The Armenian way

April 19, 2018 § 35 Comments

It was 1980. The young immigrant stared with envy at the two riders and their shiny new Colnagos in Central Park. He’d been in the U.S. for two months and was riding to work every day on his beater bike to the body shop that paid him $80 a week. “Look at those bikes,” he said.

“You should go talk to them,” said his friend.

“I don’t speak English.”

“Bicycle,” his friend said. “You can say bicycle.”

The Armenian actually knew two English phrases. A relative had told him before he left his home in Yerevan, “In New York if they look at you friendly, say ‘Thank you.’ If they look at you bad, say ‘Fuck you.'”

He walked over to the two riders. “Thank you,” he said hesitantly. “I’m a bicycle.”

The two riders laughed. “What?”

“I’m a bicycle. A Russian bicycle.”

The two riders kept smiling. “What?”

The young Armenian, eighteen years old and a former member of the USSR’s national  junior road team, pointed to his thighs. “I’m a bicycle. Russian bicycle.”

The two racers conferred for a minute. One of them pulled out a slip of paper and dug a pen out of his saddle bag. “Call this number,” he said. Then they rode off.

The godfather of New York cycling

The young Armenian took the note over to his friend. “We gotta call this number.”

The two boys got back home and explained what had happened. The next day the friend dialed the number. “Hello?” answered an older man.

“I have friend, racing Russian team. Bicycle team. He got number Central Park.”

“Russian? Okay. Send him over then. I live at 72nd and Hudson.”

“What is your name, sir?”

“Mengoni. Fred Mengoni.”

The young Armenian showed up and rang the door. An elderly Italian gentleman dressed in silk pajamas answered the door. “Russian, eh?”

“Armenian,” said the boy’s friend. “We are Armenian. He rode Russian team, road bicycle racing.”

“That right?” Fred reached over and gave the young man’s thigh a hard squeeze. “Okay. Come on in.”

They went into the millionaire developer’s home and into his garage. “This is about right for you.” It was a 56 cm Benotto. “And these, too.” He handed the young man a pair of shorts and a jersey that said “G.S. Mengoni,” adorned with a pink collar signifying the Giro. “There’s a race in two weeks in Central Park. See you there.”

The young Armenian and his friend stood out in the street, wondering what had happened. Some stranger had given him a pro bike and a racing uniform and hadn’t even asked his name. Was this even real?

Big day

The Armenian, whose name was Hrach Gevrikyan, showed up on race day. It was a national class race, stacked with U.S. national team members. Hayman, Nitz, and a host of other legends rolled up to the line. With two weeks’ training on his legs, Hrach knew it was going to be a hard race; he suffered through to thirtieth place.

Afterwards, Mengoni came up to him. “You are terrible!” the old man said. “Thirtieth place? You’re no good at all.”

Hrach’s friend translated and the young man’s face fell. “Come over here,” he told his friend. “You translate every word I say. Every word.”

“Sir,” said Hrach. “You are a very kind man. You gave me a bicycle and a uniform and you gave me a chance to race for you. Thank you very much for your kindness. Here is your bicycle back. I will give you the uniform later, after I wash it.”

Mengoni stared, unmoved.

“But I have to tell you something, sir.” Hrach paused while everyone watched. “You don’t know shit about bike racing! You don’t know shit! Not even one tiny little piece of shit! I have two weeks training on my legs and I got thirtieth in this national race, with your best U.S. racers? You don’t know shit! I tell you this, old man, I didn’t get thirtieth. I got first! You understand that? First place!”

Silence reigned as the friend translated. Mengoni’s face never changed. “Are you finished?” he asked.

Hrach nodded.

The old man exploded. “You little motherfucker! No one ever talks to me like that! You little bastard! Who do you think you are?”

Hrach eyed him back. “I’m Hrach. And I know how to race a bicycle.”

Mengoni eyed him, suddenly calm again. “Nobody ever talks to me like that. I like you, boy. You can keep the bike and the jersey. There’s another race next week. Let’s see how you do.”

Paying for coffee

The following week’s race was also in Central Park but it was a local race. Hrach attacked early, rode the break, and made sure that every time he passed Mengoni he was driving the break. In the end he sprinted for third and Mengoni was ecstatic. “Coffee on me,” Mengoni waved to the assembled post-race crowd.

