39 pounds

That’s how much New Girl’s cruiser bike weighs. It has big tires. It has 38 teeth in front. It has 18 in back. It has a coaster brake. It has a basket. It has flat pedals. It has rust.

Did I mention that it weighs 39 pounds?

Here’s the thing. You can do what you set your mind to doing. Yep, you. Me. Us.

After she had a bicycle falling off incident on the bike path, shattering her humerus and the fun of putting on silly clothes and playing bike racer, New Girl had a very long bicycle convalescence. The times she went out to pedal on her racy bike it was fun to the negative 10,000.

The clown suit didn’t feel so good anymore, either.

So instead of trying to glue back together the shards of her broken fun, she wheeled her rusty old cruiser out of the garage and decided to make a new fun. For several years after that bicycle falling off incident I would see her merrily pedaling down the flat Strand, hair blowing in the wind, happily waving and etcetera.

New Girl went helmet-free long before I did but the yowling nanny state hall monitors left her alone because NOT LEGIT CHICK FAKE RACER ANYMORE ON COSTLY BIKE AND SHIT. Their heads break differently anyway.

A couple of Fridays we rode with her and Mike Barraclough to Santa Monica for coffee and back. She who used to ride pretty danged quick now rides pretty danged slooooooowwwww. Faster than anyone else on a cruiser bike, that’s for sure, but.

Did I mention that her bike weighs 39 lbs.?

Eventually she freed her mind from the chains and kept pedaling. Tennis game in Palisades? No prob. Pedal the cruiser.

Lunch with a friend in Hollywood? No prob. Pedal the cruiser.

And then it got crazy.

One day she was pedaling to Palisades and she kept on pedaling. After a while she found herself approaching Encinal, which is so far from the farthest outpost of South Bay humanity that it might as well be the moon, and Encinal is long and uphill for miles and miles and miles.

She went right and kept pedaling. At the top of Encinal she continued on the brutal climbing sections of Mulholland, and from there to Little Sycamore Canyon, after which she descended Yerba Buena and rode home along the coast highway.

Of course few things are less comprehensible to “cyclists” than a lady in a skirt knocking out 90+ miles and serious elevation on a 39-lb. bucket of rust. But what’s really exceptional? That? Or the people who think it’s exceptional?

Consider this piece, slightly edited by me, that was in one of our Flog newsletters earlier this year:

I started thinking about cycling, how hard it seems to be, and all the methods we use to make it easier i.e. gearing, social group rides, dialogues about inclusion, mantras concerning listening to your body and how cycling is supposed to be “fun” not painful, the social media concept that if you are suffering while on the bike you have crossed a line into the threshold of extreme sports, far outside of what bike norms are supposed to be, into the mythical world of the superhuman.

I wondered if cycling had gotten so much harder since the first riders mounted their bikes in the 1800s? Was all this technology critical to the “new” difficulties of the sport, discovered by mid-40-ish and older fellows who never got picked first for the sandlot ballgame? All the gearing, featherlight bikes, and of course the electric motors. Have rides gotten so much harder and epic that we simply can’t do them without all this stuff? Have the climbs gotten steeper? Rides longer? Paces faster? Races harder? Riders more punk and hardcore and badass?

Maybe history can enlighten us? Let’s see!

Have you ever heard of a “boneshaker”? Bicycles became a thing in the 1860s, when the boneshaker, a velocipede with rotary cranks and pedals, made its way into mass production. They were stiff, made of iron with wooden wheels surrounded by iron rims, they weighed about 80 pounds and they had a single heavy, fixed gear that propelled this unresponsive and weighty beast of a bike over “roads” of gravel, stones and cobbles. The experience riding one of these monsters generated the nickname “boneshaker,” which stuck. Remind me again about your badass gravel ride last week?

In spite of their weight, difficulty in handling, and horrendously unpleasant ride, they were immediately used for racing, which was done in all manner of passing other riders, in streets, in local parks, or anywhere it was possible to pedal a bike. Sound familiar?

In France, after watching riders continually and routinely attack and drop each other just as a matter of “casual” riding, while noting the amused expressions of the park goers who stopped to watch, the Olivier Brothers of the Paris Company decided to host an actual race, and the first official cycling race was contested in 1868 at St. Cloud, Paris with 5 riders racing a 1k time trial over stone and gravel. Cyclist James Moore won the event in roughly 2:35s, or over 15 miles per hour, which in modern terms, and considering the specs of the bike and conditions, would be a demonstration of extreme two minute power.

And you spent how much on those ceramic bearings? So you could do what, exactly?

