Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Peter Johnson had a machinist’s soul

January 17, 2022

Jobst Brandt, Olaf Brandt, Peter Johnson, Jan Causey Johnson in Switzerland, 1984. Jobst Brandt photo

When it came to having someone mend my smashed frame in 1981, I immediately thought of Peter Johnson.

I got to know him on Sunday rides with Jobst Brandt, and sharing that kind of toil and strife gave me confidence that he’d do a good job.

Peter warned me that I shouldn’t expect the bike to last forever. When tubes have to be reheated they become more brittle and joints are prone to failure.

I was a starving cyclists at the time and needed a quick fix. So Peter built a new fork, and replaced the toptube, downtube, and headtube.

The bike lasted five more years and got me through a three-week ride in the Alps. I couldn’t complain.

Peter and Jobst complemented each other, like wheels on pavement. Peter the machinist built and maintained Jobst’s bike for more than 25 years.

Peter on Gavia Pass in 1984. Jobst Brandt photo

They toured the Alps six times, 1982-85, 1989, and 1990. That’s a lot of miles and climbing.

Now Peter is gone. I last saw him a few years ago, in the hospital after heart surgery. He died in Bern, Switzerland, a place he loved to visit.

Peter was a regular on Sunday rides well into the 1990s, and his wife Jan joined him on many occasions. Our Wool Jersey Gang had some fun adventures exploring the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I’ll never forget my last visit to Peter’s machine shop in 2006. He owned enough tools and machines to build a car from scratch. Not to mention spare bike equipment.

Peter built obscure parts in his job, things you’ll never see but find their way into vital machinery.

Jobst asked Peter to machine special washers that lodged between a Shimano SPD clipless pedal and a Campagnolo or Shimano crank arm. I had already broken two cranks at the pedal eye, so I jumped at the opportunity to have Peter build me some washers and mill in the crank’s pedal hole opening.

While the washers were tiny and didn’t look like they could do much to prevent a failure, they have worked perfectly for years. The snug fit keeps the pedal from moving.

Machine shop in 2006

Finally, Peter could invent. He built a threadless headset in the early 1970s, well before they were “invented.” It was used by Marc Brandt and Grant Handley in 1976.

Parts wear out with use, and we’re no exception. Now there’s one less machinist to keep the wheels turning. We had some good Sunday rides together, memories that last a lifetime.

Alpine Road’s “muddy” history

September 28, 2021

Upper Alpine Road between Page Mill Road and Portola Valley got its start in the mid 1800s as a trail, then a crude wagon road.

In 1893 San Mateo County declared the road a public right of way and made improvements.

It was all about the economy. The county supervisors thought they could siphon away business going to Santa Clara County by having a better road down the east slope of the coast range.

And so began the road’s tortured history of closures caused by earthquakes and storms that wiped out culverts and bridges.

Look at these photos taken by Jobst Brandt around 1974. The road turned into a muddy mess during wet winters.

Laurence Malone struggles up Alpine Road in the mud.
Dirt bike and cyclists find the mud hard going on Alpine Road. Jobst Brandt photos.

According to Peter Johnson, a cyclist who rode Alpine Road on many occasions, he walked up it faster than half of the cyclocross competitors could ride/walk that day.

The race was hosted by the Palo Alto Bicycle Club, fulfilling a United States Cycling Federation requirement that a club hold one race a year.

I don’t know who won the race, or where it went after reaching Page Mill Road. Maybe someone will read this and post a comment with the information.

For certain, five-time U.S. cyclocross national champion Laurence Malone entered and is shown. Other names mentioned as possibly appearing in the photos are Joe Ryan and Tom Hill, according to Dino Ride on Facebook.

Jobst knew to stay off the road when wet, but we almost always encountered the gooey stuff at “Mud Turn.”

Road Scholar tutorial

August 13, 2021

Over the years I’ve ridden my bike on every kind of surface imaginable. Nothing beats a new coat of asphalt.

My fondest memory of a newly paved road is Hwy 236 through Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

That’s because the old road was badly broken when repaved in 2016, so the new road felt like heaven.

Here are the main types of road construction methods:

Dirt – Needs no explanation. Without maintenance, dirt roads degrade faster than any other surface. They can be muddy in the wet, and dusty when dry.

Alpine Road in 1990 after grading.

Gravel – Nothing more than a dirt road with a layer of gravel. Thick gravel is bad news for bikes. Gravel reduces erosion and improves traction in wet, versus mud.

Gravel road at Col de Tende in 1986. It’s still unpaved
on the French side.

