jack, but no one knew the whole.”
“Cactus” Jack died of leukemia on June 11, aged more than most fine wines at 70. I heard it through the Facevine, yeah, heard it through the Facevine.
No one knew what to make of Jack, certainly not I, who met him when I was 18 and he was 35, or, in teenager eyes, so old that it hardly made sense that he wasn’t already dead. Jack was prickly, but I don’t think that’s the origin of the nickname that fit him better than any shoe made on a custom Sidi last.
His original nickname was Graftek Jack, because in 1975 or thereabouts he was the first guy in Austin to own an aluminum-carbon fiber composite bike, precursor to the 100% pure carbon bikes of today that are made of carbon and exclusively have nothing but carbon in them.
If riders were amazed by his unobtainium bike frame, Cactus Jack blew minds again the day he showed up in Lycra bike shorts. “What the fool are those?” wondered the left-behinds, no longer proud of their brand new wool Santinis with real chamois leather pads for extra softness or crotch grinding, depending on whether they’d been properly cleaned, dried, and prepped.
When others were still content to finish a ride with their brains on the outside of the skull, Cactus Jack eschewed style and common sense and the 110-degree Austin heat by wearing a hard-shell helmet. That was when the hairnet reigned supreme and the bare head reigned supremer. Jack didn’t need a helmet law to convince him that helmets were good. He was satisfied with the laws of physics.
For all his forward thinkingness, Jack was introverted and reserved. No one knew him well, especially the people who knew him well. To people like me, who knew him only through the shop or through the club or on rides or at the races, he was just “Jack.”
After I got my Nishiki International in 1982, sold to me by Uncle Phil, who was the service manager and who oversaw the work of Cactus Jack, some time went by before I began riding for no reason other than boredom, i.e. I was eventually going to be a bike racer. Jack suggested I do the after-work group ride that left from the shop at 5:00 PM, so I showed up and was immediately intimidated.
Mike Murray, the current state road champ, my hero Kevin Yates, and all the other hitters were there. After a while it turned single file, and the file seemed to continually shorten. Each time I pulled through, Jack would yell at me but I couldn’t understand him because of the howling wind and my own labored breath.
As the file got shortened down to five or six, and we got down to the bloody work of killing in earnest, and I got ready to do another pull, Jack got close enough and yelled loud enough that I could hear him. I knew it was going to be something good, encouraging me to keep going and complimenting me for working hard and making it this far on my first hammerfest ride.
“Slow down, goddammit!” he shouted.
I almost slammed on my brakes I was so scared. That was an epiphany for me. It was the moment I realized that I could go so fast on a bike that people who were a lot better and more experienced would get mad and curse me. It made me love cycling.
Jack did more than tell me through the creative use of invective that I could ride fast. In addition to being the hard-to-know mystery guy, a mystery rider, he was also the Mystery Writer. That was Jack’s pen name for the club newsletter in which he wrote monthly columns about bike racing. Those columns were the first time I had ever read someone write well and idiosyncratically, with what Michael Marckx called a “point of view,” about local bike racing.
If you had asked me a month ago whether or not Jack had influenced me, I would have looked at you funny. But re-reading some his columns, which were shared by Jack’s friend Greg Hall, I see how profoundly he did affect me, and how unconsciously I imitated some of the best aspects of his writing — even now.
Jack’s columns were eerie and weird and odd and true and mostly funny, hilarious in their pithy synthesis of “the stupid sport.” Here are a few gems:
- The pros get paid and glorified to race. We’re amateurs and so what should we do when we race? Have fun. What to do when we chase? Have fun. What about losing? Have fun! Have fun even if you win.
- Rider wasn’t there to have his tendinitis treated, or to have his blood pressure checked, cholesterol measured or body analyzed, although the latter services were available for a token fee. Rider knew he ate too many eggs and he could feel that fried chicken already in his system.
- “Hello my name is Mr. Rider,” he blurted out, “and I’m on the Velvet Couch Club Staff. That’s why I’m dirty and have hay sticking out of my pockets.”
- These talks much soothed Rider, who having been blinded by science, now fell into the rhythm of the snake charmers. You can see and even handle snakes without being bitten, as snakes are living entities too and not machines. The other two speakers reminded Rider that while the motor is more important than the machine, the motor is controlled by the mind and that’s where things get pretty mystic.
- So Rider came out of clinic rejuvenated, ready to eat and drink carbos, to think about training and peaking correctly and to focus on projecting winning. Naturally, he got last place in his races the next two days.
