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Montanans restore, ride vintage road bicycles

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There’s just something about Sunset Pearl.

That’s the paint color on the frame of one of Larry Lockwood’s vintage European road bikes. It's a 1977 British-made Bob Jackson with a Reynolds frame, and the hue absolutely screams 1970s.

The way it absorbs light conjures up everything about the era's aesthetic, like the cover of a Bee Gees record or a shag carpet.

“There’s a depth to it,” Lockwood says, admiring the sheen. “When you get it out in the sun, it just glows. Everyone needs an orange bike.”

A lifelong Missoula resident and a 1968 graduate of Hellgate High School, Lockwood first started racing road bikes in 1973. He kept up his interest in European bikes over the years, and it turned into a full-blown hobby as he hit retirement age about five years ago.

“I really like the English bikes,” he said, pointing to one he’s beautifully restored with complete period-specific components in his basement.

He scours Craigslist for frames and parts all over the Northwest, and re-sells parts to others across the country seeking to complete their bikes.

"My son recently moved to Atlanta, so now I'm looking in that region too," Lockwood said.

If you’re not aware, the love of vintage road bikes is a global phenomenon. A Facebook group called “Steel is Real Classic Vintage Road Bikes” has nearly 40,000 members.

Lockwood won the first five Western Montana Hill Climb Championships in Pattee Canyon starting in 1977. His times on the four-mile uphill road bike course from back then are competitive with the times of elite athletes who won three and four decades later. Modern bikes are made out of carbon fiber rather than steel.

“Bikes are lighter now, but it’s really about the motor that's powering it,” he explained, grinning.

Lockwood participates in vintage bike rides all over the country like the Cino ride near Kalispell, where enthusiasts from all over the world converge to share their passion.

David Cummings is the director of the Cino (the Italian word is pronounced "chino") ride, held in the Flathead Valley area every September. He believes the reason so many people love vintage road bikes is simple.

“Probably the same reason people drive vintage cars or buy vintage houses,” he said. “There’s something about the quality and the craftsmanship that goes into old steel bikes that’s just timeless. They were built to last. If you take care of them, they will last your lifetime.”

Cummings said he’s particularly fond of French bikes from the “bike boom” of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when “they were shipping them over here as fast as they could make them” from France.

Events like the Cino draw people together over a shared hobby.

“At the height of the Cino three or four years ago, we had 150 people attending,” he said. “We had people from Europe. One guy was from South America. One year a couple guys brought bikes from the ‘30s with wooden rims.”

Reed Gregerson was one of the co-founders of the Cino, back when it started at his house. 

"These old vintage bikes are like time machines," he said. "I like the analog feel, the shifters and everything."

Annie Creighton and Tony Neaves are avid vintage road bicyclists in the Bitterroot Valley. Creighton said vintage bikes aren't just a hobby for men.

"From what we have seen by participation in the Cino ride in Kalispell, there were, percentage-wise, a lot of women," she said. "They were having an absolute blast. Many of them had period-correct clothing. Some women had almost like knickerbocker blouses. It was amazing to see."

Creighton said she's been amazed at how comfortable the high-quality steel-framed old bikes are to ride.

"I'm telling you what, the ride quality of vintage bikes, there's no comparison," she said. "For me, I'm not ever going back. I will not ride aluminum or carbon fiber."

She's careful to note that cheaper steel-frame bikes aren't comfortable.

"Now, I'm not talking about just any gas pipe steel bike, like an old Schwinn Varsity that weighs 60 pounds," she said. "That's what people think when they think steel bike. They think 'oh it's gotta be a tank, it's gotta be heavy.' But they have not ridden a decent vintage bike."

She said vintage bikes with high-quality steel tubes absorb vibrations, to the point that she was comfortable riding a drop-handlebar on the gravel stretches of road between Hamilton and Philipsburg, over a mountain pass.

"It's almost like the frame gives and has a springy quality to it," she said. "It's amazing comfort."

Tony Neaves said he likes vintage road bikes because they're the ones he grew up with. Now, he works on many bikes for Lockwood.

"I have fun restoring them," he said. "It's like the difference between working on old cars and new cars. If anything, the older bikes are more durable, but they do require a skilled hand to tune and adjust."

Lockwood said there’s also few people in the Missoula area and the Bitterroot Valley with the “same disease” he has for building and restoring the classics.

For him, part of the allure is proving that life never leaves the bikes from that era, and all they need is a little attention. The bikes are meant to be eye-catchers, he said, but they’re not just for looks.

“Those hubs I bought in 1973, and they’re still kickin’,” he said, nodding toward a rack full of bikes. “All of these, I ride.”

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