I burned a lot of hours last week on a bike. Well, not on a bicycle, but working on one — sanding, priming, filling, sanding some more, priming some more, filling some more. On and on, seemingly endlessly cycles of refining until no imperfections remain in my paint job. That has to be a metaphor for something.
I’ll never get there. Paint and body work are arts, and I’m no artist. Unlike a car, a bike frame is nothing but edges, curves, and tight spots that render a sanding block useless. All of my existing tools are meaningless for this job. That seems like a metaphor, too.
The bicycle in question is a 1973 Raleigh Super Course that I purchased at a flea market for 75 bucks. Over 40 years ago somebody went down to the local shop and picked this exact bike out. Maybe it was the one he liked the best, or perhaps it was the only one that fit him, as he was clearly a tall man. Regardless, he took it home and either fell in love with it or convinced himself that he was in love.
They put in a lot of miles together. That’s clear from the wear and tear on the old Raleigh’s components. Eventually he probably lost interest and the bike gathered dust in a corner of his garage until it was nothing more than yard sale junk. Forty years later, rusty and forgotten, it came home in the trunk of my car.
Over those four decades the Raleigh spent a lot of time out in the weather, where its already ugly coffee brown paint oxidized into an even uglier color. The frame itself was banged up but still straight, its Reynolds steel tubing a few quality grades above the care with which it was originally assembled. Blobs of brass cling to the welds like scars holding the tubes together, but beneath that are beautiful lugs–the connectors into which each tube is fitted.
This is an example of a “Bike Boom” bicycle. During the ten years spanning 1965-75, Americans went batshit for bikes. The fad started with muscle bikes, specifically Schwinn Stingrays, but by 1972 what we generically refer to as 10-speeds–diamond framed, multi-geared bicycles–dominated the market. These broke down roughly into three categories: department store cheapies; well built but fairly inexpensive name brands; and hand crafted imported exotica rarely seen in American towns back then.
If you think of the above categories as an evolutionary continuum in a high school textbook where department store bikes are single cell organisms and Italian racing bikes are modern man, companies like Schwinn and Raleigh populate the center of the timeline. Look to the far left of that illustration and you’ll see brand name bikes that aren’t much better than their department store counterparts–heavy tanks equipped with inexpensive parts that were hastily slapped on by assembly line workers. Move to the right, and those brand name models rival their Italian brethren. The difference in value is tremendous: You can pick up a 1973 Schwinn Varsity at a yard sale for 50 bucks, while a Schwinn Paramount of the same vintage will run you up to a thousand dollars.
The Raleigh Super Course was closer to a Varsity than a Paramount, but it’s a bit higher up the evolutionary chain. It wasn’t Raleigh’s entry level model, but it was the bottom of the company’s high end models. Drop below the Super Course and you were in department store bike territory. In other words, the Super Course is sort of a missing link Bike Boom fossil, a transitional creature that connects the shitty bikes to the valuable ones. I couldn’t stand seeing it rot in a flea market stall.
Normally my curator instinct compels me to either conserve objects as-is or restore them to their factory original state, but not this time. My goal is to build the Super Course That Could Have Been rather than the coffee brown rush job that was pushed down the assembly line, and so I prime and sand and fill and prime and sand and fill, clinging to the hope that I can give her the quality paint job that she deserves.
I’ll outfit the beast with period correct Shimano shiny bits–brakes, derailleurs, crank–which I’ll spend hours polishing on a buffing wheel. When everything else is complete, I’ll top the bike off with a Brooks leather saddle (no self respecting bike geek calls it a ‘seat’). Eventually this old, discarded Super Course will be a one of a kind Bike Boom ride.
When it’s done I’ll probably nitpick the finished product and beat myself up for my lack of care and attention. I’ll feel like an idiot for dumping so much time and money into an object unable to feel gratitude. I might even laugh at myself for being so naive as to think that trying to save what has been discarded was somehow a worthwhile task.
Then I’ll start on the next bike, certain that this time I’ll get it right, and that seems like a metaphor for something, too.