Yet another chapter from The Great Hamster Land-Speed Record – enjoy!
Kids and bikes – what could be more American?
I started riding bikes at the usual age – I think I was 3 years old when I sat on my first tricycle – and made a quick progression through the ranks of scooters, training-wheel-assisted baby bikes, baby bikes, Stingrays, 3-speed English racers, 10-speeds and several other styles of bikes that I’ve blocked from memory due to their deadly natures or their inherent mechanical shortcomings.
It was the 3-speed English racer that I inherited from my brother Mickey when I was 8 years old that served as a temporary means of transportation between my last “baby” bike and my beloved Stingray, and my first introduction to multiple “speeds” or gears. Up to this point, there was only the fixed-hub bikes with one speed, determined by how fast you could pedal, and a simple braking system known as “coaster brakes” – you merely pedaled backward to put on the brakes. Of course, human anatomy being what it is, this was of limited value in a city such as Yonkers, NY, my hometown and a place with enough steep hills and little mountains to make Lance Armstrong think twice about pedaling through it without at least 21 speeds and an auxiliary gas engine on his bike.
One street near my house, only a block away, in fact, was officially known as “Frederic Place” but among the members of the Junior Biker’s Brigade, it rightfully carried the name Dead Man’s Hill.
Dead Man’s Hill was a 400-foot-long downhill one-way street that started at the top at Frederic Street, passed Edwards Place midway down and ended at my street, Woodland Avenue.
As can be seen on this map, Dead Man’s Hill ended at the bottom with only two possible choices of action:
Go left or go right.
No other choices. Keep that in mind.
There was an old white-painted metal guardrail at the bottom of Dead Man’s Hill, I guess to stop an out-of-control car from launching itself into the dreaded Wasteland, an area that continued the downhill angle of DMH but was filled with trash that the locals had tossed there – refrigerators, washing machines, old car parts and even an old car, paint cans, broken bottles and cans, 55-gallon drums – anything you could imagine was in the Wasteland, and was usually in a sharp and/or rusty condition.
One local legend even stated that there was a body or two in the Wasteland, but none of us had ever gathered enough courage to do anything more than peer over the guardrail in the course of our daily travels. That was enough to satisfy our curiosity.
Dead Man’s Hill had gained its name by the simple expedient of having swallowed children whole. Tales told in sleepovers and in musky backyard tents most often referred to a neighborhood kid named (variously) “Charlie”, “Bootsie” or just “The Kid”, as in –
“The Kid was flying down Dead Man’s Hill and started to put on his brakes, only to hear a horrible SCREEEEEEEECH and realize that his brakes were gone …”
The first dozen times or so that you heard this story you’d have many sleepless nights afterward. You’d walk your bike down that hill, sweating like a pig doing aerobics and coming up with excuses such as “I have a flat tire” or “My chain’s falling off” whenever one of your buddies would give you a look.
After hearing the story for a while, though, you’d realize that it was just that – a story. Probably. Hopefully. It was just another one of those things you outgrew.
Until it was YOUR turn to beat the Downhill Flying Race record.
The Downhill Flying Race
See, we had a stopwatch (borrowed from my brother Mickey) that, in addition to timing slot-car races and the occasional foot race or other Olympic event, served as the official timepiece of the Downhill Flying Race. The idea was that you would start at the top of the hill with your front tire placed squarely on a painted stripe courtesy of the City of Yonkers Street and Public Works Department (it was, in reality, a “no parking beyond this point” line) and your “power” foot placed on the upper-most pedal.
After a dramatic countdown, you would pedal for all you were worth to the bottom of the hill where we would draw a chalk line from the dented fire hydrant across the street to the STOP sign.
This finish line was a hinky thing, though. It wasn’t a problem drawing it new every time we had a race; the real problem was that its position allowed only 20 feet of stopping area. For a kid hanging on for dear life at 20-25mph this was scarcely enough room to stop, so we would usually make a sharp, tilted turn either onto Woodland Avenue or Montague Place, the former being the preferred choice since it was flat and had higher visibility than the latter, which continued downhill at a steep angle and was pretty much “off the radar” as far as being able to see any cars.
We also placed spotters at Edwards Place and Woodland Avenue to warn of oncoming cars, a practice we adopted only after several close calls with child-devouring Buicks. We were old enough and smart enough to realize that street racing always carried a certain element of danger, but we were also young enough and stupid enough to continue that racing.
