Bicycle History and my Early Bikes

I’ve owned a bicycle continuously throughout my life, except for four years during high school, and the seven years after college. I’m on my fourth. I am a road bike guy. I prefer covering mountain trails on foot.

I received my first bike as a gift around 1949, a Columbia boy’s bike with tank horn, big fenders, a rear carrier, and a wire basket on front. I vaguely recall going with my parents to Silliman’s Department Store to help pick it out. My parents also helped me learn to ride it on the road by our house. Early-on, I crashed it head-on into a stone wall and bent it up, but I was ok and the bike was fixable; my uncle ran a lawnmower repair shop and had enough tools to make it right. I rode it all around my neighborhood, small, winding, hilly roads through the New England woods. It was my freedom machine. Below is a picture of a red, 3 Star 1950 model from that is as close as I can remember to my model, color, and year. Except perhaps for the red rims, which I don’t recall, this is my first bike.

Columbia 1950 Columbia 3 Star

The bicycle is a relatively late invention. The beginning of the 19th century saw some steerable two-wheelers that one straddled and then ran to achieve forward motion before sitting and lifting legs. But mechanically powered models, using treadles or pedals, weren’t manufactured until the late 1800s, beginning in Europe. It is fitting that my first bike was a Columbia, because that brand is associated with the first American-built bicycle, a big-wheeler from 1878. Also, I’ve now learned Columbia bicycles began in Connecticut; perhaps the salesman touted its local manufacture.

Columbia Big-Wheel 1878 Columbia Big Wheel

Columbia is the house brand of Columbia Manufacturing (previously Westfield Manufacturing and Pope Manufacturing). The same bikes appeared with many other brand names as well, sold in Sears and other retailers. American manufacturing of Columbia bicycles ceased in 1988, except for a commemorative model.

My bike moved with me from New England to the foothills of the Rockies. In the 5th grade I crashed it again sliding down on some gravel while carrying a neighbor girl on the back. Her pea shooter got broken, and I ended up with several stitches and a permanent scar on my knee. Fortunately a doctor lived in the next block. My parents were away at the time, so the girl’s father took me to the doctor’s house. The bike survived. But I was worried if I would, expecting my father would not be pleased that I had gotten into so much trouble while they went out for an evening leaving grandmother in charge.

I used my bike for my winter paper route. One winter was enough of that. The last I recall of the bike, I put little sister in the basket and took her with me about 2km to the lake to let her play on the beach. She was probably 15 months old at the time and really seemed happy at the outing. Neither of us wore helmets. She wasn’t strapped in at all. Part of the route was on a busy highway. I didn’t think anything about it at the time, though. I could ride a bike, no problem. But by then, I was starting to outgrow my little machine. The Columbia was sold at auction prior to our move to the West coast.

I got my second bike for college; I think it was a blue Raleigh 3-speed, but I really cannot remember. The only things I recall is that I would race my roommate across campus and would invariably lose. He was a track star in high school, and beat me on a 1-speed bike. Also, I would relax by riding through the foothills behind campus. After graduation, I moved home and then went to graduate school for a year. The first semester I was teaching a morning class and would commute the 26km round trip to school by bike to get exercise, even though I had a car also. After that year, I moved to the beach, got a job, and perhaps donated the bike to a family member; I don’t recall.

The Azuki

The next time I thought about biking, I was also thinking about settling down. A family friend owned a bike store and I got my first 10-speed, a metallic-brown Azuki steel bike from Japan. Azuki is a Nishiki-type brand name for an entry-level Kawamura-produced bicycle imported by a Kentucky distributor. I think it weighed about 14kg. It was monster tall also, indicated 62cm, really a bit too tall for me, but it looked great. Its distinctive features were its slender (delicate-looking) seat/chain stays, and its lever-style stem shifters.

I rode it for 15 years. I think it cost around $115 and seemed like a lot of bike for the time. I used to ride it 50km up and down the beach bike path, and the 40km loop around Palos Verdes on Sunday mornings while the rest of the family was at church. I attend a different sort of church. I also went on a boy scout bike trip or two.

