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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  11/1/2005

Fellow Travelers

In January, 1993, I wrote a column extolling the charms of the little towns through which we so often ride. Bodega, Valley Ford, Freestone, Tomales. "The dots in our connect-the-dots rural rides," is what I called them. In that same month of '93, Road & Track magazine illustrated an article on the essence of the sports car with several photos taken in those exact same quaint little towns. In these high tech times, when everything on a car is controlled by little black boxes, the grand old journal of wind-in-your-face, backroad touring periodically feels compelled to do a little soul searching as to whether the true sports car experience still exists. And where do magazine editors from LA go when searching for that essential sports car experience? They drive their nuevo-retro machines 400 miles north to that well known backroad mecca: Sonoma County.

Three years later, in December of 1995, in a review of the Big Sur Ride, I wrote about cycling in the Hunter-Liggett army base north of Paso Robles. For various reasons, from military restrictions to benign neglect to dumb luck, the landscape within the sprawling fort has stayed blessedly undeveloped, and several charming little roads meander across its oak-dotted meadows. I called it, "the essential early California landscape--what the first Spanish explorers encountered." In their December, '95 issue, Road & Track also described a tour along those very same roads, and their take on it: "This little-traveled route recaptures the stunning beauty of what California was like before so many millions of people came here to live."

Intriguing coincidences. No plagiarism in either case on either of our parts. Both sets of articles appeared simultaneously. Great minds thinking alike? Perhaps...or perhaps not great minds, but minds with a common vision.

We cyclists often seem to have an entrenched, adversarial relationship with the motorized hoards with whom we attempt to share the roads. Some of that is based on solid common sense: that cars and trucks are large and heavy and often rather clumsy; that many of their drivers are clueless and some are hostile and a few are criminally insane; and that if one of those large, clumsy, speeding hulks hits you on your bike, it's likely to be ugly. So we ride with a bubble of defensiveness around ourselves and generally expect the worst from our interactions with the folks in the big metal boxes.

I'm not going to argue that some of that isn't justified, but most of us, if we take the time to think about, will agree it's a bit simplistic, and that most of our interactions with motorists are usually neutral, and some are even positive. In that last category, I would suggest, we may find many interactions with the drivers of sports cars, vintage "collectable" cars, and motorcycles. In fact, not only have I had many a pleasant connection with drivers of such vehicles, I can't recall that I've ever been yelled at or hassled by someone in a real sports car or collector car. It just doesn't happen. Rather than having an us vs. them relationship with these folks, I feel a kindred link: fellow travelers on the backroads of life.

It isn't too far-fetched to say that cycling and old-fashioned sports car touring have many things in common. The wind-blown, carefree careen down a twisting, sun-dappled country lane. The thrilling rush of speed, achieved at relatively low velocity on either a spindly bike or in a vintage, low-slung roadster. The appreciation and loving maintenance of a well-designed, well-crafted machine whose primary purpose is performance. Hey, some of those old sports cars (and tons of motos) even have wire wheels that have to be built up and balanced the same as bike wheels. (I once knew a master bicycle mechanic who would also build you a set of wheels for your Triumph.)

Perhaps, above all, the pilots of bikes and motos and old sports cars all share the same iconoclastic, bohemian joy of marching to a different drummer...delightedly, defiantly out of step with the humdrum...far away from freeways and fender benders, gridlock, stop lights, and outlet malls.

This month (November, 2005), bikes come in for a good bit of positive attention in Road & Track, as their premier columnist, Peter Egan, writes about cycling with Discovery Team members Tom Danielson and Michael Creed, and with Formula 1 racers Rubens Barrichello and Mark Webber. We know that cycling is great training for fitness, and race car drivers know it too. Many of them ride often and ride hard to stay in shape for the grueling chore of driving race cars at high speed for hours on end, often in brutal heat. Some bright marketing boys at Trek put together an event where car racers and bike racers and journalists could all hammer down some back roads together...using just pedal power. Peter Egan was there and wrote about it in his usual smooth and witty way.

