Me and My Bicycles

Some of the most cherished memories from my years growing up in Detroit, Michigan are about my relationships to my bicycles. My bike was an icon of my selfhood. On my bike I was free; powerful, moving on my own, in my own time, commanding my destiny.



In the late 1940s my older brother Arnold had a Schwinn Black Phantom. What the Red Ryder Carbine BB Gun was to guns for boys, the Schwinn Black Phantom was to bikes. A real Cadillac. Maybe even, the Duesenberg of bikes. This is what it looked like, except for the red; my brother’s was maroon. (It’s not for lack of trying, but a maroon Black Phantom picture did not turn up in my searches.)


White sidewall tires, plush wide thick leather seat with beefy chrome springs, shiny two-tone paint job, pin striping, chrome springer front shock absorber, a rear rack, electric light and a push button horn (see the button there next to the Schwinn logo on the "tank".).  And, lots of chrome; the real kind with high shine and mirror like depth. One day I inherited that behemoth. Mostly I remember that it was way too big for me, and that I could barely get my leg over. But when I was up, I was way up. Just a little concerned about stopping and the getting off. Watch out for the tender bits, young man.


When it came time to get my own bike, I chose a Schwinn also. It was a nice vibrant blue with cream trim. But I was so concerned then over the issue of bruising my bits that I insisted on a “girls” model. Took more than a little stiff upper lip to get over the teasing. Talk about conflicted. But, hey, maybe the boy I was then was a little ahead of his time. If you look at the latest designs of off-road bicycles now you see many models with major cutaway designs between handlebars and seat for good standover. It’s functional. 


As I approached my teen years it was time to upgrade. It was time to graduate from sidewalk to street. And I needed something with a better fit for my increasing height. There used to be a huge bike shop on the East side of Detroit; Earl's on Harper near Whittier. Bike shops have a smell all their own, just like when you go into an old timey shoe repair shop. To a young lad, it was held in the status of a perfume. I think it’s from all those rubber tires, but the smell is ingrained and even now when I smell it I am transported. It evokes feelin’ good, don’t you know. Since this shop was big, it had a big smell. I think I used to go there just for the olfactory treat.




That store had two great big show room spaces. The first when you entered from the street was for service, accessories, kids bikes and balloon tire models. Further on to the next showroom, English racers. 3-speed Raleigh’s, Rudges, Dunelts. This was the early 1950s and the 10-speed was still a rarity here in the USA. Schwinn made so-called skinny tire models, but they didn’t have the cache of the imports. Foreign was good. They were pioneered in Europe and those bikes represented serious cred. The big draw was the light weight and the gear selection.



My Raleigh Sports 3-speed was a gents. (In case you were concerned.) It was painted a metallic dark maroon with gold flecks showing through. And, it was loaded; thick leather Brooks saddle, Sturmey-Archer rear hub 3-speed transmission, trusty hand brakes, a headlight powered by a front in-hub electric generator, saddle bag, air pump. And, it was brand new! And, mine! I think my parents sprang $65 for that unit, a premium price at the time for a bicycle. But it was money well spent. I roamed Detroit many summers during school recess, exploring . . . everywhere. Belle Isle Park was a favorite destination.

My cousin Kenny got a Raleigh just like mine and we would meet up and go for rides around town together. One blissful summer day we were on our way to swim at a park in the suburbs on Lake Saint Claire. Besides bikes, fireworks were integral to our boy’s life. So, there we were, toodling along with burning punk incense sticks (mosquito chasers, we called them) tacked on to our handle bars and casually tossing lit ladyfinger fire crackers. The lady finger is 7/8” long and as thin as a knitting needle. So small, you get forty in a pack no bigger than a playing card. Just the right amount of fire power for casual pyrotechnics whilst pedaling through the tree lined streets of Grosse Pointe. Our fun was short lived. Unfortunately some do-gooder adult pulled us over and confiscated our illegal goods. It takes a village. Adults then seemed to be more authoritarian in their demeanor toward the youth. I can’t fault the fellow, but it was a conservative time in Detroit back then. (How conservative? Well take a look at the mass white exodus from the inner city not too many years later. And the results. Most of those folks are still conservatively comfortable in their suburban digs, but the blight in Detroit awaits attending. In any event, the pendulum has begun to swing and Detroit is coming back. Enough on the rag.) 