They followed him across the street where everyone ordered coffee and pastry. Mengoni went to the bathroom and while he was there Hrach quietly picked up the tab. Mengoni came out and asked for the check.

“It’s taken care of, sir,” said the waiter.

Mengoni was taken aback. “By whom?”

The waiter pointed to Hrach. “By him.”

Mengoni walked over to Hrach’s table. “All my life here I give to the races and to the racers. No one ever paid my bill.” Outside the cafe Mengoni asked him, “How much you make?”

“$80 a week, sir.”

“Here,” said Mengoni, peeling off eight hundred dollars. “You are on my team now.”

Hrach had made a friend for life.

Coors Classic and California

In 1981 Mengoni sent Hrach to the Coors Classic. Although teams were limited to six riders and he didn’t ride for Mengoni, a composite team out of Santa Barbara took Hrach on. He finished 16th overall in a year dominated by the Russian national team and won by Greg Lemond.

Upon returning to NYC, Mengoni met with Hrach. “I have a good connection with the Fiat development team in Italy,” he said. “They will take you and develop you for two years, then sell you to a professional team. This is your chance.”

“Can I think about it?” Hrach asked.

“Of course.”

The next day he went over to Mengoni’s. “I can’t do it,” he said.

“Why not? This is the chance of a lifetime.”

“My mother is ill and I have to stay with my family.”

Mengoni looked at him for a long time. “Then I have two things to say to you. One, I am sorry for you, giving up this thing that many people would die for. But two, as an Italian, I respect you for being a man who puts his family above all else.”

By 1984 Hrach had settled in California, where his family had moved. He had had serious knee problems that left him unable to race, despite surgery paid for by his friend Doug Knox. He began working at a friend’s bike shop in Santa Barbara, learning the trade.

Pasadena and family

A few years later he was working at a bike shop in Pasadena, and by 1988 he had opened his first shop and married his wife Nevrik. The shop was 580 square feet, and his wedding came at the same time he was struggling desperately to make ends meet. His friends from New York arrived for the wedding celebration a couple of weeks early, but Hrach was overwhelmed with his work. He had opened his shop with $5,000, an amount he considered a small fortune, and was facing harsh economic reality.

After a few days of being in town, a friend took him aside. “Hrach,” he said. “Where have you been? We are in town and we never see you.”

“I’m trying to keep my business afloat,” he said.

“What is the problem? Do you need money?”

“Yes, I’m trying to keep the doors open.”

“How much money do you need?”

“I guess another $5,000 to stay afloat.”

The friend pulled out a checkbook and wrote him a check. “Here,” he said. “You can repay me later.”

Hrach looked, astounded. It was for $20,000. “I don’t know what to say,” he said.

“You don’t have to say anything. But can we have some of your time now to celebrate your wedding?”

Deep roots

Thirty years later Hrach’s shop, Velo Pasadena, is one of the strongest, most well-known, and most successful independent bike shops on the West Coast. In addition to a glittering sales floor, crack mechanics, and knowledgeable salespeople, the shop still has the warm feel of a family affair. Every bike comes with a two-year free maintenance plan. Hrach works out of the same small office in back even as he is deeply involved in his Armenian community.

Above his head are photo albums from his racing career in Armenia and in the U.S. “I didn’t build my shop selling bicycles, I did it building customers. I have customers who have been coming here for thirty years. They trust me and here it’s a place they feel welcome. Before cell phones I would always get calls from their wives. ‘I know he’s there, Hrach, put him on the phone.'”

Over the years few people have done as much for the country’s cycling development as Hrach. In 1990, when Armenia split from the collapsed Soviet Union, he helped fund the team’s first national appearance in Bogota, Colombia. He also designed the national team uniforms, a design that the team still wears.

Hrach has donated bikes and clothing to youth cyclists throughout Armenia, and on May 2 of this year he is traveling there to accompany a shipment of 220 donated, brand new folding bikes as part of a community development project. “You can’t do good things in life and expect anything back. If you do, that’s not giving. But it always comes back, you just don’t know when or how. If you never give anything in life, you never get anything, either.”

And what about Armenia?

“As soon as I was able to do a little bit, I did. I want to help young people there, to give them a chance. This is where I am from, you know? I tell my son,” Hrach said when we spoke, “you can forget anything you want about your life. But never ever forget that you are Armenian.”

END

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