Egan is an avid cyclist as well as a car and motorcycle nut and motoring journalist. (He and I have corresponded over the years about old cars and bikes.) He lives near the Trek headquarters in Wisconsin and has pals on the staff there. As he says in his column, "Interestingly, we all seem to have overlapping passions for bicycles, formula cars, and high-performance motorcycles. It's one big disease. You might call it an infatuation with things that go fast and don't weigh much."

This isn't Egan's first column about bikes in the pages of the world's most respected car magazine. A few years ago he devoted his entire column to a rant about road rage crazies who harass cyclists. It was nice to see that touchy topic getting some major ink in a major car forum.

Anyway...I'm a life-long, die-hard cyclist, but I'm also a life-long, die-hard motorhead. When I should have been doing my homework as a boy, I was instead reading Road & Track, soaking up like a sponge the reports by Henry Manney III on Grand Prix racing in Europe. I didn't want to grow up to be Eddy Merckx; I wanted to grow up to be Jimmy Clark...or at least Henry Manney writing about Jimmy Clark. My first attempts at journalism and writing were feeble attempts to replicate Manney's whacky wordsmithing. I have a nearly complete collection of Road & Track magazines dating back to 1950, as well as Motor and Autosport from England, Sports Car Graphic and many another dusty, musty mag from the golden era of sports and racing cars. I never grew up to be Eddy, Jimmy, or even Henry, but I did eventually become a contributor to Road & Track, in a small way. The images accompanying this column are a few of my illustrations that appeared in the magazine. They are an expression of my affection for the grand old cars.

Even though cycling takes center stage in my life now, I still have a fondness for classic sports cars and motos. When I see one on a ride, I usually stop to check it out and chat with the driver. And for the past two years, I have combined a weekday afternoon ride with a visit to the finish of the California Mille to look at the classic cars as they roll in.

What's the California Mille? To answer that, I have to explain first what the Mille Miglia is, or was. In the glory days of hairy-chested auto sports--up through the 1950's--many of the greatest races were run not on dedicated speedways but on regular, rural backroads, and one of the greatest of the open road races was the Mille Miglia, a thousand-mile run from Brescia in northern Italy to Rome and back to Brescia. Races just didn't get any more exciting or dangerous than this: tearing along tiny lanes in monstrous cars with powerful engines but frequently sketchy brakes and handling, with spectators thronging the edges of the roads...no safety barricades of any kind... It all came to a sad end in 1957 when Alphonso de Portago, an aristocratic Spanish playboy, driving a very fast Ferrari, lost control of his machine while screaming through the village of Guidizzolo. He cartwheeled into the crowd, killing himself, his navigator, and around a dozen spectators.

Public outcry about that horror put an end to the Mille Miglia, but in recent years it has been revived as a more sedate rally for the old cars, now lovingly preserved. The success of the latter-day Mille in Italy has spawned the California Mille, where dozens of grand old race and touring cars that might have competed in the original race come together for several days of tootling up and down the backroads of Northern California. It finishes in mid-afternoon at the posh Sonoma Mission Inn, and I enjoy dropping by on my bike to see the magnificent old warhorses as they arrive at the end of their grand tour over those same roads we love so much to ride on our bikes.

It's hard to know exactly when the cars will begin arriving at the Inn, and this past year, when I rode in, there was only one car in the paddock: a nice mid-50's Jaguar XK-140. There was an older woman sitting in it, so I cruised over and asked her if she knew when the other cars would be arriving. (One of the nice things about this event is the informality of it all, and that includes an easy accessibility to the drivers, who all seem more than happy to talk about their cars, the tour, and life in general.) This pleasant lady and I got to chatting, and I mentioned how much I liked the color of her car...a sort of light split pea green. I said I couldn't recall having seen exactly that color before, and I wondered if it was original. "Well, as to that, you should ask my brother." She points to a gentleman just walking up. "He bought the car new in 1955." Now, I happen to find that one of the most charming notions: that this fellow, now probably in his early 70's, bought this lovely car when he must have been in his early 20's...a college student, perhaps...and has had it as his life-long companion ever since. I was so captivated by the thought of such a long partnership between magnificent machine and fortunate man...they were celebrating their golden anniversary, after all: 50 years together...that I completely forgot to ask about the paint.

