You don’t know how it got there, but it’s been leaning against the back of your fence for years now. The grass has grown over the sun-worn tires, up and around the spokes. It is most likely missing a key piece: a seat, handlebars, or perhaps a front wheel. You picked it up on Craigslist or from a garage sale, hoping to fix it up when you got the chance. Your neighbor moved away; she asked you keep it safe and you never heard from her again. Last year, you spotted it leaning against a neighbor’s trashcan; a single-speed, built from a late seventies road bike. Now it just sits in the yard and you barely notice it any more.
In my case, the bicycle was there when I moved in. Having withstood the weight of several winters’ worth of snow and many monsoon storms, it is now a strange habitat for spiders and hornets. Someone that used to live in my house had apparently salvaged it from a dumpster. It’s a late eighties road bike. The wheels don’t match; there is no seat or seat post. The red paint is chipped, exposing a layer of green paint, and under that, a thick layer of purple, though much of the paint is gone completely. Sometimes, I’d peer at it and think about how slick it would look if I took the time and energy to fix it up.
If you’ve lived in Flagstaff for a couple years, chances are you have a bike like this laying around. Summer is well under way and it’s time to bring that bike back from the dead.
While I have found the many bike shops in town are very helpful, I knew of only one guy who could offer me some honest, affordable guidance. I took it down to BiciMundo, the shop that Elson Miles runs out of his home south of the tracks, on 222. E. Brannen Ave., which is a block east of San Francisco St.
Elson is somewhat of a bicycle legend in Flagstaff, the grandfather of peddle-power in the pines. Elson moved to Flagstaff in 1970 with little else to his name than a backpack. He moved here when there were no bike shops, no bike lanes, and virtually no bike culture. Since then, he has watched Flagstaff’s now-thriving bicycle culture blossom. Elson is one of the central people we have to thank for this.
Elson’s yard is a tribute to all the ways in which the ‘ol velocipede has evolved. Frames, forks, and partially assembled bikes of all varieties, conditions, and generations appear to be strewn all over the yard. Upon closer inspection, it is actually organized chaos: a junkyard and a goldmine. Toward the back, outside of his work shed, wheels are hung on the fence, positioned by type, along with chain rings and vintage bash guards of all varieties.
As I wait my turn, Elson is explaining a repair bill for a tune-up. In his small workshop, he looks especially tall. He has a weathered face, a grizzled beard and he has an unobtrusive calmness about him that is very reassuring. He is usually wearing a baseball hat and a mechanic’s work-apron that says “Ryan” for some reason. The misnamed apron is actually a good way to describe his ethos as a bicycle mechanic. It’s used, but does the trick.
Some customer’s bikes, waiting to be picked up, catch my eye. A Surly Cross-Check sitting next to rusted out cruiser, and a Kona Unit beside a children’s low-rider, adjacent to several virtually unidentifiable classic road bikes and cruisers. There are bikes for sale as well. Brand new single speed road bikes and used refurbished bikes of all sizes and types are lined up beside a full box of used bicycle seats.
Elson knew what kind of frame I had right away. “It’s a late eighties Raleigh Technium, a nice frame.” He went on to explain that the frame was a combination of aluminum bonded to steel. When I got home I did some research and read that the first and fifth of the serial numbers put together is the date in which the frame was built—in my case, 1988.
There were two pretty quirky things that Raleigh tried out with this bike. With the aide of computer aided drafting, they developed oval shaped chain rings for the crank, which I still don’t really understand. They also put small holes in top tube, which funneled the cables through the inside of the frame. “Ohh, hidden cables,” Elson jeers sarcastically toward the 1988 road bike manufacturer’s mindset. “How cool, how sexy; it’s actually not a good idea. It can create kinks in the cable that you can’t see, which can be a problem for shifting.” Elson suggested that we plug the holes with silicone caulk, and run the cables on the outside of the frame.
I brought the bike home and completely disassembled it. This was actually a lot of fun. In a matter of an hour, I had a shinny metallic pile of what Elson calls “bicycle jewelry.”
People assume that because I ride the hell out of my bike, that I know everything about fixing and maintaining bikes. I don’t. But I have been increasingly interested in learning. I brought my newly-painted, partially assembled bike back over to Elson’s shop and asked him to help me put it back together. “I was hoping to be able to watch you, and ask questions so I can learn to do this myself,” I said.
