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“Captain Dondo” in his bike-shop days.

Voices / Memoir

There at the beginning

‘Captain Dondo’ finds himself drawn to Vermont as a bicyclist, witnesses the rise of mountain biking in the state, and rides into a new career as a writer

Donald “Dondo” Cuerdon eventually served for many years as director of communications for the Putney School. He now works as program coordinator for Turning Point of Windham County.

I was a witness to the rapid rise of mountain biking in the world — and much of it happened right here in beautiful downtown Putney.

I’m not a Vermonter. I have moved here five times. And every time I moved away seeking fame, fortune, and glory — which I found scads of — every place I went to I compared to Vermont.

In Japan, I said, “These hills are just like the ones in Vermont.”

I was in Norway and said, “You know, this fjord reminds me a lot of this lake in Vermont.”

And so, I finally decided to embrace my poverty and moved here permanently in 1999.

* * *

I was an angry teenager, and I discovered cycling as a cure for that. I was actually a teenager with ADHD, but they hadn’t invented that term in my day.

I got a Sears 10-speed in 1972, and I would ride it as hard as I could every day after school for five miles and then come back and I could do my homework. I got pretty good at it. In 1973, I entered my first road race and I got fourth place. That September, I entered my second road race and I won.

And I was hooked. For the next 20 years, I chased that feeling of crossing the finish line first and that the thing that washes over you, that 10 seconds of total euphoria.

In that chase, I arrived in Putney for the very first time in 1978 to ride the Tour of the Valleys.

* * *

Eventually, I became a very unhappy engineering student. I switched majors. I went to Castleton State College, where I discovered physiology of exercise. I got a full ride to the University of Illinois in Chicago for a master’s degree; I was doing that and spending 90 hours a week in a laboratory doing nasty things to little white rats and not getting any exercise. I was pretty unhappy.

I bought a copy of Bicycling magazine and saw an ad in the back of the magazine for a “shop mechanic/store manager for West Hill Shop, Putney, Vermont, nice riding area.” It didn’t say that you also would need a huge bladder and a lot of winter clothing because there was no heat, no insulation, and no indoor plumbing. It was pretty ideal.

So there I was at the top of my class on a full ride in this new field and hating it. So I decided that moment I would rather be in Vermont doing anything than in Chicago doing this. I called the university, and I quit that day on the phone. I moved back here.

I didn’t have the job. I moved in with a friend in Pawlet, who by the way is the one real Vermonter in this story. Her son was to be the seventh generation of the family, and in Pawlet they considered him a Vermonter — all the rest of us were just passing through.

I called Neil Quinn, the proprietor at West Hill Shop, and he had given the job to somebody else, so he asked if I’d come down in the spring to do some bike assemblies. I said, sure, I need the work. So I started showing up and I basically blew the guy he hired out of the water.

And so I got the job. It was so far removed from what I had been doing — it was it was really the first act of defiance of my entire life. And I did it here in Vermont, the state that said to New York and to New Hampshire, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no. We’re going to move the borders over here. And we’re a state now.”

* * *

At that time, Neil was not quite yet married to Betsy Bates, who does not like one-syllable names, so she decided to call me “Dondo.”

Neal decided he wanted to computerize the inventory so he built a Tandy computer with two 5{1/4}-inch floppy disks that I think it had about 128K of memory. To lure me in, he bought a Star Trek game.

“What is your last name?” it prompted.

I just typed in “Dondo.”

The game then asked: “What is your command, Captain Dondo?”

I liked it.

Neil bought a word-processing program and wanted me to do the bike club newsletter. I went up to the Co-op, where I got a little beer, ate a sandwich, and wrote the first-ever Putney Bicycle Club newsletter in March of 1983.

OK, I got a lot of beer and was really drunk when I wrote it. I looked at the thing, and I said, “I can’t send this out with my name.”

So I signed it “Captain Dondo.” This was the first appearance of the Captain Dondo imprint.

* * *

Pretty soon after, Bob George, who was this renowned, world-famous bicycle-racing photographer who worked for the one bicycle-racing newspaper for the entire country (VeloNews, which was started in Brattleboro), rolled up to the shop one day.

He was on this bike that had, like, 15 speeds on it — back then, there were only five in the back and three up front — and knobby tires and motorcycle-like handlebars and brakes. A pretty sturdy rig.

And he said, “This is a mountain bike.”

We had previously built something similar. Jim Langley, who preceded me at the West Hill Shop, had taken this old Schwinn newspaper-boy bike and converted it into this funky conglomeration of this five-speed bike with BMX handlebars and motorcycle brake levers. We used to ride it up to town to get lunch, and my sister-in-law would make my sandwich. (This is years before I ever knew that she would be my sister-in-law. Hang around these little mountain towns long enough, and we all end up related, you know what I mean?)

So that was my introduction to the mountain bike. Ed Pavelka, who was the editor of VeloNews, soon asked us to order him one. It was the first one that West Hill ever sold, and I think it might have retailed for about $1,500, which in today’s dollars is is about $35 billion. We became a Specialized dealer, and I bought my first mountain bike pretty soon thereafter.

Ed was on the mailing list for the drunk newsletter — and he liked it. So one day, he pulled me over and he said, “Hey, you’ve got a nice turn of phrase — you should come work for us.”

“You mean, like, a writer?” I asked.

And he said, “Yeah.”

We were doing this goofy sport where we raced 10-speed bikes off-road with knobby tires on them. It’s called cyclocross. It started in the Pleistocene age and had been going on for a long time. You ride the bike on the rideable parts, you pick it up and run with it on the non-rideable parts, and somehow that makes sense.

So I wrote an article for VeloNews on how to set your bike up to do that. And that was my first paid gig. I drew the pictures myself. I got paid $3 a column inch. I made $115, which was about half the price of the bike that I bought. It was a good gig.

Ed got snatched up by Bicycling magazine as the executive editor in 1985-ish. He called me up and said, “Hey, you want to come work here?” I got hired. I moved to Pennsylvania and learned how to be a writer from some old magazine and newspaper guys who taught me how to write some pretty good stories. The magazine came out 10 or 11 times a year. At one point, we had 1.3 million readers a month.

That job launched a pretty long career — 15 years of traveling the world.

* * *

Pennsylvania sucks about as badly as Chicago does. So I lasted two years and came back here. That’s when the whole mountain bike thing really lit up.

In 1988, Brian Stickle, who replaced me at the West Hill Shop, came banging on my door, and said, “We’re going to go build trails on Mount Snow.” So we started building trails. The world started coming to Vermont to ride bikes.

The thing about riding mountain bikes in Vermont: It’s perfect. In the beginning, it was it was an adventure — we didn’t know where the things would go. So we rode on the dirt roads that turned into trails and eventually you’d wander off onto some deer trail and then you’d be screwed because you’re just like, Has anybody seen a trail in 25 minutes?

People started to exclude us from public land because they were afraid of us. So I was very much in the land-access aspect of the growth of mountain biking in Vermont.

* * *

I eventually got into the place where I was a decent writer. I went all over the world and scared the crap out of myself and came home wrote stories about it.

I have ridden my mountain bike at 40 degrees below 0 on the Iditarod sled-dog trail for 200 miles — twice. I wasn’t sure I didn’t like it the first time. I’ve ridden across Paraguay at 115 degrees above 0 to deliver mountain bikes to a remote wildlife sanctuary.

It was a wild and crazy time, and I had my finger on the pulse — and that all happened because I came to Vermont.

And that transformation happened because of the opportunities presented to me here by the people who were just passing through.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #466 (Wednesday, July 4, 2018). This story appeared on page D2.

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