Archive for August, 2010


Campagnolo, Olive Oil, And The Awful Truth

In honor of Tullio Campagnolo’s 109th birthday  this week (August 26, 1901–February 3, 1983), here’s a story…. 

God, I love working on Campy Ergo shifters.

You know the ones I’m talking about: those fancy ten speed brake/shifter combos that pop up on really high-end (a polite euphemism for “expensive”) bikes. Complicated carbon fiber and aluminum confections, holy objects of veneration in the Church of Campagnolo, worshipped by the faithful, desired by the masses. Cradling its black rubber hood and smooth carbon brake blade in your hands while clicking through the gears provides a sensuous tactile feedback, a beautifully machined music-box of sprockets and cogs that rivals the latest Ferrari sports car or Swiss chronograph in terms of quality and complication. Lean, stylish, and above-all Italian, Campagnolo ten speed Ergo shifters (especially the coveted Record ones) are nothing less than the playthings of the Gods.

Which is great, but what happens when it breaks?

The Shimano approach to high-end shifters dictates that when one of their offerings goes belly up there are no second chances. Fix it? Forget it. No, shamed by its failure, Shimano company policy requires that a broken shifter must, after a decent interval, commit hari-kari. Honorable, yes; but very expensive, especially you are looking to replace a set of obsolete 8 or 9-speed shifters on what has become a 10-speed planet.

Devotees of Campagnolo, on the other hand, proudly point to the fact that their shifters go all the way up to 10 speeds and are rebuildable, thus making them immortal, like the Gods of Cycling who created them.

While the Cycling Gods have benevolently granted a fallen Ergo shifter a chance at forgiveness and redemption, even those completely in the thrall of the Campagnolo mystique can’t help chuckling quietly to themselves and thinking “Sure, they are rebuildable, but heaven help you if you actually need to rebuild it.”  The thought of tearing into something as mechanically sophisticated (and expensive) as a Chorus or Record shifter is enough to give most owners (and some bike shops) the vapors. Because just as Prometheus was punished by Zeus for stealing fire from Mount Olympus and giving it to us mortals for our use, it is a verity among cycling’s cognoscenti that attempting to rebuild a broken Campy Ergo shifter is the punishment meted out by the Cycling Gods for our having presumed to grasp at cycling perfection.

And, it turns out, the cognoscenti in this case would be wrong.

My friend Karl appeared on my doorstep the other day seeking help to revive the newly-defunct Campy Record shifters that are attached to his Motobecane. Having spent several hard years toiling without complaint buried in Karl’s meaty grip, the right shifter decided to pack up and take a holiday. Karl had of course taken the time-honored steps to appease the angry Shifting Gods – most notably smearing himself with dung and making a sacrifice of an old Regina freewheel on a pyre of blazing TriFlow chain lube – but to no avail. Looking utterly bereft at his loss, Karl wheeled his wounded machine to the back of my workshop.

 Putting his bike up on the workstand, I poked and prodded and muttered darkly about “G-Springs” and “Ratchet Pawls” while Karl stood in the corner and watched, downcast and depressed. This bit of Kabuki Theater was mostly for Karl’s benefit. The sympathetic mechanic recognizes that, especially where very expensive Campagnolo components are involved, restoring la bella macchina to its former glory is sometimes more of an act of religious reconciliation than simple bike repair. In Karl’s case we were dealing with something much more than a broken shifter; it was a Ten Speed Record Ergo shifter. An idol had fallen, taking with it Karl’s faith in the essential divinity of all things Campagnolo. It wouldn’t be enough for me to simply fix the damn thing.  No, what Karl needed was the bike repair equivalent of the Pope presiding over High Latin Mass at Saint Peter’s in Rome, not some greasy dude in a dirty shop twiddling wrenches.  Karl needed to once again believe.

 All of which meant that this was clearly not a good time for Karl to learn the Awful Truth about Ergo shifters. 

