Gifts in passing

September 17, 2018 § 4 Comments

I went to the funeral of Iffioka Nsek on Saturday, a guy I’d never met. I know his sons through bike racing, but not well. I met his youngest son at this year’s Belgian Waffle Ride, where Ama finished first overall on the Wafer and obliterated second place by almost six minutes. The elder son, Imeh, is a similar force on the bike and a familiar face at the races.

Our cycling community is relatively small, and Iffioka’s death at age 51 affected me. There is a time to forego your oh-so-important Saturday bicycle ride for things that actually matter. This seemed like one of those times.

We drove up to Walnut and the campus of Mt. San Antonio College. I wondered why the memorial service was being held there instead of a church or funeral home.

The things in front of you that you don’t see

The on-ramp at the 405 and 110 was shut down, which delayed us. Then, the off-ramp from the 91 to the 605 was shut down, so we got delayed again. We were some of the last people to arrive at Mt. SAC, and we ended up in the wrong parking lot. There were only a few cars.

We walked through the campus to the performing arts center. A few other stragglers were signing the guest registry. Then a moment later we entered the auditorium. I blinked. It had a capacity of about 500, and except for a handful of empty seats towards the very front, was standing room only. We hurried down and sat, even as people continued to arrive, cramming the aisles.

I looked for familiar faces, expecting to see an audience filled with bike racers, and there were quite a few, but by far and away they were people from the “other,” non-racing world. It began to dawn on me that Iffioka Nsek, this guy I’d never met, was more than the father of two nonpareil young athletes. How had I never met him?

The mentor

I’ve been to many memorial services but never, ever to one like this. The first handful of speakers on the program spoke with a grief and intensity that had the entire audience in tears. But what was more incredible was the long line of people from the audience, almost two hours’ worth, queued up to share their memories and their gratitude and their grief.

What was incredible was that everyone told the same story. Iffioka had come from Nigeria to California, graduated from high school in Culver City, gone to Mt. SAC on a track scholarship, gotten a job with the college after graduation, and never left. He had built their IT department and computer network, and for twenty-eight years had been an institution within the institution, not just because of his genius, but rather because of his character.

The people who spoke were varied beyond belief. Co-workers, high school teachers, people he’d only met recently and people he’d known as a young boy. What astounded me was the way Iffi had maintained so many relationships over decades, while continually building new ones, each friendship as deep and sincere as the other. He was the guy who would answer the phone in the dead of night, send you a 200-line code solution to your problem in a matter of minutes, and go back soundly to sleep. He was the guy who you’d call asking to buy a bike part from and wind up in a 3-hour conversation about life.

Iffi had answers, and when he didn’t have answers, he had laughter and happiness. He was joyful, overflowing with love, and always so eager to see YOU. One of countless moving stories was about how Iffioka had sold a server to a young man on Craigslist, then worked with him over a period of months to get it set up and running properly, then guided and mentored him into a successful IT career.

Or the story told by his college track coach about how he’d recently gone over to the former coach’s granddaughter’s house, completely set up and installed her home network, and in four hours had formed such a bond that when the girl found out about Iffi’s death she had collapsed in tears.

These and stories like them were the tip of the iceberg. Iffi who had helped a young man start racing. Iffi who had helped an old man start racing. Iffi who knew everyone on the bike trails. Iffi who only had words of encouragement and love for those who tried, and acceptance for those who didn’t. Iffi whose life was passionately devoted to his wife of 28 years. Iffi who doted on and lived for his sons. Iffi who drove the boys to school without fail. Iffi who demanded intellectual rigor and hard work from his sons. Iffi who on the day of their birth recited their lineage to his sons. Iffi who immediately and forever earned the love and devotion of his in-laws. Iffi who laughed at success, who laughed at failure, who met each day with a brightness and brilliance that challenged the sun itself. Iffi, a giant among men, distinguished not by great wealth or worldly success, but distinguished by devotion to family, devotion to work and those around him, devotion to the human race.

I am hardened to death and the words that people conjure up to deal with their loss and grief, but through my tightly shut eyes and achingly bowed head, I wept, thanking this man I never knew, thanking him for his life, thanking him for the gifts he had, in passing, left for us all.

END

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Pretty lady

July 31, 2018 § 10 Comments

You can admit it. When you travel you are always looking at the bikes. And when you tourist in a country where people are biking all the time, the types of bikes you run across are endless, even though certain bikes seem to predominate in certain places. Ogling is a fact of biker travel life.