Of course, knowing how torturous the maintenance sometimes is on old Jags, one has to wonder if their relationship hasn't had its stormy moments. One way or another though, they seem to have survived and to still be enjoying one another's company. I like that. I like it very much. We should all be so lucky!

As no other cars had yet arrived, I rode off and logged a few miles in the hills around Sonoma--the same ones I described in my column of a few months back: A day on the bike--and then I returned to the Inn to see if the action had picked up a little. It had. The wonderful old racers were arriving in a steady, snarling stream, cheered on by a large, enthusiastic crowd lining the Inn's driveway, including masses of excited children waving little flags of many nations. In a lull between arrivals, I rode my bike up the driveway as well, and received as rousing a cheer from the crowd as had any of the drivers of the classic cars. A little embarrassing maybe, but as I shrugged to the official timekeeper at the finish, "It's a lot cheaper than a Ferrari!"

I spent the next hour like a kid in a candy store, happily strolling up and down the rows of vintage marques...Maseratis, Ferraris, Porsches, Alfas, Aston Martins. A Bristol. A Bugatti. Heaven! A Mercedes Benz 300SL roadster rolled in and parked. Then another one almost like it parked right next to it. This was worth a closer look, so I wandered over. The driver of the second car--a trim, 40-something guy--looks over at me and my bike and exclaims, "Whoa, is that the new Madone? Cool! Lemme check it out! Hey, ya wanna trade?" I thought: Right...what's your shoe size? You take the Trek out for an hour; I'll take the Merc...

No such trade transpired, but we got to yakking like two old buddies who had found a common thread. He's from Chicago and is a regular cyclist. He had purchased the latest Specialized carbon bike about the time I bought my 5.9. So I had the Lance bike and he had the Levi bike. Neat. He gave my bike a thorough going over and I did the same with his gorgeous, big yellow roadster. This had a special poignancy for me, as I once had a 300 SL roadster myself, back in 1970. I let it get away though, just like that mythic Mickey Mantle rookie card, and now I couldn't begin to afford one. Bittersweet reflections about lost opportunities, lost loves, lost youth...sigh...

My new friend was bemoaning the fact that he hadn't been on a bike in a month, and it was driving him nuts. But I had a hard time feeling sorry for him, as he described what had brought about this deprivation. Get this: he had flown out from Chicago to Victoria to pick up his new-old car, where it had just undergone a complete restoration to showroom perfection. Then he had driven this magnificent beast all the way down the Pacific coast to San Francisco, where he had hooked up with the California Mille, spending another week cruising the backroads of the wine country and Mendocino county in the company of all these other wonderful wheels. Now, he complained, he had to drive south to Palm Springs to attend a music festival, and after that drive home to Chicago. I asked myself: would I be willing to give up a couple of months of cycling to trade places with him? Hmmm...hard choice...would I get to keep the car at the end?

One final twist to this story... My regular weekday riding pals Rich and Emilio had declined to accompany me on this pilgrimage to the classic car reunion. They didn't share my interest in the old battle wagons, so earlier in the afternoon they had instead gone for a ride up in the vineyards of the Russian River Valley. Sometime during their ride, they were taking a break alongside a remote country byway, when a guy pulls up in a big yellow 300 SL to ask directions. After sorting out the geography, the guy looks at their bikes--Rich's Rivendell and Emilio's Wilier--and says, "Nice bikes! Very retro!" Then motors off on his way to the Sonoma Mission Inn.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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