Friday, July 18, 2008

The Special Bikes: The Cuevas

Being as I was young and naive, I assumed that if I had a better bike I would stay with the pack during races and not get dropped. It couldn’t be ME, of course…it had to be that the bike just wouldn’t let my “natural bike talent” come through. I assumed that I needed a bike built to my specific shorter frame as I was only 5’4” with a 30” inseam and that the problem must lie with the longer top tubes of the stock bike frames available at the time. Sure…

Enter Francisco Cuevas.

In my profile photo I am riding a custom Cuevas track bike that this wonderful master built for me. This photo was taken at the Lehigh Valley Velodrome in Trexlertown, PA. I no longer have this bike but the reason for that is a compliment to the builder himself.

I rode a loaner, bottom-of-the-line track bike at the time which I was very grateful to be able to use. A track bike is a fixed gear bike; you cannot coast, the pedals constantly turn and there are no brakes. It is one gear due to a continuous connection with the front and rear chainring. My front chainring on the loaner bike had a slight, almost inperceptible bend to one of the teeth. I discovered this at a later time when someone else used the bike and had the same results as I did. I had crashed because of the chain coming off the front chainring once at the Kissena Track in Flushing, NY and flew over the handlebars, fortunately landing on the infield grass…but that’s another “glory story”…and therefore I had lost my confidence in the loaner bike.

At the time, the team I belonged to, Paris Sport/North Jersey Bicycle Club (NJBC), was run out of Park Cycle in Ridgefield Park, NJ by Vic, Vivian and Mike Fraysse, who were kind enough to loan me that track bike and put up with my thinking that my reason for not being a good rider was that it was the bike, not me. Since I thought I was so absolutely wonderful, they often subtly hinted that perhaps I could be lacking in the training department. I truly value their tact due to the fact that my mother had recently died and they were kind enough to tread softly because, well, lets face it…I was a mess but didn’t know it even though everyone else did.

Around 1977-78 they hired a custom frame builder from Spain named Francisco Cuevas. With him came his son named Andres. Francisco was an extremely respectful and kind man with old world manners. The word “gentleman” should have his face next to it in the dictionary. His son Andres was a very hard working man (as well as being really cute and I had a secret crush on him at the time) in his 20’s. Together they built custom frames in the back area of the bike shop.

After a time I introduced myself to Francisco and discovered he did not speak a lot of English. Since I had 4 years of Spanish in high school, yet seemed to master only the first year of the language and therefore considered myself an expert interpreter, I found myself gravitating toward the frameshop to spend time with this man I grew to love and respect. I can still hear him say, “Ah, Leenda!” everytime he saw me, with that beautiful loving smile and voice. I now chuckle at the memory, realizing that Francisco was a proud yet humble, Castillian speaking Spaniard who simply honored the fact that an American was willing to even try to communicate with him in a very limited version of Spanish.

I knew the 1978 NJ State Cycling Championships were soon approaching. Many people on the team were ordering custom Cuevas frames so I put my order in for my own custom track bike, too.

From the moment I first rode that track bike, I knew there was something different about it even though by that time I secretly had acknowledged that I just possibly might not be training enough. I started not getting dropped by that much in track races. (Interpret that to read that I hung onto the pack longer before getting dropped.) I was getting ever so slightly better and then talking to Francisco after races. He told me that I could do it. He said I was getting better and to keep trying. Because I really trusted this man by that time, I was making ever so slight progress, but progress nonetheless.Someone believed in me.This photo below is me getting 2nd in the 1978 NJ State Track Cycling Championship Points Race on that track bike and my first and only medal in my cycling career.

Francisco and I had become pretty close and I would visit him in the frameshop almost everyday he was there. I very vividly remember one time when I was invited over to his home for dinner. There was a huge table and all the family gathered around, with love and laughter, and I was made to feel like family. They treated me like I had always been there. Truly, many times when I look at my bike these days, I remember that moment.

Then there came a time that he confided in me about a personal issue having nothing to do with the bike shop and I gladly was able to help. I thought it no big deal and felt blessed to be able to give something back to this man who had given me so much at a time when he was working so hard, yet had the love and encouragement to give to me at any time I entered the frameshop.

The bicycle I now refer to as my Cuevas road bike was built by that grandmaster out of love. So thankful was he for my help that he decided to build a road bike frame for me on his own time with his own funds for all the materials. Andres painted it a beautiful metallic blue and the paint job was absolutely stunning. Francisco encouraged me to file the lugs a bit and sand some of the rougher brazing, but that was so that I could feel like I was of value to this bike. So instinctive was this man’s sense of my grief and struggle to have some kind of identity at the time that he felt led to make me feel a part of something I could label as, “Yeah, I helped, and it’s mine.”

As for the track bike…near the end of my cycling career I was at a track race and another woman much my same size was riding, warming up for the sprint races. During practice both her tires blew which meant she wouldn’t be able to race that night as she had not brought any spare wheels. Since I was not doing the sprint races I asked her if she wanted to borrow my Cuevas track bike. She did and won all her races on it. After the races that night she took me aside and told me if I ever wanted to sell that bike to please let her know first. When the time came and I was done with racing around 1980 I did indeed sell the track bike to her, and only because I knew it had gone to someone who knew the quality of that bike as much as I did.

But I knew I would never sell the road bike, pictured below.

Sadly, I have since learned that Francisco passed away in 2005. He lives on in my heart and memory. The cycling community lost a wonderful friend, as did I.


Penfishingrods said...

I found your blog online. I was looking up Cuevas bikes & I am sad to say that I have learned that Francisco has passed on as well. I was his first employee on 14th street in Astoria, NY. I am 41 yrs old now. I live 60' away from his old shop & often think about Andres & Mr. Cuevas when I pass there. I have been trying to contact Andres for a while now to no avail. If you know where I can find him, feel free to contact me at

JP said...

I have discover a Cuevas bike late in my riding life. A friend's brother had it made in New York sometime in the mid 1970s. It came to me with some parts missing and a really bad paint finish. I decided to bring it back to life, and ride it. It is back to life but a cannot ride in the classic position anymore.

So now the bike is bright yellow, has new decals and all Campy gear. If anyone is looking for a like-new Cuevas get in touch with me. It's a large frame probaby best for someone 6' or so.

Anonymous said...

came across your blog, just bought a Cevas tandem bike-really cool ride.

SR said...

Thank you for your wonderful blog. I too have a Cuevas road bike, which looks to be painted the same color as yours. I think that you are really fortunate to have had the connection you had with the builder. When I was around sixteen, I read an article in Bicycling magazine about this master builder named Cuevas who built by eye, and did not use a jig or pins to hold the frames in alignment. I knew then that I had to have one. Fast forward to my fifties, and I finally reached that goal. I marvel at the details of the construction, and the wonderful ride it delivers. Always grateful to find out more about my favorite builder!