Monday, February 25, 2013

A Firefly Can Light Up the Darkest Month

Let's start with a text sent to my good friend Gary Thornton on Feb. 23 at 6:37 p.m.


At that moment me, two of my children, and wife were preparing to head into Boston for a People for Bikes fund raiser, ostensibly to softly launch the third edition of Tim Johnson's Ride on Washington.

I had gone through the woods that morning to harvest fire wood to heat my home in the wood stove as the oil tank was empty. I had scoured the refrigerator of our dwindling supplies for some dinner. My wife had emptied the change jar to get our daughter some butter so she could make cookies for Tim Johnson, who had texted his request to her.  And I checked the gas gauge on the Subaru, comforted to see the fuel light had not flicked on...yet. With a winter storm gathering, I questioned the wisdom of our attendance at yet another festive event as we anxiously moved up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

I had spent the bulk of the day at the Lexington Depot helping out with the inaugural Best Buddies Indoor Time Trial. "Are you getting paid for that," my wife had asked sternly the day before.

"Nope," I replied, adding nothing. The silence roared her frustration with our state of affairs. Who could blame her?

When flirting with co-eds, there's a maxim that is oft repeated by college boys, especially the ones with liberal arts majors and no freakin' clue what to do after graduation:  "Do what you love and the money will follow," they proudly exclaim. And usually about five years after that those guys are jaded and doing something they do not love but saving for a home and paying for kids and then saving for retirement....

I'm living proof that the maxim can truly be applied to a life. But the first word is "do." And know that all love, always, will be tested. And the money may not be that much. And exactly how far behind that money will follow you is constantly in question.

My family has been patient and forgiving with me, following this Don Quixote husband and father as my Sancho Panzas of reality. The travel, the events, the fund raisers, and the campaigns to the make the world right and just for every deserving cyclist....all is fine so long as the mortgage gets paid and the children get fed and the house feels heated.

Two weeks prior to this weekend my luck, after a number of years, ran out. With a son in college, a massive mortgage, an overdue tax bill, broken appliances, home insurance, car insurance, holiday bills, dental bills, and assorted financial meteors were crashing through the roof. And the shimmer of Louisville's World Championships had worn off as I waited for the wire transfer from Europe to right our ship. Each day became a scene from a Samuel Beckett play; each time I logged on my bank account it felt like another match burned by Jack London as winter and darkness closed around me.

And with the gloom of February on our sky, the dashboard gauge for every commodity of our lives - gas, firewood, food, heating oil - went into the red zone.  Me going off to serve yet again as an evangelist for cycling did not go over well. At such manic moments every expenditure of money, time or energy is harshly scrutinized.  And few are embraced...

On the dashboard of my life, however, the one red light that has never come on was the bike. Bikes keep working practically for free. They rarely fail you.

So off I went to the indoor time trial to put on a happy face to encourage more people to tilt at the windmill of cycling with me...

I have a great relationship with Best Buddies, a great organization for which I work part time helping to convert executives into bike nuts. They grant me flexibility with my schedule and enable me to pursue my passions in cycling. There are times I get the better end of the deal; and times they get the better end of the deal.

This indoor time trial had proven truly successful with nearly 60 participants on Computrainers run by Performance Breakthrough Coaching. With openings in the final slot I had opted to jump in. I rolled my bike up to John Caton, the mechanic from Belmont Wheelworks kind enough to support our event, and asked him to simply lube the chain. Mind you  the bike was in horrible condition from a month of winter commuting.

"I know, I know," I said. "I'm about three weeks away from just tossing the cassette and chain."

John looked aghast as the salt and the grit and the gooey residue of lube and dirt on the drive train. "You just need a new bike.... No, seriously, you need a new bike."

But I loved this bike, a 1996 Merlin Extralight. I had overhauled it about two year earlier with a Sram Red Group and Mavic Ksyriums. I adored this bike despite its dinged top tube and one-inch head tube. This thing - with fenders and stickers and a worn saddle - had outperformed The Africa Queen and still begged to be pushed harder and faster. This bike had seen national championships, stage races, a ride from New York to Boston, festivals, urban adventures, and countless sloppy commutes through Boston winters. This bike had been locked to racks during countless public hearings and testimonies and pep rallies to improve cycling. And this rig proudly made the 2012 Ride on Washington with bikes far younger and more modern.

And this bike rode comfortably. Recently Kevin Wolfson, one of the founders of Firefly Bicycles in Boston, had e-mailed about my fit, noting a customer had commented how well I sat on that Merlin. While I just felt right on the bike, I confessed to Kevin to having never really done much measurement save for knowing my seat height to always be 74.5 cm.

