Charles Velo ("as in velodrome") talks the way he rides a bicycle. Fast, and further than you'd think possible for a man close to 70. He pedals up long stories without losing his breath, clicking past names and dates, shifting gears but never slowing down.
He left Washington on a bicycle yesterday morning, buoyant in the 100-degree heat. He rolled down past the back of the Treasury building, and up 15th Street, legs working steadily, his bald pate glistening. He swerved around a mail truck, and cut off a green Impala, then roared out New York Avenue, and was lost in the smog and the noise and the sun.
If all goes well he'll reach Bound Brook, N.J., his home town, by tonight. The entire town, including the mayor, the police chief and the rescue squad, will be there to commemorate the anniversary of his record-breaking 85-hour and three-minute ride -- a feat duly recorded in Douglas Ripley's "Believe It Or Not!"
It was 50 years ago that Charles Velo, born Charles Gaglia ("I changed it to Velo, like the bike track. It still ends in a vowel"), hopped on his bicycle and began riding through the streets of Bound Brook.
He didn't stop to eat, he didn't stop to drink. He didn't even stop to, well, rest.
"I'll tell you what I did when I had to go," he says, as the sun shimmered over the ellipse, "First, I got up on the handlebars, see? Then I balanced with one hand . . ." Velo clatters over to a bicycle to illustrate, clad in two T-shirts, black cyclist shorts that cling to his tough little legs and those funny little black shoes.
"Back in those days," he explains quickly in his tough, tight voice, "everybody was a little crazy. Everybody was doing something. Bucky Bendetti," he says, just as if you'd known Bucky since he was knee-high, "he sat on a flag pole in front of the barber shop for 24 hours. People were just . . . a little crazy. Some of 'em tried to eat a lot of goldfish. Everybody was tryin' to break a record."
Bound Brook is not a big town. After an hour or two, even those citizens who hadn't known about Velo's plans to set an endurance record for bicycle riding had surmised that something was up. How many times can a man roll past your front porch? Velo pedaled steadily into the dusk. Night fell. Velo didn't.
On he rode, long after the crowd of well-wishers and town officials had gone home to bed. Four days later, he'd broken the endurance record for an uninterrupted bicycle ride. He'd been on his 1930 Artie Spencer Special day and night, and he swears they had to pull him off the bike at the end to keep him from completing an extra 100 miles.
"This is to certify Charles Velo's record ride," wrote the chief of police 14 years later. "The writer at that time was a motorcycle officer and distinctly remembers Velo's astounding and remarkable ride."
Charles Velo was 17 at the time, working in a bindery. "We, the guys, we used to take breaks sometimes. We'd horse around. We called it the Bindery Olympics. We'd jump over boxes. . . . So the boss comes up and next thing we know, we're all layed off for two weeks each. But I knew I was going to do something good with my two weeks."
Back then, bicycling was what you did if you grew up in New Jersey. It was bigger than football, bigger than soccer. According to Velo, it was even bigger than baseball.
He raced as an amateur from 1930 to the mid'-40s. He rode in the bicycle competitions at the New York World's Fair in 1939-40, amazing the crowds with his style, his speed, and of course, his endurance. But the professional racing circuit, he says, never tempted him.
"Nah, not for me. Those races were too tough, too tough," he says. "They just wanted you for your body, to fill up the field. After two or three weeks, they'd dump you. They'd pack 250 of us onto a course, and then we'd kill ourselves racing neck-and-neck into the turns. And those turns, I'm telling you, were only a single-land wide."
So he traded in his wheels for a family life. Eventually the Velos settled in New Carolton, Md., where he got the paper cutting job that he still has.But he never forgot the days of glory.
Five years ago he dusted off his old equipment and brought it to a bicycle shop in Silver Spring. "He had bicycle tires with wooden rims, for God's sake!" says Dorsey Delavigne, a co-owner of the shop. "He'd come in and start telling stories about the old days, and we'd stop and listen before we knew it, the day would be over. But when he started talking about training for the race, we found him a trainer. They're going to give him a special citation and a T-shirt up in Bound Brook. When we get there."
Velo will get there. After all, a 67-year-old man doesn't rise at dawn, down two cups of coffee, a dish of crushed pineapple, and four soft-boiled eggs, then ride over 200 miles, defying the heat and the wrath of the highway patrol, just for the heck of it. Or maybe he does. With Velo, it seems to be a little of both.
It is only 11 o'clock Thursday morning, but the sun is already hot. Perspiration drips down Velo's pale face. Although his eyes are bright and alert, it's hard to believe that he's going to cycle 200 miles by Friday night.
He is standing near his bicycle, surrounded by a long line of tourists waiting for tickets to the White House. They seem oblivious to the bantam perched on the 10-speed.
The "crew" (friends from the shop) wait near the van that will follow him north. There is one cooler full of ice, and another one packed with the fried chicken that Velo's wife stayed up all night to prepare.
"For the crew," Velo says, swinging himself up into the saddle.
On his bicycle, he is strikingly graceful. He twirls in and out of the cement planters brimming with dahlias. He watches his shadow on the ground, squints up at the sun. He motions to the van, its driver invisible behind the cool, tinted glass, and suddenly he is off, swooping and wheeling into the traffic. His trainer frowns, suddenly realizing that he has allowed the old man to take off without a racing cap. But Velo, jubilant, is flying ahead. And the van maneuvers mightily to keep up.