JRA with the Angry Asian: We all started somewhere

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I got my first road bike in 1989 (I think), and I can see it plain as day if I shut my eyes. It was a Schwinn Traveler, built with a lugged steel frame and steel fork, covered in pearlescent white paint with black lettering and red highlights.

The Shimano “Light Action” derailleurs were controlled with basic down tube shifters, the non-aero brake levers sprouted housing out of their tops, and there were swing-away safety clips on the front wheel to keep it from ejecting itself if the quick-release skewer wasn’t properly fastened. 700c wheels were just becoming the standard, but this thing was built around the now-defunct 27-inch format instead.

Looking back, I’m quite sure the salesperson at Circle Cycle in Huntington Station, New York, was awfully excited to ditch an obsolete leftover to an unsuspecting victim.

When I think about it, that bike wasn’t very good. But damn, did I love it so.

I didn’t have a car growing up, so my modes of transportation before getting that bike were the train, walking, or bumming a ride from better-off friends. That old Traveler was much more than just transportation, though; it was how I was finally able to open my wings and explore what was around me. It was ultimately how I found out who I was.

I was lucky enough to have a cycling club in my high school, and our club coach, Barry Borakove — who was also our school’s tech instructor during the day — would chaperone a small group of us around the north shore of Long Island on weekly jaunts after class. We pedaled on roads I didn’t even know existed, saw parts of the island I never would have visited otherwise, and etched memories that last to this day, three decades later.

I wish I still had some of the hand-drawn maps he’d give us before each ride.

Weekends would often find me and a friend pedaling up toward the northern edge of the island, occasionally stopping at Visentin, a small road-focused shop run by a crusty old racer that, as far as I can tell, still operates out of the same location. I lusted after the made-in-Italy Cilo frames that hung from the rafters, and marveled at the lightness of the original Selle Italia Flite saddle they had on display (for US$90 — yes, I still remember). I had no knowledge of training, of fit, or positioning. I bonked laughably hard on my first century, and slept for almost 18 hours after I finished.

Those were the days.

I was already a die-hard tech geek well before I got that Schwinn, and — surprise, surprise — it wasn’t long before I began a string of upgrades: blue/grey-anodized Shimano 105 brake calipers and matching levers, a new handlebar, Shimano Ultegra clip-and-strap pedals, an Avocet Gel saddle, new handlebar tape, and Michelin Hi-Lite Supercomp HD tires (which were the only decent 27″ tires left to buy, I might add). More than a few of those “upgrades” were supplemented by hours in the garage with a hand file trying to make things fit. As it turns out, short-reach brakes don’t fit well on a bike meant for long-reach ones, and a 26.0mm-diameter handlebar doesn’t clamp easily inside a 25.4mm stem. Live and learn.

Why was I doing all of that? There wasn’t much talk of making things lighter or more aerodyamic, or going faster in general. I’m not entirely sure I knew then, and I’m not sure I even know now.

It just felt like the right thing to do.

My second bike was a Diamondback Master TG (pictured above), built with “oversized” butted steel tubing, decent 700c aluminum rims, and a Shimano 105SC 7spd groupset. It was a much nicer bike on paper, but also oversized in another way: in hindsight, it was about 4cm too big.

These days, I obviously don’t have as much of a need to upgrade; I’m incredibly fortunate to have any number of top-shelf bikes on hand at any given moment (all of which fit me properly). But I’ve tried to never forget that it wasn’t always this way. I fell in love with cycling because of the riding, not the bike; playing with the bike just ended up being part of the fun.

As I bear witness to how expensive some cycling gear has gotten these days, I can’t help but wonder how many people who might otherwise love that feeling of earthbound flying never get the opportunity because of the perception — real or otherwise — that cycling costs too much. But when I crunch the numbers, the modern-day equivalent of that $300 my parents spent on my first road bike buys a surprising amount of bike, all of which are way, way nicer than my old Traveler.

The problem, however, is that you never read about them.

Tiagra isn’t exactly the most exciting groupset in Shimano’s range, but it’s arguably one of the most important. Photo: Matt Wikstrom.

And so I’m embarking on a bit of a mission in 2019 to pepper our usual coverage of high-end bikes and gear with looks at equipment that are a little more akin to what most of us likely started out on. Part of my motivation is curiosity, but I also think it’s important for all of us to remember where many of us started (and where many of us also have to stay for one reason or another). First on my hit list is Shimano’s Tiagra groupset, which I’d venture to guess doesn’t get nearly as much coverage as it deserves. I’ve long been curious to see just how good it is, and it’s time to find out.

Was I bothered with how junky that old Schwinn was back in the day? The fact that the galvanized spokes were prone to corrosion, the ill-fitting saddle, or the woefully inadequate braking? Not at all, really. All I remember is how amazing I felt when I rode it.

I’m looking forward to reminiscing some more, and I hope you are, too. Because the answer to getting more people into cycling lies more in accessibility, not another pair of $3,000 aero carbon wheels.

JRA is an acronym well known to bike shop employees, usually applied to customers submitting warranty claims that are clearly invalid (“I was just riding along when my top tube dented!“). It’s in part an homage to James Huang’s long tenure as a shop mechanic, but also the title we’ve given to the collection of random musings that will regularly be published here on CyclingTips. Most — but not all — of them will tech-related, but either way, they’ll reflect what’s been on his mind and what he’s been thinking about when he’s just riding along.

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