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As a high school freshman in Phoenix in the 1980s, I became obsessed with road cycling. It was an age when I obsessed easily: I must have worn down four or five turntable needles on The Jam’s “In the City” alone that year. The ’84 Olympics, Coors’ Classic stage race and rise of Team 7-Eleven had American cycling arcing toward a popularity zenith, and I was dragged into its orbit.
This obsession turned into a prolonged two-year project that started with a lay-away, Italian-made frameset. There were only two shops in town offering anything resembling racing machines. Probably in an attempt to scare me off of my foolish and predictably expensive scheme, my dad insisted we go to Domenic’s Cycling—the one shop filled with exotic bikes branded Scapin, Colnago, Bianchi and Bottecchia. I told the owner—a force-of-nature Italian expat named Domenico Malvestuto—my budget for this plan, as he inspected the countless frames lining his shop walls. He found a pearl-white, lugged Columbus steel frame. It had a downtube decal with the name “Domenic’s” over an Arizona flag graphic. It was very Italian, very ’80s, and I loved it.
My un-built frameset sat in a bedroom corner for two years, leaning against a slowly growing pile of carefully purchased parts. I did whatever odd jobs I could to build that machine: Mexican restaurant busboy, yard worker, fry cook in a Buffalo Wild Wing restaurant…. (In retrospect, that last one probably did little for my teenage complexion, but the things we do for love.) Foregoing the typical 16-year-old-boy car fantasy, every dollar went back into buying gruppos, handlebars, wheels, tools, pedals and anything else I might need. By the end of the process, I had saved and spent nearly $2,500 to get exactly what I wanted.
My dad and I finished building the bike on a workbench in our garage in 1986. We had done plenty of our own wrenching before, including building the chrome-and-blue Mongoose BMX bike I had as a kid. Wrenching is a skill I’ve long since lost, but the powerful sense-memory remains: installing bottom-bracket cups and cranks, gluing sew-ups, running cables, setting brakes and derailleurs—even the smell of the Phil Wood’s grease we used to hand-pack bearings one by one. It’s all still there.
In September 1988, I headed across the city on that bike for my first day of university. It was the last time I’d see it complete for a long time. Hit by a motorist making a right turn into a church parking lot, I put the bike—and cycling—away for 20 years of other obsessions and bad habits.
Back into our garage went the bike, waiting for me to make it whole again. When that didn’t happen, it was stripped down to parts and boxed away in the attic. I eventually moved out of state and then, too, did my parents. They schlepped that frame and box of parts through multiple moves. Every so often they’d ask if I wanted it back, and every time I encouraged them to donate it to Africa—or anywhere it might get better use than I’d give it. Somehow, though, they understood something I did not.
Like so many others, my story of returning to cycling started in my late 30s. It began with a commuter bike, then a road bike, then the first century ride, then the second, third and fourth century rides, then another bike, and so on. The deeper in I got, the more regularly my parents would ask if I wanted my old bike. For several years, my answer was always the same: donate it. Until, of course, it wasn’t.
One late-autumn evening, my wife and I pulled into our driveway to find a chest-high cardboard box from my parents on the doorstep. She gave me an “I know it’s futile, but please don’t go down that rabbit hole tonight” look as we dragged it into the garage. Peeling away excessive layers of bubble wrap and packing tape, I expected to find the old frame coated in rust. Instead, there was a light film that only needed the gentle scrub of a Brillo pad to bring out the frame’s original luster. I may never come closer to understanding how an archaeological adventurer feels when laying their hands on a face-meltingly awesome find for the first time. This trove from my teenage self was filled with beautiful artifacts: Cinelli alloy bars, a meticulously hand-stamped metal Campagnolo gruppo, old-school cage pedals, a black Concor Supercorsa saddle and Mavic Open rims. As I pulled each new find out of that box, I wondered aloud at what the hell I was I thinking back then buying these kinds of parts.
I brought it all, every last part down to the washers, to the one guy who would know what to do. My friend Hrach Gevrikyan is a master of the vintage racing machine. His shop, Velo Pasadena, is a certifiable museum of cycling history. It is for me now everything Domenic’s Cycling was back then. “Buddy,” Hrach said, after looking through it all, “let’s make it a single speed.” Handing over the frame and all its parts, I told him to have fun. A week later, I returned to Velo to find my bike reborn with new life and promise. Though not exactly the same as when I first built it, this bike was cleaned up, just slightly modernized and ready for its next life. Somehow simultaneously familiar and new, Hrach had made my old bike whole again.
Ask any cyclist about their first serious road bike and the response plays out like a Fellini reel: a smile followed by a thousand perfect memories that momentarily light up their eyes, followed by a melancholy sigh remembering when they parted with it. It’s always the story of girl or boy meeting bike, falling in love with bike, breaking up with bike, then wondering what bike is doing at that moment.
A few weeks ago, pointing to the vintage steel bike that hangs decoratively on a wall in my studio, a client asked, “When do you suppose that was state of the art?” Lifting the bike from its rack, I brought it down to the floor, said it came to life in the mid 1980s, and told him it was the first real road bike I ever owned.