The Azuki seemed to be the most bike I would ever need, very strong. It came with some decent entry-level components: Shimano Eagle derailleur, Dia Compe center-pull brakes. I made some upgrades over the years, replacing the stock toy store cranks with a Sugino #6 170 mm crank and bottom bracket set, Sugino/Sakae chainrings, Shimano RSX pedals/clips, Campagnolo Chorus seatpost, Sakae stem, Modolo Ergo 46 cm drop bars, Mistral aluminum rims, and a better saddle. I kept the alpine-geared cassette that gave me an extra boost on my hills. Even though I bargain shopped, the extra parts nearly doubled my initial investment. But over 15 years, that equates to a lot of bang-for-the-buck fun.

Then came the weekend morning when I headed out for a quick climb of the 260 m hill I lived on. I recall feeling great as I headed down the one block of steep grade out of our neighborhood before the climb. I remember a very vague sense of dread as I hurtled through the stop sign at the bottom at possibly 40 km/hr, across a four lane road with typical 80 km/hr traffic. Upon hitting the high curb across the street head on, I had a vague sense of trying to lead with my shoulder as I vaulted over the handlebars toward a fence perhaps 5 m away. The next thing I recall is paramedics asking me who I was while sitting on that same curb. A woman out walking saw the broken fence, the broken bike, and me crawling up an ivy-covered slope at our local elementary school; she called 911.

An ambulance ride and CAT scan later, I was released from the hospital with first aid for a couple of gouges and a total sense of wonder that I couldn’t remember a thing. To this day I don’t know what happened.

The elementary school billed me for the broken fence. They had no category for bike wreck, so attributed the damage to vandalism. It was a typical wood fence, two 2×6 rails fastened to 4×4 posts set in concrete. I had snapped the 2×6 rails in two and split the nearest 4×4 post right down the middle. I determined my bike stopped near the fence, losing most of its momentum at the curb. But the wood bits and I carried on, flying down an embankment.

I had gotten my shoulder out in front. A massive contusion took months to go away and my deltoid muscle is misshapen still. My helmet also got into the action, gouged just behind my temple. And my wire-rimmed glasses were smashed into my cheek, the plastic lens scarred. After healing, for a couple of years if I touched my cheek, my eyelid would flutter, and even today it droops a little.

I survived well enough. I am thankful for walking away. Perhaps 3 m from where I hit the fence, there was a solid brick wall 2 m high. I managed to get the bike turned enough to miss it. Also at that instant, there were no cars on the street I flew across.

The Azuki couldn’t finish our journey, through no fault of its own. The front wheel was destroyed. I couldn’t tell if the frame/fork were bent. I did not feel comfortable on it any more, being annoyed that I never learned what had happened that day. I replaced the wheel and eventually sold the bike in a yard sale.

The Trek 2200

I wanted a new bike. By this time, indexed shifting (SIS) had been around for a few years and I knew I wanted it. I also wanted to get a bike with good enough componentry that I wouldn’t need to upgrade. I checked out specs on some recent bikes that I might find used in good condition, and began searching online. No bike store this time. It was the age of the Internet.

When a 1993 60cm Trek 2200 appeared in my sights in like-new condition, for 50% of its original list, I jumped on it, then waited for the big box to arrive from half way across the country. What a beautiful present in ice red, natural carbon gray, and satin aluminum, appearing brand new. Yes! It was the first year STI shifters were available in the Shimano 105-line components.

Below is a picture of the 2200 in its only stock color, from the Trek 1993 catalog. This was my first serious bike, advertised as suitable for road race and triathlon. It was the entry level of Trek’s better road bike line. The next step up was the 2300, same bike, but with Ultegra componentry that made the bike 110g lighter for a premium of $170. Big whoop. The 2200 weighs a smidgen under 10kg.

