The Billings Outpost

Passion for bikes rolls on

By MARTIN MULL - For The Outpost

A 50-something Baby Boomer suddenly wacky about a new pastime that disturbs a settled traditional corner of the family home better have one thing locked in place – a tolerant spouse.

“Look at this place, it’s a disaster,” remarked Debbie Ramirez, with a warm chuckle. “It’s just been an obsession with him. He just started and went crazy with it, and has kept going and going.”

The soft-spoken wife commented about her husband of 37 years, Mike. And her once-tidy study now littered with old Italian and French racing bikes, albeit pristine ones, products of her mate’s 2-year-old vintage cycle refurbishing madness.

Debbie remembers the family office with a desk, computer, and book shelf for the Amish books she loves reading. All neatly arranged around a spacious room, punctuated with some nice greenery. The items are still present, but so is clutter. There’s a mechanics bike rack hoisting a frame, plopped down in the room’s center, with a big bag of specialized cycling tools nearby. At least a half-dozen cycles jam the room’s north side perimeter. If Mike has his way, other sides will host some more classic European gems, hopefully a Colnago.

Forget the domicile’s office designation. Mike says it’s now his man cave.  Or you could call it his man bike cave.

Bless her heart. Debbie and the other spouses who have to put up with a mid-life hubby abruptly gone haywire, spending energy, time, and money with a new found “passion.” Some boomers buy red sports cars. Or follow old rock and roll bands on reunion tours. Some try to find old girlfriends on Facebook.  Get things done before, well, you know. Relive.

Ramirez doesn’t call it a mid-life crisis, this Euro bike-building thing, but does agree it’s absorbed him, and cites a few reasons why.

About six years ago, Ramirez, a Billings-based work rehabilitation counselor, met Rob Bronecki, a dentist, also working here in the city. A common denominator between the two was cycling. Mike began cycling to work about 15 years ago, his way of making an active statement to combat global warming, besides just whining about it, and saving some gas money. Bronecki, born to a family with merger means, always transported himself on bicycles growing up in Milwaukee, Wis. He worked in a bike shop as a youth and would rummage city Dumpsters seeking old Raleighs to refurbish and sell, making some money. 

Bronecki says he was a pretty fair cyclist also as a teenager, with Olympics aspirations, but crashed hard training on a Kenosha velodrome, breaking ribs and ending that dream. A bum knee kept him sedentary for 30 years, until Ramirez encouraged him get off the couch and go for a ride. For that, Bronecki is grateful to his friend.

But it also got Bronecki back to his youth and rebuilding bikes. A serious, studious type, whose intellectual plane seems a tad higher than most, the 51-year-old researched the modern how to’s of cycle refurbishing. His first project was a 1975 Trek that he later gave to the 55-year-old Ramirez, a buddy gift of sorts.  And this time, Ramirez went for the ride - a newfound interest in bike restoration.

Bronecki found a 1983 French-made Cilo Swiss frame for sell on Ebay. A Polish man wanted $79 for it and $150 to ship it. The dentist told the counselor, both frugal sorts, least when it comes to shelling out for bike parts, it was a steal and a good first-try rebuild project. Ramirez bought the frame in May 2012. It took a long 14 months to finish. Both learned lessons the hard way, which is part of the fun, and frustration they say, in refurbishing old European racers.

“It was my first project bike, and I’m most proud of it,” recalled California-born Ramirez. “But we had all kinds of fits because the French components are slightly different than the Italian and American bike components.  And that’s because, the French have a multi-generational and a multi-cultural hate for Americans and Italians when it comes to cycling.”  Both swear the French do it intentionally, making their drive train measurements a millimeter off here or there – an interesting conspiracy theory, but cycling fans do know the French always seemed to despise Lance Armstrong and the great Italian cyclists.

The fun included spending countless hours on the computer, or smart phone, seeking the components, the “group set,” that were traditional for the early 1980s, but not necessarily the parts that came with the original bike. Bronecki calls it an Easter egg hunt.

Enthusiasts who do this want their end product to suit their tastes, make their own product, all the while respecting that cycling era. Most will go on and ride their creations.

“We built a bike that nobody else has in the entire world, and that’s the bikes that we build,” Ramirez said, noting some guys seek to rebuild old bikes with all original parts, or others rebuild old bikes with modern components. They kind of fall in-between.

His buddy agrees. “It’s a beautiful bike, and this bike sings.” When asked what does a bike singing mean, the alto planer continues. “The bike just loves the road. There’s harmonic flexing that goes on with the road.”

Harmonic flexing. OK. The non-cyclist scratches his head for the meaning, but senses the two buddy builders are in sync with each other. And as a duel, it more fun than perhaps going solo.

“The whole process is a diversion, a diversion to think, to be creative, it’s a passion and it’s fun,” Ramirez said. “(Building bikes) gives us something to talk about, to talk “bike,” vintage bike parts. It’s a diversion from the mundane of life, from all the commitments and responsibilities of everyday life.”

Both have advanced college degrees, so they’re not lacking smarts. But has their passion skewed the reality of their work? Who knows, they just starting out, and may pursue business opportunities.

“A high-end [refurbished] bike will go for around $22,000,” Ramirez said. “The bikes we built are on par with those.

“We’ve talked about having a bike shop, building old vintage bikes, if there is a market for it.”

It would be word of mouth, says Bronecki, demonstrating some good quality work. So the 60-year-old professional who once rode across America as a college student in an early 1970s Trek would want them to rebuild him another, for the nostalgia. Along those lines, but that would be the ideal as they move toward senior citizenship.

Ramirez recently completed his second project, this one an early 1990s Italian-frame De Bernardi. Not having to fuss with irregular French parts, it took less time to build than his first, with an easier frame to work with.  His says his learning curve is shrinking. Each completion brings knowledge, confidence, and gusto for more. Together, the friends have refurbished seven bikes in two years.

Ramirez dreams of remaking an old Italian Colnago, that many consider the best-made racing and touring bikes in the world. Problem is, used frames start at $15,000.

His wife perhaps dreams of a back-to-normal home office. Or, at least some slowdown in the obsession. “He can cool it a bit,” was Debbie’s response when asked how much more, or less, would she like.

Actually, she enjoys friend Bronecki’s company, says he’s a nice man and a good friend for her husband. And bike building means her husband is bike riding, keeping the weight off, good for his health. And the creativity of bike building is good for his mind.

So whether an obsession, or a mid-life crisis, or new-found passion, well, it’s not a bad one.

There’s a lot worse. He could be chasing the Eagles around the country. In a red sports car.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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