Monday, January 9, 2012

Phantoms (Part 7)

If you don't know the story by now, here it is.

Schwinn first reissued the Black Phantom in 1995 to celebrate both their centennial and their return from the ashes of bankruptcy.  The company had gradually cashed in on the growing rush for “retro” bikes with some less-expensive replica cruisers, but the ‘95 Phantom aspired to much more than these cookie-cutter novelties could ever hope for.  It was to be an exact copy of the original, top to bottom.  The project was to create pure anachronism, bicycles designed from crumbling original blueprints, constructed with tools that had not been used in almost half a century.  Where original tools could not be found, they were built, created from history and memory to fabricate one small production run at an astronomical cost.  The 1995 Phantoms were born of human touch in an industry dominated by computer-controlled robot welders.  The project cost a fortune, well beyond what the company could recoup from the sale of the bikes, even at almost three-thousand dollars each.  It made no sense.  It was beyond business.  It was irrational.  And it was beautiful, all the way down to the tiny ridge across the bottom bracket replicating a flaw in the original casting process.  I imagine the idea taking root not in conference rooms, but during a ride.  A group of true bicycle nuts pause after a long, hard climb to catch their breath, and in the dizziness of oxygen debt, someone jokingly says, “why don’t we build a Phantom?”  After the ride, over coffee and donuts, someone else starts drawing on a napkin, tracing the chromed curve of a springer fork, a design Schwinn hasn’t built in decades, and something in that curve sticks in the imagination.

However the concept was planted, it slowly grew from silly idea to fully-realized rubber and steel, history rendered in metal.  The company had faced death, become an industry joke, and come screaming back to legitimacy.  What better way to announce its return than with a piece of the past, a bike that, like its parent, would surprise the industry simply by existing, enduring?  So Schwinn created the 1995 Black Phantom reissue, a small pocket of 1950s America, a testament to durability, to timelessness.  At work, when I walk past the reissue, I cannot help but pause, awestruck.  The bike is 1955 made tangible, a blend of deco design and car culture lifted into another era.  It is graceful.  It is brash.  Ridable examples of the original Phantoms still exist today, and I don’t doubt that this reissue will still beg to be pedaled forty years from now.  The bike laughs at time, dares aging to touch it. 

Those original Schwinns would eventually become the first mountain bikes.  In the early 1970s (while I was busy navigating sidewalk cracks on a green tricycle) a group of men were resurrecting big Schwinn cruisers from California junk piles, driving them to the top of mountain roads, and riding down at top speed.  Each run burned most of the grease out of their antique coaster brakes, forcing the riders to repack their hubs with fresh lubrication.  To most of the 1970s cycling world, this new kind of riding made no sense.  In a bike culture enamored with slender European road racing machines, the very idea of riding down mountains was laughable.  Yet, each weekend, a group of accomplished road racers donned jeans and flannel shirts and did just that, sliding through switchback corners on their sixty pound relics.  They fell.  They drew blood. They broke bikes.  They broke bodies.  Then, they laughed, went back to the top, rode again, fell again, bled again, laughed again.  And those bikes, those abandoned, rusted relics raised from the dead refused to act their age, taking flight just as they had under exuberant ten-year-olds in 1955.

1 comment:

Iowagriz said...

Several MTB related posts in the 7 stories. We need to get you back out onto the local dirt trails. Denmans has your name all over it.