It’s the holidays. It’s gift giving and getting season. Blogs, magazines, newspapers, and social media are full of “best of…” or “look what I got” posts. Cyclists are no different. And we bond with our stuff–we imbue it with some weird kind of spiritual baggage. We remember our bikes for all the epic (or not epic) rides, we use them as totems for our growth as riders and people. And they remind us of our all friends we’ve ridden with, hung out with after those epic (or not epic) rides–the parking lot conversations, the trips for post-ride Taco Bell cheats, the post-ride couch time reliving the ride, and more.
Last week while looking at Spooky Cycles’ Twitter feed, I spied (yet again) the Mulholland in purple. Yep, that purple. The one that was everywhere in the 1990s mountain bike scene. That and teal. Seeing the Mulholland reminded me of my first adult Christmas bike–or rather Christmas frame–a GT Zaskar.
It was a the mid 90s. I was working in a shop down in south Florida. Doug the GT rep started telling me about the warehouse blow out, special pricing for shop employees on “warehouse seconds” on Zaskar frames. After a bit of back and forth I told Doug, “Ok, I don’t care what color it is, just make sure it’s a good looking frame–no dents, dings, scratches, funny looking welds, etc.”
So there I was, sometime in November or December awaiting a mystery color Zaskar. Would it be silver? The teal? The already, almost passe purple? And then it was December. If you’ve never worked in a bike shop in December, in south Florida, well… I was busy and didn’t really have time to dwell too much on the incoming Zaskar. Instead, I spent time wrenching and riding my trusty Miyata mountain bike I had purchased a few year before at City Bikes in Washington, D.C. It had a good CroMo frame, a rigid fork, and a slew of upgraded parts including Deore thumb shifters–a summer of real mountain biking in mid state New York had proven the early Shimano low end RapidFire shifters not up to the task of riding in the mud or shifting under any kind of load, or shifting at all after a few miles of east coast muck. The geometry was nothing special and in true Fred fashion, I was sure a new bike with a good geometry and a suspension fork would make me a better rider–especially on the twisty single track/BMX trails we rode in south Florida.
Weeks went by. And amazingly, despite it being the week or so before Christmas, I had a day off. The days before there were rumors that the Zaskar frame was in route so I told my fellow mechanics “If my Zaskar comes in, don’t open the box.” Yeah. That was going happen.
Two days later, back at work, there’s a purple Zaskar frame sitting in an opened box. Yep. They opened the box. “We had to make sure it was ok.” Sure. Doug was true to his word. He had made sure the warehouse manager picked a good one. The only problem with the frame was bit of ano specks on the back of the seat tube. A few darker spots in a otherwise beautiful, glowing purple frame. And man, that frame was light. And the welds were beautiful.
I put it back in the box. Brought it home the night before Christmas and told my parents, “put a bow on it.” I opened it on Christmas day. My parents were a bit amazed–perplexed even. Who buys a bicycle frame? Maybe this bicycle thing was something. Is it a cult?
The next day, I brought it back to the shop and hung it up on a u-hook. Once the holidays were over I’d pull the parts off the Miyata and put on a Manitou 4 suspension fork and a Sachs rear derailleur–because, hey I worked in a bike shop. All in all, with the exception of the thumb shifters, it would be state of the art for 1995 or so.
Fast forward a few weeks. It was still season in south Florida so despite the end of the Christmas shopping season we were still slammed, but somehow I had stolen enough time to strip the Miyata and build the Zaskar. I don’t even think I had taken it out for a ride yet when one Saturday with a shop full of mechanics, we heard a 5 or 6 year old yell out “Barney bike! Barney bike!” We looked out and there the kid was pointing up at my Zaskar. Almost in unison, all the other mechanics began saying “yeah, Barney bike.” That was it. The bike was known as “Barney” and you can bet everyone in the shop was sure to let everyone in the local scene know it. I’d show up at the trail head and guys I didn’t even know would say “Barney bike.”
I didn’t care. I loved that Zaskar. It was quick. Flickable. Sure the back end was a bit happy, but I got why Hans Rey loved it. Yeah, it beat me up a bit. But still. And I was young.
Barney became a test bed of sorts. The mid 90s were a time of rapid innovation in the mountain biking world. It seemed like every week there was a new innovation or a new version of the tried and true. It seemed like everyone and everybody with a machine shop was churning out stems, cranks, brakes, brake bridges, seat posts, etc. Barney tried a bunch of them from the Sachs rear derailleur, to the Cook Bros. Racing cranks, to those crappy Tioga attempts at SPDs, to…well I lost track. Barney even got a set of GripShift shifters. It was late winter and the guys from GripShift stopped by–I mean if you had the choice between Chicago or south Florida in late February, which would you choose?
One of them said, “hey, whose Zaskar is this with the thumb shifters?”
By that point nearly everyone was riding RapidFire Plus shifters, but I was still skeptical. “Mine,” I said.
The GripShift guy said, “Man, that’s a sweet Zaskar, but what’s up with the thumb shifters?” I explained how I’d been burned by Shimano’s first attempt at Rapid Fire. “Hey, if I give you set of GripShift shifters, will you use them and not sell them?”
“Sure, if you show me how to install them, I’ll give them a try and if they work.” I had worked on a few bikes with GripShift and unlike the shop manager Ed, I was interested in them. The GripShift guy ran out to his car, rummaged through his trunk, and came back with a set of shifters. He showed me how to install them, tweak them, etc. and I rode them. I liked them. When I built up a new Trek 970 and moved on from the Zaskar I put on some of the first 9 speed GripShift and carbon derailleur–the ESP X.9.
For some reason, I sold that Zaskar. It was sitting in the back of the shop. I had just built up a Trek 970 and one of my good customers was looking for a bike for his brother in law. I sold him the Zaskar, partly because I had moved on to splitting my time between road riding and mountain biking and couldn’t justify having three mountain bikes–I still had the old Miyata. But I still think of the Zaskar. I wonder where it is. I wonder if that brother in law ever rode it–ever experienced the joy of how whippy it was, how quick it would respond to scurry up a steep rise, how it excelled at slow speed stall maneuvers–how I could bring it to a near stop and make it turn–and how fast it was? How primal it was?
Whatever happened to it, Barney was my first Christmas bike. There have been others–bikes, wheels, etc. but I’ll always remember Barney. And even though I didn’t love the purple then, seeing the Spooky, I’m wishing for some purple ano in my life. My birthday is coming up, so who knows….