Having completed the requisite obscure rituals, I sent Karl away and got down to the actual task of rebuilding his shifter. Step one: close the shop door, making sure that no Shimano owners are about. Step two: peel back the rubber hood. Step three: undo one screw and two cables. The shifter is now off the bike and sitting in your hand. Step four: flip the shifter over and remove the little trap door at the back to reveal the Awful Truth.

The Awful Truth about Campagnolo shifters is this: there are no cascades of finely-machined gears or high tech carbon fiber gubbins residing in the back of a stupifyingly expensive Record or Chorus shifter. That carefully-crafted image of cutting-edge sophistication is pure bunk: what you see beneath that sleek, sexy carbon fiber body is what you’d expect to find if you opened a wind-up alarm clock with a hammer; springs and ratchets seemingly thrown together at random. For the uninitiated, it’s like that moment in the Wizard of Oz where the curtain is pulled back to reveal that the Mighty Oz is nothing but a middle aged hack with a paunch, thinning hair, and a bum knee. One look through the little trap door in the back and gone forever are all of the mental images of jewel-like precision or white-suited technicians using robots to assemble Record Shifters to aerospace standards in a sterile environment. No, the Awful Truth about Ergo shifters is that the aura and mystique that feeds the cult-like devotion of the Campy faithful is founded on something that is far more Rube Goldberg than Rolex.

But while Ergo shifters may not be complete marvels of technology, the good news in all of this is that they work extremely well and turn out to be relatively simple devices that can be fixed by idiots like me with nothing more than some twigs, spit, and a rusty nail. No exotic tools or special training is needed; just a good look at the parts diagram and a nice Italian espresso should see you through. And, indeed, after a few minutes of fiddling I had Karl’s shifter back in operating order. Job complete, I quietly opened the door to the shop, checking to make sure that no one who was not already privy to the Awful Truth had seen me working on Karl’s bike.

There is one final step in fixing a Campy Ergo shifter: giving it back to its owner. Here, the clever mechanic can use the power of the Campagnolo Mystique to impose random demands, limited only by your own capriciousness, all in the name of proper “maintenance.”  I decided that Karl definitely needed to take better care of his bike.

“So, what was wrong with my shif…”

“You’re not listening to Italian opera, are you?”


“I said, you’re not listening to any Italian opera at home, are you?”

“Opera? Dude, I play the tuba in the Navy band. I listen to Sousa marches and stuff like that.”

“Well DAMN, no wonder your shifter crapped out. You did read the manual, didn’t you?”


“You need to play two hours of Italian opera every night or the shifters get homesick. The carbon fiber models require something light, like Verdi. Preferably an early Parlophone or Edison recording with Caruso. I also noticed that the shifter pawls were a little dry. You are soaking your riding gloves in olive oil before every ride, right?”

“Soak my gloves in olive oil…?”

“Boy you really didn’t read the manual, did you? Soaking your riding gloves in extra virgin olive oil lubes the shifters as you ride. It cuts internal wear on the ratchet pawls in half. It has to be extra virgin oil, though. Otherwise it just gunks things up and you are right back at square one.”

“Uhhhh….okay. Do you have to do this with Shimano shifters?”

“No, but that’s why you just throw them away when they break. Campy shifters never die — they are rebuildable. Isn’t that great?”

Yes, isn’t that great.

As I said, I like working on Campy Ergo shifters. I like knowing the Awful Truth. And I really, really like knowing the fact that, thanks to me, Karl now spends quiet evenings at home oiling his cycling gloves while serenading his bike with the Barber of Seville...


It’s a Gift

I started this piece a couple of years ago, and then put it aside for some reason. I think that the problem was that the endings that I came up with were all pretty lame. This endng isn’t much of an improvement, but what the hell.