Trek2200 1993 Trek 2200

I switched saddle and pedals from stock right away. The Look pedals gave way to a used pair of Shimano SPD’s from a trail bike. And I swapped out the Trek hard saddle for a leather-covered Avocet O2. I like this saddle, and am on my second one. It’s a good value. I bought a pair of cleated bike shoes and a pair of padded bike shorts and was ready to ride with the big boys.

The 2200 comes with a late hybrid frame; Trek had been doing the carbon/aluminum thing for several years and sold a few thousand frames. They were being phased out just as Trek was introducing a full composite frame. The 2200 has its three main tubes of composite carbon (the gray parts), internally lugged/bonded to the remaining aluminum frame (the red parts). I had some concern how these would hold up over time, but it is 17 22 years out of the gate and there is no evidence of weakness at the bonds. It has borne my nearly 100 kg for thousands of kilometers without a complaint.

Trek claims a life span comparable to steel frames, at least 55,000 km. First failures should be expected at the point of greatest stress, at the bottom of the seat tube on the opposite side from the chainrings. Any bond failures may be due to mechanical failure of the epoxy bond, or perhaps ion transfer from carbon to aluminum. Neither has been reported by Trek, except some mechanical failures of bond in early examples before lug design was improved.

I saw reviews that the frame is too stiff, others that the frame has too much flex; I guess it is right on for most people. I find it a comfortable tourer. The carbon tubes seem to effectively remove some of the rigidity of an all aluminum frame. Flex testing of the 2200 placed it in the middle of the pack, roughly comparable to quality steel bikes, but considerably less rigid than aluminum-framed bikes from Cannondale; the 2200 frame measured 1.65 times as much deflection in response to stress.

The 2200 came with complete Shimano 105SC STI/SIS components, dual chainrings (39/53 teeth), 175mm cranks, and an 8-speed V-cassette (13-26). SIS was introduced back in 1984, but STI (integrated brake/shift levers) had just been introduced the prior year in the 105 set. I sometimes miss the alpine gearing of the Azuki (low=34.5 g-i; high=96.4 g-i), but I can still do the hills I typically encounter with the 2200 (low=40.5 g-i; high=110 g-i), and now I can rumble in the flat. The current 105 set has a 10 speed rather than 8 speed cassette, and saves some weight in the cranks, but otherwise there is not much difference between now and 1993’s set.

Concerning weight, the 2200 is not as light as can be found two decades later. Various bikes now target the 8kg range, and bikes at five times its price now can get down to close to 6kg. Trek is being coy about not specifying current weights (that’s typically a clue to me: a company does not believe it competes well in areas where it is not forthcoming with specifications). But I read that one of its mid-line Madone models gets just under 8kg, but at double the price of the 2200 (in adjusted dollars). That’s a bunch of money to save 2kg.

Not being a racer and being a big body, a 2kg difference in equipment is a negligible concern, <2% of the total bike/rider package. And there are compromises in road feel as bikes slim down to the limits, although the Madone is reputed to be a comfortable and precise ride. I see nothing compelling about today’s technology that would make me lust after a new touring bike. I target comfort, from my saddle down to my 25c 28c tires.

I did get to experience a really light racer, a single gear track bike at the velodrome built for the ’84 Olympics. It was a kick to ride the banking; I got a feel for it that one could not obtain just by watching a race. It helped further my interest in pedaling zen. And racing without brakes is my kind of racing; I was never really interested in being a race car driver because of my distaste of having to use the brakes so much.

A while later I moved 8 km from my work and became a regular bicycle commuter up the west side of the arroyo past the Rose Bowl. It was an easy, peaceful ride and the most relaxed commute one could imagine. One summer month my employer awarded me a gift certificate as bicyclist of the month. There were perhaps 30 of us who commuted regularly by bike, unfortunately less than 1% of the workforce there. I rode every day. And my weight came down steadily with just the 16 km per work day regimen.

