Saturday, January 26, 2013

Back to the future on two wheels

Wheelie action on my 1986 Miyata Trail Runner, circa Fall 1988.
My recent acquisition of a vintage Miyata Ridge Runner mountain bike inspired me to dig through old photos to search out any of a bike I once owned, and which inspired this latest purchase. That bike was a 1986 Miyata Trail Runner, my first mountain bike. As a high school student, I saved up to buy the Trail Runner with earnings from my first job, pulling in minimum wage at $3.35 an hour. The Trail Runner later transitioned to being primary transportation and entertainment in college.

The Trail Runner was a good, solid, early boom era mountain bike, but not terribly impressive compared to a lot of contemporary bikes. It was, however, transformational, as my first high quality bike from an actual bike shop, and superior in precision and performance to any bike I'd ever ridden to that point. Although I had plenty of dirt riding experience on various bikes as a kid, the Trail Runner allowed me to go more places than any of them. It became part of my identity. I even rode this bike on a first date with a young woman, who, after more than two decades, still continues to be accepting, if not fully understanding of my bike obsession.
What can I say? It's a fine example of Wyoming-style cheap entertainment.  
 A couple of shiftless slackers. Brian is in the background on a puke green '87 Diamond Back Curaca. 
Mountain bike fever had hit me sometime in 1985, but it wasn't until the following year that I could scrape together enough cash to get one. The used market for mountain bikes was virtually nonexistent, so a new bike was the only option. The bike shop where I bought the Trail Runner was primarily a Schwinn retailer, owned and operated by a diminutive old European couple who sized me up and brought out the two mountain bikes they had in my size and price range: the Trail Runner and a brown '86 Schwinn High Sierra with roller cam brakes front and rear. Both were nice bikes, but something about the Miyata just felt better, and that was that. After an exchange of a bit more than $450 in greenbacks, I was rolling home. I still have the receipt and owner's manual somewhere.

My metallic platinum 23" Trail Runner had a lugged steel frame and unicrown fork of Miyata cr-mo tubing, with a mix of Shimano, Dia-Compe and SR parts, and 26 x 1.75" Miyata tires on Ukai rims. It had 18 friction-shifted gears, featuring newfangled at the time, biometric-advantaged Biopace chainrings. All those gears were definitely a new experience, but I most appreciated the lowest gear, enabling me to goof around riding over things. The idea of a really low gear is taken for granted now, but it's difficult to convey how revolutionary it felt back then.

I rode the Trail Runner mostly stock for quite a while, then eventually installed some ESGE fenders to ride in the muck. Later, I dropped the fenders and swapped the aluminum riser bar for a flat Tioga Prestige chromoly bar, and fatter rubber in the form of Fisher Fattrax tires. I even installed a quick release axle in place of the solid rear hub axle, to go with the front quick release. The Trail Runner was an educational platform for many mechanic skills, and induced me to begin building a set of tools that continues to grow to this day.

Many of the people I hung around with in college arrived with low end road bikes, department store bikes, or no bike at all, but after seeing the fun of fat tires, several soon got mountain bikes of their own. At the time, the technology of mountain bikes was changing rapidly. Angles got steeper, chainstays got shorter and the focus shifted from wandering and adventure to speed and acrobatics. Wild designs and colors proliferated. As it is with change and fickle youth, eventually the bloom fell off the rose for the Trail Runner and me, as something newer and shinier came along. Though I would have kept it if I could, back then I couldn't really afford another bike straight up, so I reluctantly parted with the Trail Runner in the Fall of 1989 to fund the next bike. In the intervening years, I've owned many bikes, but for a lot of reasons, no bike will ever have quite the magnitude of impact on me as that sturdy old Miyata.

Riding up stairs in the snow, circa early 1989. By this point, the Trail Runner was sporting Tioga flat bars and Fisher Fattrax tires. My thrift store wardrobe was the polar opposite of lycra.
My half of the dorm room housed the majority of my possessions: a couple of flannel shirts, a stereo, a few records, a can of Tri-flow, a Specialized water bottle, and my Trail Runner. Roommate Brian interrupts my phone call with a squirt gun.
Synchronized radicalness. Rich the English guy is on an '87 Diamond Back Ascent. Yes, I'm wearing the same clothes as in the previous photo. No, it wasn't the same day. 
Incidentally, as I was digging through shoe boxes of photos and negatives, it occurred to me that the way I use a camera and think of photos has changed quite a bit in the past quarter century. Back in the old days, I didn't even have a camera until some time after I went to college, and the one I picked up was a cheap point-and-shoot of long forgotten type. Film and processing were relatively expensive at my meager income level, so I only occasionally took photos. Looking through the boxes, I noticed that a single roll of 24 exposure film sometimes chronicled events a year or so apart. Many of the photos I have are courtesy of the photographic generosity of other people, including all those in color on this page. Thus, there are long stretches of my life with virtually no photographic record.