After being prodded a few times by Kevin, I finally got out a plumb bob and level and measuring tape. I became somewhat self conscious. What if my fit turned out to be the goofiest of contortions? This was me, the guy teaching all sorts of corporate big shots about cycling for Best Buddies and other adventures. The process bugged me.

Ultimately I did a lot of research, especially on saddle setback. There is little done on this which is kind of important. I found myself absorbed by a little known guru of fit: Bernard Hinault. Le Blaireau had actually written about fit in the early 1980s and his format would be used by Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon and other European hard men. It's a balanced fit between the powerful aero position of the Dutch and Belgians and the upright climbing set up of the Spaniards. Let's leave triathletes out of the discussion entirely.

My measurements, I boasted to Kevin, were spot on according to Hinault's formula! And I had done this all without lasers or algorithms or protractors! Imagine that.

I proudly grabbed this old perfectly fit bike for the time trial. Dirty and fendered, it locked into the trainer. I warmed up a bit, jumping off to make announcements, change music, and top off my water bottle, and then jumping back on. A friend grabbed the tire and noted my low tire pressure, which I use in the icy conditions, and suggested more. I gassed them both up to 110 psi. I continued my warm up and readied for the painful 20 minute race. Moments before the start I heard the explosion. My rear tire, its casing raw from all the salt, blew apart on the sidewall.

The final dashboard light of my life came on. Even my bike, this perfectly fit,  beautifully storied bike, had failed me....

A rider offered me a rear wheel, but knowing the horrid condition of my chain and cassette, I asked John to switch over the cassette to the loaner wheel. When the cogs came apart in John's hands everybody could see the sludge that had amassed. Holding this syrupy stack of pancakes, he crammed it all together.  I re-mounted the bike into the trainer.

The race proved painful but worthwhile. Jeff Capobianco, the coach and boss of Breakthrough Performance Coaching, charged through the 10 k course. I tried to stay with him initially but realized the futility. He was putting out a solid 400 watts; I chose to stay at 275. He set the fastest time of day. I rode respectably to second in that group and 19th overall.

Not bad for a fat old man and dirty old bike and borrowed wheel, eh?

Still shaky from my ride, I helped with cleanup and started wrapping up sound equipment. In came Thom Parsons, the talented videographer from He complained about believing he could ride in the 3 p.m. heat, which did not exist.

Nonplussed by the disappointment, he pulled out his video camera - as he does at every event - and did a quick stand up with me explaining where we were and what I was doing. I went on and on about Best Buddies and the time trial.

Then he paused and asked me to talk about this 1996 Merlin, which I adored.

"So when are you going to get a carbon fiber bike?" he asked.

I replied that if I was to buy a dream bike it would be a Boston-built titanium bike.....either Seven or Firefly.  The things are light, fast and bomb-proof. And they handle everything with elegance. End of interview. And he rolled on to meet at the fund raiser.

After breakdown and clean up I went home, where I anxiously puttered about - still shaky from the ITT -  as my wife and kids got ready to join me for the trip to Boston.  Then I remembered the door charge was $5 for an event I was supposedly to help present. This corrosive panic came over me.

I live by the mantra, if you have to ask for something you don't deserve it.  But it became evident to me that I did not even have the $20 to cover the donation at the door for all four of us. And then I learned Grant, our oldest son at Suffolk University, would be coming.

I sheepishly sent the text above to Gary Thornton, who had come all the way up from Pennsylvania to promote this fund raiser.  And he replied:


Given Gary's devotion and effort going into this thing, I felt relieved to see the threat of a winter storm had softened. Frankly I could not figure why a guy from Philly would put on a fund raiser in Boston. He had claimed the advice came from my friend Bruno Maier at People for Bikes, noting the Boston scene just had more going on for advocacy. We left our house in a dark drizzle and carefully nursed the Subaru to Boston without the fuel light coming on.

Once inside I spotted Gary and tried to help he and his delightful girlfriend, Janine Carroll, get the room set up. We were there about 20 minutes early to do just that. As I took lids off deli platters and set out food, my adorable daughter Emma, who loves to attend cycling events with me, stayed within inches of me, lightly punching me the entire time, as I walked about. Madison, my youngest son, took my Samsung phone and started the battery drain with games. As the crowd filtered in, my daughter continued to pelt me with  affectionate punches, as I greeted the guests and worked with Gary to develop the "run of show."

