Beautiful painting from the 1890s.

In the throes of writing my next novel (it’s painful). The story takes place in 1889, culminating in the seven-day bike race held at the Mechanics’ Pavilion in San Francisco.

Publication scheduled for: November 2021

1 Origins

Close to halfway through the twentieth century, my time on life’s stage nears the final act. It is for that reason I have an imperative — tell my story before the inkwell runs dry. What follows commemorates the cyclist’s life at the turn of the century when everything about personal transportation revolved around the bicycle. But my recounting of bicycle lore is much more than that. It’s a revelation and a warning: Life is not fair. The noble side of humanity battles dark, sinister forces in our thoughts and actions. We lie, cheat, steal, and fight one another to get what we want, to make our dreams whole. People suffer; their hopes are trampled, and reputations ruined. There is no fairy-tale ending to my story. I lied and cheated and fought for my place in the world. I was no different. Now I harbor regrets that weigh me down. Given the opportunity, I would turn back the clock to change the course of events as they transpired. I often dream about discovering a time machine and making things right: Conjure up a happy ending. Perhaps by reading my story you can avoid repeating my mistakes, free yourself of a guilty conscience. My actions dashed hopes that once filled me with breathless anticipation for a future only I could imagine.

At the very least, sit back and let yourself be transported to an age without cars when the bicycle reigned supreme. Oh what a time it was! We rode through the Bay Area hills with nary a care, full of life, the wind at our backs, and the fragrant aroma of fruit orchards blossoming in the spring. We rode over mountains with abandon. No distance was too far. If you find an inner-tube’s-worth of enjoyment from this brief interlude, my work is not in vain.

As it did for so many then, cycling changed my life, steering me to a career in journalism. At least that was my dream. The road to that high plateau of accomplishment had its share of potholes. I started peddling nearby newspapers, including Mayfield News and the San Jose Mercury News, with hopes of one day reporting for the San Francisco newspapers. I faced fierce competition for a seat at the editor’s desk. I had little chance of making it. I was not the best student, nor the best writer. I had no connections, nor the wizard’s wand, that would magically open doors to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Examiner, or The San Francisco Morning Call. I needed something remarkable on my job application to make an impression. This is a tale of how I embellished my resume to become a writer for the San Francisco Examiner. Everything is true as I remember it, and I can confirm everything that is written.

Little did I realize my lucky break would come thanks to my passion for cycling. The sport kept me on the narrow path and, even though I knew it might not lead to a better life, it became my Gibraltar, a reliable way to feel good when times got tough. My saga starts on a warm spring day in the bucolic farming community of Mayfield [Palo Alto] in the year 1889…

I rode north from my place to Carl Koenig’s house in Mayfield, a short distance from the train depot, and found him waiting outside. A year ago I came to know this disputatious crank of a rider who lived the hermit’s life, except when it came to cycling. He had his pulse on the biking community. Bicycle knowledge, not blood, coursed through his veins. The forty-year-old engineer stood well over one fathom, and that left an immediate impression. He had not an ounce of fat on his large, sturdy frame. His legs looked like the drive rods of a locomotive. Upon further scrutiny, he had a nose shaped like an eagle’s, large hands and long fingers, like talons, and deep-set eyes that could spot wildlife at extreme range. His uncanny ability to see and interpret what lay ahead while riding made him prescient. He identified birds by their song when he could not see them hidden in the trees. Carl was much more than a cyclist. He was a savant, a coach, Darwin in the wilds, and a walking encyclopedia rolled into one. Today he showed a deeper tan than normal, having just returned from Hawaii where he was hired by Dillingham Construction to help build a railroad through swampland. His passion for trains almost equaled his love for cycling. He jumped at the opportunity to visit Hawaii, not for the pristine beaches and palm trees, but to enable completion of a twelve-mile line between Honolulu and Aiea owned by the Oahu Railway & Land Company.

I joined his devoted band of followers on weekend rides into the Santa Cruz Mountains. They were racers, by and large, and it wasn’t long before I wanted to be just like them.

“Come inside Tab. I need to adjust this wheel. I see you got my telephone message. The ‘snooze-paper’ in San Jose is one of the few businesses that has this modern voice box. It’s a good thing because I just got word Gary Mandrel is passing through. You won’t want to miss him. We’re meeting at Orr & Peterson.”

That was an understatement. The young rider’s reputation spread like a raging wildfire across Northern California. His exploits on the bike rewrote the record books, overshadowing the accomplishments of the best riders. He proved that he could beat just about any rider, maybe even professionals.

