Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

13 July 2017

Bikes From The Night The Lights Went Out

I took Tosca, my Mercian fixed gear, out for a spin this morning. My plan was to finish before the worst of the heat and humidity we would experience this afternoon.  I succeeded at that, and at avoiding the downpour that would end them.

My ride took me through, among other places, the non-hipster parts of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Believe it or not, they still exist, mainly south of the Williamsburg Bridge and east of Bedford Avenue.  They are, in some ways, time-capsules of what this city was like, say, 40 years ago.

On this date in 1977, one of the most infamous blackouts in history darkened New York City.  Brooklyn's Broadway, which cuts through the borough from the East River to East New York, incurred some of the most serious looting and arson that night in a city that was already suffering from a reputation for anarchy.  

At that time, all of Williamsburg--and much of the rest of this city--bore more resemblance to  today's South and East Williamsburg than it does to the nightlife capital to its north and west.  Hipster-equivalents of that time never would have ventured into such a place:  In fact, about the only young white people to be found were those who were born and raised there and hadn't gone to college, joined the military or gotten out in some other way.   And, perhaps, a few punk-rockers and anti-establishment artists, who are practically the antithesis of hipsters.

You see, in the year Howard Cosell supposedly exclaimed, "The Bronx is Burning!", most residents of neighborhoods like Williamsburg were poor or blue-collar.   If they were white (usually Italian, German or Irish) they weren't young.  Those who were young, or even middle-aged, were likely to be Puerto Rican, Black or Hasidic Jews--like the folks who live in the non-hipster enclaves today.

I saw them on the streets today: the kids running and doing the kinds of things kids do everywhere when school's out.  Their mothers were never more than a few steps away, propped against poles or fences or sitting on stoops in front of the houses.  

Even with the hipsters nowhere to be seen, I saw plenty of bikes.  Some were being ridden, mainly by folks like me who were pedaling through the neighborhood.  Others were chained to parking meters, signposts and other immovable objects.  Ironically, they might have been new--or, at least, not more than a few years old--during the days to which I've alluded, but I probably would not have seen them because, in those days, there were relatively few cyclists in this city, and almost none in neighborhoods like the ones I've mentioned.

I saw this French ten-speed bike from around the mid-1970's as I spun down Franklin Avenue:

Paris Sport was a "house" brand for bikes imported by Park Cycle and Sports of Ridgefield Park, New Jersey.  They were made by several French manufacturers, most commonly Dangre-Starnord, a company based in Valenciennes (a northern French town along the Paris-Roubaix race route) that also sold bikes under the France-Sport and Nord-Star brands.

So it's not surprising that the bike resembles machines from Gitane, Jeunet and Mercier made in that era.  What I found interesting, though, were some of the apparent changes.

The reason this bike caught my eye was the Sun Tour bar end shifters ("Barcons").  One rarely sees them on any bike parked on a New York street, and they certainly were not original equipment on the bike.  More likely, the bike had shifters on the down tube or handlebar stem, and they probably would have been made by Huret, the manufacturer of the "Svelto" derailleur that probably is orignial equipment.

Seeing Weinmann "Vainqueur" centerpull brakes on a French bike is not unusual. However, if you look closely, you will see that the "yoke" that pulls on the straddle cable is not Weinmann's.  This one looks clunkier, and the cable hangers on the steerer tube and seat bolt are thinner than the ones that usually came with Weinmann brakes.  The hangers look like they could be Mafac, but may have been from CLB, whose  brakes and fitments (except for their later "Professional" sidepulls) looked like cruder versions of Mafac's offerings.

I am guessing that someone simply replaced parts as they needed replacing, or simply didn't have the money to do a complete "makeover".  (I mean, what else would explain such good shift levers with such ordinary derailleurs?)  I am also guessing that whoever rides the bike now "inherited" it from somebody and has no idea of what I'm talking about.

The same might be said for this bike parked a few blocks away:

It's the first time I've seen a Royce Union--or, for that matter, any bike with a chainguard like that--in such a color.

It looks like the same model as (or one similar to) the Royce Union three-speed my grandfather gave me about three years before I could ride it. Like my old bike, it was made in Japan.  But the color--and the head tube that could have passed for aluminum if not for the rust spots--reminded me of a bike I often saw a couple of decades later:

The Vitus 979 was, of course, one of the first widely-ridden aluminum frames.  It was available in anodized blue, green, gold, red, purple and the pink shown in the above photo.  As much as I love the other colors, whenever someone mentions the Vitus 979, that rose hue is the first that comes to my mind.

Somehow I doubt that the Royce Union came with such a finish.  I suspect that the bike had once been purple or magenta, or perhaps even red, and had faded--a common fate for the paint on Japanese bikes of the time.

At least it's being used, or looks as if it is, if not by its original owner--who may or may not have lived in the neighborhood the night the lights went out.

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