- Off-season alternatives to cycling: (a) Run – only under doctor’s orders. (b) Ride a mountain bike – only under psychiatric supervision.
In addition to his penchant for being ahead of the curve, Cactus Jack loved gravel grinders before there was such a thing. His Sunday rides included off-road dirt meanderings that went on for miles and miles of dusty roads, punctuated every now and then by a low water crossing which was the unspoken signal for all, or at least many, to dismount and enjoy a burnt herbal refreshment.
It’s hard to know what makes a person tick, but the gossip was that that Jack’s father had been a famous physician, “Black Jack” Pritchard, who made clear early on in the negotiations that nothing the son ever did would live up to the wonderfulness of the dad. Jack gravitated with this burden to Austin, or rather with this cauterization, and just missed out on hitting the Vietnam lottery jackpot. Whereas his father performed difficult obstetrical surgeries, Jack rebuilt houses as a carpenter … and he was an excellent one.
A regular customer at the University Co-Op bike shop, he somehow got hired to help with the build-out of Freewheeling Bicycles, which originally occupied the fashionable but vacant premises of a dress shop. By the time the dust settled and the bikes were moved back in, Jack the Carpenter had become Jack the Bike Shop Employee.
Skilled and smart, he eventually became that thing Freewheeling was known for: A damned good wheel builder. And he transitioned from young guy who loved to ride and race into an old “veteran” who looked askance at newfangled ideas and who was hard to penetrate behind the tinted prescription glasses, bicycle cap, and beard maintained with the care and order of a jungle.
In any sense of the word, Jack was a lonely man. He had friends but almost none with whom he was intimate. As a kid getting initiated into the mysteries of the Fraternal Order of the Bicycle Racer, he was forbidding. We had no Internetweb, and thus the only way we got information was through what we saw, what we did, and what we were told.
Jack knew strange names like Merckx and Anquetil, Dauphine and Roubaix, Simplex and Campagnolo, Tommasini and De Rosa and Colnago. However inexpert he may have been at the execution, Jack knew a tremendous amount about racing tactics, and as a new cyclist listening to him explain what was really going on, well, it was wonderful. Jack was respected for his wheelbuilding, for the races he promoted, for the tireless work he did to keep the Violet Crown Sports Association healthy and robust, but most importantly everyone who raced in Austin eventually paid obeisance to Cactus Jack because he was the Demi-Dog of the Sewup.
Back then you didn’t own clinchers and sewups. There were sewups for racers and clinchers for everybody else. And when you got a flat, it hurt your wallet hard, so instead of tossing them in the trash (unthinkable), or finding the hole, snipping the thread, opening the casing, patching the tube, and sewing it back up (unthinkable to the nth power), you would take the five or six flatted sewups that you’d been collecting and drop them off at the shop.
Then Jack would take them home and you wouldn’t hear from him again until three months or six months or a year later when all of your patched tires would magically reappear, your name tagged to the batch, the tires perfectly repaired, and the princely sum of $5 per tire charged to your account. Most people sometimes paid, and those who passed on special herbal offerings got there tires repaired for free. Famously, Jack booted the repairs with tiny strips cut off from the bottom of his living room curtains, and over the decades the curtains got shorter and shorter and shorter.
Jack’s curse or his blessing was that he always moved on. Carpenter, bike racer, wheel builder, race promoter, writer, club organizer, photographer, aviation buff, he went from thing to thing within the narrow world of cycling until he eventually left it altogether. His orbit took him into acupuncture and, even more alien and strange, back to Lubbock and Dallas, until after a few years he contracted the cancer that eventually claimed him.
As a kid saddled with his own demons, I dimly knew Jack was a lonely guy, but it was those sewup tires that made me understand, unseeing as I was, how alone he truly was. It was a scorching Sunday after the morning ride and Jack had told me to come to his house to pick up my tires. We pedaled over to his small clapboard house on Sinclair. Jack opened the door and we entered the darkened living room.
There was a couch, a dining room table off to the side, and in the middle of the room there was an old Singer pedal-operated sewing machine. And throughout that room there were hung, draped, tossed, folded, stacked, stuck, laid, and arranged hundreds of tires, each one awaiting its surgical redemption, the attention of Jack’s careful and skilled and delicate hands to open the body, repair the broken heart, and make it whole again. At that moment I understood that the stories were true, that Jack’s father was a surgeon, and Jack, toiling alone in a dim room to no acclaim, was too.
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