The teaching toe strap

Caley Fretz explains how a simple toe strap and tube sock, attached to his father's bike, led him to a life of cycling.

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My dad always stuffed a spare tube and five bucks in a white cotton sock and fastened it under his saddle with a tattered old toe strap. It was his version of a saddle bag, something he’d done for a few decades before I came along, first with tubulars and then with tubes. It was aesthetically pleasing on his old steel Ciocc in the unique way that ugly things can be beautiful in their pragmatism.

“It’s easy to be retro when you’re retro,” he likes to say.

The sock and strap sat right in front of my face for the better part of a decade. I chased them and him first through the flat northern suburbs of Chicago and then, after we moved, over the steep hills of Burlington, Vermont. We often rode side by side, but the pull home to beat the thunderstorm or to set the dinner table on time was always his pull. And so the sock and its strap became my carrot. An overarching visual memory: My dad’s backside, pulling me along inside its wake, and the tube sock with the tattered grey strap.

Dark grey, actually. “Christophe” printed in silver, lengthways. He tucked the pointed tail in and around to prevent it flapping, and when the leg burn crept in I often wondered if I could grab it. It teased me. Sometimes I’d try, when clouds crossed the sun and hid my reaching shadow.

When I was about 15, I began to draw level with my dad. Now we traded pulls as we fled a thunderstorm or rushed home to set the dinner table on time. Races up Irish Hill were always close. Road lessons moved beyond drafting and into the teaching of a sport’s whole nuance: No gliding; point at objects in the road; ride predictably; pull off into the wind; pull through without accelerating; close the gap; find the draft with your ears; shoulders still, flat back, pull over the top of the stroke. He stopped my halfwheeling by grabbing my jersey pocket and pulling me back in line. He taught me to attack when I’m tired.

He took me to the Earl’s shop ride, and pulled me back to the group when I got dropped. Then he took me to Tuesday Worlds, and pulled me back to the group when I got dropped. Then I stopped getting dropped.

I turned into a mountain bike racer, and gained a whole new skillset. I went to college, and turned back into a road racer. I started working, and suddenly understood the power of old miles and how, through craft and necessity, my dad always rode better than his fitness should have allowed.

I have a black nylon roll from Rapha under my saddle now. It’s held on with a shiny white leather toe strap, also from Rapha. It’s a bit pretentious. It has two tubes, a tire lever, and 10 euros in it, which is even more pretentious. The pristine leather strap never has and never will see a toe. But the aesthetic is the same. It’s a modern ode to the sock, I like to think.

A year ago, my dad came to Belgium to follow along and be a fan and drink Belgian beer while I worked the classics. We rode the Ronde van Vlaanderen sportive together in pissing rain. It was a miserable, perfect day. He rode a carbon bike, as he has since just before I left for college, but the sock was still there, fastened with the same tattered old toe strap that taught me how to ride. Late in the day, as we both began to tire, I almost reached out and grabbed it.