And so it was on that warm June day in 1966, a Saturday of course, that I was going to be graduating into the next class of street racing. See, we kids were racing nuts – we would race anything with wheels and religiously watched everything from drag racing to Formula 1 on ABC’s Wide World of Sports every Saturday – and we had developed our own classification system for drivers based upon what we had gathered from TV.
Our earliest attempts were disastrous, I have to admit. The Tricycle Class had a brief and violent existence, ending when 4-year-old Johnny Williams tried to emulate the Big Boys and attempted to race his flame-red tricycle down Dead Man’s Hill. He tipped over after traveling only ten feet from the starting line and cried like a demon as we walked / carried him home. Mrs. Williams gave us her opinion of our street racing after stopping Johnny’s bleeding, but we were rebels – we knew we were fated to die young and we didn’t care to listen to some old person’s rantings.
Scooter Class didn’t have many members – I think there was one or two – mainly due to the neighborhood demographics: there weren’t many kids that owned scooters.
We also had the One-Speed Class, of which I was the senior and most qualified member. I had been competing in One-Speed for several years now and knew all the tricks and held most of the records. My trophies – little plastic ones we bought at the hobby shop and added hand-written titles upon – occupied a special place of honor atop my bedroom bookshelf, and for all I know my One-Speed records still stand.
The next class up, the class I was going to attempt to join today, was 5-Speed-And-Under. This mainly covered the 5-speed Stingrays that were currently popular and about which I was spending much time and effort dropping hints for Christmas. As it was, my entry was a hand-me-down from brother Mickey, a huge, heavy, black bastard of a bike known as an English Tourer. It had three speeds and caliper brakes, both features with which I had limited experience. I had only received the bike in May and, due to weather restrictions and school schedules, had only a handful of quick rides to my credit.
The Black Mariah
The toughest part of using this bike was getting on it. The hard saddle-seat (spring-mounted!) appeared to be higher than my chest, and the first time I attempted to saddle-up I had to have a step-stool next to the bike in order to reach the seat. I knew this wouldn’t work very well in the outside world since carrying that step-stool strapped to my back would certainly mark me as a rank beginner, so during the few times I was actually able to be with my Tourer I spent half of my time trying to figure out how to mount it.
The other half of the time was spent learning to un-mount. My first attempts at this involved slowing down as much as possible, then gracefully (at least in my mind) falling off the bike as it toppled over sideways. This also was a sign of a mere amateur and definitely was not cool.
Whether I was climbing up on or falling down from the Tourer – by now with the official race-vehicle name “The Black Mariah” – she would sit there all black and heavy and oily, laughing her spokes off. After 3 weeks I was able to perform a sort of half running / half bunny-hopping maneuver that would usually put me more or less in the seat. As for dismounting, I had developed my timing so that just before Mariah tipped over from her slow speed I would eject myself backward from the seat and, more times than not, land on both feet.
Race day. Cloudy with a few drops of rain. The Racing Committee delayed the start of the time trials until 10:30AM when the drops were few and far between and the sun was attempting to poke out. I had of course been up since 6:00AM doing calisthenics and going over Mariah. There was nothing left now but to just do it.
Today I would become a 5 Speed-and-Under driver.
Like a proud, doting race-horse owner I slowly walked Mariah uphill to the starting line, the leisurely “tick-tick-tick” of her gears assuring me of her health and readiness to race. The hill was steep, steep enough that at several points Mariah threatened to break my hold and go skittering back down the road, but I tightened my grip on her and she behaved herself the rest of the way.
Joey, Richie, Michael and Jody were waiting at the starting line, their grim expressions giving away their concerns for the track surface that morning. Normally we had a bone-dry track, which aided in traction and thus both record-setting and safety. Today there was a light sheen of oil that had surfaced, and we all knew from past accidents just how deadly this run could be.
As was our custom two of the race officials held the bike as the driver mounted. I had forgotten about this practice and suddenly wished I had spent the previous month learning about Mariah’s gears and brakes, but just as quickly discarded the thought.
I adjusted my safety equipment – football helmet and knee pads, heavy winter gloves and a pair of sunglasses – and placed my right foot on the raised right pedal, ready to shove off as soon as the GO signal was received.
Dennis was the timekeeper and was situated at the finish line. He also served as the traffic adviser, ready to call a pause when a car was coming, as was Frank at Edwards Place midway down the course. A few cars came and went, causing a nail-biting delay in my run.