After owning that Raleigh for a few years I made some “youth modifications”. To lighten and speedify, I removed the fenders and installed drop handlebars. Once in that “racer” mode I went on a 50 mile evening summer ride with a bicycle club group. It was grueling on that heavy bike; all the others were riding lightweight 10-speeds and fixed gears. I got home late and exhausted. In bed, I could feel my legs still peddling until I fell asleep. It was that ride with some serious riders and racers that got me to wanting some really serious metal. 


As is my way, I researched the question thoroughly and found Gene Portuesi’s Cycle Sport Shop on the South Side of Detroit. That's him on the left. I remember him well for so many things. One notable comment he made about this young teen, "You're a noodle that hasn't been rolled yet". True. I didn't know it showed.


Mr. Portuesi then was a pioneer of finely engineered race and touring bikes and bike racing in the United States. He coached the Spartan Cycle Club and trained several champions. One I knew was Nancy Neiman, one of the first female competitive cyclists. She was several times in the mid-1950s a national women’s champion and is the first American, male or female, to have competed in a European stage race.

Mr. Portuesi hooked me up with a French Rochet Pista, a track bike. Here is as near as I could find in a search. The unit pictured below is a road racing model, with brakes and derailleur multi-gear shifters.

Photo Credit: David Harris, 2002

My track model had one gear that was fixed; no coasting. If you wanted to change to a higher or a lower gear you had to remove the rear wheel and flip it to the desired gear on the other side of the hub. And, no brakes. Your feet were strapped down to the pedals with cleats on the soles of your shoes that interlocked with the pedals to prevent unintentional pull outs. This arrangement is the same concept as today, except nowadays the technology is at a level that could not even have been dreamed of in the 1950s.  There was a quick hand release mechanism to slacken the hold down strap so you could pull your foot free when you stopped. For stopping you resisted the forward momentum of the bike with your feet locked onto the pedal. Plus a glove with an extra leather patch to act as a brake pad when pressed against the front wheel. You get real good at defensive riding and looking ahead down the road when you pedal a fixed wheel, a “fixie”. The bike was delivered with a set of every day tubular tires, and a set of lightweight high pressure silk threads (95psi!) for racing only. I was not that into the idea of racing, but Gene Portuesi was an advocate and tried to steer me in that direction.  

My parents coughed up $165 for that bike. That’s way high when you consider the average bike you bought your teen age kid was less than one-third that price. But again, I used the hell out of it. A lot of bang for the buck, for sure. I am appreciative that my hard working folks supported me with that purchase.


My Rochet was constructed with de rigueur Reynolds 531 tubing, finished in a brilliant candy apple blue with candy red trim on the head tube, down tube, seat tube. Chrome fork and chromed trailing ends of the chain and seat stays. The frame was joined with investment cast (lost wax method) lugs; very fancy art nouveau-ish.


Those at the head tube were chromed. Gold pin striping in all the curlicues around all the intricate edges of the lugs. Many of the parts were lightweight Duraluminum; the wide flange hubs, cranks, chain ring, and handlebar stem. The stem was also adjustable front to back. The seat was a narrow leather brooks model. That’s all. Very simple. You may know that the fixed wheel bike is in vogue these days. It gives a very satisfying ride with instant communication between rider, bike, and road. Just that it only operates in one speed. High gear you can get a lot of speed. Low for spinning, and certainly for slogging uphill. 


Speaking of a bang (of sorts), one eventful experience I want to share involves me on my Rochet and some angry truck drivers. A boy on a bike can be a cocky SOB. Think NYC bike messenger. You get to thinking that the world owes you the right of way. Well, one day I was pedaling down the road and a truck pulls out in the middle of my path and forces me to swerve sharply with very little notice. I looked back and flipped the driver the bird. Minutes later I’m going down another road when two burly fellas catch up with me and furiously tell me to pull over ‘cause they were. . . “Going to break your legs”. Talk about road rage. The thing about a track bike is that it has a very steep front fork angle which makes it highly responsive. I made it like a bat out of there, quickly scooting around several cars in heavy traffic, and managed to out maneuver my bad karma. Whew! Really. I rode humble from then on. 


