I needed a new, old-style bottom-bracket to maintain my obsolete friction-shift drivetrain in working order. It was either that, or buy one of the new low profile bottom-brackets and everything else I'd need for the conversion to 8-speed, 130-millimeter rear spacing, indexed derailleur, finger-touch-at-the-brake-lever shifting. I was at a bike shop that could order me an old-style bottom-bracket. I decided that would be plan B. The aforementioned conversion would be plan Z.
I started driving home the back way, taking roads I more frequently pedal. A stiff breeze blew across newly harvested fields, ushering in the season. An occasional hardwood grove, a few scattered farm buildings, a far-off water tower, and a distant grain elevator were the only obstacles to a horizontal horizon. It was ironic that marketing geniuses and engineered obsolescence had forced me to even contemplate the purchase of an 16-speed component group here, where the land is so flat that 10 speeds are superfluous! Here, on the same roads Gary Fixed-Gear Dauer and his merry band of direct drive Wheelmen once trained in the off-season. What, I thought, would Dauer (who left the sport about the time rear dropouts were expanded to accept 6-speed spacing) think of this?
Gary Dauer was one of the original Wheelmen. Even though he abandoned the sport in the early 80's, his legacy lives on. He did, in fact, race and win federation time trials in a fixed gear. Legend now has it that Gary also rode a fixed gear in federation mass-start races. I'm not sure about that.
The first time I saw Gary at a federation race he was sitting on the tailgate of his 68 Datsun pickup lacing up his shoes. Full beard, bushy black hair, and the ubiquitous white Campagnolo cap worn brim back, he was wearing the yellow, black, and white Paramount jersey that matched his Schwinn Paramount road bike, a chameleon-like machine that could appear fixed-gear or with derailleurs, fendered, and either with or without racks. I walked over to his bike and instantly noticed the elegant simplicity of a chain run around a single chainwheel and rear cog. When I naively asked if he was going to race in a fixed gear, Gary peered at me over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses, reached down to touch the crankarm with his index finger, and sent the crankset spinning--WHIZZzzzz-z-z... a single freewheel.
Gary believed in the gear. Not for its simplicity and elegance alone, nor solely for its significant weight savings (though Gary was a charter member of that crazed pre-aerodynamic cult that drilled holes in everything until their precious bicycle components looked like Swiss cheese). Nor was it merely a bold statement of cycling prowess, though it did add to Gary's presence in the peloton and has certainly helped maintain the growing Dauer legend. No; Gary believed--not in a single gear--but in the gear. He was convinced that no matter how a race played out, tactically or dramatically, sooner or later his success would come down to how well he could turn the crankset he had just playfully sent spinning. He had demonstrated time and again in club races the ability to sit up and spin in the wake of big gear mashers. Eventually the 53x14's would bog down; and then, as soon as the sprinters were badly positioned at the front, Gary would attack. Alone. In the gear.
Gary, like many early Wheelmen, made the weekly trip up I-75 to Exit 59, Eight Mile to Mound, Mound to Outer Drive and the entrance of Derby Hill, a Detroit City Park with a soapbox derby hill and an asymmetrical 260-some-meter cement bicycle track. Dorais Velodrome, where every fair-weather Tuesday night Mike Walden, owner of Mike Walden's Continental Bike Shop and head coach of the Wolverines, led his charges in a tightly orchestrated, precisely calculated speed workout. This is where Gary and the rest (author included) got the gear.
Getting the gear was not a matter of stumbling into a comfortable gear that worked for you after a few Tuesdays of trial and error at Dorais and then calling it your own. Walden selected the gear for you--that is if you were worthy of selection. You needed to show some promise first, catch Mike's attention. Then, when and if he tapped your shoulder, it became a rite of passage. Mike had noticed. You had arrived.
