Sunday, November 29, 2015

Photographic Archeology, Bicycle Racing, and Rock and Roll

Who are the giants of Rock and Roll? The Beetles and Elvis Presley, of course. The Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, it's hard to know where to stop. However, even a short list of Rock and Roll legends must include The Grateful Dead. Their fans even have their own name: "Deadheads". Thus, it was with growing awe that, as I was trying to make sense of some old photographs I have from my bicycle racing in the 1960s, I came across what was perhaps the most amazing bicycle race of that time and place, The 1966 Tour Del Mar. This is the only stage race I recall from my youth, and what is more, a race with local politicians to bless the race, a Ford Mustang Shelby Cobra as a pace car to start the race, Playboy bunnies to present the prizes, and a Folk-Rock concert featuring The Induction Center (who?), The Quick Silver Messenger Service (I remember them...) and The Grateful Dead (OMG!)

If you have read much of this blog, you know that a large part of my current cycling career is driven by nostalgia for my youth, a time when bicycling was the most important thing in my life. Sadly, not only have I lost the physical abilities of my youth, but many memories from that time have been lost as well. In a desperate attempt to retrieve what I could, I have been poring over the shards and artifacts I have from back then. The good news is that I still retained some photographs. The bad news is that they were a mess, a box full of unsorted slides, prints, and negatives, scratched, faded, confused, and incomplete.

It started with the prints because they were easiest to look at. As I dug through the box, I came across pictures of me, my friends from The Modesto Roadmen, and the bicycle racing legends of my youth. Some of them had landmarks and triggered memories such that I could identify them immediately, the Nevada City bicycle race, for example. Others I stared at in incomprehension. This one, for example:

The guy in the yellow jersey with blue and red stripes riding at the front of the group I recognized immediately: Eldon, a friend from church and an important member of The Modesto Roadmen. I had no memory of this particular race, but the street sign was an important clue. The name San Gregorio seemed familiar, and a search on Google Maps revealed it is a small town along the western coast of the San Francisco Bay peninsula, a region where many of our bicycle races were held. Another important clue is the date printed on the back of many of the prints, NOV66 in this case. Of course, that doesn't mean this bicycle race was held in November of 1966, that is the date the picture was processed, the race could have been any time prior to that, but it was a start. For one thing, it allowed me to do some minimal grouping of the prints. I had a lot of prints dated JUN66, but relatively few dated NOV66, and the NOV66 prints all featured similar scenery and a similar cast of characters, suggesting they were a set, taken at the same time, in the same place, of the same event. Next came the slides. I dug out my old Kodak Carousel slide projector, only to find it had died of old age - a ceramic resistor in its guts had decayed with age, shedding shards of grit into the machinery, rendering it non-functional. Digging through my graveyard of obsolete photographic equipment, I found a hand-held slide viewer which allowed me to look at my slides, albeit inefficiently. At first glance, it appeared that none of the slides went with these prints, to be expected I assumed.

Somewhere along the way I acquired a most useful piece of equipment, a CanoScan 8800F. Not only does it scan the usual documents and photographic prints, but it comes with attachments that allow it to scan slides and negatives as well. So, over several weeks, I went through the box, scanning prints and slides. Negatives were another matter. Back in the day, I sported a Kodak Instamatic Camera which used a cartridge film of size 126. The bad news was that my scanner did not support that size negative. The good news was that 126 film actually uses the same film stock as 35mm film, so my negatives fit into the 35mm film holder. The bad news is that although the film stock was the same, the shape of the image and the way it is placed on this film stock is different for 126 film than it is for 35mm, thoroughly confounding the software that came with my scanner. And finally, the good news is that I was able to find alternative software (VueScan) that allowed me to do a fairly good job of scanning those negatives from the box. At last I could look at them.

The negatives brought lots of new information to the party. Unlike the prints, the negatives have no date on them. However, the prints and the negatives overlap, allowing me to date a negative if it contained the same picture as a print. This resulted in the laborious construction of a spreadsheet linking prints to negatives. The first kind of information the negatives provided is more images. In some cases, I had lost the print of a picture, but the picture remained as a negative. The second kind of information comes from the fact that, unlike the prints, the negatives had numbers, allowing me to order the pictures. The third kind of information was grouping. The negatives come in strips of four, allowing me to group pictures together. In some cases, I had defied instructions and cut the strips up with scissors, but much grouping information remained. Nonetheless, the job of bringing order from chaos was enormous. I would stare at the pictures, trying to figure out where and when they were taken. As I was doing this, I noticed that some of the negatives overlapped with what I was now calling the "San Gregorio" prints, and that there were others that seemed to be of similar scenery, this pair of pictures, for example:

The picture on the left is from a negative for which no print exists. The picture on the right I have both as a negative and a print. Although these pictures are on different film strips, clearly this is the same church, suggesting that the two strips go together and that the pictures are from the same event. Similarities seen in other pictures confirmed this impression; I was on my way to putting together the negative strips into complete rolls of film. However, as I continued to work with these pictures, a problem developed. Compare these two pictures:

The street signs in the upper and lower pictures, blurry as they are, are clearly the same, the San Gregorio street sign from above that was my first clue as to what this event might have been. The person at the front of the group in the upper picture, wearing a yellow jersey, is clearly founding member of the Modesto Roadmen, Tom. The guy in the lower picture is also Tom. In a different jersey. Drat! The Modesto Roadmen might have been very creative bicycle racers, but I cannot remember once when we changed jerseys in the middle of a race. Clearly, despite their common locality, these pictures must come from different races. Based on this sad realization, I created a fantasy of two San Gregorio bicycle races, one held in 1965 and the other in 1966. That was all nonsense, as it turned out, but that's getting ahead of myself.

So we come to my final resource, the Internet. As noted above, my first approach was to use Google Maps. Once I located the town of San Gregorio, I started using Street View to link locations in my pictures to locations in Street View. A major impediment was that these pictures are a few months shy of being 50 years old - a lot changes in 50 years! But remarkably, an amazing amount stays the same. Here is a picture I took back in the 60s:

...and here is what I see when I look for San Gregorio on Google Maps:

It's the same store! In fact, if you look closely at the lower picture, you can see that there are still cyclists in front of it. Using this strategy, I even identified a set of four slides as coming from this same area, as unlikely as it would seem that I would have both slides and prints from the same event.

The final piece of the puzzle came from plain old Google searching, though Feeling Lucky was no part of the experience. The extent to which Google has transformed the world by making so much information available to be searched so quickly and easily cannot be exaggerated. Nonetheless, three big problems confronted me as I undertook my search. The first was that back in 1966 there was no Internet so much of the information from back then is simply not on the Internet, not available for searching. Second is the sheer volume of information and the variability in the different words people use to describe the same thing. I had it in my head that this was the San Gregorio bike race. There was no San Gregorio bike race. I noticed that the town of Pescadero was nearby, and somehow that name rang a bell, so I searched for Pescadero bike race. This brought me to the website of the La Honda Historical Society who had scanned some of their old newsletters and put them up on the Internet. (La Honda is another town on the race route, and in fact was the start site the previous year.) One of these newsletters mentioned a bicycle race and music festival, and this newsletter came up in my search because it described the Tour Del Mar  Bicycle Race and mentioned that the start site was in Pescadero.  It contained a link to the program for the 1966 Tour Del Mar, where I learned that it was a two-day bicycle race, starting in Pescadero, California, and going through the nearby town of San Gregorio. So that explains the two different jerseys. Two stages. Two days. Two Jerseys.

As I read through the material on the Tour Del Mar, it started to come back to me. At the time, I think I neither understood nor appreciated the significance of this event. I am pretty sure that I did not attend the music festival, though other of the Modesto Roadmen, hipper than I, may have. In retrospect, however, I am astonished by it. If you would like to learn more about this amazing race, look at this PDF of the race program, which includes (work-friendly) pictures of the Playboy bunnies, information about the event itself and its organizers, and an unmistakable "60s" vibe. And it is in providing the link to this program that I encountered the third problem with using the Internet as a source of information about this bike race. The site from whence I got the program is no longer available. Between the time I found the race program and I wrote this post, the domain name for the La Honda Historical Society expired, making the program unobtainable from that source. Fortunately I found another path to that program, which is what I am sharing here.


A couple of years ago now, I published a series of posts on my youthful cycling career. These were entitled "Cycling in the 60s:" with various subtopics, including: Mountain LoopThe One I Won, Tour de Graceada, and The Great Western Bicycling Rally. The Tour Del Mar was not among these, because at that time, I was still figuring out which of these pictures went together and what event they might have represented. It is only just now that I put together the pieces as described above, and in fact, the project of understanding these pictures is still ongoing.

I previously mentioned a companion project of mine, an homage website for my old bicycle club, the Modesto Roadmen. If you look at that site right now, you will see the above pictures still described as not two, but three different bicycle races. Do hurry, however, as I hope to fix that error in the next few days.

As the picture below documents, I recently had the opportunity to revisit the San Gregorio store with my family. My older son, Michael, on my right, stills cycles past it periodically. I am in the middle and my younger son, Matthew, is on my left.