|Bob Bloomfield with his favorite fixie bike and wearing his "Team Shiftless" jersey.|
Bob Bloomfield's uncle bought he and his brother their first bikes when he was five. His brother was a year older and a bit bigger. As was his family’s custom at the time, the bikes were sized in such a way to "grow into” them and he waited impatiently for his growth spurt as he jealously watched his brother cruise around the neighborhood on his Schwinn.
In those days they were out the door and on their bikes in the morning, and as long as they were back by dinner, their folks didn’t even want to know where they had been. Sometimes, it was best that way. But generally, they just headed to one of the local baseball diamonds to play ball all day, where they just pretended to be Duke Snider and later, Sandy Koufax. At the time, they were living in a Little Italy section of Troy, New York, where bocce was as common as biking, and carbo-loading on their mom’s pasta was just something they did every night, washed down with a glass of water, colored by a little red wine. They didn’t know the great Italian rider, Coppi, from cavatelli, but they did know the hospitality of their mom’s extended Italian community.
They took the bikes – along with their passion for the home team Brooklyn Dodgers, when they moved to Chicago. That same year the franchise moved to Los Angeles. On weekends, when the Dodgers came to town, they would ride over to Wrigley Field and park the bikes outside. They didn’t own a lock. Bob’s brother would go down and stand on the dugout roof and talk to the players as they poked their heads out to look around but Bob was too shy. Instead, he sent long, aching, heartfelt letters addressed to "Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, California”. Inside each was a folded 8x10 glossy of a player along with a SAS envelope. Most of those glossies came back to him, autographed and folded, Sandy Koufax included.
That same bike served him well for many years in an ever changing palette of candy-color Rustoleum metallics – outfitted with everything from stingray bars to banana seats. It eventually devolved into a direct drive motorbike, a Briggs & Stratton engine bolted to a wooden platform mounted inside its front triangle. There was no clutch. It was yank the pull start cord, lift your feet and go. And so began Bob’s requisite love affair with the internal combustion engine, which graduated through motorcycles, VW’s, muscle cars, minivans, SUV’s, Bobcats and backhoes. His last great vehicle was a 1977 El Camino, in which he piled the dogs and a mountain bike in the back and headed for the trails. Sometimes he’d have to abruptly abandon his bike to save some poor, frightened, cornered critter. The skunks were really bad, their spray like tear gas, watering his eyes and causing the dogs to foam at the mouth. Along a trail in the Catskills, one of his dogs, Keeper, bit down on a porcupine. The porcupine was fine but it took over an hour to pull out all the barbed quills from Keeper’s mouth, nose, and throat with needle nose pliers. He was a tough dog and he just sat still for it.
It was Keeper – in a roundabout way – who got Bob back on the bike. Bob had acquired his dad’s taste for tobacco as a teen, and following his smoking related death in 1986, decided to finally quit. Keeper and Bob already were in the habit of going for long daily walks – hikes, really – but he needed something more, some behavior modification that would be completely contraindicated to smoking. They began to run the trails of Little Bennett Park, just across the street from his home.
Sadly, his running career proved short. Like most beginners he started too long and too hard, limping along a predictable path of nagging injuries until even he had to admit the whole exercise had become lame. A cycling enthusiast friend – another "recovering runner” – recommended biking, and guided him through the initially intimidating process of buying his first road bike and participating in evening group rides from the Wheel Base in Frederick. It opened a new and exciting world to him: one of pacelines and yellow jerseys, of pushing limits and discovering new neighborhoods. Of working with, and measuring himself against, other riders. He rode for the pleasure. And soon learned there was a kind of pleasure in riding for the pain. Over the next ten years or so he rushed home from work each afternoon to jump on his bike and ride until dark – usually solo, or on weekends with a friend – quantifying his progress with pre-digital meticulousness. The early cyclometers with altitude function allowed him to do the math in his head as he rode. Clarksburg Road: 160 vertical feet over approximately four-tenths of a mile for an average grade of 8%. It sure seemed steeper than that! He rode every road he could find in upper Montgomery, Frederick, Howard, Carroll, and Washington Counties – crossing over to West Virginia on the weekends. Sometimes there was a ford to cross or a descent into a dreaded dead-end populated by junkyard dogs. A cyclist’s existential "No Exit.” It felt like pioneering and made him want to seek broader horizons – attempt to couple the adventure with the excitement he had experienced years earlier while backpacking overseas, especially while travelling the third world.
|Climbing Alpe d'huez in 2013|
Over the following years, he rode through much of Europe, all of Southeast Asia, parts of greater Asia and Africa, both unsupported and as part of organized tours. Kenya’s Great Rift Valley was the first of many trips and it’s still hard to top the excitement of riding alongside thundering herds of zebra and giraffe, or barreling down to one of its many sulfur lakes – rousting tens of thousands of flamingos to flight until the sky above faded from blue to pink The Southern Alps, rain forests, and fjords of New Zealand were spectacular. And Cuba’s famous Cohiba cigars offered at Hemingway’s old Havana haunts were hard for an ex-smoker to resist. Perched atop the saddle rounding a sharp turn in northern Thailand, and having to brake abruptly to avoid a five-foot monitor lizard blocking his path did nothing to validate the assumption that he sat at the top of the food chain. But being bit by a dog during the out of the saddle steep ascent to the hilltop town of Montelpulciano has left me with an enduring fondness for its wine. And then there’s the whole love-hate thing with India. Don’t get me started on India!
