Monday, February 29, 2016

February 29-er

Let’s make February 29 more interesting by reserving for it all of the shenanigans that we typically associate with April 1. “February Fool’s Day” would have the advantage of being four times less frequent than “April Fool’s Day,” which comes too often to catch us off guard. Leave April 1 alone from now on and get to work on February 29 as the new holiday of harmless hijinx.

I’ll get you started.

Did you know that the cycling term “29er” originally had nothing to do with the size of the tire? The 29er was invented—if we can call a refinement of an existing product an invention—by Alan Epstein, an engineering professor at Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York and an uncle of Linda McCartney. (Yes, that Linda McCartney, wife of Paul McCartney of the Beatles from 1969 until her death in 1998.)

As an undergraduate in the early 1940s, Epstein was a member of RIT’s track cycling team. During World War II, RIT’s athletic programs were shut down. Many never came back. Those that did return were given a new nickname: since 1946, the sports teams at RIT have been known as the Tigers. But during Epstein’s letterman days, RIT was the home of the 29ers. The original nickname was a reference to the founding of the college in 1829, in the same way the Philadelphia 76ers and the San Francisco 49ers commemorate the American Revolution and the California Gold Rush, respectively.

In 1968 RIT built a new campus in the suburbs. The school disbanded its track cycling team and the old velodrome was torn down. (The land then sat vacant until 1994 when a new stadium was constructed for Rochester’s minor league baseball team. Today a plaque near the Plymouth Avenue entrance reminds visitors of the velodrome that once occupied the site.) Epstein, by then a full professor, took possession of the school’s track bikes and loaned them out to students for trips around the campus.

As mountain biking was starting to emerge from weirdly cobbled-together machines in northern California, Epstein was fitting knobby tires on some of his old track bikes back in Rochester. Who would want a fixed-gear mountain bike with no brakes, you ask? No one, of course, but Epstein didn’t think of himself as a mountain bike pioneer. His application of knobby tires to a 700c wheel was motivated purely by Rochester’s snowy winters. And the concept proved successful for campus commuting. The visual effect, though, was comedic. Everywhere he went, Epstein was asked, “What is that?” His answer: “That’s an old 29er.” The name stuck, but more than that, it traveled to every part of the country when Epstein’s students went home at the end of their studies. When the style of mountain bike that we now know as the 29er came along, the name was waiting for it. But it’s only a remarkable coincidence. To Epstein there was no correlation between the name and the wheel/tire diameter. His bikes were rolling on very low profile, very low pressure tubular tires that were designed to maximize the contact patch on snow and ice. They were “28ers” at most.

And here’s where you would say, “February Fool’s,” and admit the story is a fabrication … albeit one with enough factual elements to hook your audience. You can read the real history of 29ers at Wikipedia, but I like my story better.

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