In Vienna you see Peugeot, Bianchi, Puch, and MuddyFox everywhere, being ridden, chained to bike racks and fences. When something is especially interesting I’ll stop and check it out.

Last night I was having a miserable non-dining experience at Va Piano, an Italian chain here where the kitchen line is stretched out against a wall. Each cook has a bay and you go to the bay, order your food, watch the chef prepare it, then take it yourself over to the table, hot. It shreds their labor costs because they don’t hire waiters, and it gets the food from the stove to your face more or less instantaneously.

The system had broken down last night, though. There were only two chefs for six pasta bays, and one of them was a trainee. The line was long and grumpy, The pizza bay wasn’t doing any better. After I bailed on the pasta line and migrated over there, I watched the cook pull ten burnt pizzas out of the oven.

“It’s going to be a minute,” he growled.

“No, it isn’t,” I said.

Grocery store food

Across the street was a Spar grocery store, so rather than wait another hour and spend $18 for dinner I figured I would wait zero minutes and spend $4 for a sandwich, bottle of water, and pasta salad.

As I crossed the street I checked the bikes shackled to the rack. And there she was.

An old Italian beauty with chromed fork crowns, dt shifters, and cables sticking out of the hoods. And what the hell was that? Campy NR rear der? Pretty soon I was squatting down, rubbing off the grease as a group of angry old women sat on a bench eyeing me suspiciously.

The brakes, crank, and pedal were various, but along with the vintage Campy parts the owner was even running sew-ups. I snapped a few photos.

“Excuse me?” a voice said.

I looked up and saw a tall hipster with a shoulder bag, tattoos, and forearms like thighs. “Is this yours?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“It’s gorgeous.”

“It is?” He clearly thought I was trying to steal it.

“Hell, yes. Where’d you get it?”

“My uncle gave it to me. It was his old bicycle from a long time ago.”

Funny how when people describe the 70’s as a long time ago you feel ancient. “He gave you something pretty cool.”

The guy’s suspicions hadn’t completely allayed but he’d sized me up and saw I was no bike thief, or at least not a very good one. “Yes, he told me it was a good bike.”

“Campy Nuovo Record rear derailleur, and check out the front derailleur. Totally classic. And the frame, it’s an Italian touring frame. A lot of this is original equipment.”

He raised an eyebrow. “So?”

“So it’s just beautiful, that’s all.”

“It is covered in dirt and grease,” he pointed out.

“That’s because it’s not hanging on a wall in some dude’s collection. You’re riding the shit out of it.”

“Is that bad?” He was now a little concerned.

I stood up and clapped him on the thick shoulder. “Dude,” I said, “that is exactly what this shit was born for.”

END

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Work history

July 1, 2018 § 6 Comments

You know how you keep a bunch of crap that you don’t need and will never, ever use again?

When we left our rent house on Via Zurita in 2011 in order to super downsize so that we could afford the stupid college tuition that went along with the fancy brand of university that had been so perfectly marketed to us, I took everything that hadn’t been touched in the last six months and tossed it onto a pile in the garage. The heap became Mt. Junk and included everything we owned that met the above criterion, including $15k worth of camera bodies and immaculate Nikon lenses. The 1-800-Got-Junk folks hauled it off in a dump truck and it was the best $150 I’ve ever spent.

I have never missed any of that stuff and it was the first major step I took in my life to become free of possessions. Possessions are weight and you carry them wherever you go. Every time I see someone working in the yard, or rather paying to have someone else work in their yard, and every time I see someone in a ridiculously nice car, wearing ridiculously nice clothes, building a ridiculously nice house, plunging into the throes of a ridiculously expensive vacation, or coming out of TJ Maxx with a cart piled higher and more whomperjawed than the Tower of Pisa, I pity them. Each one of those things mires them in place, mentally and physically, whether they know it or not.

From the date of that first Great Purge, every few months I have made the rounds in my continually smaller and more sparsely appointed apartments, tossing or donating almost everything that fails the six month touch test.

Stuff is poison, and the more of it you have, the more you poison your life. No exceptions, sad to say.

Life scraps

Of course some things survived the Great Wanky Purge of 2011, and one of them was a slim folder that contained vital records. They were the lone exception to the Six Month Rule. Even though you haven’t used your birth certificate or passport in the last six months, you’re gonna for sure need them again.

However, I do regularly perform a search-and-destroy on my one small filing cabinet. It’s amazing how paper, when left alone, will fornicate and give birth to more paperwork inside a filing cabinet. The other day as I was purging old bank records, I came across a brittle yellow half-page of legal paper.

