Thursday, July 23, 2009

Phantoms, Part 6

By the time I started mountain biking, Dad couldn’t follow. He could remember his old Schwinn, but the feeling of that heavy bike under a ten-year old boy was lost. He could only recall the shame of dragging it home, axle snapped, to face a mother’s “wait-till-your-father-gets-home” and the long, punishing wait until that father got off his late shift at the power plant. What he didn’t remember was the instant of silence when sixty pounds of Schwinn steel lifted off from the curb. Who could blame him? On that much bike, time in the air didn’t last. Landings were what stuck in the mind, the splay of the front fork, the crunch, the consequences.

But I remembered. I grew up mountain biking before I knew such a thing existed, cruising my parents’ farm. A downhill chute, four feet wide, ran between the east cornfield and the machine shed, opening in the gap between the shed and the barn, closing down to a green tunnel between barn and field which would spit me out near grandpa’s garden at top speed. I’d veer out of the chute at the corner of the barn, cross the broken concrete of the empty cattle lot, pedal frantically to the two-foot drop at lot’s edge, and lift off, a frenzy of sound meeting the anticipatory silence of flight. Landings in the garden meant flat tires, bloodied elbows, a mouth full of dirt, ringing ears, but who cared about consequences when you were in the air? Were the astronauts, my childhood heroes, worrying about the landing when they saw sky give way to space?

My father doesn’t mountain bike because it’s marketed as an “extreme” sport. He doesn’t understand or want to understand all this “extreme” nonsense. As if on schedule, exactly thirty years after leaving Kent State as an idealistic liberal, he has become a grumpy old bastard. “What’s this Mountain Dew commercial about? All these mountain bikers screaming at me... what’s the point of that? Stop screaming. Go get another piercing.” He puts on a good show, but I can see the fear and bewilderment. In a span of time that must seem sudden to him, the counterculture has gone from peace signs and pot to nose rings and heroin. The new teachers he hires at his school are younger than his own children. A stomach which once tolerated morning pizza heated over a dorm desk lamp has become delicate. On his forehead, the hair has gradually crept away at the corners leaving only a narrow peninsula in the center. After fifty-three years and two heart attacks, he is just starting to accept the possibility that he might be getting old.

Schwinn first reissued the Black Phantom in 1995 to celebrate both their centennial and their return from the ashes of bankruptcy. The company had gradually cashed in on the growing rush for “retro” bikes with some less-expensive replica cruisers, but the ‘95 Phantom aspired to much more than these novelties could ever hope for. It was to be an exact copy of the original, top to bottom. The project was to create pure anachronism, bicycles designed from crumbling original blueprints, constructed with tools that had not been used in almost half a century. Where original tools could not be found, they were built, created from history and memory to fabricate one small production run at an astronomical cost. The 1995 Phantoms were born of human touch in an industry dominated by computer-controlled robot welders. The project cost a fortune, well beyond what the company could recoup from the sale of the bikes, even at almost three-thousand dollars each. It made no sense. It was beyond business. It was irrational. And it was beautiful, all the way down to the tiny ridge across the bottom bracket replicating a flaw in the original casting process. I imagine the idea taking root not in conference rooms, but during a ride. A group of true bicycle nuts pause after a long, hard climb to catch their breath, and in the dizziness of oxygen debt, someone jokingly says, “why don’t we build a Phantom?” After the ride, over coffee and donuts, someone else starts drawing on a napkin, tracing the chromed curve of a springer fork, a design Schwinn hasn’t built in decades, and something in that curve sticks in the imagination.

However the concept was planted, it slowly grew from silly idea to fully-realized rubber and steel, history rendered in metal. The company had faced death, become an industry joke, and come screaming back to legitimacy. What better way to announce its return than with a piece of the past, a bike that, like its parent, would surprise the industry simply by existing, enduring? So Schwinn created the 1995 Black Phantom reissue, a small pocket of 1950s America, a testament to durability, to timelessness. At work, when I walk past the reissue, I cannot help but pause, awestruck. The bike is 1955 made tangible, a blend of deco design and car culture lifted into another era. It is graceful. It is brash. Ridable examples of the original Phantoms still exist today, and I don’t doubt that this reissue will still be begging to be pedaled forty years from now. The bike laughs at time, dares aging to touch it.

Those original Schwinns would eventually become the first mountain bikes. In the early 1970s (while I was busy navigating sidewalk cracks on a green tricycle) a group of riders were resurrecting big Schwinn cruisers from California junk piles, driving them to the top of mountain roads, and riding down at top speed. Each run burned most of the grease out of their antique coaster brakes, forcing the riders to repack their hubs with fresh lubrication. To most of the 1970s cycling world, this new kind of riding made no sense. In a bike culture enamored with slender European road racing machines, the very idea of riding down mountains was laughable. Yet, each weekend, a group of accomplished road racers donned jeans and flannel shirts and did just that, sliding through switchback corners on their sixty pound relics. They fell. They drew blood. They broke bikes. They broke bodies. Then, they laughed, went back to the top, rode again, fell again, bled again, laughed again. And those bikes, those abandoned, rusted relics raised from the dead refused to act their age, taking flight just as they had under exuberant ten-year-olds in 1955.


Anonymous said...

Your writing is so moving, SO GOOD, it takes me breath away.
Please, PLEASE publish these beautiful essays in book form! I'm sure dozens of bike shops would put stacks of these in their stores (including me) if you did.

Christopher Johnson said...

Excellent, Jason!

Thank you for posting this for us. A perfect blend of history, nostalgia, and a skillful use of words.

During the re-pack era, I was jumping pre-bmx, Stingrays off homemade ramps to see how far I could fly.

twister said...

Still in the original box! (supposedly)