Summer, 1975: An odd place if there ever was one. An abandoned hot spring resort in Montana that was populated by hobos. Only a bar remained. That's Vaz in the background.
Catching some shade near White Bird Idaho. The store was either closed or abaondoned. You couldn’t tell.
Heading into the Rockies and our first encounter with the Continental Divide.
Ten years on the road. Crossing a covered bridge in Pennsylvania on a rainy day, circa 1985.
The thoroughbred bike becomes a work horse pulling precious cargo.
Retired to a hook, maybe...
The Constant Bike
It was the finest bike in Charlottesville, and I got it for $250.
When the auction ended that spring day in 1975, I was the last man standing, check in hand. It was all the money I had in the world, but I rode away with a 1975 Follis, model 572 with less than 10 miles on it.
The bike was said to retail at $1,000. That’s north of $4,000 in today’s dollars. I have no idea if that’s true.
Later that day, my pal Vaz spotted me $10 in change (he was a waiter) to make the check good, and the Follis became part of the lineage.
It replaced a Raleigh, which replaced a Schwinn, which replaced a Bianchi, which replaced a Schwinn, which replaced a Western Flyer, which replaced a Schwinn.
Follis (pronounced fo-lee) of France has been around since 1903 and during the early years they didn’t make just bikes. They produced handmade works of art on wheels, expressed in elaborate, scrolled tube connections and understated, three-toned paint jobs, plus chrome. Lots of chrome.
Today the company is known for tandems. In 1975 I got a thoroughbred racing bike.
The 572 model was hot at the time, having won important tours and stages in European races. In cyclist’s lingo, it was “full Campy,” meaning that all parts except the frame were made by Campagnolo, an Italian firm that dominated cycling for a generation.
It weighed less than 20 pounds. I wasn’t worthy.
Our ride together begins
I put 3,500 miles on the Follis the first year, thanks in large part to President Gerald Ford, who proposed and delivered a $200 rebate to every tax-paying American.
My check arrived in May. I quit my job, which I don't think was what Ford had in mind, and was riding cross-country by June.
The previous fall I had met two cyclists riding a tandem in the Blue Ridge Mountains. They were plotting a trail for something called “Bikecentennial 76.” It would be a coast-to-coast bike route – Oregon to Virginia – to be launched for the nation’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976. The trail is still marked. The best part of the whole route is the Catawba Valley in Virginia.
I asked them to send me the finished map. A month or so later I was surprised by a package in the mail. It was a set of standard issue road maps with the bike route inked in.
All I had to do now was talk Vaz into coming along, which was no sweat because I could always talk Vaz into anything. We loaded my pickup and paid a leftover hippie named “Earl the Pearl” twenty bucks to drive us to Oregon and drop us off.
That ride is the father of many stories. We met sailors and cowboys and Native Americans, loggers and wildcatters, hustlers and cranks, preachers and politicians, hobos and Gypsies, biker gangs and snowbirds, and many, many bartenders.
We rode the coast, the mountains, the prairies, the woods and high desert. We crossed the Continental Divide seven times.
We tossed the campstove after a week and lived on pickup food and beer. We stopped using soap.
We slept on the ground, in bars, in homes, on porches and half a night in a jail (we were invited. Long story). Nobody had a clue where we were. There wouldn't be a cell phone for another twenty years.
We discovered that we were part of an oddball family – The Transcontinental Pilgrims. We rode west to east – with the wind – so we met them coming the other way, coast-to-coast. They came on foot, on horseback, on rollerskates, in convertibles, in RVs and on countless motorcycles.
With the exception of the Gypsies, we were welcomed wherever we went. To this day I believe it’s because we got haircuts before we left. Everybody had a story and they all wanted to hear from the two travelers on bikes. I hope it’s still that way out there.
Along the way, Vaz and I debated Life’s Big Topics, the kind you chew over when you’re 23. We argued all the way across the country. As near as I can remember, I was always right.
Vaz was superb company. He was a deft storyteller with a light touch. Slow to anger and always there for last call, he was the consummate riding partner and friend.
Back to cold, hard reality
When the end came, my truck was where Earl said it would be, and it was back to work. I moved to Roanoke, the truck broke down and the Follis became a commuter bike.
But the long rides never stopped. For the next 20 years the Follis and I toured back roads, mostly on the East Coast.
It is very difficult for people who don’t ride bikes in this manner to understand the bond. Bikes didn’t have “index” shifting in those days – move the handle a notch and get a new gear. You had to feel the tension on the cable, relax your cadence just so and let the bike give you the gear. You had to be good at it.
And it’s almost impossible to explain how it feels when its all in sync as you fly an undulating two-lane, always in the right gear, always the right cadence. When you hurtle through a tunnel of trees and burst into an open meadow, or the symphony that grows from the hum of the spokes, the click/thump of the changer, the wind across your ears and the rhythm of your breath.
Or when you pull over and take a drink and eat an orange and it’s like the last twenty miles never happened.
And the best, when it’s an all day climb and you put her in Grandma and think about something else, and then you’re descending and you let it go and the scenery whips by . Vaz would say it’s like flipping pages in a book.
The sunset years
But all books come to an end. The last chapter for the Follis came when the thoroughbred got yoked. It now pulled precious cargo – my daughters – in a trailer. As they grew, the load got heavier.
The “corncob” racing hub gave way to mountain-style gearing. The lightweight pedals broke and were replaced with substantial blocks that looked oafish on the artisan frame.
Then the three-toned paint job, which was now scuffed into a thousand tones, got a single coat of green. Rust crept onto the chrome.
And then it was replaced by a Schwinn.
For ten more years, it hung on – a weekend here, a mountain climb there – but the future belonged to day rides with the girls. You don’t need a racey bike to pedal down to the candy store.
And then the final indignity – retired to a hook in the shed, from where it can see the hairy-chested new Specialized that now crowns the lineage. I stop and look at it now and then. It’s bittersweet, like an old friend I should write.
But hope springs…
Vaz and I never finished that trip across America. Vaz got knocked off his bike by a pickup outside Houston, Missouri. Vaz wasn’t hurt, but the truck ran over his bike. It was a Stella, I recall. The driver was a 90-year old farmer and a local favorite.
The mayor of Houston – his name was Mr. Impy – ordered Vaz a new Stella and drove him to Kansas City to get it, while I attended a three-day party with nearby friends.
By the time he returned and we started anew, we were out of summer. We rode as far as the Mississippi River. and that was it.
Vaz went on to become a successful writer and editor in New York. He's living in Connecticut now, I think.
I hitch-hiked to St. Louis (not so simple with a bike) and loaded the Follis and myself on a train back to Virginia.
We told ourselves we’d finish those last few hundred miles someday. But we were never 23 again and we were never that free again, which should be a song title.
But notions bestir! My September years bring promise. The road beckons. Maybe I should bring the old Follis back to life and dig up Vaz, wherever he is. I know I can talk him into it. I could promise to return that $10.
We had some idea about where we were heading, but had no idea of what would be there when we arrived. Sort of like life.
-- Steve Stinson, March, 2011
The Stinson Art Studio