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Ocean Beach, grazing bison, and bike lust

If you’ve spent much time riding in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco then you, too, have experienced the strangeness of Ocean Beach. It’s the Pacific Ocean at the western edge of the park, and for all the wonders of the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge both just a stone’s throw away, Ocean Beach was remarkable for its trashiness. In the daytime it was overrun by tourists and at night it seemingly became something worse as evinced by the condom wrappers, tampon applicators, and other pieces of vaguely medical-related plastic suggestive of more-dedicated-than-just-recreational drug use. For such a beautiful city, it was a very not-nice place and it gave me a bad feeling everytime I rode by. My time in San Francisco was when I was in my barely-20′s, unencumbered, and full of young love. A quick inventory of the things I loved: A recent, super-hot bride; an apartment whose dumpiness couldn’t overshadow the thrall of the city; a 9mm Walter PPK; and a Masi 3V frameset I was too poor to build up.

A quick aside: Masi, as it’s known now, bears no relation to what it once was. In 2009 it’s a mini-brand neglected owned by the BMX company Haro, a bastardization thrice-removed from its prestige of 30 years past. In the Hinault-era the name Masi stirred the soul like Colnago or De Rosa. As the 80′s became the 90′s things went afu. Masi transitioned from one family generation to the next. It went from Italy to California, an experiment that corkscrewed in flames and Torelli Imports tried to reconstruct the wreckage into something viable, which failed just the same. The name bounced around a few more stops though the spirit was long ago depleted before it became what it is now -- a heartless open-mold outfit known for little more than its sponsorship of a third-tier Cleveland pro-am team made of doughy dudes in white camo.

The Masi I owned in San Francisco, though, was the real deal. A 3V made in Italy with internal lugs in pearlescent blue. It was the early 90′s, Dura Ace 7400 was au courant, and since this was 1st-generation STI my anticipation to build it up was colossal. Paying for the frameset broke me and it sat in our apartment like a piece of beloved sculpture for a year as I scraped up pennies. When I finally got it road-ready I got into a great daily routine: A spin from my Tenderloin apartment to Golden Gate Park, where I’d do a few easy loops, then ride back.

I’m a decade and a half veteran of the bike biz, and one ironclad rule I’ve learned during my tenure is that everyone’s all-time favorite bike is the one they rode when they had their best fitness. Who doesn’t have a crush on the bike they podiumed on? My Masi, though, makes me an exception. I was hardly at the fittest point of my life. But I’d never previously had so many self-evident reasons to be happy -- feelings I funneled into affection for the Masi, and for riding it in someplace as beautiful as San Francisco.

One ride on my beloved Masi stands out above all others. It was a signature day of winter weather in San Francisco -- armwarmers and brilliant sunshine. I big-ringed it past the creepiness of Ocean Beach, rode past the Dutch windmill, and made my way up the shallow grade that takes you past the grazing bison. I stood up to maintain my speed and in the same instant heard a metallic snap way louder than the familiar ping of a broken spoke and I was still standing and pedaling when I looked down my seat tube to diagnose the sound and I saw my front derailleur swimming side to side with every pedal stroke. I unclipped and saw how my seat tube snapped in two right above the top edge of the front derailleur braze-on tab.

It didn’t take an inquest to see that this was a manufacturing defect, plain and simple. Whoever brazed on that tab let the tube get too hot, making it destined to break. It was a ticking time bomb -- and one with few ticks to give. But I wasn’t the original owner. And this was a Masi-Italy bike, and Torelli wouldn’t warranty the Italy bikes since all Torelli-Masi production was done in California. I was crushed and it proved irreplaceable twice over: I’d stared at it and dreamt of riding it for so long that I’d made it emotionally iconic like nothing else I’d ever owned; and just as bad was how broke I was. Paying the rent on time every month was a crapshoot. Spare cash to buy a new frame? No way.

I had only one luxury left in my possession -- my Walther 9mm I bought a couple of years previous as a plaything for me and as a companion for my wife when I worked late nights back in Little Rock. So in what surely qualifies as one of the stranger transactions in the history of bicycles, I pawned it for a fraction of its value and used the cash to buy a second-hand, Eggplant-colored Slim Chance that turned out to be too big for me. In a dizzyingly quick span I went from the bike I loved most to the bike I turned out to hate most -- because it reminded me of what I’d lost and because it handled like a U-Haul, and it took me to where I’ve been for the 15 years since: A place where bikes are not things to be loved. Like handlebar tape or a seatpost I treat them as tools for a job. And while I’ve considered them all like disposable mistresses since -- I give them money; they give me transient pleasure -- I’ll confess that I have a bike now that makes me feel different. Maybe it’s because for the first time since 1994 I’ve re-found a deep appreciation of the things surrounding me that give me meaning (and how those things are different between the ages of 23 and 38!) And, like before, perhaps I’m just channeling all of life’s significance and goodness into my most significant static object, my bike. Or maybe it’s the fact that for 18 months I’ve been riding the same bike, that its geometry feels 10x better than any custom geometry I’ve ever had, and that it weighs <16lbs & it's proven to be tougher than any other bike I've ever ridden. I'm not sure of the answers. All I can do is acknowledge the feeling: After 15 years of intermittent bike lust, I think I'm rediscovering bike love and while sentimental feelings embarrass me or wash away along with the drunk in which they flare up, this time it's enduring and I think I like it a lot.