It was a handwritten list of previous employment. At first I didn’t recognize it, rather cryptic thing that it was, and then when I deciphered the scribble, I couldn’t remember why I had kept it or why it had survived so many purges. After a bit of brow furrowing, I recalled why. It was part of my application when I took the professional responsibility test for the Texas Bar Exam in 1992, when I had to submit all employment from the previous ten years.

1

The code

The first thing I noted as I went over it was how short each of my jobs was, but how keenly I remembered each of them.

Central Delivery Service: This was the hotshot delivery service managed by mom’s husband. The secretary’s name was Alma. I organized files and drove my car over the curb one morning, tearing off the oil pan and creating Lake Oilspill in the parking lot, much to the amusement of everyone except me.

H.E.B. Stores: Grocery sacker my freshman year of college. It was the first job I ever had whose primary purpose was allowing me to save up for a better bicycle. It wasn’t the last.

Capitol Oyster Bar: This was at the corner of 15th and Lavaca, around the corner from the Texas Chili Parlor, and I worked as an oyster shucker. Hired by my bike racing pal Kevin Callaway the Good, it was the first job at which I ever excelled. I could shuck a dozen oysters a minute, which is pretty fucking fast, especially when you have to do it for hours at a time. I worked behind the bar and became friends with Old Joe Ford, the career dishwasher who would empty the bus tubs and drink all the booze that the patrons had left in their glasses. He taught me how to eat ribs. One night we were at the Iron Works and he saw my ribs with a bunch of meat left on them. “Boy,” he said, “your momma never taught you how to eat a rib? Shit.” Then he taught me how. I owe you, Joe.

Texas French Bread: Best job ever. Started at 4:00 AM, over at noon, all you can eat fresh bread, pastries, sandwiches, coffee, and fresh-squeezed juice. Plenty of time after work to train. I met Kim and Martha at TFB. Martha and I drove across the U.S. in my pickup, and when I was laid to rest at Keystone Ski Resort, where I washed dishes at the Brasserie, I hopped on my bike one day and made the 120-mile ride to Aspen (you have to get over Leadville Pass, and then at the end of the ride, up Independence Pass, ouch) where I visited Kim, who was staying there for the summer to play in a symphony.

Keystone Ski Resort: Ate mushrooms.

Utsunomiya American Club: My first job in Japan, where I met my wife on the first day of class as an English teacher. My boss was George Haynes along with a lady, Miss Ishikawa, who everyone called “Chief” because she was very tall and imposing. One day I went for a bike ride and got lost and ran into some personal difficulties, and Miss Ishikawa had to come pick me up. 100 miles away.

Kanda Gaigo Gakuin: After the Great Personal Difficulties and Long Drive Matter, my employment at Utsunomiya American Club ended rather abruptly and I got a job in Tokyo at the prestigious Kanda Gaigo Gakuin. My boss was a dude whose name I don’t recall, a large, jovial fellow who went to the train station one day to buy tickets for a trip to Nara Prefecture. In Japanese, he had learned that if you want to be respectful you add “O” to the noun, but he learned it wrong because you don’t ever do it with place names. So instead of saying “Nara kudasai,” at the counter he said “Onara kudasai,” which means “I’d like a fart, please.”

Chili’s: Back in Austin for law school, my buddy Kevin Callaway the Good hired me as a line cook at Chili’s on the corner of Burnet and Research. I wasn’t a very grill chef, but when one of the cooks, a third-string linebacker for the UT football team, started giving me shit, I remarked that he was an unathletic blob compared to the lowliest bike racer. He actually had a bike that he commuted to school on, and he challenged me to a race. I gladly accepted the challenge. He showed up in sweatpants and a Longhorn t-shirt (tough guys ain’t scared of the cold) and I took him on a 35-mile jaunt on a breezy February day in a light freezing drizzle. He kept asking “When are we gonna race?” until, about an hour in, soaked to the fucking skin, hypothermic, and barely able to sit upright, I told him “Now,” and rode off, leaving him lost and potentially dead. I went to work the next day, and the whole kitchen staff wanted to know how badly Sully had kicked my ass on the bike ride. When Sully showed up he looked a tad on the sickly side and didn’t say anything. When they asked me, I didn’t either. Sully may have been dogmeat on a bike but one of his fists was the size of my head.

Japan SLS: After finishing my stint in Germany I got an internship at the Tokyo branch of a German law firm, Japan SLS. My boss was Reinhard Neumann. The secretary was Miss Sasaki. The dude next door was Wieland Wagner, who ran the Vereinigte Wirtschaftdienst news service.

