was a central figure in the development of East Coast mountain bike culture and a man who put together a collection of vintage bikes and historical memorabilia that is second to none. He was a hard worker who, if such a thing were possible, may have donated double his foreshortened lifetime to host rides and festivals and trail days near his North Carolina bike shop. Many riders got their start in the sport under his wing or on a First Flight ride. Collectors worldwide have used Jeff as a resource for vintage parts, information or introductions to like-minded fellows. I was stunned to read in Bicycle Retailer and Industry News
that Jeff was hit by a car while crossing the street and died on the scene last Wednesday.
My fondest memory of Jeff was when he showed me a Columbia racing bike from the mid-1800s that needed new tires. It was original - even the grease in the hubs and pedals was. He pulled out a dusty manual from 1886 and showed me how it was done. I told him that if he had all the stuff, I would put new tires on the bike - BUT, the deal was that I got to ride it. I had never ridden a penny farthing.
Jeff scrounged around the two story bike shop and in an hour or so, produced coils of rubber for both the large and the small wheels, a length of steel wire, the special winch used to tension the wire, silver solder, the correct flux and an acetylene torch. I had no choice, but to master this long dead craft in just one evening.
First flight was having a post festival party. Beers flowed freely and pizza appeared on the hour. I worked in a corner of the shop, with Jeff peering over my shoulder. Big wheel bikes have tubular rubber tires, held to the rims by an internal wire which is tensioned, then silver brazed together. When finished, the tensioning device is pulled free and the ends of the rubber tube, which is cut longer than the circumference of the wheel, snap tightly together. It took a few tries to find the correct wire tension - one that would secure the tire, but not stress it to the breaking point when it was heated for silver soldering. Oblivious to the time, I finished near midnight and when I looked up, First Flight was empty, except for Jeff and his employees.
Jeff rolled the Columbia out to the parking lot behind the shop and explained how to mount up.
"Grab the handlebar," he said. "Put your left foot on the step. Push off until you get some momentum and then, as the right pedal swings around, push your foot into it and it will hoist you up to the saddle."
In a moment, Jeff was gone. Speeding silently away on a bicycle that slept for almost a hundred years in some corner of a shop or livery barn, awaiting the moment when it was revived by a new set of rubber tires. In a few minutes Jeff returned, beaming with childlike joy. He handed the Columbia over to me, and I took a chance on his instructions, executing them exactly as I was told.
Jeff was about six inches taller than I. The Columbia Racer’s handlebars were nearly as high as I could reach from the tiny step brazed above the bike's diminutive rear wheel. I scooted along until I had mustered enough courage to stretch out my right foot to meet the up-swinging pedal. I stiffened my leg and was catapulted upwards onto the leather saddle. My unprotected head was over eight feet above the tarmac – I looked down upon alley fences and street signs. A few wiggles of the handlebar, and in three pedal strokes I was in the street. It was do or die now.
The Columbia was wickedly fast and smooth. Surprisingly so, and it cornered beautifully. The town was empty, so I made the streets my own. Besides slowing with the pedals, I had a brake: a single lever beside the wooden grip that articulated a steel rubbing spoon onto the front tire that I hoped I would not have to use. When I did return, Jeff's staff were waiting for their shot on the Columbia. I never rode it again, but each time I recall that evening it feels like I have just stepped off the bike.
Whether you had the good fortune to know him, or not, raise your glasses to Jeff Archer tonight. The sport lost an elder. We lost a friend.