by Jim Langley
Cycling in the 1890s was a formal affair
cold night in April finds me in Chicago at the home of Cycle
Smithy bike shop owner and bike collector Mark Mattei. The
Windy City is still in winter mode. Its snowing lightly, temperatures
are in the 20s and frigid gusts squeeze their way through Marks windows,
forcing him to crank the heat in his downtown home. But we hardly notice.
Its unlikely even a tornado could snap us out of our trance at this
Moments before, Mark had asked if Id like to see his prize possession. Considering he lives in a three-story thats absolutely stuffed (including the garage and attic) with collectibles, I couldnt imagine what it might be. The James Bond figure set? The 1885 Star highwheel? One of the streamlined tricycles? A motorized skateboard? The one-of-a-kind Condor Moulton dual-suspension mini-wheeled rig from the 1960s? Im shocked when he pulls out an ordinary manila folder.
But whats inside mesmerizes us for the next hour, transporting two old-bike junkies to another time, another place: prewar Chicago, when the Schwinn Bicycle Company was run by Frank W. Schwinn, probably the most influential bikemaker ever.
In this folder are his actual handwritten and stunningly illustrated, signed and dated notes. They explain in exquisite detail how to build many of the innovations that made Schwinn the name that even today most American read as synonymous with the word bicycle.
The pages are surely priceless. But its not the value that moves Mark and me. By handling Schwinns original works, we might as well be sitting in his office 50 years ago as he penned these notes to his factory charges. The notes might not mean much to the rest of the world. But Mark went into the bike biz with his dad in '74, opening the store just miles from Schwinns Excelsior factory, a Chicago landmark before it was demolished. My connection is a five-year stint working at a Schwinn dealership, building and repairing the machines that Frank so influenced.
Is your rusty wreck worth a kings ransom?
Probably not. While every bike has value (at least if
its ridable), most used bikes such as your old Bridgestone mountain
bike or Miyata tourer or the ubiquitous Schwinn Varsity will only fetch
pedestrian prices. Usually, this is about $75 to $350 for road bikes,
$100 and up for mountain bikes depending on the model.
in college in New England then, running cross
country, touring by bike, partying, scraping by in school.
I met my future wife there. They were sweet times. And Schwinns, the
bikes, the ads, the
parts, the name, will always take me back to that time, the way hearing
Roy Orbisons Oh Pretty Woman conjures grammar school.
The hobby and the people in it, can
be unpredictable like that. Mark himself is a bit unusual as bike collectors
go. Most specialize in one bike type or those from a certain era. But
not only does Mark horde all kinds of things (did I mention the Duncan
yo-yos, Matchbox cars, dinosaur prints, tank models and cigarette lighters?),
he digs all types of two wheelers from aero racing models to antiques,
from folding bikes to tandems. Frankly, hes gone bonkers over them.
I should buy a new van, replace the battered siding and roof on
my house, but what can I say, Im a sick puppy, I like collecting
stuff, he says.