I then realized that the only reason this now seems odd is because of the copious volume of digital photography and the ubiquity of devices with integral cameras. For example, yesterday I took a photo of an address on an envelope with my phone because I was too lazy to write it down. That would have never happened in the old days. Part of me still thinks prolific photography is crazy and wasteful. I wouldn't be surprised if many people of my age or so can relate to this perception. Likewise, photographic frugality may seem astoundingly archaic to people of younger generations.

Where this all leads is to a discovery that the total photographic record of my Trail Runner, a bike that meant enough to me for me to have sought out a similar bike decades later, amounts to perhaps a dozen images, many of which are shown here. Another insight is of time itself, and the realization that something I bought new as a young adult is considered vintage. It's enough to make me feel old. Now where is that hot tub?

Yes, I still dress remarkably similarly, but most of that hair is long gone.

23 comments:

  1. "The bike shop... (was) owned and operated by a diminutive old European couple who sized me up and brought out the two mountain bikes they had in my size and price range: the Trail Runner and a brown '86 Schwinn High Sierra with roller cam brakes front and rear. Both were nice bikes, but something about the Miyata just felt better, and that was that."

    Ooh! Gypsy mesmerization over in three...two...

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    1. I thought there would be some controversy about that statement. Over the years, I've occasionally thought about the alternate universe in which I went with the High Sierra. Those brakes sure were cool.

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  2. "My half of the dorm room housed the majority of my possessions: a couple of flannel shirts, a stereo, a few records, a can of Tri-flow, a Specialized water bottle, and my Trail Runner."

    So I have to know: Who owned the "Saturday Night Fever" LP and H-Bomb poster? Or did that come standard with the dorm room?

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    1. You've got an eagle eye. The H-bomb was my roommate's. I'll claim Saturday Night Fever. The architectural dividing line between the two symmetrical halves of the room ran right through the crack between the two columns of drawers of the built-in desk, so the glamor girls were his, too.

      Saturday Night Fever requires a bit of explanation. Right about that time and place was the epicenter of disco's unpopularity. Disco wasn't yet old enough to be appealing in any retro way, and the place was Laramie, Wyoming—enough said. Part of my role as aspiring cultural deviant in this small college town was, of course, to embrace the tacky; modern hipsters didn't invent irony. The thrift store sold old albums at about ten for a buck, so that helped, too. Behind the Fever album were several better old albums from KC and the Sunshine band, The Silver Connection, and Parliament/Funkadelic. Each was much better than the Bee Gees-heavy SNF soundtrack.

      Not coincidentally, a year or so later I became a founding member of the Disco Daddies Climbing Club, for which I designed and screened t-shirts. If I unearth an example, I'll post it. For what it's worth, I was a cartoonist and art major back then.

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    2. I remember that era, even though I'm younger than you. Late eighties was the nadir of disco's popularity. God, I loved those days.
      ;-)

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  3. Anyways, great post. It is interesting to think how our view of photography has changed now that we entered the digital age. Now I've got hundreds of images (combined) of my four current bikes. But try to find an image of a bike of mine from the past (say pre 2006)? Barely anything. I doubt that I have any photos of my teen/young adult bikes, as I was not much of a rider than, and they were department store dreck. I was too cheap to get a bike shop bike back in those days. How times have changed...

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    1. Thanks. I know what you mean. I have hundreds of nearly identical photos at arm's length of me riding, known as panda shots if I'm not mistaken. Yet, I doubt if I have even a single photo of my homemade 20" wheeled chopper bike that I rode for several years as a kid.

      If it were up to me alone, I would have had a bike shop bike years before. The sources of all of my bikes prior to the Miyata were about 5% department store and 95% yard sale or town dump. My family moved a lot, and I always had a revolving fleet of 2 to 4 bikes at any one time, many that were rebuilt from junked frames. Getting a real bike shop bike, and specifically a mountain bike, was the primary objective for my expendable cash from day one of my first job.