It wasn’t until the approach of the year 2000, under the dual pressures of YTD! and a failed marriage that he joined the PPTC. It was a game changer. It filled the widening void of the broken satellite relationships surrounding the end of a marriage. Long before there was a Facebook, The Club offered a familiar face-to-face social network. And he was very grateful for it. It wasn’t long after discovering my place and "pace” in the club that he began to lead rides. Designing the ride became half the fun and many were multi-class to include friends of all riding levels. A ride hosted from my home once drew over 150 participants. Friends volunteered as parking attendants, grillers, and set-up and cleanup crews. We were in it together, on the bike and off. In 2002, he claimed the dubious distinction of having led a ride at every level. "I say "dubious” because Dan Lehman has steadfastly refused to acknowledge a "D” ride in December as a viable option. Such a hair-splitter, that Dan! But the ride did go as scheduled. On snow covered streets with nearly 10 riders – not all of them ringers!”
|Bob (left) and Barbara (right) riding in Bike Virginia|
Riding at different levels afforded different rewards and the pizza and beer at Armand’s following the creatively cued Thursday night Tenley rides found an early place in my weekly PPTC schedule. It was on one of those rides that he met his future (and forever) wife, Barbara. "I remember how we took notice of one another and our first conversation. It was about invasive species. An article in that day’s edition of the Washington Post described the black squirrel’s migration from Canada down through Rock Creek Park, where the route headed that night. At first – city girl that she was – she thought I was some kind of invasive species after learning my home was in the outer reaches of the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve. It was well beyond her DC one-mile radius rule. But after a few more Tenley rides, I asked her to a party, kissed her a long goodnight, and promised to call her for dinner after she returned from Bike Virginia. She wrote me a postcard from the Old Dominion, stuffed it in a rural roadside mailbox along the day’s route, and pulled up the red flag to alert the postman. And also to serve as a gentle reminder to me to deliver on that call I had promised.”
"Our date did not go as anticipated. Initially nonplussed when asked out on a Monday night, she relented, but the plan soon began to unravel. She suffered a serious bike accident on Saturday morning, fracturing her orbital eye socket and incurring a concussion. Talk about falling head over heels for someone! Her message on my answering machine regretted that she would be having surgery to implant a titanium plate beneath her eyebrow and probably would not be able to make it for dinner on Monday night. I could call her at the hospital if I wanted, she added rather plaintively and left the number. I called.”
Bob says that the hospital released her Monday morning and he brought dinner to her home that Monday night and again on Friday. He thought her rather brave to receive his visit. It wasn’t long before she was back on the bike and they were riding together with him astride another love he had acquired along the way – his fixed gear bike. They derived many of the same pleasures from biking. Bob says, "We liked to explore, discover hidden connectors, plan and share routes to coincide with special places and events: the Cherry Blossoms, the opening of the new Wilson Bridge bike lanes… Our rides were peppered with transportation policy from the perspective of a bicycle seat. Barbara is a nationally-known transportation advocate and I like to think some of my ideas found their way onto the pages of her book, "Completing Our Streets,” which will be published by Island Press this fall.”
Bob says that riding has touched every aspect of his life and has been a source of discovery and exploration. It’s always there for him. His favorite rides continue to evolve; leading them is a moving target of balancing fitness with fun. He tries to bring something new to each ride, shake it up a bit, do something different, keep riders curious and interested by getting them off the beaten path. As a ride leader, it gives him a sense of mastery of the environment to discover the unmarked way, navigate lightly travelled and obscure routes, reveal connectors that others may find useful in their daily rides or commutes. On the urban rides, it usually makes more sense to shepherd than to sweep. Every ride is different. There are no hard and fast rules. If the group is small enough, he says he can glean an overall impression of riders’ abilities and tailor the tempo. Occasionally, it is apparent that the ride is beyond a participant’s capacity and that person should be made aware of the challenge. Bob says he might outline a straightforward shortcut. There is often some compromise to be made. Bob says he tries to gear the ride to the majority yet still give the minority consideration. Encouragement is more constructive than its converse. Performance should always be balanced against safety, even more so as the ride intensity ratchets and riders break away into a training ride. Co-leading is a great idea. Not only can one cover for the other, but also it is more fun to partner with someone and easier to control the ride – from both the front and the back.
The compliments he most prizes after leading a ride are those that convey a rider’s excitement at having participated and accomplished something unexpected and new. "Wow, I never knew that road was there,” or some other permutation, such as: "I really enjoyed that route,” are great to hear. Then Bob knows he has shared the thing he most enjoys about biking. It is about discovery. And the discovery of new directions to explore is only the beginning of discovering new capacities, both within and outside oneself.