In 1976, my old friend Tom marked the end of his stint in the Peace Corps by joining a couple of fellow volunteers on a bike ride from the west coast of Mexico to Guatemala City, in south-central Guatemala.
A 2,000-mile ride is noteworthy on any kind of bike, but the really remarkable thing about this one is that Tom managed it on his 1974 Peugeot PX-10, still equipped with its original gearing: A 52-45 double chainring setup combined with a 14-15-17-19-21 freewheel. (He did, however, swap the original tubular rims for clinchers.)
How does a person climb mountain ranges on a loaded bike with a 55-inch low gear? The answer, Tom recalls, is with a lot of very hard low-cadence mashing and a little bit of trickery. On one murderously steep mountain road between Saltillo and Monterrey--a stretch known to locals as La Cuesta de Los Muertos, in tribute to the truck drivers who died while crossing it in winter--they got help from an unexpected source.
While grinding painfully up a particularly steep grade, they were slowly passed by a heavy truck. One of the three cyclists--Tom doesn't remember who--had the inspiration of pouring on burst of power, catching up to the laboring vehicle, and grabbing onto one of the ropes that secured the tarp covering the load. Steering as best they could with one hand, awash in dust and exhaust fumes with bike just tires inches from the spinning truck wheels, they gained an unnerving but pain-free mile or two.
At that point, the grade moderated and the truck picked up speed to the point where it was just too terrifying to hold on. The truck moved on ahead as our heroes slogged along in its wake.
But yes! Some distance ahead the grade steepened again, Tom and friends caught up, and grabbed onto the side ropes until the next flat section. The same sequence repeated itself several times more until Tom--his legs by now utterly played out--just couldn't close the gap with the slow-moving truck and started falling behind.
I wasn't there, but this part of the story always reminds me of the final scene in the 1958 Stanley Kramer film The Defiant Ones: Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, as escaped convicts, are running to catch a freight train that they hope will carry them to freedom. Poitier's character pulls himself aboard, but the wounded and exhausted Tony Curtis can't quite grasp his outstretched hand. (The scene starts at 2:08 in this trailer from the film.)
Anyway, at this critical point, one of Tom's companions--a massively powerful rider named Jim--went one better than Sidney Poitier by dropping back, grabbing the stem of his bike, and dragging him ahead to the truck.
The descent was easier.
Fast forward to October, 2016, when a mutual friend invited a group of old pals to a weekend foliage-season bike ride at his house in New York state, just across the border from southwestern Vermont. I had just built up a PX-10 of my own from my stash of old parts and a recently-acquired frame, so I proposed to Tom that he and I form a team: If he'd drag his old bike out of the woodshed, I told him, I'd clean it up and knock the gearing down to a reasonable range for an older gentleman.
The old veteran of La Cuesta was looking a little rough. A fair amount of rust was showing through the paint. The original Simplex derailleur hanger had been hacked off the frame a decade earlier, courtesy of a mechanic at a local bike shop who crudely lowered the gearing by bolting on a cheap mountain-bike derailleur and Shimano Megarange freewheel.
But with some grease, new cables, and replacement parts-bin derailleurs (a Huret Duopar in back and a nameless Huret front--not exactly original spec, but at least French-made), it started looking better. A longer spindle, a 42-tooth triplizer with a 32-tooth granny ring on the old Stronglight 93 crank, a 14-34 Suntour Narrow 6 freewheel, and voila! A PX-10 built for hill climbing, no truck required!