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  4. And I say that because you don't see me posting any photos of myself from 1988. I don't even know where I'd start looking for those...Same deal as what you described--I had a camera, but not much budget to develop film. It was always a surprise when you picked up the pictures, especially when you saw pictures that you had no memory of taking (with or without the influence of alcohol). Even with all of the digital advantages we have now, there are few pics of me, as I'm usually the one behind the camera and I prefer it that way.

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    1. Oops, replied in the wrong spot. See below.

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  5. wow...the dorms didn't change until, at least, 1998 when I stayed in them with my purple Trek 930 (22"). Now our bike arsenals are very similar...if you ever make it up to loveland, we should go for a fat tired spin!

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    1. I haven't been in the UW dorms in at least 20 years, but I can't imagine they've changed much even since prior to my time there. However, the last time I was in Laramie, it looked like some sort of construction was going on in White and McIntyre halls. Our room was on 2nd floor White, which was easy for getting a bike up the stairs, but we always had icky suds backing up from our sink drain and leaky windows. Dorm life there is definitely an experience unto itself.

      Good to know of a fellow fatbiker out there. I'll have to make a point to try to get up to Loveland, as I'm sure you've got some good hidden away places to explore.

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  6. At that time, I would have considered myself more of an anachronistic inheritor of the beat movement than a hippie. In that time and place, the term hippie was equated with Boulder-esque trustafarians, for which I was not adequately equipped to be a member. I also wasn't too keen on the self-serving agent provocateur hippie lifestyle. On the other hand, coasting along just outside society's peripheral vision by seeking out cheap, non-normative ways to live was something I could get behind. My long hair and beard was probably more a statement about laziness and apathy than anything else.

    I am the least visually appearing character on my blog, through no accident. I wouldn't even appear in this post if I had any photos of the Trail Runner without me in them. I guess it's a testament to how much I liked that bike that no photos of it exist without me.

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  7. Ironically, our hair (in 1988) was very similar both in length and style. 'Twas a wondrous time.

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    1. A year or two earlier I was sporting a mullet, but I know of no photos. It does seem that hair styles were magically a bit more unisex back then. Between about '90 and '93 or so, I had a perpetually changing hair/beard combo that could feature muttonchops, pointy Star Trek sideburns and other kooky combos at any given moment. Wondrous indeed.

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    2. I'll take it. Any more, I'm happy to be called just about anything but Grandpa.

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  8. Great post. Found your blog via Tarik's, but I rode up and down those same stairs in 95-97 on my DB Apex during grad school. Thankfully there is virtually no photographic documentation of my hair in that era. Nuff said.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by. That Tarik is a fine fellow.

      Those stairs were just shallow enough and spaced far enough apart to make them fun to ride. As I'm sure you know, Laramie has a lot of great places to ride in and around town. This, with great, uncrowded trail riding beginning on the outskirts makes it a bit of a well-kept secret bike town. Winters are harsh, though. When I lived there, we often talked up Colorado to out-of-towners as a better place to ride, just to keep trail use light and local.

      The Apex was a nice bike. In the late '80s, there were Apex models with some cool white with blue or purple smokey paintjobs, which I always liked. DB was one of the companies that totally embraced the wild colors and paint experimentation of the era.

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    1. It was too wild and thick to comb, so I never did. I still don't comb my hair, but it is mostly because any need has passed.

      I think I could dig up a photo or two of you with crazy hair...

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  10. Gypsy mesmerization perpetual...

    Nice bikes and all. This is great stuff, my favorite post ever. Keep it coming.

    I toured for several years from 2008-2012 without owning a camera, and know of only a few images that overs have taken. It was an intentional decision to live without frills, without the need or expense of technology, and without the feeling of self-celebration that photography can sometimes bring. I have since fallen into it, quite accidentally, and enjoy it greatly. The first year of words and images on the blog were all channeled through an iPod Touch with a broken screen, as I sought solace from a broken relationship aboard a bicycle. That bike was a 1985 Schwinn High Sierra.

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    1. Thanks, glad you liked it. I came across a few more photos during my search that didn't quite work for this post, so I'll have to weave them together with some words in the near future.

      Your concept of self-celebration is an interesting social construct, and can probably be applied to a lot of things in our society. When intentionally paring belongings down to the bare essentials, the inclusion or exclusion of a camera says many things about a person at a certain point. I'd wager that you wouldn't count either your photo-less or photo-logged time as a void. Regardless, tempered with self-awareness, self-celebration can be fun and quite positive.

      As strange as it may sound, the often solitary activity of biking is a big part of what allows me to interpret society and the world around me. It's easier to process events with an inanimate object on which to project a character; a task well-suited for a bike.

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