Only $900 a wheel

Your new toaster ejects bread higher than Mt. St. Helens spits ash. The stereo played great in the store, but at home it makes Pavarotti sound like a Cuisinart chopping carrots. Your sink leaks and the water heater broke. Doesn't anybody make anything that worksm anymore?

Peter mooney does. And his products are faster than 12-meter yacht, cheaper than a Lamborghini, and 10 times more efficient than a Boeing 707. In a basement workshop, with a place for everything and everything in its place, Mooney crafts bicycles in the Old World tradition.

We're talking about serious transportation here. Not kids' bikes with banana seats and handlebars that look as if they came off a moose. Nothing with streamers or cushy seats or knobby tires. Tube by tube, Mooney brazes together the thoroughbreds of the bicycle world.

With gas growing scarcer and costlier, the popularity of bicycles is soaring. Over 10 million two-wheelers will be sold in the United States this year, and of that total a whopping 75 will be handmade by Mooney.

He is not the Northeast's most prolific custom frame builder, nor its most famous, but he has a reputation as one of the best. His output is a mix of racers and high-performance touring bicycles, machines made with the precise geometry and tolerances of a lunar module. In a suburban bicycle shop he partly owns, rows of factory-made 10-speeds cover the floor, while one Mooney-made bicycle hangs from the ceiling. The effect is rather like seeing a Matisse among paint-by-number sunsets.

"Let me finish my lunch here," Mooney says, sprawled in te shadow of the counter. "Then I'll be right with you." He drains a bottle of pop and eyes the remainder of his deli sandwich with suspicion.

Born in England, Mooney moved to the new world at a young age but could pass for a British craftsman of the 19th century. He is fair-skinned and tall, with a shock of red hair and mutton-chop sideburns. His hands are dirty with the file shavings from a good morning's work. While he eats I idly spin the wheels of the suspended racer, and find them so light it is impossible to believe they are made of metal.

"That's a sprinter. It's made with a very stiff frame to stand the sudden stress of high speed."

The bicycle is designed with a short wheelbase, for crouched, powerful pedaling. About 30 percent of Mooney's production is racing machines, stripped for speed. The rest, though built to racing specifications, are used for touring. Touring, to Mooney's customers, means anything from a 3,500-mile trip cross-country to a three-block jaunt for groceries, though some owners just show their bicycles off, like valuable jewelry.

"My most expensive products probably get used the least," Mooney sighs. An avid bicycler since youth, he seems resigned to occasional customers who are less than serious: the type of people who drive Porsches, cook braised endive, and shop for bicycles the way they shop for designer checkbook covers.

Tossing the flotsam of his lunch under the counter, he leads me to his workshop in the basement. The way is done a flight of stairs, through a moldy cellar where bicycles hang like bats from racks on the walls. At the far end is a small room, arranged with the order of a watch. Jigs, tools, and spare parts are within arm's reach. A cassette recorder, wrapped against dust, plays jazz; through the tiny window comes the roar of a passing train.

On the worktable are several front forks. (A fork is the part of a bicycle that grips the wheel, absorbing shocks and supporting the main frame.) Its rake, or angle, is important. Too much bend and the bicycle is slow and mushy, like a truck; too little, and the ride is harsh and hard to control. Mooney's forks are graceful and rich in detail. The tines are made from a special alloy not found in hardware store 10-speeds. The dropouts, little fists that hold the wheel's axle, are brazed on with perceptible skill. Scratches have been removed by a small sandblaster, to prepare the fork for painting.

Quality in a product is often evidenced by superfluous touches. Mooney reaches into a bin that holds hardware, and pulls out some lugs, the elbow joints into which the tubes of the frame are plugged, the tenpenny nails of the bicycle builder. With pride, he points out the miniature hearts and shamrocks he has carved out of the machine-made joints. On the finished bicycle, they are almost invisible, but such effort is what distinguishes an antique chest from a production-line copy, or a watch from Tiffany's from a Timex.

It is difficult to determine how many craftsman like Mooney there are in the United States. Mooney estimates 75; professional and trade organizations think the number is closer to 100. Most of the shops are one-man, cottage-industry operations, though some churn out hand-produced frames at the rate of several hundred units a year.

Of course, quality costs money. A Peter Mooney frame alone runs from $400 to bike has a price tag closer to $1,400. And a top-of-the-line model that does everything but fly to the moon tops out at over $1,800.

For those who find bikes at hardware stores next to the lawn-food speaders, a cost of $900 a wheel will likely seem excessive -- an act of lunatic extravagance akin to buying a sealskin sweat suit or a bowling ball made of lapis lazuli. But those who ride expensive bicycles claim it is one of life's cheaper luxuries.

Few people can afford a Lamborghini. Fewer still can cover the cost of a 12 -Meter yacht. But secretaries, students, and journalists can raise the money for a Mooney tourer. They may have to sit down to a few peanut butter sandwich dinners, but in return they'll get high-quality exercise and the sensation of riding the best that money can buy.

Mooney strains to describe what it feels like to roll down a hill, wind in the face, on one of his products: "Well, you know, handling characteristics tend to be a bit abstract, but a handmade bicycle is quick and responsive. It's forgiving. You don't have to fight it to ride it."

David Niewolski, and avid cyclist and former racer who's owned Mooney bicycles for five year, is a little more adept at qualifying the experience.

"I've ridden bikes made in Italy, England, and France, and the frame Peter made for me is the most stable I've ever had. When you ride a factory bike, the bottom bracket [bottom of the frame] tends to move when you pedal hard. A custom frame is stiffer, and more of the rider's power gets transferred into making the bike go forward."

In a moment of weakness, a spokesman for the prominent Schwinn Bicycle Company has described a typical bike as "nothing more than six pieces of gas pipe and two barrel hoops with garden hose wrapped around them." On Mooney's bicycles, the "gas pipe" is renowned Reynolds 531 or Columbus alloy, thicker at the ends for strength and thinner in the middle for ligthness. The "barrel hoops" can be wheel rims made from Space Age metal, and the "garden hose" are tires that seem thin as a pencil.

Twenty-five hours of work go into cutting and brazing together the pieces of the frame. The spokes are hand-woven onto the wheel, like stringing a harp, and a whole day is required to install and adjust the handlebars, pedals, cranks, and 15-speed derailleurs.

Mooney learned the fine points of his trade during an 18-month apprenticeship in England, where he worked for a London bikemaker named Ron Cooper. In Europe, he says, few young people take up the business anymore. But in America, would-be bike builders volunteer for Peter Mooney Cycles by the truckful.

"It's a craft. Working with your hands is fashionable these days. In Europe it's taken for granted, because they know what hard work it is."

He picks up a mini-pneumatic belt sander, a tool that looks like a dentist's drill with a long nose. It whines into life, and he begins polishing the crevices of a front fork. He crouches over the worktable, like a silversmith polishing a bowl, or a cabinetmaker carving a rosette.

Someone makes things the way they used to. Maybe even better.

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