I spent today bicycling with my bicycling friends. I rode about 25 miles in total, from the Quincy Center stop on the Red Line, out to Pemberton Point at the end of Hull, and then back to catch the Quincy->Boston ferry. While I enjoy these rides in general, I had a very specific goal for today: to test out my new bicycle.
EDIT: There’s a great photo of us under the Pemberton Point windmill here.
In 1970, my grandfather gave my father a bright yellow Atala Grand Prix. Perhaps it was meant as a graduation present; neither seem to recall the exact circumstance. As always, my grandfather made sure to choose a model that was built with quality components, with beautiful design, but not overpriced. I suspect my father got a lot more use out of it than he’s ever mentioned, but unfortunately it never quite fit right. It’s lived in our garage since my parents moved into the house, and in the past twenty years I can’t recall anyone riding it. I have no reason to believe that the bicycle has been altered in any way in 20 years.
I’ve recently learned that among urban bicycling youth, the trend of the moment is to ride restored road bikes built during the 1970s bike boom. That boom, like the current one, was driven by an oil shock, which made driving seem unappealing to young people in cities. Many of those bicycles were built well and used little, so they are still in excellent condition more than 30 years later. Although my Atala predates the oil shock, it is very much like the popular restored bicycles sold by Bikes Not Bombs.
When I looked closely at the bicycle in the garage, I was dismayed at its condition. The labels had all long since fallen off or been removed. The paint was flaking badly, revealing rust, and the unpainted steel showed a patina of turquoise corrosion. The beautiful chromed brazes that were Atala’s signature had rusted to a uniform brown. The tires, which I presume have not been touched in decades, looked like they might turn to dust at the slightest provocation. The Atala badge on the front had faded into illegibility. I very nearly gave up on this scheme entirely.
Instead I dragged the bicycle out and attempted to ride it around my driveway, despite the completely deflated tires and generally off-putting appearance. I was surprised to find that I could ride it. All the mechanicals seemed to be in working order. After some further thought, I wiped away as many of the cobwebs as I could, and threw it in the back of my car.
Yesterday, I attempted to inflate the tires, which are likely as old as I am. I expected that they would simply burst, or leak fast. I inflated them to 50 psi (very low for a road bike) and, since they seemed to be holding pressure, did a short one-mile test ride (to Microcenter to exchange my wireless card). The bicycle made rather a lot of noise, but otherwise seemed to be completely working, including the (presumably similarly old) brake pads.
This morning I saw that that the pressure was still holding, and upped it to about 75 psi, near the tires’ nominal rating of 85. At the beginning of our trip we stopped off at a bike store, and Mako helped me to oil my chain. From then on the pedaling was smooth and quiet, especially in settings where the front and rear gears align well.
I spent the trip learning how to ride a road bike. I started out barely able to maintain balance with the narrow handlebars and narrow tires, with no idea how to shift grips, too scared to reach for the low-mounted shifters. Mako was carrying a correctly sized inner tube, which was very comforting to me because I fully expected the dried, visibly cracked rubber to give way at the slightest provocation.
25 miles later, I can say that while this bike is certainly much more difficult to ride than my mountain bike, it is also very rewarding. I can now balance the bike without worry, though my low-speed maneuvering and mount/dismount are problematic. I can switch between the various grips on the bullhorn handlebars, though not if continuous precision steering is required. I can even shift the front and rear derailleurs, which both seem to work perfectly, as long as I have time to plan ahead, and I’m not in traffic. After fearing a blowout for the first few miles, a terrible stretch of retextured pavement convinced me that these old tires would withstand just about anything, and they survived the trip without incident.
This bicycle is fast. On my Schwinn mountain bike, my top speed is limited by the inefficiencies in the bicycle; fat tires, front shock absorbers, and perhaps a few tuning issues in the brakes and derailleurs. The narrow tires, lightweight construction, simple mechanisms, and narrow drop handlebars on the Atala mean that my top speed is limited by fear, not force. I don’t know how to handle this bicycle at high speed, and I don’t have to learn today.
The bicycle still looks like hell. Hopefully some rust remover, applied liberally, will make things a little less ugly. Perhaps when I get my bumper repainted I’ll ask the body shop what they think about spraying a bicycle frame. With a fresh coat of paint and a bit of degreaser, this bicycle will be very much back in business.