When USS WH Standley (CG-32) moored at Naval Base Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 1975, there was a different thread of excitement running through the crew, in addition to the usual thrill of being back in home port. We had received a challenge from the other Belknap-class cruiser in town to a “cruiser Olympics.” It was rare for both ships to be home at the same time, so some sort of celebration was in order.
It would take a week to run the events, and we would be all over the Charleston area at various venues. My part was, logically, the bicycle race. It was a totally fun, amateur event, rolling on whatever bikes we could bring to the event. I brought the red Velosolex, which I had purchased in Toulon on the deployment. Definitely not a racing bike: made of steel, with steel fenders and a bike rack on the back. There were heavier and lighter bikes there.
The day was hot and sunny. We gathered at the end of a long, little-used road on base (I think it ran to the ammunition magazines, a restricted area, so it was effectively a dead end). There were about a dozen of us, all sizes and shapes. There was one guy there from the other ship with a serious road bike and wearing spandex shorts and a colorful wool jersey. Most of us had t-shirts and baggy shorts on. A couple of the sailors were wearing jeans, or maybe their dungaree trousers. They were sweating before we even got organized.
The starter had a gun, and we massed for the event. When the gun went off, the guy on the road bike was gone like a flash, but I was not far behind him. I am not sure that he was able to maintain his form, because the road was poorly maintained, and his skinny tires and stiff frame were not intended for rough riding. My Velosolex city bike, on the other hand, handled the potholes, railroad tracks and debris as easily in Charleston as it had in France. Soon, I was on his tail.
He looked like he was taking it easy, but maneuvering around the obstacles was slowing him down. We made the turn at the five-mile point and began the sprint back to the starting line. It was like another start, so I fell behind. I think I counted about eight racers still going the other way as we poured on the steam.
I was overtaking the leader about 500 m from the line, when I heard a pop and realized that my rear wheel had gone flat. Almost immediately, the front wheel went flat when I hit the last set of railroad tracks. Stopping this close was not an option, so I pushed as hard as I could. The tires were shredding, but the steel bead kept them on the rims. I was riding the steel rims most of the time as I crossed the line about 10 m behind the guy with the fancy road bike.
The other ship got the event, but I felt good about myself. Second place against a real racing bike was a victory in itself, and my shipmates were all over me with congratulations for the show. It was fun.
Next week, come over to The Freewheeling Freelancer for another travelogue, then back here in two weeks for my second Mediterranean cruise in WH Standley.