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Mountain Home Magazine

King of the Road

Aug 01, 2019 03:23PM
by Peter Joffre Nye


Small-town bike shops, like independent bookstores and local shoe stores, face fierce competition from online businesses that have been hollowing out rural America. But in Mansfield, a borough of 3,200 folks nestled in the Keystone State’s north-central countryside near the New York border, Oswald Cycle Works on Main Street is doing fine. Its eponymous owner, Tom Oswald, serves the cycling community from a wide regional radius.

Jimmy Guignard, a customer for fifteen years, recalls his surprise when he first stepped into the bike shop. He had arrived in Mansfield with a new Ph.D. from the University of Nevada in Reno to teach writing at Mansfield University, near the bike shop.

“I wasn’t expecting much in this small town,” says Jimmy, chairman of MU’s English and World Languages Department. “Reno was a big bike town. Tour de France champion Greg LeMond grew up there. I went to Tom’s shop and found it was awesome. He was making mind-blowing great frames. He’s a top-notch mechanic—as good as any I’ve run into in my thirty-two years as a bike rider.”

Jimmy showed his trusty mountain bike to Tom. “Tom said there are a lot of gravel and dirt roads in the area,” he recalls. The terrain can be steep. Tom recommended a cyclo-cross bike, which features a modified frame geometry to accommodate over-sized tires more resistant to punctures over broken rocky surfaces, mud, and other hazards. “He pointed me to a relatively inexpensive Jamis frame. I rode that for years. We ride together a lot. Any time I want a new bike, I call him and he suggests what I need.”

Mike Detweiler, Mansfield’s volunteer mayor and a bartender at the Yorkholo Brewing Company & Eatery a few doors down on Main Street from Oswald Cycle Works, said many customers come from far away to have Tom service their bikes. That personal touch distinguishes this shop from online vendors.

“Tom is pretty well known,” Mike says. “He has a lot of general home-spun wisdom. He and one of his hired wrenches, Jim Frank, got me set up on a bike. They’re hands-on people.”

Tom, fifty-one, stocks his 1,600-square foot shop with gleaming bikes, indispensable parts and components, and cycling clothing. None of this could have been predicted when he was growing up in the posh metropolis of Naples, Florida. He played the trumpet in his high school band. Even then, he displayed an independent spirit that would shape his life.

“I was listening to jazz, all kinds of jazz, when my friends were listening to the radio’s Top 40 hits,” he says. “I wanted to be a music teacher. That’s what I went to college for, at Florida State University in Tallahassee.”

Tallahassee offered plenty of sunshine, rolling roads, and moss-draped oak trees. “I saw lots of people riding bikes,” Tom remembers. “Eventually I got a job in a bike shop. I liked it and continued down that path.”

Most bike shops are privately owned. No matter their size, they have a back room where new bicycles are pulled out of cardboard boxes, assembled, and tuned up before they go on display in the showroom. Back rooms smell of light oil, to lubricate chains and weight-bearing parts, and rubber of new tires.

Retail industry figures show that about 45 million Americans, about 15 percent of the U.S. population, ride bicycles. Since the 1970s, more bicycles have been sold annually than cars—averaging around 18 million bicycle sales. Gallup polls list cycling among the three most common recreational activities pursued by men and women age eighteen and older—after swimming and fishing, ahead of aerobics, bowling, camping, hiking, basketball, and running.

So, instead of teaching the next Miles Davis or Chris Botti, Tom worked after college in bike shops. He learned the retail business and picked up the skill of brandishing a torch to braze steel tubes together into the bicycle’s diamond frame. In 1996 he worked in a Greensboro, North Carolina, bike shop where he met Sheila Kasperek, a brunette four years younger.

“Tom was one of the mechanics,” she says. “I had a degree in graphic art from Appalachian State in Boone, North Carolina. I found that after college I needed to exercise. So I picked up biking and later met Tom.”

They went bike riding on their first date. Three months later, they quit their jobs and drove around the country for a year. During their odyssey, Tom signed a contract to write, Bicycling in Florida: The Cyclist’s Road and Off-Road Guide. The couple traveled around the state to collect information. His book was published in 1999 by Pineapple Press.