I Enter History
Finally, the all-clear signals were received, the GO signal given and I began pedaling with all my might. Mariah actually popped a small wheelie at the start, drawing oohs and aahs from the spectators (several little kids sucking on lollipops) but she soon settled down and poured on the speed.
Do you know the feeling of going fast? When the dotted line on the road becomes solid, and the telephone poles look like a picket fence (Isn’t there a song about that?)? When everything is blurred and you revel in the pure joy of going fast? That was me at that moment. Everything was forgotten in the enjoyment of the here and now: the damp wind slapping me in the face, the whine of Mariah’s polished and oiled chain, the buzz of her heavy rubber tires …
I was IN the moment.
… until the finish line approached at dizzying speed. My mind left the here-and-now and flashed into the immediate past: I hadn’t learned how to use the brakes.
I recall hearing Dennis call out exultantly “YEAH!!!” and for a micro-second, I knew I had my 5-Speed-and-Under ticket. But in the next moment I had a decision to make: make a high-speed turn onto Woodland Avenue at a ridiculously and dangerously steep angle on a slippery road; hang a left and hope that Montague Place was clear and I didn’t go flying off into the air, only to impact upon the windscreen of a milk delivery truck; or attempt to hit the virgin brakes.
There’s really no time in racing to mull over your thoughts. It’s always an instinctive decision, one based upon years of training and experience. He who hesitates, meditates horizontally.
I grabbed the right brake handle and squeezed with all my might. Two things happened:
It took another full microsecond to realize that I had grabbed only the FRONT brake caliper and NOT the REAR one;
My front brakes exploded.
Yes, exploded, as in “KA-BOOM!”. Upon later crash-site investigations and much reflection, it was officially decided that the two small rubber blocks that served as brake pads had been woefully insufficient to stop 100 pounds of speeding bike, along with 85 pounds of rider. The pads had evidently disintegrated upon application, vaporizing into the damp air – greyish-black ashes were found at the exact point I had applied the brakes, and as a result the metal pad holders had come into direct contact with the rapidly-revolving front wheel, locking up instantly. This left a thick black trail of tire rubber from the finish line right up to the guardrail.
Yes, the guardrail. With the brakes vaporized and the front tire shredding itself in a cloud of smoke, the back-end of Mariah raising up in the air and performing a horizontal twerking, there was no question that I was going to hit the guardrail that protected us from The Wasteland, that terrifying No-Man’s-Land of sharp pointy objects.
I remember the moment of impact, of that horrible soul-searing sound when front wheel and shredded tire remains met the immovable iron monster designed to stop vehicles weighing 30 times what Mariah weighed.
I remember a feeling of flying and tumbling combined, then a sudden sharp pain in my right shoulder as something smashed into it. That’s all I remember.
Later accounts from Dennis and various under-aged witnesses claim that my journey down through The Wasteland was a thing of beauty. It is said I tumbled, flipped and basically looked like a discarded rag doll as my helmet caromed off of paint cans, 55-gallon drums and pieces of old Chevys. They claim at one point my left foot was wedged into the football helmet’s face-cage, but I put this down to a mere optical illusion.
I can’t be sure of the truth of this statement, but Dennis claims to have re-set the stop-watch at the moment I hit the guardrail, and that my downward fall consumed 15.73 seconds.
The medical team arrived first – Michael always had a pocketful of Band-Aids and employed them all in his valiant yet futile attempt to staunch the blood-flow. Dennis led the Recovery Team, finding in the rubble at the bottom of the hill the sad remains of Mariah. She was beyond hope, and they left her as she had fallen, a bent and broken metal shell.
Speaking of bent and broken, my fellow drivers half-supported / half-carried me back up the hill and home, luckily just a few hundred feet down Woodland Avenue. They abandoned me at the foot of the front stairs, knowing all too well the ensuing verbal barrage that would issue from my Mom. I managed to limp / crawl up to my bedroom without being observed (yet leaving a tell-tale blood trial) and curled up in my bed in a fetal position, the road rash and multiple cuts burning like lasers and my head still unsure of its permanent attachment to my body.
But I had done it – I was now an official 5-Speed-and-Under Driver!
As I drifted off to unconsciousness my last feverish thought was of the metal-flake green 5-speed StingrayI had been praying for, the one with the ape-hanger handlebars, console-mounted shifter and full-sized chrome sissy bar, standing next to the Christmas tree wearing nothing but a bright red ribbon and bow …