Following St. Cloud, bike racing took over Europe, and the first road race was contested in 1869, an 83-mile route from Paris to Rouen. That’s 83 miles on a 50-70 pound iron bike, on wheels made from iron and wood, with a single fixed gear so hard to turn over that it would make your 11 feel like a silky walk through Scottish cowbelly silt. And it was done off road, on the worst sort of gravel, stone and cobbled roads with no food and water support or assistance of any kind. Oh, and no freewheeling because that hadn’t been invented yet. So constant pedaling for the entire route was mandatory, unless you wanted to fall over. On the day of the race, promptly at 7:00 in the morning, 325 people showed up at the Arc de Triomphe to race, including a 5-year-old girl, where it was already raining and continued to rain all day and throughout the race.

Number of Gore-Tex or other stylish Rapha rainproof kits worn that day: 0.

The favorite for the win was James Moore of the St. Cloud races, and he attacked at the start, riding solo for much of the race and eventually winning in a time of 10 hours and 25 minutes. The second and third place riders came in 15 minutes behind, one of them on a farm bike weighing over 80 pounds. So tell us again how hard you struggled on the Wafer at the BWR between the third and fourth rest stops?

Bicycling is progress, though, right? And the next evolution was the penny farthing, bikes with one 4-5 foot wheel in front and a smaller wheel in back, representing the size difference between a penny and a farthing. These beasts grew out of the desire by cyclists to go faster than was allowed on a Bonecrusher. Since there were no gears, increasing the size of the front wheel dramatically increased the speed. Going faster and riding further was the driving force in cycling, even with bonecrushers, as speed was the core of cycling as a pastime and a sport from the very beginning. An article from the 1890s describes the dedicated 1800s cyclist as “(a) devotee … a ‘scorcher,’ riding in tights, bending over his wheel and straining every muscle to go at a racing pace regardless of everything … a nose grinding ‘johnny’ who has gone cross-eyed watching his cyclometer.”

This narrative could have been written in 1890, 1990, or 2020, so little has changed in how the cyclist operates once clipped in and in forward motion. Penny farthing riders and racers were ruthlessly competitive, riding at paces that compare to modern ones, covering distances close to two hundred miles in a day, just for fun, over gravel or rutted and rocky stagecoach roads, in rain or shine. There was no tarmac; every rider was an off-road “gravel grinding” badass, including the women, who rode in full-length dresses.

These riders possessed next level handling skills, as any ride could be a deadly one, as the rider sat in a high position over the wheel with no braking mechanism save for jumping off from six feet in the air, and nowhere to go but over the handlebars. The riders’ skill is evident in an article written in the 1890s from the Chicago Tribune, as a man defending the safety of the penny farthing against proponents of the newly invented safety cycle (the modern bike we ride with two equally sized wheels) writes that safety cycles were for “timid men afraid of ‘headers’ … where cautious riders do not take headers. Any rider (of a penny farthing) can easily slip back in the saddle and go over two bricks piled up on top of each other.” Bunnyhopping that barrier on your 16 pound cross bike? Probably not that impressive to the average rider of a penny farthing in the 1800s.

And racing? The last historic penny farthing race was in 1892. Here are some of the records held at that time:

¼ mile in 32 seconds
½ mile in 1:10
½ mile in 1:22, ridden with no hands
20 miles in 51:25
50 miles track in 2 hours 28 minutes
50 miles road in 2 hours 45 minutes. This is roughly the time it takes to do the Donut ride, which is less mileage.
100 miles road in 6 hours 19 minutes
200 miles in 10 hours 49 minutes
300 miles in 17 hours 10 minutes

Time Trials:
1 hour in 23 miles
2 hours in 41 miles
24 hours track in 413 miles
24 hours road in 339 miles

Take a close look at these times, they are all before 1892. Do they look dramatically different from times now? How do they compare with your club TT on your $10k aero bike and skinsuit? When was the last time you did 23 miles in an hour with no draft? Was it on a single geared, steel bike weighing 40 pounds, with solid wood and rubber wheels 5 feet off the ground? Tell us again about how hard it was that time you won Telo?

Or when was the last time you rode 200 miles in 10 hours, much less on the bike described above, across rocky roads made of mud and dirt, rutted from stagecoach wheels? No disc brakes, no tubeless tires, no suspension. Think you could do that tomorrow?

And let’s not even get started on the Tour de France, where the stages in 1903 ranged from 167 to 293 miles, on the same heavy, single-geared bikes, although now on the new and improved safety cycles, over cobbled and dirt or mud roads, where support of any kind was grounds for disqualification, races started in the dark, sometimes before midnight, then weaved up and down mountain passes with no lights, and the average pace of the winner back then was still over 25 miles per hour.

M. Garin, the 1903 winner, describes the experience this way: “The 2,500km that I’ve just ridden seem a line, long and grey, monotonous, where nothing stood out from anything else. But I suffered on the road. I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was sleepy, I suffered, I cried between Lyon and Marseille, I had the pride of winning other stages, but nothing strikes me particularly. But wait! I must say that the one single thing that struck me, that a single thing sticks out from my memory: I see myself from the start of the Tour de France, like a bull pierced by banderillas, who pulls the banderillas with him, never able to rid himself of them.” Somehow current images of riders with support teams, earpieces, wattage goals, food handoffs, and replacement bikes doesn’t seem to define badass like the riders did in 1903.