The tale of Todd and Christy (and Brian and Lori) is mostly true.  I’m happy to say that Christy’s illness has a very good ending: she has been cancer free for well over five years.  Christy is a huge Lance Armstrong fan, and I had the privilege of riding with Todd and Christy (and thousands of other cancer survivors) at the 2005 Ride for the Roses in Austin, Texas.  Todd and Christy did a full century.  I, on the other hand, had perhaps the most painful 100 miles that I’ve ever ridden.  But that’s a story for another day.

I’ve changed Todd’s last name to protect his privacy.
I have a workshop in the garden behind my house. It’s a small wooden building with a workbench, a drill press, bench grinder, air compressor and paint guns, some welding equipment and a bicycle work stand. It’s my little sanctuary, a distinctly male bastion, a place where can I go and tinker on bicycles away from the demands of work and womenfolk.

It is also, like its owner, a bit of a disaster in terms of organization. In some ways it’s less of an actual workshop and more of a Museum of Bicycle Entropy: boxes of old parts, tools, the occasional lawnmower, and a profusion of bikes in varying states of disassembly all scattered higgledy-piggledy beneath a protective layer of dust and paint overspray. Mix in a collection of old racing posters hanging on the walls, a paint-splattered radio with a bent antenna, and you have it. Bike-guy nirvana, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

Most of my friends who come over and visit eventually wind up back in my work shop, whether it is to get a bicycle looked after or to just shoot the breeze and hang out. They don’t seem to be bothered by the clutter. But then guys are like that. The male of the species can readily accept the fact that your shop is home to one of the largest collections of worn-out eight-speed cassettes on the planet and still not think any less of you. They understand because most of them have similarly world-class collections of useless crap sitting in their own workshops and garages.

Women visitors – and there aren’t very many of those, I can assure you – have a different reaction. Most stand fearfully at the entrance to my workshop, refusing to cross the threshold. The braver ones peer through the doorway at the clutter, their faces all scrunched up with maternal concern. It’s the concern that all women express when confronted with a tableau that could be entitled “Anthropology Case Study #5: Unsupervised Men with Beer and Power Tools – Six Months.” It’s a reminder that their own homes would probably remain much cleaner if they ditched their husbands or boyfriends and kept wild chimpanzees as pets.

Even my wife, loving and tolerant soul that she is, has from time to time expressed her bewilderment at the state of chaos that reigns in my workshop. One evening, as I was hunkered down at the workbench attempting to true a particularly recalcitrant wheel, she bravely poked her head in the shop to see what I was up to. The shop was in its normal state of anarchy and there I sat in its midst, a bike Buddha in a greasy bowling shirt, intently focused on getting the wheel round and true.  She eventually spoke up.

“I don’t know how you manage to work in these surroundings,” she said, shaking her head ruefully.

I quietly smiled, not looking up from my task.

“You focus on what’s important, and ignore what isn’t. Right now, what is important is the spoke tension of this wheel.”

“I still don’t see how you do it.  This clutter would give me a headache.”

“I suppose it’s some sort of a gift.”

She snorted, turned on her heel and stalked back across the garden.  The wheel turned out nice; one of my best.

About a week ago one of my riding buddies got some terrible news. Todd, who has been a regular on our Sunday morning ride for about two years now, quietly announced that his wife was diagnosed with a tumor that was blocking her digestive tract. At minimum it meant major surgery to remove it, and there was the obvious worry that tests would reveal it to be cancerous. We like to think of our little Sunday ride as a tight-knit group, and Todd’s news was definitely a blow to everyone.That afternoon one of the regulars, Brian, mentioned Todd’s news to his wife, Lori.  Lori decided that the gang should send a card, maybe flowers too, definitely cook some dinners – just do something to help. Swinging into action, Lori was immediately full of questions.

“How do you spell Todd’s last name?”

An eminently reasonable question, under the circumstances. Unfortunately, even after two years of riding with Todd on Sunday mornings, no one knew his last name. Ditto his address. With some effort, the group might be able to cough up most of the digits of Todd’s phone number.

