December 9, 2010

The Treader

Fixed wheeled commuters are now ubiquitous in most major cities throughout Europe and North America. While in Barcelona last week, I watched as riders skidded, bounced and dragged their feet before eventually stopping at traffic lights. While most fought to control their bikes like cowboys on wild horses, some rode with the finesse of a ballet dancer. They flew with grace through the traffic and made the chaotic motion of the city seem momentarily elegant. Watching the riders and studying their bikes I thought back to my first real city bike– a bike my Dad aptly calls a “treader”.

The treader was the first bike project my Dad and I shared. When my mother worked late, we spent the evening down at my Dad’s shop building bikes and fiddling with my Dad’s old Lambretta scooters. The treader grew from a broken and bent Motobecane frame discarded by a customer after an accident. The shop was full of broken frames and bike parts. Up in the dusty frame shop, where every surface was thick with grime and metal filings, I learned to cut tubes, then braze, file, and sand them.  I was taught how to gauge the moment when the tubes were just hot enough for the brass to flow down into the seam. There was an aroma of burning flux, chemicals and grease. On the bench, among the tools and torches, sat our cups of tea, their handles dirty with fingerprints.

Slowly, we watched the bike take shape. Once finished, the frame and fork went to the paint booth. From a worn and grimy book of swatches, I chose an apple green (my favourite colour), and asked that it fade to darker shades around the frame’s lugs. Tony Beek, the painter at the shop, did a brilliant job. Perhaps it was too good for an 11-year-old schoolboy’s bike. On the top tube my name was hand painted in gold.

Onto the treader went mudguards, a generator and lights, CLB brake levers and Mafac Racer centre-pull brakes from France. I laced up the 650 B touring wheels and father made them true. The TA chainset was fitted, and then we riveted on the chain. By early spring I was flying to school on a custom, fixed wheel treader.

During the winter in Toronto, I was often the only boy riding to school daily, particularly when there was deep snow or icy, pouring rain. I loved riding and commuting but I was an oddball in a school of rowers and hockey players. I was also a bit shy and embarrassed to be seen on my bike. I was the only boy at school with tubular cement stains on his flannel pants from gluing on my training and race tubulars. But in the end my desire overwhelmed my social hesitation.  I rode a lot and everywhere.   Wearing a uniform of flannel grey pants, shirt and tie, and jacket, I would tear off to school, racing along Davisville Avenue and arriving just in time for class. Over time, the pressure on the pedals wore deep grooves into the sole of my leather shoes. I knew every corner, every bump to jump, and every short cut up a one-way street or an alley. I sprinted out of green stoplights and raced to avoid getting caught at a red.

While riding, my pant legs were folded tightly against my ankle with rubber bands to avoid getting snagged by the chain. Inevitably, they occasionally did get caught, making a mess of the pants. If I was lucky, the teeth of the chainring would shred little bits of fabric and stop there. But if the chain grabbed a sizeable piece of pant they would tear, get wrapped up in the drive and force me to a stop. Once I ripped every seam up one leg and half way down the other. The bottom of the leg looked like a dog had gnawed at it before it was dipped in grease. The pant seat was also torn, the zipper blown out. Thankfully, I was wearing a belt, which held onto what was left of the pants. With my stripped boxer shorts as the only thing truly covering me up and tatters of grey flannel blowing in the wind, I rode home as fast as I could with my nose to the stem in embarrassment (not a fun experience for a young boy).

Imagining she would be upset, I hid the pants from my Mom as soon as I was home. Obviously, she wasn’t. When she found them she laughed till she cried. The flannels and uniform are long gone but the frame still hangs from the ceiling in the workshop. There are bits of rust where the paint has been scratched.  Powell PeraltaCampagnolo Record and other stickers dating my youth cover different tubes. Like an old journal found in a pile of discarded books, the frame carries a few good stories and marks a period of a life.