Then after moving to Santa Ana with Debby and resuming my long ranger commuting style again, I found an occasional weekend to bike the Santa Ana River trail. From our house to the beach at Newport was a 55 km round trip. The wind blowing at my back on the way home was a big help. Then finally, retirement beckoned; I used the bike for many local errands during the week.

We relocated to the Pacific NW after Debby’s retirement. There are lots of nice bike trails up here to explore, my Trek and I and whoever else wants to tag along. I’m as sure as I can be that the Trek is all the bike I will ever need.

Postscript: Haven’t ridden much the last four years, doing mostly trail running since moving north. The Trek’s stock wheels had been slowly coming unglued. The ride was feeling really twitchy as a result, so no biking joy was available until an upgrade. The upgrade is now done, centered around a set of Velocity Deep-V 36-spoke wheels, Velox 16mm fabric rim tape, Kenda butyl tube w/48mm stem, and Panaracer T-Serv 28c Aramid tire. To complete this move to comfort, strength, and durability, I also renewed the stock (and by now really tacky-looking) handlebar wrap with Orbea grey carbon-fiber-look foam tape. (Cars are too complicated these days for owner maintenance and mods, but bikes can still be user maintained and customized.)

Since a new rear wheel was being fitted, this seemed an ideal time to switch to a new HG51 (11-13-15-18-21-24-28-32) cassette, to return to my once loved and then lost alpine gear range. These new gears provide a simple 10-speed cross-over shift pattern, yielding the following gear-inch steps: 33-37-44-50-58 on the small chainring; 68-79-95-110-130 on the big chainring. This pattern avoids the big three rear cogs while on the big chainring, and the small three rear cogs while on the small chainring, maximizing parallelism between the planes of the chain and rear cogs. I doubt, given my advancing age and instability, that I will ever use the 130 g.i. gear. Fast is now my enemy; an old body can no longer stand up to a hard spill.

A question arose whether the new freewheel would cause problems for the stock RD-1056 rear derailleur; was the extension sufficient to lift the chain onto the 32t cog? The stock 1993 component had no subcategories for short/med/long-cage, so reasoning that it was likely a medium-cage derailleur, suitable for general touring, I chanced it and pulled the trigger on the new cassette. I was also encouraged by Tom Deakin’s article on downgearing a bike, particularly his reasoning that for general touring, good enough performance is an acceptable compromise from optimal (as a rationale for not replacing the rear derailleur if it can be made to do the job).

There turned out to be no problem shifting onto the big cassette cog with the stock derailleur and stock chain, using the above shift pattern. I did encounter an unexpected problem with the wheels, however. This wheel/tire combo, inflated to 100 lbs/in^2, stands a few mm taller than stock, and interferes with the bridge connecting the seatstays above the wheel. Thus when mounting the rear wheel, I shim with a penny at the bridge, then mount the wheel as far into the dropout as possible with tire pressed against shim, then remove the shim. This gives just the minimum clearance necessary for no rubbing on the bridge.


Trek 2200, 22 years on – new wheels and rubber, 8-speed (alpine) HG51 cassette, handlebar wrap. (Yes, the wheels are really the same size – bad camera angle with wide lens. Yes, the main tubes are all the same color. Sun reflection makes the difference.)

The bike rides better than new. I am back to two rides a week, alternating with running. My favorite trails here are wide, flat, paved, off-road, and scenic: the Sammamish River Trail from Bothell to Redmond, and the Centennial Trail from Snohomish to Lake Cassidy and beyond to the Skagit County line. Both routes offer 35 km round trips that are enjoyable and of sufficient challenge; the Centennial route can be extended to 70 km. Each trail head is less than 20 min. easy drive from my house. The bike fits in my car after removing the front wheel. What’s not to like? I only do half the Centennial Trail, so greater challenges are available if I want them.

The new wheels have added noticeable stability to the ride, and the new 33 g.i. cog will be appreciated on any future routes involving climbs. It’s a great elderly gentleman’s bike now, and it makes me look and feel younger while I’m getting from here to there. Being old but still looking sharp (the bike, not me), younger riders are asking me about it.


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