Carl turned nipples with his spoke wrench. He could repair anything mechanical that he set his mind to. It helped that his knowledge was worldly. During his travels to the East Coast and Europe he met the great minds of engineering. He corresponded so frequently that the postmaster kept a special bin for all the letters. I shuffled through a pile of missives strewn across his dining room table. The names read like a Who’s Who — John Dunlop, Pierre Lallement, John Kemp Starley, Albert Overman, Henry Sturmey, Eugene Meyer, Hans Renold, Alfred Reynolds, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche. His Renaissance man attributes shown through.

“You do know some influential people,” I said, my mouth agape at the well-known names.

Carl continued turning spokes, listening for the right pitch when they pinged and settled into place. At moments like these he was a piano tuner, not a wheelbuilder. After each wheel tightening, he carefully stress-relieved the spokes by grabbing opposing pairs and squeezing them. Was there anything this man could not do? Here he was, a piano repairman one minute, a dairy farmer with the right “squeeze” the next.

“Certainly. These fellows understand scientific principles.”

“Including Sigmund Freud? Isn’t he a psychologist?”

“He’s a blowhard. I don’t buy what he’s selling, but he has a few good ideas. Besides, he’s German. I understand his writing.”

“And what of Friedrich Nietzsche? I studied him in school. He’s a nihilist.”

“Don’t say that. It’s a highfalutin word for a realist. He doesn’t believe in prophets or fairy tales, nor do I.”

“Have you seen Dunlop’s pneumatic tire? Is it as good as they say?”

Carl reattached his wheel, picked up his knapsack and made for the door. “Not Dunlop! He re-invented the pneumatic tire conceived by Robert Thomson. Mr. Thomson should sue, but I’m quite sure he thinks like me. He wants to see technology advance. Come on. We’re going to be late. We don’t want to miss a ride with Velo Master Mandrel. I’ll tell you about Dunlop’s tire on the way. All I’ll say right now is they’re better than the Victor cushion tires.”

We mounted our safety bikes with hard-rubber wheels and rode north on the El Camino to the bike shop and hardware store on University Avenue. Spring Ridge’s [Windy Hill] patch of pastoral greenery marked the distant hills and reminded us adventure awaited. We overtook a water truck spraying the road. The wagon shot a thin stream my way. It mixed water and dirt that splashed me, coating my shirt in a veil of mud. I cursed to the heavens. The driver, who wore a cowboy hat and boots, saw us coming, realized he would spray us, but kept at it. It was the kind of insult we cyclists got used to. We were whipping posts for the horse riders and other transportation.

“At least it didn’t include a horse’s Eau de Cologne,” Carl replied after a laugh.

“He saw us coming,” I fumed.

“Get over it kid. Find a way to get back at him.”

Carl turned down Lytton, one of the new streets in the University Park [Palo Alto] subdivision. A land rush ensued when Timothy Hopkins put lots up for sale weeks earlier. I had already written several articles about the new town and its role in supporting Stanford University.

“I think I know where we’re going Carl.”

“My house is moving right along.” Carl dismounted near the intersection of Middlefield Road. “They’ve got the walls up. Nice work. In a few months I’ll have something to my liking.”

We rolled up to Orr & Peterson’s where cyclists congregated. I recognized a few of the riders, but Carl knew everyone. He mingled and exchanged words with the wheelmen, always appraising riders’ bikes. “Those wheels aren’t going to last,” he griped. “You’ve got to build them with three-cross lacing. Didn’t you read my article? That frame looks like a giant grasshopper! Who built that? Oh! An Ordain-ary. Blessed by the Pope!”

Most riders familiar with Carl had grown accustomed to his constant browbeating. They shrugged and paid him no attention, but a few listened intently, mostly the young, impressionable riders like myself. Another rider showed up on his penny-farthing. I stifled a laugh. He would not be joining us on the long climb that was sure to come.

I didn’t regret missing out on the highwheeler. I started with a safety bike only a year ago, my father paying a king’s ransom for the machine. Still, I admired the local racers who suffered through their formative days riding highwheelers. They were modern-day essedarii, riding high out of the saddle where a tumble could mean a trip to the infirmary. They made the switch to safeties in a heartbeat once Carl bought one. The mechanical engineer always berated the beastly highwheelers, declaring them an engineering travesty. He pointed out the advantages a chain afforded the Coventry Rotary tricycle and called for a two-wheeler of similar design. It took ten years, but the bicycle industry finally came around to Carl’s way of thinking. Only a handful of professional racers still rode highwheelers. We assumed it was because their sponsors required it of them. They weren’t fools, but they were beholden.