My favorite story is of Charles Murphy, the man who set the one-mile record in 1899 by riding a mile in 57 seconds. That’s over 60 miles per hour. He did this by drafting off of … a train. Murphy set his amazing record by riding on a carpet of wooden planks two feet wide set up along the inside of the tracks between the rails, just big enough that if he weaved even the slightest bit right or left, he would be off his wooden carpet and into certain death, all while trying to stay focused on a white line painted down the inside of the last car that marked his drafting target.

The immense speed of the train, once it got going at pace, caused his wooden carpet to buckle and undulate and his bike had the feeling of trying to ride a wave of water underneath him at 60 mph, while rubber, embers and a “maelstrom of matter” from under the train pummeled and burned him continuously, train smoke replacing oxygen in his lungs with every breath. The official watching him from the bed of the last car saw Murphy’s distress and yelled to him in urgency with a megaphone. Murphy looked up toward the voice, and in that split second was spit out the back of the train by 50 feet, but harnessing every bit of his strength and will, he fought and caught back onto the draft, effectively outpacing it and getting his record. This was in 1899. Tell us again about that glorious time you bridged from the group to the break at the Donut?

Before the turn of the century, city to city races of up to 800 miles were common, 6-day races were the rage among the most competitive (that’s six continuous days of riding a track with no break, no sleep, and the last person still be riding wins, and people had already circumnavigated the globe on penny farthings.

Has riding gotten harder? I don’t think so. I think we’ve gotten softer. And fluffier. And we continue to move steadily in that direction, with each new “kit drop” and silly photo sesh purporting to show what a badass you are as you pose, exhausted after your 20-mile coffee cruise, next to a fence. So next time you hear someone say cycling should be easier and more social, you can assure them it already is.

Flog contributor, 2020

But back to New Girl on her lazy day-pedal around Southern California on what you will now certainly agree is an incredibly lightweight 39-lb. bike.

As she took her rest on Sycamore Canyon, two real cyclists came by, saw her, and stopped. “Where are you coming from?” Real Cyclist One asked.

“Manhattan Beach.”

“On that?”

“Yes.”

“Did you come up Encinal and Mulland?” asked Real Cyclist Two.

“Yes,” she answered.

They clipped in and pedaled on, but just before they were out of earshot she heard Real Cyclist One utter this, which pretty much says it all: “No fucking way.”

END


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12 thoughts on “39 pounds”

  1. Dean Patterson

    One of the best rides I ever had was with my friend David K. (RIP) in 1977 when we rode, at a very low tide…from Encinitas to La Jolla shores and back, on the sand, on cruisers. I am guessing 40 miles total. It was slow, and the sand was generally packed firm, and it was gloriously fun.
    Thanks for the memory.

  2. When I was about 13 or 14 my friend Ian and I went to Twycross zoo by bike, about a 60 mile round trip, twice as far as I had ever ridden and about 50 miles further than Ian had. We took sandwiches in our back packs, we should have taken more. And my step dads leather bound motoring atlas for directions. He had a no name 10 speed that probably weighed 30lbs and I had my old cycle speedway bike single speed fixie with 33×11 gearing. I think Ian had to walk the last 3-4 miles home but it sticks in my mind as my first big bike adventure

  3. Mike Barraclough

    Lest we forget “Cruiser Chick” regularly kicked NPR ass, here’s a few reminders from segments drilled by “Real Racers” on “Fancy Bikes”. She was always ahead of me, that’s for sure. I’m not afraid to admit attempting to game the system from time to time and beat her speeds on the segments below (failing every time). She was also the first person to say hello when I showed up (before quickly getting dropped) on my very first South Bay group ride back in the day.

    You’ll find her in the top 5 NPR Strava all time:
    1) The leadout: https://www.strava.com/activities/3440304326/segments/2695338157882034693
    2) The sprint:
    https://www.strava.com/activities/3440304326/segments/2695338157882034531
    3) The climb:
    https://www.strava.com/activities/3440304326/segments/2695338157882034247

    PS New Girl and Wolfe regularly walk further than most of us ride, LOL

  4. aw another new girl showed up in tennis sneakers & a rented road bike to the carpenter phinney bike camp, back there in 1997. not even knowing who CP were….the bike royalty showed the new girl a fabulous new way to live life. That new girl, now an old lady master, recently climbed all those fabulous Santa Monica Mountain canyons…Thank you for your beautifully written essays, Seth.

  5. I just re-built a cruiser using parts from 3 bikes. Gears are 18 x 44. After I install a basket for my cooler I’ll be looking for her.

  6. When i was first getting into Road Cycling i would do alot of weight traing. I would carry 50 to 75lbs in a backpack and do laps around the hill on a 25lb KHS with 39×21.

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