Sympathy for the Devil

Do you know who Billy Fiske is? I didn’t until about a week ago. I just happened to catch a History Channel documentary about him, most probably a piece of groundwork for the Hollywood extravaganza (“The Few”)to be released this year starring Tom Cruise and directed by Michael Mann. Fiske is perhaps best known for being the first American to die in combat in World War II. He schmoozed his way into the RAF and made the ultimate sacrifice during the Battle of Britain, approximately one month after he earned his wings as a Hurricane fighter pilot and more than a year before Pearl Harbor was bombed. Fiske is a rather fascinating gent, born into a wealthy Chicago banking family but never quite comfortable behind the desk. He spent most of his 29 years in Europe with a particular passion for skiing in Switzerland and raging along twisting Cote D’Azur roads in a Bentley. He also laid the groundwork for Aspen’s ski resort and possibly had a fling with Cary Grant’s fiancee while Fiske was on location in Hawaii for the filming of “White Heat”. For those of you who wish to know all the details of his life check this site out. As an aside, some elderly RAF veterans of the Battle of Britain are getting pretty amped up about the upcoming Tom Cruise flick since it appears that the truth will be twisted to parlay a very pro-American bias. It seems that Fiske (Tom Cruise) will be portrayed as someone who showed up and saved Britain’s ass even though the historic record states that in his month of combat he had no confirmed kills before he brought his wounded plane back to Tangmere airfield and died of burns suffered from a fire onboard.

Anyway, back to my TV watching…Fiske’s life story is certainly worthy of international man of mystery status, but what really caught my attention was his escapades as a Winter Olympian. Billy Fiske, at the age of 16, piloted a bobsled to a gold medal in the 1928 St. Moritz Winter Olympics and then repeated the feat four years later in Lake Placid. What raised my eyebrows as I flipped through the channels and kept me watching the History Channel for the rest of the episode was his behavior in St. Moritz. Young Mr. Fiske christened his bobsled “Satan” and then proceeded to create 5 matching turtleneck sweaters for his team (4 crew members in the sled plus 1 reserve) to wear in the Olympic Village, each adorned with a letter on the back that all together spelled out “S-A-T-A-N”. Needless to say, the US Olympic committee shit their pants. The sled was quickly renamed USA II and the sweaters never saw the light of day again. The Winter Olympics seemed pretty bush league back then, and apparently word never filtered back to the US about his behavior. Could you imagine the furor if someone pulled a similar stunt today? Well, it just so happens that a little birdy at Portugal’s Volta ao Algarve stage race photographed some mysterious behavior from the Team Discovery Channel camp which inexplicably flew under the radar of the otherwise eagle-eyed cycling media. Somebody must have seen the same show as me…

Exhibit A–Team issue Trek frame decal:
Exhibit B–Team Discovery on the front (how did nobody see this?):

I’m sure Discovery Channel management was eager to put the kibosh in those uppity pranksters.


Each Sunday, the “Fashion & Style” section of the New York Times runs a column entitled “Possessed” in which a person of indeterminate renown (who are these people? the columnist David Colman’s friends?) expounds the virtues of a prized material possession. More often than not, the objects are of a more mundane vein, yet marvels of utilitarian design (i.e.- a razor knife, Nicorettes, Gap jeans, a neckerchief). My typical reaction to these articles is a bemused “So what?”; however, I’m an addict and return Sunday after Sunday after Sunday eager to read the latest installment.

15t Regina CX cog, the bane of my existence

In all likelihood I’ll never be featured in Mr. Colman’s weekly diversion, so I’ll have to take advantage of my personal e-forum to make a contribution to the “Possessed” oeuvre: a 15t Regina CX cog, serving faithful duty as my keychain. This particular cog has quite a story, and is undoubtedly the only thing I own which has been on my person virtually each and every day for almost 20 years. On a balmy summer day in July, 1985, I don’t quite recall the exact date, I lined up with about 100 other juniors in Lake Front Park, Milwaukee, vying for the 16-17 men’s national road championship to be contested over approximately 100km. Unfortunately for me, it would be a rather brief foray in the peloton that morning. For those of you who are veterans of Superweek, we were racing on the long Lake Front loop, and I hadn’t even completed one circuit before my trusty 6-speed Regina freewheel had a meltdown. We had negotiated the dicey switchback descent to Lincoln Memorial Drive, raged along the lake front, and turned left up the wooded climb at the northern end of the loop. I made it about 75 meters uphill, shifted from my 53×15 to my 42×15, and then abruptly ceased to make any forward progress despite feverish spinning on my behalf. I was running pretty typical junior gears for the flattish circuit, 53/42 up front and 15-16-17-18-19-21 in the back. The 15t cog on the freewheel also served as a lockring, and the little bastard’s threads disintegrated at the base of the climb. I’m not sure of the internal mechanics of this freewheel, but I do know that with a stripped small cog the freewheel no longer engaged and my 120rpm spin wasn’t propelling me uphill at all. This problem should have been remedied with a simple wheel change, but again, luck was not on my side. I was in the top 1/3 of the peloton and somehow managed not to be creamed by any adrenaline-crazed junior comrades as I coasted to a halt. I took off my bum wheel and expected neutral support to come to my assistance in a matter of seconds.


It turns out a rather large crash at the base of the switchback descent occupied all of the neutral support vehicles and I had to wait about 2-3 minutes before anyone came to my assistance. I got a new rear wheel and set off in steadfast pursuit of the peloton, but only managed to hold the gap at 2 minutes on my own for the next 30 miles. Angered and frustrated, I then retired. Ultimately, Paul Orwicz rode in solo for victory while I begrudgingly spectated instead of competed. One of the few other moments of that day still in my memory was watching fellow upstate New Yorker Steve “Tough as Nails” Deutschmann, sick as a dog, ride tail gunner all day long and ultimately finish in roughly that position. (Whatever happened to him?)