Elson peered over the top of his glasses. “Oh, you’re one of those…” he smiled and told me about a kid that was just in the shop who had the same idea regarding the installation of his new disc brakes.
I explain to him that the frame is too small for me, but I wanted to fix it up for a friend. “We’ll make it fit her,” he said, and he helped me find a shorter handlebar stem out of his catalogue. Once I found one suitable enough, he scribbled the part number on a notebook, its pages smudged with black grease. “Let me just type this up into my computer.”
I dropped in Bicimundo for a couple of days a week, over the span of a month or so. During this time, I not only learned a great deal about assembling a bicycle from the bottom up, but as we worked, I also got an interesting perspective on the evolution of Flagstaff’s bicycle culture the role that Elson played.
“I got here just as the bicycle boom was hitting around 1970 and ’71. There were no bicycle-specific shops just an auto-repair shop and Higly’s Sporting Goods.” After repairing bicycles at the sporting goods store, Elson opened, Cosmic Cycles, and ran it from the late 70’s until the early 90’s. I asked him about the evolution of the mountain bike. Though California takes all the credit for the invention of the mountain bike, I learned that there was a lot of experimentation going on across the country simultaneously. Bike shops in Tucson and Elson’s shop in Flagstaff were no different. He walked me to the side of his house were he had an old Schwinn Varsity road frame.
“We would take these old Varsity’s and open the back of it with a vice to accommodate a larger wheel. Then we’d remove the front fork and replace it with one from a beach cruiser.”
I scratched my head. “And you sold these bikes?”
“Oh yeah, this was Flagstaff’s first mountain bike.”
Elson went on to tell me a story of him and a few friends who held Flagstaff’s first mountain bike race on Snowbowl Road before it was paved. “It was a very unofficial race, but the newspaper—then called Flagstaff News—even covered it. As we’re talking about this, Elson is teaching me how to replace a missing spoke. As he trues the rear wheel on a machine that allows him to see and adjust any part of the wheel that is out of place, his rough hands delicately making minor adjustments, he continues.
“We walked these strange creations up the road, smoked a doobie, and raced to the bottom. It was funny because I was not much of a racer, but I did win that race. And it was all over the paper the next day, ‘Bomber Bikers Buzz the Bowl.’ We were hysterical.”
As we worked, Elson was frequently interrupted by customers and friends. Much of the time, customers were also friends; they stayed in the shop for hours, talking about life, love, and the pursuit of bringing the two together by riding and maintaining bikes. It is obvious that Elson’s shop is a strong asset to the community.
A couple Mexican boys from the neighborhood came in and wanted some advice. It was obvious the boys were shocked to see that Elson spoke Spanish.
“Que Pasa,” one of them smiled inquisitively.
“Bien, bien,” Elson responded, “Cómo puedo ayudarle con su bicicleta?” Much to their delight, in his own language, the boy was able to explain the problem he was having with his bike. When I asked Elson if he is fluent, he responded, “well, it’s not perfect, but I get by okay.”
When I was screwing on a new chain ring to the crank, a guy walked in from Absolute Bikes asking to borrow a crank extractor for European bike whose parts had gone the way of the dinosaurs. Elson had just what he was looking for.
As Elson measured out my new chain, I asked him how he knew when it was tight enough. “Well, you just have to feel it. It shouldn’t be too tight or it will put strain on your derailleur and it won’t shift properly. It’s like that mock-church from Texas, the reverend Bob started the Church of the SubGenius and they’re central belief is that there needs to be more slack in the universe.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but wrote it down anyway. After a quick Internet search, I found out that the Church of the SubGenius is a religious group that satirizes religion and conspiracy theories. The central tenant is the pursuit of “slack,” which generally stands for a sense of freedom, independence and original thinking that stems from spontaneity, absurdity, satire, and a strong detest for authority.
As I test road the “new” bike, I thought more about this business of slack. I’m not sure I can think of a better euphemism for the mindset of a cyclist navigating through traffic on a bike rescued from a dumpster. Driver’s think we’re a pretty bizarre bunch. Sometimes we are, and that’s a good thing. If the universe needs more slack, at least we’re doing our part.