Texas Civil Rights Project: Back in Austin and law school, I got a part time job with the Texas Civil Rights Project. Jim Harrington had just split off from the ACLU. The offices were in a rundown upstairs space on the corner of Fourth and Congress. “Don’t ever go into law,” Jim once told me. “Be a union organizer.” Of course I rode there. Downhill all the way to work, uphill all the way back home. Which is, come to think of it, the way it’s been ever since.

END

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Take me out to the ballgame

June 26, 2018 § 18 Comments

When I was a kid we used to play baseball. We rode bikes of course, but a bike was a way to get to somewhere or a way to jump off a ramp and try to kill yourself. One of the somewheres a bike had to get you to was the ballfield.

There were lots of ballfields, but usually we played at Horn Field, which was about a twenty minute ride away. There was grass in the outfield but everything else was dirt. Since this was in Houston, it was always hot, hotter than any hot you would willingly endure in a sane state of mind, and always with a blanket of 90% humidity slathered on top.

We played in long pants because otherwise you wouldn’t have any skin left on your knees. Spring, summer, fall, it was always hot and dirty and we didn’t care. Rather, we cared, but what could we do about it? You couldn’t stay inside because there was nothing to do. Daytime cartoons only ran from 3:30 to 5:00 weekdays, and we didn’t have a TV.

Baseball was an egalitarian sport, which cycling is not. The red Rawlings glove I got when I was eight was the same glove I used every year until I quit playing baseball as a teenager. We bought it at the FedMart on Bellaire Blvd., and it cost thirteen dollars. That was a huge amount of money. Kids hung onto their gloves. After your bike it was the most precious thing you owned.

We didn’t have spikes, just ramshackle old shoes that we also wore to school; we called them sneakers or “tennies.” My brother Ian couldn’t stand shoes; he was a lightning fast baserunner with wicked high arches and if it wasn’t an actual league game he played barefoot. His Rawlings glove was black, and he kept it oiled and he broke it in so that it bent just right. Mine was always scuffed and ugly and I broke it in wrong so that it looked like a broken shopping bag or an old lady’s purse. Plus, I couldn’t catch worth a damn and threw worse.

We had a bat, singular. I don’t remember the size, but it was a Louisville Slugger. Sometimes my dad would ride down to Horn Field with us on his giant Hercules and we’d do batting practice, or shag flies, or play catch, all the time frying our fucking brains out in that raw Houston heat. I couldn’t hit worth a damn, but man could I sweat. There weren’t any water bottles or Gatorade or sports drinks, either, just a cement fountain that pumped out scalding summer water, and listen, you drank it because the alternative was sunstroke.

We were gritty little bastards.

If you hung around the ballfield for very long with a bat, glove, and ball, no matter how hot it was some other kid would show up with his glove. Then his big brother would show up, and then the brother’s friends, and then the big brother’s big brother, and then his friends. No one had a cell phone or a computer, but you would have eighteen players so quick, everything from peewees to hulking high school sluggers with hair on their balls.

No one cared if you were little or weak or scared. The pitchers threw so hard that the ball cracked in the catcher’s mitt like a gunshot. If you sucked they’d holler “Easy out!” as you walked up to the plate. If you got hit in the shoulder or stomach or elbow or knee, or even the head, you’d better not cry. Wipe up the blood and take your base; they were going to throw you out anyway the second you wandered so much as an inch off base. Even if first base missed the throw, right field would usually scoop it up and nail you before you got to second.

It was egalitarian in this way: The best players and the terrible ones got distributed fairly, and no quarter was ever given. There was never a single fight over a rule or a close call, either. The players would argue but no one ever came to blows. We didn’t need any grown-ups and they were all drinking beer anyway.

I still remember one time when I went up to the plate, like every other time, quaking. The pitcher was a kid named Joe Crake. He was fifteen, hairy, lean as a whip, a starter on the high school JV squad, and I was eight.

“Easy out!” the catcher said, without a facemask or shin guards or a chest protector or cup of course, head covered with nothing but a cap to protect his brains, face, and teeth from a slung bat or tipped ball.

Joe threw the first two pitches right down the middle, so fast I really and truly didn’t ever see the ball. It was in his hand, then thwack! It was in the mitt.

“Strike one!” followed by “Strike two!”