Tim Johnson texted Emma to let her know he was running late....which is standard for Tim. Gary and I reviewed the run of show. The brewery team would start the event with a description of the beers being sampled.  And then I would go on. Then Tim.

Guests streamed in. I cannot begin to name them all but they were all fantastic friends and loyal supporters of cycling in the Boston market. Most were at the first Redbone's events I helped to promote. Others put on 'cross races or crits. They are all stalwart supporters of cycling for both sport and transit.

One attendee truly stunned me with her attendance.  Kate Powlison of Bikes Belong not only made the trip, she did so from her hometown of Erie, Pa., with her mother! Kate lives in Boulder, rode the Ride on Washington (and then the Reve Women's Tour de France). A graduate of Williams College, Kate continues to defend the merits of New England bike culture against anybody in Colorado, California, or Oregon.

Hmmm.....Long way to go for a Harpoon, I thought, but it is fine beer.

Tim arrived, grabbed the cookies from Emma, and we readied for the pitch. The basic Tim Johnson Ride on Washington dog and pony show ....It's one which I am the dog and he is the pony.

Right before I went on, Tim tugged at my elbow.

"Keep it short....I'll talk about Ride on Washington....You just keep it short."

I've been doing this awhile. I can stretch it out; I can speed it up. I can edit on the fly.

I had nothing written, so I took Tim's cues, hopped up on the chair and spoke about how important Tim is to advocacy. And how important it is for racers to embrace advocacy. And how important getting cool people to embrace advocacy - not just in their statements but in how they ride - is to our movement. "Be the change you want to see," I told the crowd. And then I introduced Tim.

He had set the trap. Gary had set the trap. Kevin had set the trap. My daughter Emma and my wife had set the trap. Thom had set the trap. Bruno had set the trap. Kate had set the trap.

Tim started to speak...ostensibly about advocacy. But in a lecturing judo move he nimbly changed topics and instead spoke about ... well... me.

Ride on Washington never came up. He just went on and on about .... me.

Then Gary leapt up on the chair and went on and on .... about ....well .... me. At this point I'm feeling really uneasy. Tim whispered in my ear, "They got something for's a water bottle."

By then I realize the whole thing had been a ruse. The entire audience had come out for me. And then Kevin Wolfson, our navigator for the Ride on Washington, wheels out a custom ti Firefly.  The folks at Sram had donated a Red group and Zipp 101 wheels. And they had it built to my specs, gathered up through a range of faux questions from Kevin and my daughter, claiming to be working on a geometry project for a teacher. And Harpoon, the greatest brewery on the planet, had donated the space. Dozens of people in the cycling community had donated to this cause. My cause.

In football they called it getting "ear-holed," when you are clobbered by an unseen blocker.

I was speechless....aghast....embarrassed. Where I am so well-spoken in public, I stammered   and stumbled about thanking those I could. There were photos. There were hugs. I could not get my breath.

Finally I had to help evacuate the back room and get my kids home. We put this piece of art on the roof of the Subaru, in a pelting rain. As we motored through Boston the fuel light came on.

After dropping off my son at Suffolk University with a tray of sandwiches, we splattered up Arlington Heights where the rain converted to snow. We got to Lexington. We shuffled into our cold home. I made popcorn and the four of us bundled into the bed together, laughing and wrestling and glowing in each others' warmth.

The only thing we did have at that moment was each other.

I woke up pre-dawn, started a fire with the last of the wood, sipped coffee and studied this new bike as one views a sleeping puppy just brought home, trying to imagine our future. I simply glowed. I had a new, sturdy and invincible bike.

The next day, the wire transfer came from Europe.

Thank you to all for getting me through such a dark moment with the brightest of friends and warmest of family.

I will pay it forward.


  1. Thanks for the fantastic write-up, as an outside donator, I hoped it went over well. Thanks for all you do for cycling and cyclocross, it was really easy for me to send some money over when Chandler asked for donations.

    Can't wait to see this bike in person someday.

  2. lol pay it forward - Fries - you already did buddy.

  3. Thanks for everything you've done for cycling :)

    I miss randomly bumping into you at RSC - but you have a fan and friend in Tokyo now!

    Stay awesome!

  4. You know that started before Sea Otter. You have the greatest of all wealth, Fries (you nutter).

  5. Very happy for you! Best part of the week so far!

  6. Rich,
    Thanks for writing this blog entry and sharing with all your friends (and fans) who know you for the generous, inspiring and tireless advocate for all we hold dear who would have loved to be there but could not.
    Tornado tepe

  7. "friesframe"... very clever Richard. I see what you did there!

    Congratulations my friend. And thank you. For everything.

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