Roman, Stone, Brick – I categorize these types as one. Roman roads are renowned for lasting millennia, although not without maintenance. Bumpy as hell. Think Paris-Roubaix.

Roman road near Naples.
Brick road in Switzerland.

Macadam – Named after John McAdam, a Scottish road builder. It’s basically different sizes of gravel, finest grade at the top. McAdam added compression to make the road last longer. Heavy cast-iron rollers were used to compress gravel, sand, and rock beginning in the 1800s. The U.S. completed its first macadam road in 1830 in Maryland, the Boonsborough Turnpike.

I know macadam roads were built in the Bay Area, but I’m not sure if there are any today.

You might say the improved Bay Trail between Santa Clara and Mountain View is a macadam road, using gravel and fine-grain sand. It’s well compacted and resists water better than any dirt or gravel road.

Tarmac – This is an early form of pavement, patented by Edgar Hooley in 1902, but McAdam made a similar material in the 1830s. Tar is mixed with gravel. It wasn’t used widely until the advent of the automobile.

I suppose some the old Bay Area’s roads paved today started as tarmac. I associate tarmac with chunky gravel. You see it on many old roads around here that have been abandoned.

Tarmac on Montebello Road.

Asphalt – It’s the most popular road surface in the world. Modern petrochemicals are mixed with sand, rubber, and all sorts of other materials, such as glass, to create a smooth surface. It dates back to 1870, with improvements in 1900 and 1907, when refined petroleum was used — modern asphalt.

Concrete – This material was all the rage for road building starting in the 1920s. It’s still popular today. It consists of Portland cement (clay and limestone binding agent), sand, and water, which hardens into concrete.

One of the best examples of a concrete road, about 100 years old and still in use, is Old Santa Cruz Highway.

Old Santa Cruz Hwy south of Summit Road.

Greg LeMond’s first pro bike

August 1, 2021

The image below shows LeMond’s first pro bike, bought by his father in 1975(?). What’s amazing about this image is that it’s a painting!

Greg liked the painter’s work so much that he commissioned Nickalas Blades to paint his yellow Cinelli.


While we’re on the topic of Greg LeMond, I found a recent interview with the Tour de France champion, available on YouTube. JT Frank is the interviewer. He lets Greg give an in-depth summary of his introduction to cycling and early family life.

Fatigue Limit – 15

June 27, 2021

Dunlop’s first pneumatic bicycle tire, circa 1887. (Wikipedia)

“Why not buy here?” I asked. Carl discounted my comment. “Frame size for one. Unavailable. This bike will be one-of-a-kind.”

Carl lifted his glass and toasted Paul. Engineering principles called for a triangular configuration. “My frame is elegant, clean, simple, and will last. A bike is no more than a top tube, down tube, head tube, seat tube, and rear stays. I only want essentials. These Rover, McCarthy, Rambler, and Cogent frames with the crazy curves are an awful idea. I wouldn’t be seen on one.”

He fingered the drawing. “This is a rim brake I found on an old bike, but the design didn’t catch on. With a rear brake like this one, dropping Gary on the descent would be easy. Can you make one? I want another on the front as well.”

Paul studied the sketch. “Sure, I can fabricate anything, given time. Are you going to patent this?”

“I secured a patent for my cyclometer this month after endless paperwork. I don’t care about bike patents. That’s not how I pay the bills. If somebody wants to build one, they can.”

Paul shrugged. “Not a wise idea Carl. Royalties could buy a lot of bikes.”

Carl ran his finger over the sketch and stopped at the wheels. “These are what hold my attention — wheels and tires. Three-cross spoke pattern. Forget radial lacing. Then there’s the crowning achievement in tire technology: a pneumatic called a tubular. They glue on to a wood rim. An inner tube is sewn inside the tire casing. I told Dunlop how to simplify his complex tire. He’s making some samples to test. These tires lighten the wheel and lower rolling resistance. The lone obstacle is flats. They take an hour to patch. In a couple of years the inner tube will sit free inside the tire, held on the rim with pressure alone. A flat can be fixed in a few minutes. Dunlop is considering a half-dozen designs, so the industry is still determining which one is best.”

 “What does a rider do when a tire loses air?” I asked.

“You carry a spare or two behind the saddle. The glue is strong, but you can yank off the tire and put on a new one in a matter of minutes. Ride quality overshadows all the drawbacks. These tires will smooth out the bumps, and the decreased rolling resistance will more than compensate for the time needed to change a flat. No more solid tires!”

