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

Halfway through the twentieth century my time on life’s stage nears the final act. It is for that reason I, Tab Huntsman, have an imperative — tell my story before it’s too late. What follows commemorates in words my life — the cyclist’s life — at the turn of the century when everything about transportation revolved around the bicycle. I will describe the technology, the people, our motivations, and the racing. But my recounting of bicycle lore is much more than that. It’s a revelation and a warning: Life is not fair. The more noble aspects of humanity battle dark, sinister forces in our thoughts. 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, as you can revel in 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 of 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 such a 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 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-five-year-old cyclist 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 high 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. The mechanical engineer showed a deep tan, having just returned from Hawaii where he worked for Dillingham Construction building a railroad through swampland. His passion for railroads almost equaled his love for cycling. He jumped at the opportunity to visit Hawaii, not for the pristine beaches and palm trees, but to build a railroad.

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 in town that has this modern voice box. It’s a good thing because I just got word Gary Mandrel is passing through. 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 in every race he entered that he could beat the best cyclists. Carl made adjustments with his spoke wrench while I watched. Carl knew everything about cycling, but his knowledge was worldly. In his travels to the East Coast and Europe he met the great minds of engineering, knew some by first name. He corresponded so frequently that it took the postmaster extra time to gather up 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 names I had perused.

Carl continued turning spokes, listening for the right pitch when they pinged and settled into place. At moments like these he was more piano tuner than wheelbuilder. After each wheel tightening, he carefully stress-relieved the spokes by grabbing 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 about Friedrich Nietzsche? I learned about 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.”

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

Carl reattached his wheel, picked up his knapsack and headed 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. Windy Hill’s 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, coating my shirt in a veil of mud. I cursed to the heavens. The driver saw us coming, knew he might spray us, but kept at it. It was the kind of insult we cyclists got used to. We were punching bags 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 Palo Alto where a land rush ensued when Timothy Hopkins put lots up for sale months earlier. I had written several articles about the new town and its role in supporting Stanford University.

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

“My house is almost finished.” Carl dismounted near the intersection of Middlefield Road. “They’ve got the roof done. Nice work. In a few more weeks I’ll have something more 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 who knew 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 had no regrets about 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 changed over. 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 turned 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. The riders crowded around, anxious to share a brief moment with the new cycling phenom. Racers worshiped 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. Bike racers need guile to win. Those talents weren’t necessarily God-given. Gary had quick reflexes, feared nothing, and had that unassailable confidence, but he also had cunning. He knew when to strike, when to stay back in the pack. Few racers could do what he did with the same proficiency.

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