The two are remarkably compatible. We’re almost the same size,” she notes. Both stand both five feet seven. “He weighs 128 ;pounds, and I weigh 125 pounds.”

They also live on their own terms. By 2005 they had settled in Mansfield—Sheila had gotten a job there at MU’s library, and Tom operated his shop. They moved into a house constructed in the 1880s for the Presbyterian Church, near the campus.

On the first day of spring that same year, the couple eloped and tied the knot on the frozen lake at Hills Creek State Park, near Mansfield. “We used to bike past the park all the time,” Sheila says. “We decided on a Sunday that we should get married. We went to a birthday party and invited people to come to our wedding the next day. This was a way to get married and avoid having a traditional wedding.”

Oswald Cycle Works carries Specialized, Fuji, and Giant bicycle brands. Customers seeking a made-to-measure frame they intend to cherish call on Tom. He sizes them up like a tailor—pulling out a tape measures to record the length of arms, legs, and torso. Then he cuts steel tubing to fit. Word spreads about a bike shop with a frame builder.

For his wife, Tom built an all-purpose dirt-road bike. “He made it with cyclo-cross tires and road-bike handlebars, with rack-mounts over the wheels so I can pack what I need to go camping,” she says. “During the summer, he mostly works and I don’t, so I take two-week vacations by myself.”

Tom makes frames with just hand tools. “I used hand-cranked drills and a hand-cranked grinding wheel mounted on a workbench. Tubes that I brazed with the torch I smoothed by hand with emery cloth sandpaper. The manual process slows down making a frame a little bit, but frame building isn’t my full-time job. I only make a few frames a year. Hand tools seemed to fit the idea of riding a bike under your own power.”

When he exhibited his polished frames, the name Oswald displayed on the downtube, at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show one year in San Jose, a journalist called him the Amish bike builder. “Since I live in Pennsylvania, which has an Amish tradition, it seemed natural to call me the Amish bike builder.”

He might also be called the Elvis bike builder. A woman who is an avid Elvis fan ordered a special frame. He crafted his own lugs—small steel pieces fitted at the joints where the seat tube, top tube, and down tube meet to form the diamond frame’s triangle, called the cockpit for where the handlebars and saddle are fitted.

“She really likes pink, and I incorporated her 1950s rock-n-roll Elvis fanaticism,” Tom says. He painted the frame hot pink, with black lugs embellished with musical notes. “The seat lug usually has a slot and key hole at the back where the lug pinches the seat post. I carved an eighth-note there to make it look a little different. On the front, below the head tube on the front of the fork crown, I made a stainless-steel badge, brazed on, featuring a double-sixteenth note.”

Jimmy Guignard calls the Elvis-themed bike a piece of art.

“It’s a gorgeous, super-cool bike.”

Around the time Oswald turned forty in 2008, he recalled reading an earlier Bicycling magazine feature about the 750-mile noncompetitive endurance ride from Boston north to Montreal and back. “I was amazed that people would ride 750 miles in three days,” he says. “I thought that was insane. At the time, I was riding thirty to forty miles a day. Once in a while I would ride a century (100 miles).”

He felt inspired, however. “I had learned the limits of how fast I could go. So I started to see how far I could ride.”

He discovered Pennsylvania’s annual 385-mile challenge ride: Crush the Commonwealth. Its route alternates one year from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh; the next year from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. He extended his training rides radiating out of Mansfield to build stamina.

“I did Crush the Commonwealth in 2011 and discovered that I’m pretty okay at this long-distance stuff.” Tom pedaled 385 miles in thirty-five hours, stopping once to nap in a motel for three hours. He finished in the top half of thirty participants. In 2013 he went back and completed the ride in twenty-nine hours, without stopping. He was the fastest finisher. In 2016, he set the record from Philly to Pittsburgh: twenty-six hours.