“His last name starts with “C” and has a lot of consonants. He’s Czechoslovakian. I don’t think that even he knows how to spell it. We just call him Todd.” 

“Well, then what’s his wife’s last name?  Is it the same?” 

“I think that they call her Todd as well. It’s easier.”

Lori put her hands on her hips and shot Brian a disgusted look.  “How can you guys ride together for more than two years and not know this stuff?” 

“Frankly, I think it’s amazing that I even know that Todd is married. To me, Todd is the quick guy on the Lightspeed with the Mavic wheels.  That’s it.  That’s all I know.  And when we ride, that’s all I really need to know. We’re riding, not kibitzing. We  focus on the important stuff.  Remembering whether Todd has a good sprint or can be trusted not to overlap wheels in a paceline is important stuff.  Knowing Todd’s life story or whether he likes tuna casserole isn’t important stuff.  That is more of a chick thing.”

She rolled her eyes and made a derogatory, but deadly accurate, remark about men, bikes, and guys who shave their legs. 

To be fair to Brian, none of us in the Sunday morning ride group could have answered those embarrassingly basic questions about Todd with anything like the requisite level of feminine precision. We’re guys. We don’t remember extraneous data about our riding buddies.  Information like that is like the clutter in my workshop; guys tune it out.  It’s like a superpower that is part of our Y chromosome heritage.  You can either be paralyzed with angst about the fact that don’t know even the most basic information about friends who you have ridden with for years, a tragic gender-based breach of the basic rules of etiquette if there ever was one, or you can use the your special guy superpower to just roll with it and keep showing up to ride on Sunday morning. 

At the end of the day, our lack of fundamental knowledge about Todd and Mrs. Todd didn’t prevent us from taking care of our riding buddy.  We didn’t need a last name to make sure that Todd always had beer in the fridge, someone to ride with and, most important, dinner on the table (or, more precisely, dinner in a paper bag or take-out container) while his wife, Christy, was in the hospital. Todd was touched. Christy was impressed that a bunch of cyclists could be so thoughtful.  Hell, we even made amends for our initial bad manners by learning how to spell “Ctvrtlanik,” not that this is a particularly essential bit of information to know about Todd while you are out riding on a sunny Sunday morning. 

We’re guys.  We know what’s clutter and what’s not.

Like I said, it’s a gift.


The Brooks B.17 Saddle


I was going through some stuff that I had written a while back, and this story popped up. It is a first draft of a review that I wrote years ago for, extolling the many merits of the Brooks B.17 saddle.  

It was a little weird.   

I came THIS CLOSE to pulling the trigger and sending it to the editors as it appears below.  Common sense prevailed, however, and what I eventually sent them was shorter and slightly less strange.  That said, I think that it is still the most long-winded product review that they ever ran.  My review pops up from time to time on Google, so I still occasionally get e-mails about it, fielding questions regarding the comparative merits of the Brooks B.17. 

Anyway, I thought that I would share the original version it because, well, it is very odd and features a detailed apology for providing the reader with a topographical description of my butt.   


Review: Brooks B.17 Saddle 

Most reviews of bicycle saddles that have hitherto appeared in the popular cycling-related press have approached the subject with some trepidation. Comfort is a subjective measurement, impossible to quantify or measure with any certainty, and there is probably a no more subjective a topic in the cycling world than the relative comfort of a bicycle saddle. Indeed, while a review that discusses the technical features of a saddle may be marginally helpful to the careful and thoughtful cyclist, it is common wisdom among experienced riders that most written reviews of saddles are relatively worthless. It is an all too common occurrence that a glowing review for a bicycle saddle from one rider frequently does not translate into comfort out on the road for another, differently-configured rider. 

