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Culture, Sport

Son of a Gunderson

by Sean O'Toole / 22.12.2010

Lance Edward Gunderson is an enigmatic cipher from our recent past. At the height of his reign, Lance – son of Ed Gunderson, adopted son of Terry Armstrong – had the best legs in the business and lungs that could seemingly convert oxygen into nitrous oxide. Of course, there are those who argue that Lance’s superlative abilities as a cycling professional were founded on more than a bicycle perfect genetic inheritance. He was a druggie, we are told, just like the rest of them.

“A boo is a lot louder than a cheer,” offered Lance Armstrong to a Sports Illustrated reporter in 2002. “If you have 10 people cheering and one person booing, all you hear is the booing.”

I doubt that cycling enthusiast and author Robert Penn has ever booed Lance Armstrong, but he does take issue with the Os du Randt of cycling on one issue. Quite vigorously it turns out. “Lance Armstrong was wrong,” writes Penn in his new book, It’s All About the Bike. “I realise this is rich – telling the winner of the world’s toughest cycling race a record seven times that the title of his global, best-selling book, It’s Not About the Bike (2000), is erroneous – but there you go. I’ve done it now. Lance, you don’t know what you’re talking about. It is about the bike. It’s all about the bike.”

Penn’s book is a treat. Unlike David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries (2009), a diaristic and occasionally tendentious first-person account of the former Talking Heads frontman’s love affair with cycling, architecture and anecdote, Penn’s quest to assemble a bespoke bicycle that will last him a lifetime is leavened by its journalistic purpose. At heart, Penn’s book is a celebration of the entrepreneurs, oddballs and raconteurs who have lent their names to some of the most famous (and in some instance not) cycling brands out there.

Robert Penn All About the Bike

The book is however more than simply a literate brochure for an elite coterie of expensive parts suppliers. Painstakingly researched, Penn’s book offers a fascinating historical account of cycling’s perennial boom and bust growth cycle. In case you missed it, we’re at the peak of another boom, with the pretentious fixed-gear trend leading the way. Many key literary figures feature in the narrative. In 1884, at age 48, Mark Twain mounted his first bike and pedalled it to a “handsome speed” – only to promptly see his gaat. Ernest Hemingway was also a keen cyclist and race enthusiast – he edited a proof of A Farewell to Arms in a box at the Velodrome d’Hiver in Paris in 1929.

Penn also introduces the reader to little-known cult figures. It is during a visit to Fairfax, Marin County, in the north San Francisco Bay Area, that Penn reveals himself best as a writer. Meet Steve ‘Gravy’ Gravenites, a man with hands the size of tennis rackets. A former MTB racer and race mechanic, Gravy is a professional wheel builder. “Three decades I’ve been building wheels, two for money,” he tells Penn. “I don’t reckon I’ve built ten thousand wheels yet, but I’m getting’ close.”

Gravy is an anachronism; machines now do his work in Taiwan. Penn, however, is no Luddite. If anything he is a man who appreciates the patient craftsmanship that continues to underpin the cycling industry. Cycling’s traditions are grounded in two key and somewhat antithetical places, the machine shop and the open road. To his great credit, Penn’s writing retrieves the wonder in the former.

“I’ve seen skilful bike mechanics work their magic and I had the visual pleasure,” Penn writes while watching Gravy build his front and rear wheels from parts acquired across the globe. “I hadn’t expected the wheel-building process to be an aural feast too… Ping, ding, tinkle, chink, clink, jangle – as Gravy worked in silence the room was humming with the century-old melody of a bicycle wheel being made.”

Building a bespoke bicycle, much like buying an off-the-rack version, assumes future action. By action I mean pedalling, and not pedalling as labour but cycling as adventure and freedom. It is here that Byrne, echoing a deeply-held sentiment argued by Penn, delivers the keynote, one that makes plain the reason so many of us continue to cycle: “It’s the liberating feeling – the physical and psychological sensation – that is more persuasive than any practical argument.”

Post-script: Lance Armstrong is just ten days short of a year older than Os du Randt, born in September 8, 1972. Armstrong retired from professional cycling in 2005, two years before Du Randt’s last game for the Springboks in 2007. In 2009 Armstrong returned to professional cycling, achieving third in the Tour de France. Earlier this year Os du Randt, who last year joined the Cheetahs training staff, was appointed South Africa’s scrum coach. Both have Twitter accounts. Armstrong’s most recent feed courts a volley of boos: “Good morning from Afghanistan!” His previous stop was Iraq. “Mornin’ from Iraq. Up early, drinking my coffee, ready to get it on. 7am run w/ the troops. All are welcome – bring it on.”

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