His wife supports his long training rides and trips out of town. “I don’t feel left behind in what he is doing,” says Sheila, perhaps because one of her favorite things is reading. She says she reads about 150 books a year—literary fiction, light sci-fi, history. “I like learning. He supports me in my adventures. We do a lot of things that are compatible, like go out separately and have our own adventures at the same time, and come back and share our experiences.”

One glorious long ride led Tom to yet another. He pedaled farther, about 500 miles, in the weeklong trek across Iowa, organized by the Des Moines Register and better known as RAGBRAI, for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.

Tom admits that when he’s tired and uncomfortable he has doubts about what he is doing. “I start asking myself: Why am I doing this? But I usually bring myself out of these funks by thinking how lucky I am to do these long rides. I really like challenging myself, seeing what I can do, what I can endure, and have a good story to tell when I get back home.”

So, he made plans to fly in August of 2015 to France for the grandest long-distance ride of them all—from Paris west for 375 miles to Brest on the Atlantic Coast and back to Paris, a total of 750 miles. “It’s the Boston Marathon of long-distance cycling, the grand-daddy of them all,” he says.

Dating to 1891, six years older than the Boston Marathon, Paris-Brest-Paris was created as a bicycle race to boost a Paris newspaper’s circulation. The modern bicycle had only recently been introduced. Pneumatic tires were starting to replace traditional hard-rubber tires, like those on grocery cart wheels. France’s masses took to bicycles, calling them la petite reine, the little queen. P-B-P was considered as outrageous—and uniquely French—as the Eiffel Tower.

Training began. In early 2015 Jimmy Guignard joined Tom on winter rides. “It’s our way of shaking our fists at the weather when it’s fifteen degrees,” Jimmy says. “When Tom was getting ready to ride P-B-P, we’d meet at the bike shop and ride for two and a half hours. When I got back, I was cold, hungry, completely done. Tom would grab a Clif Bar, then go back out for another two to three hours. That’s the way he is. He’s a tiny guy, but he’s super tough.”

To qualify for P-B-P, Tom had to complete designated Randonneur (French for long-distance) rides, starting at 125 miles and progressing to 375 miles and finishing under a time limit. He did qualifier rides with the Pennsylvania Randonneurs out of Allentown.

“It’s a three-hour drive from Mansfield to Allentown,” he says. “Those rides started at 5a.m. I had to hop in my car at midnight and drive there, do the ride, and drive back. That was good training to keep my body awake for longer than it wanted.”

In Paris for the 2015 P-B-P, he joined more than 12,000 men and women cyclists from dozens of nations around the globe. His wife stayed home. “I was happy to pat him on the back and let him go on this epic ride and then come home and tell me about it,” she says.

One of his favorite stories grew out of the final miles. As he approached Paris after more than seventy-two hours in the saddle, he encountered two Frenchmen—one older than himself, the other younger. “They were riding side by side, pedaling smoothly. I could tell they rode bikes all their lives. These guys rode relaxed, nonchalant, hands on the tops of their handlebars, backs perfectly steady. I tried to talk with them but my French is terrible and their English just as bad. They were rolling faster than I was comfortable riding.”

They overtook a couple dozen cyclists, who caught their draft on flat terrain until the base of the last big hill cresting into Paris. Everyone pedaling in the protection provided by those at the front blew up on the hill. Tom and the two Frenchmen left them behind.

“By then it was dusk,” he recounts. “We all had headlights as required to ride P-B-P. I had a bigger, brighter headlight. I led them through the roads and tried to keep a good steady pace.”

He led them to the finish after seventy-six hours. He recovered over a big hot dinner in a cycling track, the Vélodrome de Saint-Quentin. “I was sitting by myself at a table, exhausted, with my 1,000-yard stare when the older French guy found me. Everybody around us seemed to know who he was. He tried to say thanks for guiding him in with my headlight. When he clapped me on the back and said, thank you, I understood that. We shook hands and parted ways.”

Back in Mansfield, Tom searched the internet. The Frenchman had been a domestic pro in the 1970s.

“He still rides for the love of it. It was a compliment that he sought me out for helping him finish.”