I respectfully submit that the blame for this dreadful state of affairs may be placed entirely at the feet of timid reviewers who completely ignore what our own eyes can readily tell us: that human buttocks are like snowflakes in that no two are shaped exactly alike. Because the human rump is not yet standardized, and because a reviewer’s opinion of a particular saddle must necessarily be colored by the configuration of his or her own lower anatomy, a key piece of information that should be included in any review of a bike saddle is, of course, a complete and accurate description of the posterior that is being used to conduct the actual saddle testing. 

Most writers are, from a misplaced sense of decorum or modesty, loath to discuss the finer points of their rump in print, leaving the bike saddle consumer to guess what sort of bum the author has been endowed with by his or her Creator. Does he or she have the broad, flat backside of a sprinter, or have they been blessed by nature with the trim, greyhound-like fanny normally found on a climber? Or is it something in between? 

Product reviewers who decline to provide their readership with the necessary anatomical information needed to convey a meaningful and intelligible comparison have done the cycling public a great disservice. In short, the educated bike saddle consumer must have at least a nodding familiarity with the rump under discussion before a reviewer’s opinions regarding a particular saddle are to be trusted. 

So I shan’t apologize to you, the Gentle Reader, for the discussion of my hindquarters that will appear during the course of this product review for the Brooks B.17 bicycle saddle. Such information is presented strictly out of journalistic necessity, and not from of any sense of pride or vanity (however justified) on the part of the Author. 

The Brooks B.17 bicycle saddle is perhaps one of the longest-lived bicycle components on the planet. Just when you think that progress has finally overtaken it and it has been rendered extinct, the leatherly Brooks arises from the depths like a prehistoric coelacanth, upsetting our preconceived notions about what to expect or demand from a bicycle saddle. 

Indeed, the recent resurgence of the Brooks B.17 requires us to call into question what, if any, real progress has been made in the area of cycling comfort over the last 80 years. 

There is one a very good reason, however, that explains why the B.17 has lasted this long.  It’s comfortable.  Damn comfortable, in fact.  

Yes, the Brooks B.17 is big.  Yes, it weighs as much as a compact car. Yes, you have to occasionally slather it with a greasy and foul smelling preparation in order to keep it supple. No, they don’t like getting wet.  But after a couple of thousand miles perched upon a Brooks, I have come to appreciate the comfort – nay, luxury! – afforded by the Brooks B.17. 

First, some history. Founded in 1866 as a saddle maker, Brooks began the manufacture of bicycle seats around 1885. Offering a full line of traditional leather saddles, Brooks has been producing the B.17 model since the early 1900s. The design of the B.17 has remained essentially unchanged for over 80 years, and each one is still made by hand at the factory in Birmingham, England. 

The attraction of a Brooks B.17 (or any traditional leather saddle) can be hard to grasp. To the generation of riders who have earned their wheels on svelte plastic/leather confections like the Flite and its progeny, a leather saddle like the Brooks is hopelessly old school. And then there are the horror stories passed down from our cycling ancestors about the miseries of slowly breaking-in leather saddles – six months of suffering while the hard polished leather slowly duels with your backside to see who will give up first. 

Indeed, I’d heard those stories too, and so it was with some apprehension that I opened up the box and slipped the B.17 out on to my workbench. It sure as hell didn’t look very inviting. Black leather. Metal studs. It looked more like a piece of bondage gear than a comfortable bicycle saddle. More ominously, there were three small holes punched in the top of the saddle. Drain holes for…blood, perhaps? 

The basic Brooks B.17 consists of formed leather hide that is stretched over a steel framework. The black leather top is attached to the frame by shiny rivets, and the leather is tensioned via a screw adjuster in the nose of the saddle. It’s a big saddle – 170mm wide at the back, and 280mm long. It’s heavy too – Brooks lists it at 535 grams. The B.17 makes a Flite look positively small in comparison. There are fancier and lighter versions (even one with titanium rails), but none of those editions seem to capture the rough-and-ready spirit of the long-lived and Puritan-plain original. It’s not unusual for a B.17 to last 20 or 30 years with proper care, making the saddle an excellent investment.