Joe looked at me and laughed. It wasn’t a mean laugh but it wasn’t a pitying laugh, either. He wound up and threw a slow ball right down the middle. I swung and knocked it over his head, right between first and second, just far enough so that by the time they got the ball to first base I was safe.

My heart was pounding so hard I thought it would crawl out of my throat. In my excitement I led off first a step too far and was thrown out on the very next pitch. But I didn’t care. I remember riding my bike home, late for dinner and ravenous, chewed to shit by mosquitoes, covered in dirt, with my glove hanging off the handlebars. My brother pedaled next to me, the brother who never thought much of my baseball skills.

“That was a good hit,” he said.

END

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Just beneath the surface

April 27, 2018 § 3 Comments

Team Lizard Collectors is a pretty big outfit. It has about three hundred members, most of whom I’ve never met. There’s another contingent who I kind of know by sight but have never ridden with, or I’ve ridden with them briefly and talked to them briefly-er. Especially there’s a dude who sometimes shows up at Telo and rides around in a TLC jersey and a floppy black pair of shorts.

Last night I was at the Team Lizard Collectors Prayer Circle, which was being held in the Chapel of Beer at Strand Brewing Co. One of the dudes there was Floppy Black Shorts Dude. He was normally attired. As I nursed my craft water we started talking and exchanging the pleasantries that bike riders always do. “How’s the riding going?” “Got any carbon?” “Are we friends on the Stravver?” and etc.

It started out pretty normal but then took a hard left turn.

“I’m going pretty well,” he said. “Upgraded to Cat 4 and I’m pretty pleased with that.”

“You should be,” I said. “It’s hard to be that deranged and that old all at the same time.”

He laughed. “Well, I’ve come a long way.”

“We all have,” I agreed. “I came from Texas. I bet you haven’t come that far.”

He laughed good-naturedly. “Thirteen years ago I wouldn’t have thought I’d ever come out of the ICU.”

“Really? What happened?”

“I was at work one day in my boss’s office and I felt something go pop in my head, then I felt kind of light headed, and then I sprawled across his desk, cleared it off like a broom, and collapsed on the floor.”

“Dang. I bet he was surprised. Most people just say, ‘Can I have a raise, sir?'”

“Right. I lay there and fortunately he was ex-military and in a few minutes EMS was there and the next thing I knew I was in the ICU.”

“Not the best ending to a Monday.”

“Or any day. Because I had something called an arteriovenous malformation, or an AVM.”

“I’m no doctor, but anything with ten syllables or more sounds real fuckin’ bad.”

“Yeah, it is. It’s basically a malformed network of blood vessels in the brain, and if it’s your unlucky day, a vessel breaks and you stroke out.”

“Dogdamn. I guess you lucked out then?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“You didn’t have a stroke. I mean, you look fine and everything.”

“I totally stroked out. When I woke up I couldn’t move the left half of my body. The docs said I’d never walk again.”

“How long ago was this?”

“About thirteen years.”

“Then what?”

“I said ‘fuck that’ to the prognosis and decided I’d come back, even if I had to learn everything over again, which is what I did. First day of rehab they put a ball in my hand and I couldn’t even move my fingers. It took hours and days, man, just to be able to close my fingers around a ball, and once that happened, I had to learn the other thing.”

“What other thing?”

“How to let it go.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“I’m not. It was like that with everything. Standing, walking, using the left half of my face to talk, every possible use of my fingers, arm, hand, leg, foot.”

“How long did it take?”

“Years.”

“But I saw you out at Telo the other day, hammering like a madman. You look great.”

“I’ll never be 100% on my left side. My ankle is all messed up and never really recovered, so I have a bit of a limp and can’t run anymore. But I don’t care. I can walk. I can ride. I got my life back.”

I looked at him for a second. He had this incredible smile on his face, the smile of someone who has been where you never have, and returned from it alive. Someone whose toughness and fortitude go out to the very limits of human endeavor. Someone who appreciates the simple act of breathing in and breathing out, the true gift.

“You know the best part?” he asked.

“What?” I said.

“I work for the government, so in order to really get up into higher management, some degree of significant brain damage is mandatory.”

“Promotion!”

“You know it!” he grinned.

After a few minutes the Prayer Circle started and we all began praying to the deity of Leibert. But Floppy Shorts Dude, I’m pretty sure, was praying to something else.

END

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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.”

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Remembrance

April 10, 2018 § 7 Comments

I ran across this today while filing away photos. It was taken in January or February, 2017. A couple of months later he was gone.

But the trail he left behind was broad, and filled with good.

tilford_and_seth

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