Oscar Juner, San Francisco Bicycle Icon
Are you coming to Oscar Appreciation Day?” Ted White asked me as we rode the Winter Solstice Critical Mass ride eleven years ago. Ted is a cycling advocate and filmmaker. He rides to work, home again and on the weekends for fun. On the final Friday of the month, along with a couple thousand other pedalheads, we observe the Gathering of the Pneumatic wheeled, self-propelled Tribes. Ted has done almost everything one could hope to do on a bicycle, including visit China and crash ignominously in that city’s maelstrom of cycling. He is an original. Why he would want to watch Hollywood movie moguls celebrate another cheesy crop of popular cinema was beyond me. I declined, saying the Oscars are bogus, self-congratulating hype, even if the fashion parade is kind of fun.
“No! Oscar like in Oscar the six day racer” he groaned.
“Oh, yeah!” I clicked into a different gear, and recalled another San Francisco original.
Oscar Juner: the archetypical crusty ex-racer and mechanic who reigned supreme on San Francisco’s Bicycle Row, sharing his hoarded wisdom with generation after generation of neophyte mechanics and racers. Why, I’d even had the privilege of being intimidated by him in my Cheapskate Bike Commuter From Hell days. I’d wedge my Raleigh girl’s five speed in the the front door, and he’d look up, then silently resume working on some bike, way at the back of the long, skinny store. Terrified, mute and unaccustomed to the ways of Oscar, I didn’t return until I developed some nerve and a racing habit.
He was a fount of information, history, bike lore. But you had to get past the Curmudgeon. And if you’re a wimp (I was, but no am more) you might not get the time of day. But I bet if you were a kid with just the right kind of nagging presence, and the time to let Ol’ Oscar out of his shell, you’d be surprised at what you could learn.
Originally from New Jersey, Juner moved to the Bay Area in the thirties and opened American Cyclery in 1941 on the corner of Frederick and Stanyan streets, across from Ohrt’s Bike Shop. Half a dozen bicycle shops still cluster around the park’s fabled Haight St. entrance; back then twice as many had their own specific clientele. Ernst Ohrt ran a bicycle academy as a sideline, schooling neophyte women on balance and steering along Golden Gate Park’s quiet roads.
American Cyclery was where the “hammers” (biker word for fast rider) were forged. Oscar had a racer’s past and and legs that remembered racing. Hard core riders foolish enough to judge a man’s speed by his girth soon discovered his wicked, unbeatable sprint. At Oscar’s dim, cluttered shop, a racing scene was born. A guy could find rides to races, swap components, dissect the tactics in a flubbed race. You could get coaching if you were serious. Oscar’s protege’s sometimes made it to “big” national events— with Oscar at their side– and once in awhile they’d win, causing a ripple of curiosity among the East Coast cognoscenti. Back then, the east was the hub of cycling; California was presumed not to have cyclists (except as trophies on motorists’ walls).
As America’s love affair with the automobile turned into a blind obsession, serious road cyclists had to band together for warmth in the postwar cycling ice age. A competitive cyclist was considered quite an oddball, and the woolen togs didn’t help. Little wonder roadies still seem cliquish and conservative: tribes in a hostile universe have to behave that way to survive.
Oscar’s graduates convene at American Cyclery for a reunion each winter. New riders are welcome. Collectors come to excavate the legendary downstairs antiquities trove. Until Ted told me about it, I had no clue “Oscar Appreciation Day” existed. Bradley Woehl, the store’s current owner, carries on the tradition. To the guys who lived it, it’s oral history day. Until his death in 2002, Juner brought a pot of chili to the store, now resplendent after a thorough refurbishing by the new owner. Visitors bring beer offerings, and rub elbows with the likes of airline pilot Dan Kaljian, who first laced up his cleats in the mid-fifties, along with riders like Erich von Neff* (now a poet and longshoreman), the Best brothers, and Dave Marshall…as teenagers they would hang around Oscar’s for hours after a long ride. Their moms knew they could be found at the bike shop. If Oscar grew tired of them, he’d hurl a small wrench at their feet: visiting hours were over.
Vintage racers age remarkably well, like their machines. On the walls of the shop you’ll see old pictures of young riders balanced on a steeply tilted track. Underneath, in a tweed coat, one of those young men (now sporting silver hair) swaps stories with Bradley, who’s younger than his grandson. Chances are, the gentleman’s real grandson isn’t a bike fiend. Biker parents can’t impress cycling on their kids any more than biker kids can beg respect out of unimpressed parents.
If you read Hearts of Lions by Peter Nye, you’ll read about the history of bike racing in America, but you won’t find much about the SF scene. San Francisco Wheelmen was Oscar’s club, his baby. Another peninsula club, Pedali Alpini, captured Nye’s attention, and it’s up to someone else to document the amazing Oscar. One solitary fellow kept the bicycle culture’s flame burning in San Francisco for half a century… bridging the gap to the second Golden Age of the bicycle. Despite the lack of permanence in the bike scene (hardly any magazine is older than ten years), the individual members of the Tribe nevertheless manage to coalesce in a kind of virtual family, a family with the nonchalant stability seen in gyroscopes. Certainly none of the SF Wheelmen could have forseen the likes of Critical Mass ride in downtown San Francisco. Oscar, we are your spirit sons and daughters.
Il avait la peau noire et lisse
Il soufflait dans son saxophone
Il attirait les femmes
Faisaient onduler leurs hanches
En accord avec
Les sons bas et doux
* Devant chez Macy, Downtown San Francisco
dimanche 24 juillet 1983, 18 heures.
Erich Von NEFF