Oh, and the three holes on the top are supposed to provide ventilation. Those Brits think of everything. 

Taking the saddle in hand and striding over to the test bicycle, a Bianchi touring bike that I use for my daily commute to work, I quickly learned that one does not just slap a Brooks on to their velciopede and then go pedaling off into the sunset, derrière cosseted by the finest British leather. No, no, no. There are certain rituals that must be performed first before one is fully initiated into the Brooks cult. The primary ritual consists of applying a leather preparation, Brooks Proofhide, to the top and bottom surfaces of the saddle. This preparation protects the leather from moisture and helps with the breaking in process. No one, however, can agree on the schedule or method of subsequent applications. Not even Brooks itself provides definitive instructions on this point. Everyone agrees that you should regularly treat the saddle; it’s just that no one knows just how regular you have to be. Too often is bad. Not often enough is also bad. Figuring out what is “just right” is all part of becoming a member of the mysterious brotherhood of Brooks riders; everyone who owns one eventually develops their own closely-guarded theory on when to treat the saddle. 

One other oddity in installing a Brooks saddle: you need a seat post with a fair amount of setback in order to get the B.17 into a comfortable position. This is because the seat rails on the saddle are fairly short, and the Brooks doesn’t have the range of travel or adjustability possessed by most modern saddles. 

Saddle conditioned, mounted and adjusted, I donned my riding togs, mounted the bike, and gingerly lowered myself onto the B.17. I pushed off, pedaled a bit, and was immediately overwhelmed by a sense of…..comfort. Good lord, this thing is nice. Right out of the box. Where was all of the pain? Where was the horrible break-in period? 

The short answer is that my ample hindquarters – best described as the amply-muscled backside of a roleur, twin sinewy globes of alabaster attached to a virile specimen of rampant manhood; broad in the beam but not unpleasingly so – were able to make short work of breaking in a stiff leather saddle.  No skinny climber here,  at 6′ tall and every ounce of 190 lbs, so I surmise that the combination of my large size and the dynamic load generated by my ample-yet-aesthetically pleasing bum served to dramatically short-circuit the traditional break in period normally required for a leather saddle. 

I came, I sat, and I conquered. 

This unexpectedly short break-in period allowed me to quickly discover some of the finer subtleties of my Brooks. Like, for example, the fact that the broad rear dimension of the saddle is a perfect match for my, um, broad rear dimension. The B.17 is shaped in a way that supports my ischial tuberosities – the sit bones – almost perfectly. I was also surprised as the way that the natural leather breathes better than the synthetic covering on my other more modern saddles, further reducing discomfort. This is a saddle that one can sit on all day. 

A couple of treatments with Proofhide and lots of miles later, the leather shell of the seat slowly conformed its shape to create a mirror image of my rump.  There are now two hollows on the top of the saddle that mirrors the shape of my kiester, meaning that my Brooks now carries me over the roads and byways in what is effectively a comfy leather hammock, individually cosseting each meaty ham and isolating it from any unwanted jolts or vibration caused by imperfections in the pavement. It is s a very civilized way to cycle. 

Granted, based upon its size and weight alone, the Brooks B.17 would not be anybody’s first choice for a lightweight racing bike. You won’t see it in the pro peloton any time soon. But for the larger rider, the touring cyclist, or for just any rider who values comfort over light weight, a Brooks B.17 makes wonderful sense. 

Believe me, your ass will thank you. 

Pros: Comfortable, well made, will last forever.
Cons: Big, heavy, too retro for some.
Recommended retail price: varies
More information: Brooks Saddles Website


What If?

Okay, who wants to play the “what if?” game with me?

You know, the “what if?” game. The game where you take a historical event, change one or two key things about it, and then play out what happens next given the altered assumptions. Long a staple of starving authors and cable television programmers, we Americans seemingly have an endless appetite for indulging in this time-honored game.