It started with a gear roll-out. "Forget that gear chart," Mike would say. "Not accurate enough." He wasn't kidding. He and his top riders sometimes selected and fine-tune perfected the gear through changes in tire profile. Regular gear adjustments, as anybody who visited the infield during a busy track event knew, were made using a 5-millimeter hex wrench and a chainwheel key, not with a rear cog remover. Once Mike was satisfied with the initial gear choice, precisely measured in feet and inches, he walked you through your approach to step two: a flying kilo attempt. It had to be all-out, everything you had, or it wouldn't be an accurate measure. "Don't waste time and energy with a big windup, stay at the very top, get it rolling, and use the banking." Since Dorais was not a 333-meter track and the kilo start was in the middle of turn four, you had to begin your descent in turn two and be half-way to the bottom by turn three. Walden would stand in the infield near the homestretch, watch every stroke, raise the stopwatch to eye-level each lap, call out splits, shout out encouragement, take notes, and when it was over, walk away like Lou Holtz after an Air Force touchdown. There would be a handful of these rituals before the start of the regular Tuesday night workout. Walden wouldn't say anything about any of them until the end of the night. Then you could wait in line, watch the sun set, and hear what the coach of champions had to say.
The regular workouts began with the same format every Tuesday. Everybody got off their bikes and formed a circle in the infield grass. Walden would have one of his lieutenants enter the ring of cyclists and lead about 10 minutes worth of calisthenics, isometrics, and stretches. Then everybody mounted up for the warmup. Walden believed that if you weren't riding at race pace, then you were wasting your time. His on-the-bike warmup was no exception. Once everybody got clipped in, cinched up, and rolling in a single-file formation behind the lieutenant at the bottom of the track, Walden got out his battery-powered megaphone and commanded everyone to accelerate in unison. The idea was to accelerate up to race pace for 60 seconds, back off for 30 seconds, and repeat that sequence three times without breaking formation. The problem was that the lieutenant's pace was an all-out sprint for some, and Walden's vision of a warmup with the precision of a military march was never realized, at least not in my presence.
As soon as the warmup was over, we all lined up at the start/finish line, newcomers up front. Time for some schooling, Bike Handling 201. Walden's favorite lesson was on the difference between "steering" and "turning." You must steer up the track, that is you have to twist the handlebars as if you were steering a 4-wheeler and keep your bike as upright as possible. If you don't learn to steer up the track, you risk dragging your right pedal in the concrete, the obvious consequence of which a gregarious Walden described in graphic detail. Mike would look over the ranks to see if any of the newcomers required further indoctrination into the subtleties of negotiating the steep banking. Once he was satisfied that everyone was ready to fly solo above the white line, he sent us off rolling at the bottom a in single file, two bike-lengths apart. Then the lieutenant would lead everybody in something like a snake dance, up and down the track, while Walden barked at us through the megaphone: "Steer up! Turn down! Maintain two bike-lengths! Steer up! Turn down! Steer up! Turn down!" After a few laps the lieutenant would lay down a more difficult path for all to follow, nearly straight up, and then back down the steepest parts of the track. When the snake dance was finished we were told to bunch up for the start of the miss-and-out.
Since attendance for each rider enrolled in Walden's "program" was mandatory, and most everyone who donned a Wolverine Schwinn jersey at the races showed up anyway, the miss-and-out was usually long, intense, and, in my opinion, worth the 70-mile drive by itself. There were on occasions a few surprises, but usually the miss-and-out came down to the same handful of riders, with all previously excused riders watching the outcome. The miss-and-out marked the end of the regular program. What we did from there depended on the season and specific needs of individual riders. The optional workout had to meet one criterion: speed. There were handicaps, team pursuits, madisons, point races, match sprints, and I don't remember what all else. When your group was done, you got off the track. Walden would not allow any rolling around, and he would chase anybody off the track who wanted to log in a few miles at the end of the night. On-the-track had to be a mind-set; remember, you're in the gear. Besides, it's time to talk to the coach.