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Fatigue Limit – 14

June 20, 2021

Bicycle patent from 1890.

I returned to sit next to Carl, who engaged Paul Johansen in a hushed conversation away from the other riders.

“Tab, Paul and I are working on a project. Keep it to yourself. Understand?”

“Sure. Off the record.”

“Paul is building a frame using the latest in structural engineering and metallurgy. I’m reviewing the details now. What do you think Paul?”

“Anything’s possible. I’ll need some time though. Making components for the headset isn’t easy. I ordered some nickel iron. Lightweight tubing is hard to find in the U.S. The Brits have it on us. We’re using all their steel to build guns. I’ve got a lot of work ahead. This is all on the side, you understand.”

“Of course. Buy the lightest tubing. I don’t care about the cost. The main triangle is straightforward. No curves. Use a protractor. Make a bearing headset for the steering tube. And I want the seat post to fit into the seat tube.”

“I’m getting used to my new brazing jig. Once I’ve practiced, I’ll make you the best bike in the world. I like a challenge. All the U.S. manufacturing is back East in Ohio, Indiana, Massachusetts.”

If anyone could build Carl’s bike, it was Paul. He had some of Gary’s physical features, but their personalities differed. I got to know him during long days in the saddle. His rapier wit more than made up for his laconic manners. Carl and Paul often engaged in verbal jousts using words as they would swords. I learned his father owned a blacksmith shop. Paul studied metalworking from an early age. His knowledge of modern metallurgy came from his father, books, and trade shows. Fledgling automobile companies often sought his help for building custom parts. Carl consulted with engine manufacturers, and hired Paul on numerous occasions.

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Fatigue Limit – 12

June 6, 2021

Freddy Maertens races horse at Amiens, July 1977. Notice the broken wrist. He was supposed to be racing in the Tour de France. Cyclist vs. Horse Duel

I rode north on El Camino Real, quiet as always on a weekday morning. As I passed Mr. Olson’s home I saw him entering the road in his carriage, pulled by Jenny, his faithful mare. She had a healthy-looking chestnut coat offset by a long blonde mane. I stopped to greet Jake Olson, who owned the county’s largest cherry orchard. “Good to see you, Mr. Olson.”

“If it isn’t Tab. You plannin’ to pick cherries again? Sure can use those long arms of yours.”

“You can count on me Mr. Olson, if it’s a buffet picking.” Mr. Olson chuckled.

“If’n you don’t mind the bellyache afterwards, eat all you want.”

“Say, Mr. Olson, want to race?”

“You still think you can beat Jenny? She whupped you last week. She’ll do it again.”

“Half a mile, same as before. And I get thirty seconds head start.”


I lined up with Jenny on the boulevard that ran straight as a ruler through orchards on its way to Mayfield and beyond. “You can begin counting Mr. Olson.”

The aging farmer looked at his pocket watch. “Go! Thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight…”

I pushed down on the pedals as hard as I could. Last week he beat me by five seconds. I knew how fast I needed to ride this time. Within the first hundred yards I was out of breath and my legs hurt from the sudden acceleration. The bike’s heavy iron rims slowed me, but loose gravel and dust made matters worse.

I heard Mr. Olson crack his whip after a half minute and looked back to see him coming. “Darn you Jenny, I’m going to outride you this time,” I said to myself.

I rushed past another wagon hauling farm equipment. The driver turned to look at me and then Mr. Olson. “Harder!” he yelled.

Seeing the road intersection we used as our finish line renewed my determination. Already gassed, I reached into my reserves and spun the cranks faster. I heard Jenny approaching, her hooves pounding the hard ground at a gallop, Mr. Olson yelling for her to catch me. I glanced back a last time and saw his mare only a few feet behind.

Jenny nosed me by a foot at the line, so claimed Mr. Olson. “Beat you again,” he said after we slowed down.

“I’m not convinced she won Mr. Olson. Too close to call.”

The cherry farmer patted Jenny and said soothing words. She snorted in response while she caught her breath. “All righty, me and Jenny will give you a draw. You’re gettin’ strong on that bike of yours. Why don’t you try racin’ over at the track?”

“I might Mr. Olson. I happen to be headed to Mayfield to interview a bike racer.” We waved goodbye.

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Fatigue Limit – 11

May 30, 2021

Same location since 1852, Alpine Road and Arastradero Road.

The view inspired, and gave me peace of mind after the near miss. Puffy white clouds and blue sky made this experience an occasion upon which dreams are made. As much as the rides hurt during the climbs, seeing the valley’s sprawling fruit groves erased those thoughts on the way down. This road offered serenity to cyclists who mastered descending.

The racers focused on the road ahead and not much else. Even on the twisty turns, Gary stayed on Carl’s wheel. Other riders followed close behind as they chased for honors as best descender. I trailed the pack. I didn’t want to encounter another wagon going up the mountain, but obvious hazards did not concern the racers. They owned the road and nothing slowed the scorchers.

At Searsville Road [Arastradero Road] we turned left after everyone rejoined. Carl finished right behind Gary, who blew by on the flat section before the junction. Enlivened by the hair-raising plunge, the riders returned to being their sociable selves. They relived the descent while taking on the last climb to the turnpike. We rolled up to Chepete’s to enjoy a late-afternoon beer. Those of us who didn’t drink would draw down a sweet sarsaparilla.

Carl downed his brew in several gulps. He wiped his mouth of foam. “Gary is a strong climber, but he’s still learning on the descents. He’s going places.” Carl opened up after a few beers.

I drank my soda. “There’s a seven-day race in San Francisco coming soon. Gary should enter.”

“I hope not,” Carl objected. “That wouldn’t be smart.”

“Why not? He’s got speed.”

“He’s too young. He’d fall apart. Besides, those races are gladiatorial fights to the death. Last man standing. Fighting lions. These promoters disrespect real racing. Not that I love the sport. I had my fill of racing on my penny. Everyone is a cheat when they’re racing.”

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Fatigue Limit – 10

May 23, 2021

South Bay orchard in the 1930s, colorized.

No matter what the road conditions, I felt safer on the safety than I did the highwheeler. The one occasion I borrowed a highwheeler, I walked down steep slopes. Carl feared nothing. He mastered the art of the header: tuck and roll.

The first steep section dipped into a gully, where Carl propped his feet up. I decided to give it a try on my safety. I reached top speed within seconds. No sooner had I gotten used to it then a hansom came my way from the opposite direction. We both headed downhill into the swale. The horse’s brisk pace took the driver wide on the curve and into my path. I issued a bloodcurdling scream. Bike swaying to and fro, I flew by the carriage. The driver looked back and screamed bloody murder. What he said I cannot say. It happened so fast. Close calls on the bike become a routine matter. Death, always lurking, reaches out and shakes cyclists at every opportunity to remind us we are mortals. We learn to live with the hazards or we quit riding.

Several minutes of level pedaling gave me a chance to gather my wits before another long, steep descent. From my vantage point, descending this hillside with few trees to block the view, I saw Santa Clara Valley. Such a view gave me no untold satisfaction, like a glass of iced tea on a hot summer day. A sea of white and pink flowers transformed fruit orchards into a painter’s canvas. No wonder they called this place the Valley of Heart’s Delight. Another range of hills to the east hemmed in the valley. Mount Hamilton at four thousand feet altitude hosted the new observatory, its white dome sitting mushroom-like on the summit. Located behind a series of hills, this mountain settled into the eastern horizon.

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Fatigue Limit – 9

May 17, 2021

Gabriel Chrisman demonstrates coasting on his custom-built safety.

In winter, rains made many tight turns muddy, and horse hooves left bumpy depressions. The summer months had their own difficulties. Logging wagons and stagecoaches churned the road into a fine powder. We  fishtailed down, gripping our metal steeds with all our strength. But this was late spring. Thanks to dry weather during the past week, Page Mill showed itself at its finest — hard-packed dirt ideal for speeding. Travelers gave us an uncomplimentary nickname — scorchers. And scorch we would down to the valley.

Carl took the lead, demonstrating his unconventional technique. He placed his feet on pegs attached to the fork, similar to a practice perfected by the highwheelers on tricky descents. With legs out front, they avoided tumbling head-first in a crash. Cranks always turned on our direct-gear bikes. Several years later some smart engineer came up with the coaster hub. Putting feet up was the only way to let the bike go as fast as possible. The position resembled a mantis attacking its prey. Many riders emulated Carl, having learned how to descend fast thanks to his methods. I was not a true believer, planting my feet on the pedals and spinning like crazy. On these occasions, Carl always yelled in a mocking voice as he flew by, “Spin to win!”

However, I did subscribe to keeping back on the saddle to minimize weight on the front wheel. On a dirt road with poor traction, the rear wheel stabilized with extra pressure and the lighter front end had less chance of catching a rut.

Carl used his front spoon brake as little as possible, which threatened to lock up. We were cheap too. Spoon brakes increased tire wear on steep descents.

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