Sports fans are perhaps the most rabid aficionados of “what if?” on the planet. For example, get a group of baseball fans into a room for any appreciable period of time and there is a near 100% certainty that a heated discussion will quickly break out about how a player from the “golden age” age of the game would fare against modern talent or what would happen if, say, the 1927 Yankees were called upon to play a World Series against just about any other team that you would care to mention. Ditto football fans, basketball fans, NASCAR fans, soccer fans, cycling fans, roller derby fans, badminton fans, and tiddlywinks fans. They all like to play “what if?” 

So it should not be a shock to anyone that, having just finished one of the most successful swim seasons in Mount Vernon Park history, the thoughtful MVP Gator might well want to indulge in their own game of “what if?”   You could spend some idle time pondering deep questions like “Are the 2010 Gators really the fastest team in MVP history?” or “How would some of those old Gator teams stack up against this year’s champions?” 

Indeed, the especially thoughtful Gator – perhaps an older swimmer who actually competed on one of those storied MVP teams from sainted days of yore – might decide to up the ante and make the game of “what if?” just a wee bit more personal. That particular Gator might ask how a “typical” swimmer from 40 years ago – not a superstar, but an average kid – would stack up against the competition in 2010. This senior Gator might ask what if an average 8 & under boy from MVP’s 1969 Gator team was teleported into the future and found a place on the 2010 NVSL Division 5 Champions? Would a kid from the distant past be able to hang with the kids from the future? Are the eight & unders of today appreciably faster in the water than their ancient Gator forebears? 

Would the Facebook Generation blow Old School Cool right out of the water? 

Summer, 1969. Richard Nixon is in the Whitehouse. The Vietnam War is raging half a world away.  News reports from the trial of the Chicago Seven are being splashed across the front page of every newspaper in the country. Apollo 11 lands on the moon in July. Rowan & Martin’s “Laugh In” is the #1 television show in the nation. “Sesame Street” and “The Brady Bunch” will make their respective television premieres that September. In August, 500,000 hippies descend on Max Yasgar’s farm in Bethel, New York, for “3 Days of Peace & Music” and poor sanitation, an event that would later pass into popular culture as Woodstock. The two biggest songs in the country are “Age of Aquarius” by the Fifth Dimension and the teeny-bopper hit “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies. 

Of course, none of this made any impression whatsoever on your average eight & under in 1969. No, in 1969 most eight year old boys at MVP were worried about just four things: (1) eight year old girls (i.e. the ever-present “cooties” menace, the AIDS of the pre-pubescent), (2) the prospect of getting beaten up by the Big Kids, (3) being made to appear in public wearing a Speedo (which is essentially underwear, see worry #1), and (4) finding a way to sneak into the pool during break-time without the lifeguards noticing. 

Oh, and hippies. Most eight year old boys at MVP during the summer of 1969 were also very worried about hippies, if just on general principle. Everyone was just a little freaked out by the hippies. 

A digression: In terms of the day-to-day running MVP during the 1960’s, hippies presented a very practical problem for pool managment.  MVP rules required all women to wear a bathing cap when swimming.  County regulations governing the operation of public swimming pools enshrined the widely-held belief that female hair was an anathema, a threat to public health and safety on par with drunk driving and communism.  Otherwise reasonable people sincerly believed that long hair would inevitably detach itself from the delicate female scalp, clogging the pool filter and leading to an “unhygenic” situation.  Extreme vigilance was required; disease, contagion and death were the ultimate price if pool management failed to rigorously enforce the rule regarding bathing caps.  One side-affect of having grown up with this rule was the phenomenon that no male wanting to be deemed worthy of his gender would ever think of wearing a bathing cap in public, even as a joke.  They were for girls.  So we all held our breath on that fateful day when the first group of extremely long-haired males that we had ever seen (i.e. hair past the shoulder, in an era when a haircut was deemed long overdue when it brushed the top of your ear) wandered their way in through the front gate of MVP.  The manager on duty took one look, and handed their “leader” a pink bathing cap.  With flowers.