So, you may ask, what about the racing. I gave it a stab, but it wasn’t for me. I just like to ride around on my bike. But I did put in some training time; laps around Belle Isle. Once a week my club, the Spartans, would meet up on a slow traffic stretch of road there and have training sprints. We had to have car spotters and more than a few times there were some close calls with careening cyclists and cars. 


The thing that you also do if you are a serious competitor is shave your legs. Here again, I got some good character building teasing from friends outside the cycle world. But the shaved legs are necessary for when you fall. Hair slows healing, and gets in the way on race day when you fall and want to get back up and race again. The treatment then if you fell and got your skin all scraped and bloody was a liberal douse of cleansing rubbing alcohol. 

On the one day when I entered an amateur track race I arrived to see a horrible sight. One of my teammates had fallen and had a serious road rash. Naturally, I was nervous to be in my first race, but the sight of him screaming from the sting of the rubbing alcohol bath put, shall I say, a little damper on my drive to compete. I didn’t do well that day. 


After that I kept to sport riding, which is my thing anyway.  


And, that’s about me and my bicycles.




8 comments:

John Fletcher said...

Having worked at the Cycle Sport Shop 1958 to 1960 on Michigan Ave., I appreciated the comments and photos about Gene Portuesi. Gene was also my coach for several years and a great friend. I still have my 1958 Rochet track bike bought from Gene. It was completely restored in 1999. I sold my 1957 Rochet road bike in 1965.

brian @ Bike Tech said...

I talked to him on the phone once but never met him in person.. wished I had. A few years ago His nephew sold me his personal rochet track bike which is in my shop today along with 4 other versions (touring, racing, road, tourist).

David D. Wronski said...

Dear Brian,

Excellent luck. Please send pictures. I would love to see them, and post them if you are willing. Picture credits will be posted, of course.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting stories regarding owners of Rochet track bikes! We at TreasureCycles.com recently finished restoring a 1950's Rochet track bike and were curious to find out just how close our finished work has come to the original form. It's been very difficult finding pictures which could help us not only accomplish this feat as original as possible, but also very difficult finding past information about the history, prestige-pedigree and current market value of these bikes. Any pictures poste of others out there along with some history would definitely be appreciated! Thanks!

jwplante@Yahoo.com said...

Apparently, I worked for Gene right before John Fletcher. My story was similar to David's complete to taking the fenders off of my Schwinn. Racing was my passion and before I stopped riding, I had Rochet road and track bikes. It was a great time.

Jim Plante

thejasper said...

I used to have a Rochet, i absolutely loved it.

Columbus sl tubing shot in stays and i know there was 3 frames made for the pop group ELP (emerson lake and palmer) one in black, blue and mine was the red.

I keep looking out for another and have been doing for years but as yet not as yet found one

thejasper said...

i used to have a Rochet, i absolutely loved it.

The frame was made for a pop group ELP (emerson lake and palmer) Each member had one made one in black, blue amnd mine was the red version. all made from Columbus SL tubing, unbelievable how light it was, fantastic ride bought it in the late 70s.

Been looking for another for the past 4 years to no avail.

Gary Istok said...

Hi David, thanks for the blast from the past. I am referring to your reminiscences to Earl's Bike Shop on Harper near Whittier. I grew up in the 1960s (lived on Marseilles St. near Balduck Park)... but I went to Earl's for a different reason. I was an avid LEGO collector as a kid (now I'm the author of the leading online guide to LEGO collecting)... and Earl's Bike Shop had sold Samsonite LEGO sets out of that shop. So I would make the 15 block walk to Earl's every time I earned a buck to buy a pair of LEGO spare parts packs for my building passion. And so I frequently visited that store, and can still to this day 1/2 century later smell that "bicycle smell" that you are referring to. Recently, the grandson of Earl contacted me online, and sent a picture of the store in its' heyday. Glad to share it if you like!

Gary Istok (now in) St. Clair Shores