I walked up the wooden set of steps to get into Blazing Saddles Cyclery on a Saturday morning. James Rychak and co-owner Travis Peebles run their used bike shop out of an old laundry building on the West side of Cleveland. I was there because I’d seen a Craigslist ad for “two high-end Peugeot frame from the ’70s.”
“We take old bikes and put them back into use so that they’re not what they were originally, but something tailored to the way the buyer rides,” Rychak says.
Old bikes are more popular than ever right now, and Blazing Saddles is building a business on that market.
The appeal of old bicycles is difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t have it. They are durable. They’re recycled. In an industry driven by a steady stream of shiny, new, must-have products, they have endured.
My love of bicycles was born while I was in high school, at the peak of the ‘70s bicycle boom. At that time the finest bicycles in the world were still made of steel—hand crafted, chrome molybdenum or chrome manganese tubes braised together with curvaceous lugs. Craftsmen built the best of these frames one by one, and master frame builders put their names on them. These days the fastest bikes are made of carbon fiber, and new, hand made steel frames occupy a niche market, fed by folks like Cleveland’s Dan Polito, and Joe Bringheli. But that’s another story.
I’ve owned a couple of fine steel bikes, and pedaled them tens of thousands of miles. My first serious racing bike was a Peugeot with a Reynolds 531 steel Frame and sew-up tires.
I bought it from Heinze Linke’s shop, the Madison Cycle Center, on Madison Avenue in Lakewood. Heinze worked at NASA by day and opened his bike shop in the evening. He was a godfather of bicycle racing on Cleveland’s west side. His shop had posters of Eddy Merckx and Bernard Thevenet, the biggest names in cycling at the time. Its racks were filled with fine racing machines. Anyone who has put in more than a few hundred miles on a bike like that knows this is true: It’s one thing simply to own a beautiful, hand crafted object, but it’s quite another to ride it, feeling the way it transmits the road to your muscles, the way it responds when you jump.
I joined a racing team, the Cleveland Wheelmen. There were races in Detroit, Windsor, Akron, Canton, Dayton, Buffalo, and more. One year I got some black alphabet decals and put CLEVELAND on the front of each of my fork blades. My training logs show I rode that bike more than 30,000 miles. It would have been about 1985 when I sold it.
Fast forward to 2011. I’ve been commuting to work for almost a decade, but lately I started riding fast again. I’m out of shape, but having a ball, and it makes me miss that bike. So a few years ago I took up the habit of prowling Craigslist to find old bikes that awaken the joy that old Peugeot and a few other bikes had kindled in me. That’s what brought me to Blazing Saddles.
Rychak put the frames up on the counter. One was too big. No sense looking at that. But the other one, well, there was no way to deny that it happened to be the same make, model, year, size, and color as my old Peugeot.
Rychak told me the bike I was looking at came to Blazing Saddles from a guy who got it from his father. There were chips in the paint, and specks of rust, but only cosmetic damage. I almost immediately noticed some flaking decals on the front of the fork blades, and I knew what they meant. But it didn’t sink in until I turned the frame toward me, so I could make sure everything was still straight and true. Those flaking decals on the front of each fork blade were the remains of of what I had put there almost 30 years earlier: black helvetica letters spelling out CLEVELAND.
This was my bicycle. Not just the same make, model,year, size, and color but the very same bike I had pedaled all those miles. Those Cleveland decals were proof as good as a notary stamp.
Since I sold this bike, Ronald Reagan completed his presidency. So did George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Now Barack Obama is in the White House, and nearly thirty years after the last time I saw my bike–I had the chance to buy it back. I paid the asking price, without even an attempt to bargain down.
Now my old Peugeot –the frame, at least–is hanging in my basement, waiting for me to scrape together cash and make good on my commitment to restore it. It feels like I’m on a mission, to track down the rest of the components that once made it such a beautiful machine. This could take years. I’m not in a hurry. Anyone know where I can get a set of Maillard 700, high flange hubs?