Walden loved to talk cycling so much that he couldn't talk about a rider's flying kilo without telling at least one anecdote along the way about how Roger Young once did this or the time when Jeff Pierce did that. He had dozens of 'em--anecdotes and champion riders--right up through Frankie Andreau, who, by the way, grew up at Dorais starting out on a 24-inch-wheel track bike. I remember waiting patiently through all the parley for my turn with coach. "What did you think of my kilo, Mike?" I finally got to ask.
Let me see you on your bike," Mike said. "You two, hold Teall up." Mike instructed two ward and backwards for the Walden eye. He had me stop at the very bottom of my stroke. Then he grabbed a frame pump, balanced the pump head between his middle finger and thumb with the pump centered behind my kneecap, and used it as a makeshift plum bob to make some eye-ball measurement of I don't know what. "Move your seat rails back an inch and a half." I did so. Then we repeated the process. "That's better," Mike said.
Fine, I thought, he moved my seat. Does this make my flying kilo null and void? Will I have to wait 'til next week to hear about my gear?
"What about my kilo, Mike?" I asked. "What about my gear?"
"Too small, you're just spinning. There's no rhythm, no push; it's all spin. You need to put your ass into it!" By the time he finished, that big bear-of-a-man was really yelling at me. I felt like crawling across the track and hiding in the weeds behind the top of turn two. Then Mike changed to a more conciliatory tone. "Come back next week with four to six more inches and we'll have another look."
Finding the gear, I would later learn, would be an unending quest. When I returned to the track each Tuesday for more of Walden's wisdom, rhythm became correlative to the gear. In rhythm while in the gear equaled maximum effort. You had to be going all out in the gear and in rhythm. I never really got there. "Too small a gear" was a constant criticism I received from Mike. I guess I never did put enough "ass into it."
By allowing Dauer, Mark Tyson, Chuck Conner, and the rest to take part in Wolverine workouts and thereby sharing his abundant knowledge of the sport, Walden gave the fledgling MVW a foundation based on sound training principles. The early MVW propaganda listed Dauer and Conner as Amateur Bicycle League of America coaches (the ABLA was then the governing body of competitive cycling in The United States). Without a track in our backyard, it may have been difficult the founding fathers to use the WSC as an archetype. Some of their original tenants do, however, appear to be based on the gear. The Equinox and Aprils were fixed-gear events through the 70's, awarding prizes only to the top direct-drive finishers. (Derailleurs could beg for soup and hot chocolate.) Fixed-gear off-season training was nearly universal right up to the early 80's. And there was a 76-inch gear limit for the first two Thursday night races of the season and a knee-busting 81-inch limit for races three and four. The early season gear limits gradually lost support when the old guard faded away. They died at the annual meeting for the '83 season in spite of my valiant defense.
As years went by and a few new MVW faces started making the drive north, Walden got into a habit of "reminding" us what a privilege it was for us to take part in what was after all a Wolverine Schwinn Club event. Several years later (1988 to be exact) that "reminder" became an ultimatum, after which John Walter and I, diehard trackies that we were, sojourned a season with the WSC. I can't blame Mike. The track was a precious resource, a gift from the Chrysler Corporation built on land it donated adjacent to its gigantic Mound Road Assembly Plant. It's been 5 years since I was last at Dorais. The track was in pretty bad shape then, blacktop patches, broken glass, weeds were taking over the infield. There were no longer any MVW trackies driving to Detroit or Northbrook, Illinois of Tuesdays and Kenosha, Wisconsin or Indianapolis on Fridays. Nor has there been any since. Sadder still, Mike Walden passed away last year.
My back-way drive home changed from desolate farm country to scattered single-family dwellings, newly planted on the edges of fields. These gave way to full-blown subdivisions and golf-course condos. It was highway the rest of the way home. About that bottom-bracket I was so desperate to find: come to think about it, there's no real rush. It's the off season. I still got my fixed-gear bike.