If I were to list the important people in my current life, the three gentlemen in the photograph wouldn’t be far from the top. The reason? They keep Laura and me on our bikes. That is huge.
That’s Jerry Armstrong on the left. He owns Capp’s Bike Shop on South Topeka Blvd. His son, Chris, in the middle, manages the shop and Jeremy Hutsell is the chief mechanic. Thanks to these three and Capp’s great staff, Laura and I ride thousands of miles a year on what I have always believed to be one greatest inventions ever, a bicycle.
A bicycle has always been a freedom machine for me. I can’t remember how old I was when I first rode a bike. I know it wasn’t mine. No training wheels. I just got on and went. Buzzing straight from the nearby schoolyard baseball game, I rolled right up to my father and mother as they sat relaxing in the back yard. The next day my father brought home my very first bike. My life has always been better since.
The fascination of that first bike was that it wasn’t the usual bike most kids rode. I had an “English bike” as my father called it. No balloon tires to slow me down. Mine was a small Raleigh with thinner European racing-type wheels and tires. Amazingly light, I could fly, and fly I did.
By the time I was in second grade, I was riding that bike to school every day. Only heavy snow days kept my friend bound up in the garage. Granted the ride was only a bit over a mile to school, but the route was on a busy street, and I was only seven. Sadly, in today’s world, no parent would ever think of letting seven-year-old ride a bike out of the driveway by themselves.
Eventually, I out grew the small Raleigh. Off we went to get a regular-sized bike, a three-speed Raleigh. The immediate memory of that day wasn’t the bright and shiny bike I came to love. The memory was my first venture into Harding Wheel.
Set across the street from the old Police Station on 5th street between Van Buren and Jackson, the shop primarily sold motorcycles. Triumph I believe. The place reeked of oil and gas fumes the minute you walked in, but it was an aroma I grew to love whenever I would venture in. The showroom had a mixture of bikes and bicycles, but the big treat of the shop was the large, worn, wooden ramp that led from the basement mechanic shop to the show room.
Suddenly, you’d hear roar after roar echoing like a lion from the bowels of the building. Then that roar heightened as the mechanic burst up the ramp at speed only to slow with great panache and smoothly slide the motorcycle along the floor for the waiting buyer.
On my new bike, I’d try to ride with that same panache. Just as my bike enlarged, so did my world. The riding to school was nothing compared to where else I roamed. Some things were just meant to go unsaid when it comes to answering the parent’s question, “What did you do today?”
My school year riding friend was David Hollie. We’d meet every morning at the grassed island on 8th Street at Buchanan alongside the old Governor’s Mansion. We rarely rode straight home after school, and our afternoon treat was often three or four 10-cent hamburgers with grilled onions at Knight’s on 10th. With my neighbor friends, the summers were filled with baseball games in parks far and wide. That bike carried me to every one of my Cosmopolitan baseball games. We’d ride down to 1st Street north of downtown to watch the elite fast-pitch softball teams play at City Park right next to the river. We might explore the large sewer pipes in a park off 6th Street or play miniature golf at Log Cabin Golf before going swimming in Gage Park.
That Raleigh carried me right up to high school. By then its handlebars had been flipped for a racier look. Fenders had long ago been abandoned. It was worn, tired and beat up. High school was not a time for bikes. Two wheels faded in importance. Four wheels, in the form of a Volkswagen Beetle, became the tool that fed my wanderlust.
But, on a trip to sunny California in 1970, where the USC campus was filled with pretty, young women and sun-tanned guys on “10 speeds,” I heard a bike calling to me again. Back to Harding Wheel I flew and sprinted away on a blue Schwinn Continental that carried me to Washburn for school. My friends Mark Nordstrom and Tim Myers soon joined me for another round of adventure.
My next Schwinn was far different than the Continental. As a passenger, I fell asleep in a car coming back from a softball tournament in southeastern Kansas. I awoke in a Chanute intensive care unit with a broken femur, pelvis and hand in 1977. After 50 plus days trapped in traction and a six-week stint in a near full-body cast, a stationary trainer became the centerpiece of my apartment living room.
Every day before or after work, I’d sit in front of the television spinning away trying to regain strength and flexibility. What I didn’t realize at the time is that without that accident, I might never have grown to love intense training as much as I do today. That Schwinn went no further than my apartment, but it took me on my greatest journey and saved my life in many ways.
That is why in 1983, I found myself buying a Trek from Danny Capp, the original owner of Capp’s bike shop. I was going to give triathlons a try, and get a real smack down in the process. After I finished my first Tinman in 1984, I knew I had two choices, either run away and never look back or get serious. Serious I did and took 45 minutes off my time the next year.
Over the next six years and 42 triathlons or duathlons, that Trek gave way to a Masi and finally a stunning Davis Phinney Serotta. Rick’s Bike Shop in Lawrence helped fuel my passion. Two great guys, owner Rick Stein and mechanic Thomas Howe, treated me well. With all the bikes I bought from them, why wouldn’t they?
Eventually, two young children, a director of photography title, a divorce and a surgical strike on my garage resulting in the theft of my beloved Serotta led to another fallow period of cycling. The fact Rick’s closed soon after couldn’t have had anything to do with a lack of cash flow from me, could it?
Those same children grew older, jobs changed, a great new wife came along, mountain bikes were added and the old Masi got dragged out of the garage and tuned up. This is where Capp’s came into play.
As enjoyable as riding a bike can be, it is not much fun if your bike doesn’t fit properly or you have the wrong equipment for what you want to do. All of my riding has stemmed from understanding people trying to do a helpful job. From Harding Wheel through Capp’s, good guys all around. It doesn’t surprise me that Capp’s wins the best bike shop in northeast Kansas award every year. These people care.
When my latest ride, a Calfee road bike, exploded as carbon fiber met garage door frame on Christmas Eve 2007, the guys at Capp’s stepped in. They made us both feel better by recounting story after story of other idiots that forgot a bike was on the roof rack. The frame was rebuilt and over 10,000 miles later, my freedom machine is still going strong.
For me, training hard is fun no matter the season. Try as I might, there will always be plenty of riders way faster than me. My only hope is that they enjoy their riding as much as I do. The fun is in the exploring. There aren’t many roads out of Topeka I haven’t explored. Laura cringes whenever I ask, “Wonder where this road goes?”
The little kid that came home on a borrowed bike had to grow up, but he has never grown old thanks to a bicycle. A bike, an open road and me – true bliss. How about we turn off the wind though?