Score: The Establishment 1, Hippies 0.         

To make it easier to understand all of the important social/sporting changes that occurred over the past 41 years that could affect the relative swim performance of an eight & under boy, I’ve simplified things a bit with the attached chart: 

Things That Influence The Average 8 & Under Swimmer

2010 Gator 


1969 Gator 




Parents’ Car
  • Toyota Prius

  • 1965 Chevy Impala


Swim Meet Sustenance
  • Muffins
  • Hot Pockets
  • Gatorade
  • Raw sugar, in the form of uncooked Jell-O eaten directly from the box
  • Soda pop (non diet)


Between-Swim Entertainment
  • Playing portable video games
  • Watching the Big Kids listen to their iPod/text each other on their cell phones
  • Asking coach if it is time to swim yet
  • Getting sunburned
  • Deck of Playing Cards
  • Avoiding getting beaten up by the Big Kids
  • Asking coach if it is time to swim yet
  • Getting sunburned

Deck of Cards

Swim Suit/Deck Attire
  • Speed suit
  • Lax/soccer shorts
  • Speedo
  • Blue Jeans

Speed suit

  • Personalized latex swim cap (both sexes)
  • Goggles
  • White butyl-rubber bathing cap (girls and long-haired hippies)

Latex cap

  • 25 Meter Pool
  • 50 Meter Pool (race 25 meters, stop in the middle of the pool, flounder in water over your head until rescued)

50 Meter Pool

Main Anxiety
  • Losing goggles
  • Cooties
  • Big Kids
  • Hippies


 And just how would our typical eight & under boy from 1969 fare against swimmers from 2010? 

Based on a cache of ancient NVSL ribbons that was recently excavated by archeologists just a short distance from the hallowed gates of MVP itself, Gator historians tell us that, in terms of individual performance, our “average” eight & under swimmer from 1969 (i.e., me) would have been just as “average” in 2010. Using data from the NVSL website and comparing it to times set by our 1969 swimmer, we find out that (1) recent Gator history would not be re-written if this particular visitor from the past showed up to swim today, and (2) statistics can be really boring. 

When he wasn’t busy worrying about hippies or avoiding cooties, our “typical” eight & under from 1969 swam freestyle and backstroke and had a place on the freestyle relay. Plugging an average of our 8 & under’s 1969 times into the results for each of the five “A” meets that MVP contested on their way to the 2010 Division 5 championship shows that, while Michael Phelps certainly has nothing to worry about, our Gator from the Past would have acquitted himself honorably. In fact, our 8 & under’s actual 1969 results in backstroke are eerily similar to what the data shows he would be expected to score in 2010. In 1969, our young Gator captured three third place finishes in backstroke, traversing the pool in a decidedly unspectacular time of 26.2 seconds. In 2010, an 8 & under boy in Division 5 who could swim a 26.2 second backstroke would be expected to garner….two third places and a second place. 

The relay results are just as consistent. The 2010 8 & under boys freestyle relay lost just one race. The 1969 8 & under boys managed to pull off an undefeated season, carrying their winning streak all the way to the All Star Relay Carnival. Their winning All Star time – 1:17.5 – would have garnered them an undefeated season in 2010 as well. 

In other words, essentially the same results as 41 years ago. 

So, are the eight & unders of today appreciably faster in the water than their ancient Gator forebears?  I suspect not.  After all, while 41 years may seem like a long time to you and me (it is 287 dog years), in terms of relying on Darwinian selection to maximize the physiological changes necessary to breed a race of Uber Swimmers, we’re going to have to let that particular cake bake a while longer.  We can revisit this issue when 8 & unders start showing up to their first day of swim practice with gills, webbed feet and a dorsal fin…  

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