A Velonews was waiting for me upon returning to Cooperstown. Inside was a small blurb warning readers about a defective batch of Regina CX freewheels which had entered the US earlier that year. Doh! I had finally got around to getting a driver’s license so the bum cog became my keyring and has been ever since the summer of ‘85. I’m long past any notion of bitterness, although on occasion I just wish I had the chance to have my fate decided by athletic prowess, not crappy Italian steel.

Ninja Skyjacker: While flying back to Duke in the late 1980s, an overzealous Syracuse airport rent-a-cop X-ray technician thought he made the bust of the year. I happened to mosey through the metal detector with the Regina cog keychain in my pocket and tripped off the alarm. I emptied the contents of my pockets for the guard and he totally lost his shit when he spied my keychain. He was eager to bust me for carrying a concealed, deadly weapon (in his mind this was a throwing star) and he called in the real law enforcement officers for backup and assistance. Thankfully, cooler, saner heads prevailed when the real cops showed up. One of the cops immediately IDed the offending “weapon” as a bike part and sent me on my way with apologies for any hassle.

Toga Is The Wave of Motion: While living in the northeast I spent many years competing against riders in Team Toga duds, such as aforementioned junior national champion Paul Orwicz. Once sublimation emerged for jersey graphics I was always enamored of Toga’s distinct green and yellow design. I distinctly recall Matt Koschara decked out in Toga apparel, and a friend from Binghamton, Paul Pisani (where is he now?), also raced for Toga. And one can’t think of Team Toga without the flamboyant man behind the scenes, Lenny Preheim. One of my most vivid race memories was competing in one of the sickest circuits ever laid out in the Northeast: the Ossining Grand Prix in the late 1980s (maybe 1988?). In the course of a 1 mile loop (to be travelled 50 times) was a wall requiring extended climbing in the 42×23 (with the finish line shortly past the summit) and a rapid descent alongside the walls of the prison. Climb, plummet, repeat. Matt Koschara, of Team Toga, emerged victorious. I recall toiling uphill in blistering summer heat, lap after lap, and being jarred from exercise-induced myopia by the apparition of Lenny Preheim, decked out in a neon green suit, a voluminous shock of bleached yellow hair, and cowboy boots, providing feeds for Matt. He was standing in the middle of the road (we were going so slow it was hardly a hazard) and provided a stark sartorial contrast to everyone else’s feeders, primarily parents or nonplussed girlfriends. I never knew him more than that, seeing him at races, but I’ve since become acquainted with people who knew him well and spoke fondly of him. Sadly, Lenny passed away in 1998(?), far too young.

Old Europe

If I were a true man of letters I could read these books, but like most Americans I’m uni-lingual and consequently unable to read Peter Winnen’s Dutch-penned works. I was at a post-race party last summer and found myself in a fairly lengthy conversation with a Belgian, about the same age as me, whose employment happened to bring him to the US. I was envious of his ability to speak not 1…not 2…not 3, but 6 languages fluently. By the time he left the Belgian equivalent of high school he already could speak 4 languages well and he added 2 more later in response to work demands. I’m pretty sure I’ve exhausted the English language’s assortment of cycling literature, and what’s left (a rather substantial amount of books and magazines, utterly dwarfing what’s available to me in English) reside in the tongues of what Rumsfeld affectionately considers “old Europe”.

I’ve been reading an incredibly illuminating book, One More Kilometre and We’re in the Showers, and the author has laid out a rich reading list of cycling books chronicling the history of European cycling penned in Flemish, French, and Italian. Sadly, for me they’d be no more than finely bound paper weights. One of these years we’ll head over to the continent, particularly northern Italy and Belgium, and I’m hoping whether we find ourselves contemplating the Madonna del Ghisallo or in rapt attention atop the Muur de Gramont that I’ll be able to communicate with people. Most likely there will be English speakers around, but I’d prefer to have something to say in their native language. Are there any “Converse With Any European Cyclist” language immersion programs out there? I’d gladly take part.

My Nemesis…

For the past week or so I’ve been preoccupied with a side project (obsession?) concerning the digitization of my 6-day bike race program collection. Here’s a preliminary peak at one of the pages, still a work in progress. 6-day program for a 1939 event in Madison Square GardenI’ve scanned the covers of about 20 programs and will also likely have a complete chronology of every six-day event held in the US (from 1899-1973, although heavily concentrated in the 1920s-1930s), plus a rogue’s gallery of rider photos and bios. My collection is certainly modest, but I’d undoubtedly have many, many more programs in my possession if it were not for the existence of my eBay arch-enemy: the appropriately monikered sixday, my personal Newman. If I lived in the NYC metropolitan area it would probably be possible to scrounge antique dealers or estate auctions and come across 6-day programs/memorabilia/photos (since approximately seventy 6-day events took place in NYC), but living in a region devoid of cycling history requires me to peruse eBay on a regular basis. sixday has deep pockets and enviously keen sleuthing prowess, an uncanny ability to unearth 6-day related items from the breadth of eBay. I’ve been on the losing end of far too many auctions, but I’m not made of money. Who is this mysterious fellow? What is he doing with his steady influx of 6-day, eBay booty? I have a vivid mental picture of sixday reminiscent of the Steve Buscemi character in Ghost World, the mordantly unhip Seymour alight with an obsession for 78rpm records. At the very least I hope he’s taking good care of the material, but the budding archivist in me hopes that he’s considered making his collection accessible to fans of cycling history (or one particular devotee…mainly, me). Well, that’s just the bitterness talking. I’m sure I’d enjoy picking his sixday brain over a few beers, probably coming to the conclusion that we’ve lead remarkably similar lives.