Everyone’s attention shifted from Carl to Gary when he rolled up, riding a custom-made Harry S. Roberts, imported from England with the latest lightweight tubing and iron rims, drivetrain on the left. Its new coat of pearlescent paint glistened in the sun. Gary’s blond hair complemented the bike color. He greeted the riders with an expressive smile, slapping hands and wheeling a circle before planting his feet. His presence felt like one of those whirlwinds that kicks up dust and debris and then vanishes as quickly as it arrived. Only in our case it piqued our senses with excitement. The riders crowded around, anxious to share a brief moment with the new cycling phenom. Racers worshipped anyone who could outride the pack. The personality wasn’t what mattered, just the leg muscles, the lungs, and the winning spirit. Gary had all of it and the riders wanted a piece of it. They hoped that some of his magic would rub off by following his draft. If only it were that simple. Some bike racers used guile to win, and that might involve breaking the rules. Not Gary. He had quick reflexes, feared nothing, and conveyed unassailable confidence, but he also had cunning. He sensed the best moment to strike, when to stay back in the pack. Few racers could do what he did with the same proficiency.

Gary had sinewy muscles like a cheetah’s, and physical proportions right out of a gym book. Everything about his physique spoke to speed and grace on the bike. And he had yet to start riding. I understood why this twenty-year-old rider was going places.

“Where to fellows?” Gary asked. “I’m up for a good ride. I’ve been doing so much traveling by train this past week that I haven’t practiced much.”

Carl looked at Gary’s bike and pointed to the drivetrain. “You must be left handed.” Everyone laughed, Gary included. Our circle of sycophants followed as Carl rode west, waving his hand like a modern-day wagon master. Our Pied Piper on the bike rode all the trails and logging roads in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We joined him, anxious to stay on his wheel for fear of becoming lost in the hills. His large size made for a good draft. We weren’t proud.

“Not another Koenig Ride!” someone yelled. “If there’s any grizzlies in those hills, we’re sure to find them.” Everyone laughed as the pace picked up to a comfortable level allowing for conversation. We rode west on Menlo Park Road [Alpine Road], a well-graded thoroughfare to Portola Valley, seeing the occasional horse rider and wagon on the way into the oak-covered hills. Carl recalled that in his youth this road was a turnpike and users had to pay a modest fee to help see the road built all the way to Santa Cruz, but it never happened.

Small stands of redwoods made their appearance. These stately trees grew in abundance in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a lure for any logger with a lust for fine lumber.

Some of the wealthiest families in the San Francisco Bay Area lived by the road, including Andrew Hallidie, inventor of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars. The presence of wealthy landowners and their connections with local politicians ensured that the road would be well maintained. Water wagons plied the pastoral boulevard daily.

We passed Chapete’s [Alpine Inn] where cyclists stopped after a ride for a cold brew and to share stories of adventure in the far corners of San Mateo County. Before the cyclists, it was the woodsmen who worked the nearby sawmills telling tall tales. Loggers shared a common bond with Carl’s riders. They liked the outdoors, worked hard, and spent long hours in the woods.

Nothing can compare to the camaraderie cultivated between individuals with like intentions beginning a long ride. Turning the pedals works wonders to loosen the tongue and put the rider in a mellow frame of mind. The legs are still supple, the lungs rested. And so it was in this upbeat mood that we began a long climb heading into the hills. We followed Martinez Road [Alpine Road] next to Corte Madera Creek, which had carved out a narrow canyon over millennia. Oaks, madrone, big-leaf maple, redwoods, and laurel hugged the steep slopes, giving us shelter from the sun. I had been on this road before with Carl. Calling it a road stretched the definition. Carl assured me that San Mateo County would claim the right of way and improve it “one of these days.” He often railed against the county’s capricious treatment of roads as they put off maintenance or abandoned them all together. Gary stayed in the pack as riders jockeyed for position around him on the rutted trail marked by mud puddles. They waited for the inevitable surge, at which time their good-natured friendliness would evaporate as fast as fog on a hot summer morning. They were like a school of sardines transformed into a pack of hungry sharks. Gary had plenty of competition from local riders. Tim Mafer had shown promise in recent races at San Jose’s dirt track. He lived near Spring Ridge where his father grew hay and cultivated vineyards. Paul Johansen, track racer and frame builder in Menlo Park, followed behind Carl, who stayed near the front. Even though Carl was twice the age of many riders in our group, he had the strength to keep up. I fell to the back, gasping for air as the pace quickened, but managed to hang on.


%d bloggers like this: