Archive for the ‘History’ Category

San Jose History Park Looks Back at Bikes

July 27, 2014

Schwinn bikes on parade at Kelley Park.

Schwinn bikes on parade at Kelley Park.

On Sunday, San Jose’s Kelley Park saw a bike gathering of epic proportions as two bike events meshed into one: Shiny Side Up Bicycle Day and the exhibit “Bikes: Passion, Innovation & Politics Since 1880” opened inside the Pacific Hotel’s Arbuckle Gallery.

I’ll get to the history part in a second, but first a little about Shiny Side Up. Like car collecting, bike collecting is a niche activity.

If you’re into the old Schwinn balloon tire bikes and “chopper” bikes, southsydecycles is the place for you.

Schwinn made millions of single-speed town bikes, and it looked like every one that’s left was on display in the park. My parents couldn’t afford a name-brand like Schwinn so we kids got the J.C. Higgins Flightliner, circa 1960, sold by Montgomery Ward.

Now let’s take a look inside the Arbuckle Gallery and see what’s in store for cycling history aficionados.

Local history
There’s a lot of history packed into a small area, starting with the earliest bike on display, a velocipede (a name coined by the French) built in the mid-1800s. These bikes with steel rims were aptly nicknamed boneshakers.

Beautiful photo on display in Arbuckle  Gallery.

Beautiful photo on display in Arbuckle Gallery.

In my mind, bicycle design took a step backwards with the big-wheel penny farthing in later years, mainly because they were so difficult to ride, mount and dismount.

The first safety bikes that looked and worked like today’s bikes are also on display, including one of my favorites — the bike without a chain. Instead of a chain, it has rear-stay direct-drive geared shaft. (Check out the wood rims.) There’s a modern version of this bike. I don’t imagine it sells all that well, but if you really don’t like chains, it’s a decent option.

No more chain. Drive- shaft technology.

No more chain. Drive- shaft technology.

There’s a display case devoted to Clyde Arbuckle, who by all accounts was a walking encyclopedia of San Jose history in later life (1903-1998). He was, in fact, the city historian. But more importantly, he was a cyclist and winning bike racer in his youth. Sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet him, or his son Jim, who died while cycling, age 72.

There’s also tribute paid to Spence Wolf (Cupertino Bicycles), Ellen Fletcher (Palo Alto City Council), and John Forester (bicycle transportation engineer). I did a two-hour video interview with Ellen about her life a few years ago that I hope to post.

You’ll see some interesting bikes from the past, including a classic Cinelli track bike in pristine condition, and of course some mountain bikes, which were popularized by cyclists in Marin County and, to some extent, by South Bay riders.



Familiar faces
The real reward for showing up on opening weekend was encountering cycling acquaintances who have seen their passion evolve over the past four or five decades.

I talked with Chris Dresden about his recovery from a heart operation, and Ken Kratz, retired Santa Clara traffic engineer who helped design the San Tomas Aquino Creek Trail. Our paths had crossed years ago at work and while I was on the Santa Clara bike committee.

Trophy case for San Jose clubs going way back.

Trophy case for San Jose clubs going way back.

Finally, one of the co-curators of the bike display, Terry Shaw, walked around chatting with attendees. The retired owner of Shaw’s Lightweight Cycles in San Jose (1976) and Santa Clara (1984) had a heart transplant in 2011, as reported in the San Jose Mercury News, and says he is back riding and feeling great. He sure looks it!

Among pro bike shops, I could depend on Terry to have those rare parts that riders need for older bikes. But unlike some, Terry also catered to the regular bike crowd. One time he sold me a set of nice alloy rims for a beater 3-speed. He was the only shop owner that had alloy as opposed to the standard steel rim. Now there’s someone who appreciates all bikes.

Terry Shaw put his considerable knowledge of cycling history to good use.

Terry Shaw put his considerable knowledge of cycling history to good use.

Terry said that this display is just the beginning. He hopes that it can find a permanent home and continue to grow. That’s a worthy goal, considering the rich history of cycling in the Bay Area. Many of the bicycle inventions and trends of the 1970s-2000s have been here. The riding isn’t half-bad either.

He rode to the moon and back

December 8, 2013

HP's Homestead/Wolfe campus is giving way to Apple's new spaceship HQ. Jobst Brandt used to work at this location.

HP’s Homestead/Wolfe campus is giving way to Apple’s new spaceship HQ. Jobst Brandt used to work at this location.

I stopped by to see Jobst Brandt and as I was there I thought about all the miles he’s ridden. My estimate is nearly 500,000 miles, or to the moon and back.

He rode a bike since childhood, but I figure he had 50 years riding 10,000 miles a year, and that is a number he has used in correspondence. I have no doubt it’s true.

For a while in the 1970s, Jobst rode from his home in Palo Alto to the HP facility at Homestead and Wolfe Road in Cupertino. For a time I also worked nearby on Tantau and it was about 14 miles one way via Foothill Boulevard. Jobst rode both ways on most days, and on Sundays anywhere from 50 to 130 miles.

When he worked at HP Labs in Palo Alto, he always rode the Loop — Sand Hill Road, Portola Road, Alpine Road, Arastradero Road. He often complained about merging onto Page Mill Road at the I-280 exit. I hear ya.

For those of you who received the annual woodblock Christmas card, here’s one of my favorites, the avocet. It looks like he started doing these in 1965 and stopped in 2007, from what I could see.

Jobst Brandt woodblock carvings from the 1980s. There's something wrong with this photo. Guess.

Jobst Brandt woodblock carvings from the 1980s. There’s something wrong with this photo. Guess.

Cyclometers keep us honest

June 5, 2013

Jobst Brandt descends Haskins Hill on Pescadero Road, promoting Avocet tires.

Jobst Brandt descends Haskins Hill on Pescadero Road, promoting Avocet tires.

Among its many benefits, the Avocet cyclometer took the BS out of cycling. You couldn’t exaggerate how fast you sped down steep hills. I used to routinely hear Tour de France TV announcers talk about racers reaching 60-70 mph as though it were an everday occurrence. Hardly.

I don’t hear that kind of talk as much now, so to impress the uninitiated they go metric on us. “They’re descending at amazing speeds, 80-90 kph.” That’s more like it.

One of the best descenders I’ve known is Jobst Brandt. Not only was he a skilled rider, he was fearless, a pre-requisite for going 60 mph and beyond. At 180 pounds he had a weight advantage over the elite riders who took his draft, racers like Tom Ritchey, Sterling McBride, Peter Johnson, Keith Vierra and others.

Jobst had a key role in designing the Avocet cyclometer (bike computer). As an engineer and a cyclist he was a stickler for accuracy, which is why the Avocet cyclometer was the most accurate computer of its time.

So how fast did Jobst go? He clocked himself just over 60 mph descending the east slope of Tioga Pass. Jobst repeated that effort on Italy’s Fedaia Pass with Peter Johnson. Dave McLaughlin, past winner of the Mt. Hamilton road race, says he reached a similar speed on Tioga Pass, according his to friends following in a car.

You can’t appreciate how fast that is until you’re up around 50 mph. The slightest error means catastrophe — a rock, a gust of wind, a pothole.

I’ve read anecdotal reports of racers reaching speeds of 75 mph, but I’m skeptical. It would have to be under perfect conditions and with a tailwind. Few racers carry as much weight as Jobst, who also lugged a 20-pound saddle bag on his Alps rides.

Ted Mock takes photos for an Avocet tire ad with Jobst Brandt.

Ted Mock takes photos for an Avocet tire ad with Jobst Brandt in the mid-1980s.

Faber’s Bike Shop Memories Burn Bright

April 27, 2013

One legend admires another. Jobst Brandt checks out Faber's (closed) back in July 1983.

One legend admires another. Jobst Brandt checks out Faber’s (closed) back in July 1983.

Sadly, the historic Faber’s Bike Shop caught fire Thursday in downtown San Jose and will most likely be torn down. The building dates back to 1884 and had been used as a bike shop for 100 years.

Many San Jose residents have fond memories of the shop, which has seen its ups and downs over the years. It’s a part of San Jose’s history, no doubt. To get a real feel for the kind of place it was, watch this beautiful video photo montage by Bernardo Grijalva on Vimeo. His black and white treatment captures the rough-hewn wood-frame interior like nothing else I’ve seen.

Faber’s, located at 702 S. First Street, shared its historic roots with yet another bike shop nearby, Desimone’s Bicycle Store on 83 S. Second Street. It was owned by Joseph Anthony Desimone, who died in 1945. I don’t know when that shop shut its doors, but there’s an interesting article about one of the shop’s senior mechanics, Ed Barnes, in a past issue of Bicycle Journal.

Jobst Brandt and Peter Johnson inspect the bike wrecking yard at Faber's.

Jobst Brandt and Peter Johnson inspect the bike wrecking yard at Faber’s.

Mt. Hamilton History Reboot

January 6, 2013

A Northrop A-17 crashed into Lick Observatory in May 1939.

A Northrop A-17 crashed into Lick Observatory in May 1939.

I found a rather embarrassing error in my Mt. Hamilton by Bike publication, so I wanted to set the record straight regarding a fatal plane crash at the Lick Observatory.

I said the plane that crashed was a jet, which would have been impossible on May 21, 1939, when the accident happened. I was also off by a day on the accident. The first jet flight did not take place until August 27, 1939 — the Heinkel He 178.

Someone told me it was a jet and when I did the search online I found the account but did not follow through to identify the plane, which was a Northrop A-17 single-engine Army attack bomber, built around 1935-7. It could also be called a Douglas brand aircraft.

A thorough account of the tragedy was written in The Scientific Monthly, July 1939, and is now available online.

2013 Alpine Road Calendar Available Now

November 7, 2012

Available on Magcloud, a 2013 calendar featuring Alpine Road from the 1980s.

Back in the 1980s Alpine Road started its slow decline into oblivion as San Mateo County abandoned the road. The last maintenance occurred in December 1989 when it was graded. However, the county never cleared culverts, so around 1994 a culvert plugged and a massive slide took out the road. That’s why there’s a steep, gnarly trail that has to be negotiated.

The 2013 calendar captures what it was like in its heyday. The calendar marks major U.S. holidays and area road races, although some dates are tentative. Enjoy.

Peter Rich Remembers the Tour of California

October 20, 2012

Peter Rich talks shop with Bud Hoffacker, left, and John Woodfill, right. Peter holds annual panel talks on cycling history to “set the record straight.” Jobst Brandt’s bike race trophies shown.

Peter Rich, a Bay Area cycling legend, stopped by to see Jobst Brandt in Palo Alto last night and share some memories among cycling friends.

Peter recently shut down his iconic bike shop Velo Sport in Berkeley, Calif., after nearly 50 years of business. In many ways, Velo Sport Bicycles and Palo Alto Bicycles, where Jobst frequently visited, have a lot in common, including both stores being located at a University Avenue address and next to famous universities!

They hosted bike racing teams and races over the decades. I asked Peter about the 1971 Tour of California, the first international stage race held in the U.S. Track racing ruled the sport leading up to the 1950s when road racing came on the scene.

Peter organized and funded the tour at a time when U.S. stage racing was still a closet sport. The Greg LeMonds and Lance Armstrongs of the world would not arrive for another 15-20 years.

First Peter had to secure permission from the California Highway Patrol (CHP). He sent seven letters to the districts that they were riding through. “I got a range of responses from ‘good luck’ to ‘you’ll be arrested,’” he said.

Bear Valley start

The racers took off on Saturday, Aug. 28, from Bear Valley, a ski resort located at 7,000 feet in the Sierra. Some 80 racers would cover 885 miles in 10 stages, which included some hard climbing over Carson, Ebbetts and Pacific Grade passes.

On stage 1 racers sped down Hwy 108 to Stockton and on the way dozens and dozens of cars piled up behind the peloton. This was an open course race with no CHP directing traffic on the two-lane road. At one point a CHP officer pulled ahead, got out of his car and started waving riders over to stop the race.

“The pack just rode around him and kept going,” Peter recalled. Fortunately, the race continued without CHP intervention. “We agreed to limit the number of follow cars,” Peter said.

The official follow cars were yellow Ford Pintos donated by the car maker. You can see them in the videos posted on YouTube.

Competitors came from all over, including Canada and Mexico. For the first time, Peter saw evidence of doping among racers. A Mexican rider who appeared to be high on speed was so disoriented he lined up at the starting line pointed in the wrong direction!

Our most notable U.S. racer, John Howard, had a rough go, crashing into a truck coming over a hill. Howard managed to continue the race.

So why wasn’t there a second Tour of California? “I lost $50,000,” Peter said. Raleigh, Ford and other sponsors failed to pay out money promised before the race. “They complained there was a recession,” Peter said.

All that’s left now is the memories and grainy video. Laurie Schmidtke gives an excellent blow-by-blow account of his Tour of California experience from the peloton. Check it out.

From Repack to Rwanda

August 23, 2012

Mountain bike history is on display at the San Francisco Airport, international departure terminal. Worth a trip.

SFO is more than an airport. It’s also a museum. On display now is the history of the mountain bike, “From Repack to Rwanda.” What better place? Our international airport hard by San Francisco Bay is overlooked by Mount Tamalpais where the mountain bike sprouted wings in the 1970s and soared into a thriving industry by the early 1980s.

Three display cases house a wealth of mountain bike history from the balloon-tire Schwinns of the early 1940s to the audaciously futuristic Fisher Superfly. We follow the growth of the sport chronologically through words, pictures, maps, even video. Most is familiar to anyone who has been part of the mountain bike movement. But there are surprises.

I learned about one Erik Koski whose work on dropouts and forks (the now familiar U-shaped lugless design) blazed a trail to the modern bike with a better, more reliable ride. His innovations earned him a place in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, 1989.

All the more satisfying is the Project Rwanda display contrasting the modern and oh-so-primitive wooden mountain “bike.” We see Tom Ritchey surrounded by children who may one day be elite bike racers or successful farmers helped by the modern mountain bike. Adrien Niyonshuti raced for his country in the London Olympics. He survived the country’s ethnic cleansing in 1994, but lost six brothers.

Joe Breeze is credited with helping gather information for the display. Smart move. Joe’s early mountain bike frames deserve their reputation for workmanship and it’s only fitting that one of them would be on display in the Smithsonian.

While the mountain bike can’t lay claim to being the first at anything (lest we forget cyclo-cross and those early “steeplechase” off-road races at the turn of the century) it changed the game and made cycling off-road something for everyone. More photos.

Project Rwanda receives some well-deserved publicity at SFO.

Avocet: more than just a shorebird

July 4, 2012

A new Avocet Road 30 tire. Outstanding ride in the mid 1980s, and it still matches the best tires made today.

To celebrate the 4th of July I mounted my one and only Avocet FasGrip 30 Kevlar-bead tire. And as fate would have it, I stumbled across a new Avocet racing II saddle at the Bicycle Outfitter, the place to go if you’re looking for Avocet products of yore. I rode Avocet Road 20 tires for years, but I never tried the Road 30.

I aged this tire like a fine wine, buying it in 1986 and carrying it as a spare on my ride through the Alps. I never mounted the tire and it just sat there in my travel bag for the past 26 years. While aging rubber is not a good thing, as it is for wine, the tire looks as good as new. An interesting discovery: the 700×28 tire is only 24 mm wide, one of the most egregious width discrepancies I’ve ever seen in a tire, or it’s a mislabeled 700×25.

Avocet made its reputation in saddles, and deservedly so. This one was manufactured by Selle Italia, but Avocet made saddles in the U.S. for a time, including the comfortable Gelflex.

I checked eBay and you can buy a pair of new wire-bead Avocet tires for $92. Road 20s sold for $12.98 each in 1987. My Road 30 tire went for $18.98.

After a trip on the Racing II I can tell you it’s a comfortable ride, but if you have prostate issues, use the newer saddles shaped to relieve pressure in that area.

Bike Photos Capture Life Before Cars

June 13, 2012

This Baker’s Bridge photo is available as a poster from the Animas Museum in Durango, Colorado. Click on image for larger size.

When I saw the 1895 photo of the Durango Wheel Club on Baker’s Bridge overlooking the Animas River, I had to have it. It was hanging up in the Amsterdam Bike Shop in Santa Cruz. Sadly owner Tom Sullivan closed his shop on May 31, but that’s another story.

I took the information on the poster and traced it to the Animas Museum in Durango. Sure enough, they sell a print for $10. It’s only 23″ x 19″ but I think they sell a larger version for a higher price. I would also prefer that the print be true black and white rather than a sepia tone.

By 1895 when this photo was taken, the highwheeler was history and the safety bike reigned supreme. Thank goodness!

Baker’s bridge used to be located 12 miles north of Durango. The bridge was swept away eons ago, but it’s still a wild and scenic area.

Many outstanding black and white photos of cycling in the late 1800s exist. This is one of them, worthy of a wall mounting.