RIP: Val Kleitz helped us all stay “rubber side down”

We got the sad news tonight that Val Kleitz  (ie, Bike Pilot, the Instigator, Rolling Jackass, Dreadnought,  former owner of Bike Smith, and all around amazing spirit), died Wednesday at age 51.

Val had been fighting cancer for about two years.

If you knew Val, even a little, then you know what kind of loss this is. And if you don’t know Val, here’s a little story.

My earliest memories of Val are tied to fast road bikes and hot pink Lycra spandex, circa 1990.

No, not him in the spandex. That was me. I used ride Mercer Island a lot. I thought I was pretty fast and certainly didn’t carry anything more than Powerbar and a spare tube. I’d come from Seattle or Bellevue and often see this eccentric dude cranking across the Mercer Island Floating bridge on a heavy 3-speed clad in a black leather jacket and jeans. In the summer! And he was wearing a cowboy hat! And boots!

Now this was a good 20 years before the Cycle Chic movement. If you wanted to show “serious rider” chops in those days, you better be on a road bike and clad in some of that new-fangled neon Lycra (both on your body AND as cover for that giant Styrofoam cooler masquerading as an “aero” helmet).

Obviously Val wasn‘t serious.

But that didn’t stop him from causing serious damage to pacelines full of those same Lycra-clad, one-day STP riders later that summer. I’m sure they (we!) wondered what the hell was going on when that same jeans/boot/hat-wearing, 3-speed-pedaling anomaly rode right up to us, said a cheerful hello, and kept motoring right on past the group. We didn’t see him again until a later pit stop. We were gulping Gatorload energy drink; he was coolly smoking a cigarette in the shade!

I’d totally forgotten (repressed) that for years until our first visit to the Holiday Cargo Bike rides — I believe it was the 2007 Buy Nothing Day Ride. We’d been blogging and riding our Xtracycle longtails for a few months; we felt like we had it all figured out. And then we showed up at the ride and were just blown away by the savant cargo collective. These were people doing stuff and carrying things in all weather and all conditions, and had been for years. Especially that guy over there in the jeans … and boots…. and cowboy hat.

Hey! I know him.

Later, when the pallet stopped at Gas Works, I work up the nerve to ask if it was him all those years ago. Val starts off vague. He mentions how there a lot of people with cowboy hats, and boots, and three-speed bicycles (but not in 1991 in Bellevue, Val!) and so on…  I’m inclined to think maybe I could have been wrong.

And then he smiles that smile and admits, “yeah, that might have been me” (he also confessed the smoke was mostly for effect. And boy did it work!).

Val continues to share the next hour talking with our family about bikes and blogging, and all sorts of two-wheeled adventures. It wasn’t the first time he completely engaged us — adults and children alike (like the time  our daughter crashed on the BGT Ballard Bridge tracks on one especially wet and cold New Year’s Day Cargo Ride. Val was right there after she picked herself up and got going again, riding next to her and offering encouragement).

After that he kept in touch via the blog and flickr, keeping us informed of upcoming rides, always quick with an encouraging word about a post or a photo. A nice word from Val could turn your day around.

Count us inspired.

Whenever I’d get down about about the state of bicycle infrastructure or our motorist-centered culture, I’d just have to think about Val. What right do I have to get bummed. I’ve only been caring for what, four years? He’s been doing this for 20+ and still has a smile for everyone.

Instant attitude adjustment

¤¤¤

We’ve been scarce on the Cargo Bike Rides lately. Even when we were regulars, we only saw Val four or five times a year. Not much really, but if you know Val (or maybe you are lucky enough to know someone like him), it seemed like so much more. We feel a real sense of regret that we missed opportunities to ride more with Val. Hindsight asks: “What really was so damn important that we couldn’t get out and ride”?

Scarcity or not, Val kept in touch and kept the invitations coming. We may not have been on the actual ride, but I like to think that he thought us part of the pallet (his word for a herd of cargo bikes).

¤¤¤

Two decades ago, Val was riding a practical bike in practical clothes for practical transportation. Val was no Luddite and could have ridden the latest high-tech gear, had it met his everyday standards. But most modern race-inspired tech doesn’t do well when asked to carry 300 pounds of rider and gear a thousand miles a month. He stuck with what works: Steel frames, fat tires, leather saddles, and copious carrying capacity.

Recently an entire “Slow Bicycle” culture, industry, and movement have boomed out of seemingly nowhere. Some people would trace its emergence to aging hipsters, the New York Times Style section, and/or all the various Cycle Chic movements.

For my part, I look to riders like Val as inspiration for sustainable bicycle culture. He may not have been be rocking the latest fashion (look at those gloves!), but you can’t deny the man had style (look at those gloves!).

And more than that, he endured. He found something that worked, set a good example by riding everywhere while he waited for us to get tired of skinny tires and tight tights, and then was there with support and knowledge when we made the plunge into practical everyday cycling.

Thanks waiting for us Val. You knew we’d get here. But slowly.

Rest in Peace & always, rubber side down.

More photos of Val on flickr. Tag yours with his flickr name (Bike Pilot) and visitors to his profile can see them.

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16 responses to “RIP: Val Kleitz helped us all stay “rubber side down”

  1. It’s good to see folks hold those memories of him. He was my mentor, boss, friend, drinking buddy, etc for many years. If you ever saw him riding across the floating bridge or on the STP with someone else that was me. He was one of the kindest hearted people I’ve ever known and his desire to spread his love of cycling to everyone was always inspiring. I had only seen him a few times since I left Seattle in ’96, but he was never far from my thoughts and quite often I still use some bit of knowledge that he passed on to me. I can never repay him for making me a better person.

    I would also like to thank you for all the pictures you have of him at Flickr as he used to hate having his picture taken so I have very few of him from back in the day.

  2. That completely blows my mind. My first bike shop in Seattle was The Bikesmith which Val ran on 45th and Sunnyside, two doors down from the Erotic Bakery.

    Val made me that cyclist that I am. I came to him with a suspended mountain bike, and he refashioned it until I had the rigid John Deere urban warrior that got me into cycling. His Dreadnaught taught me about the importance of being able to carry what you need (I bought a trailer to pull my cello) and his lack of care for expensive parts and carbon kept me in reality.

    He was always quick to offer a cheaper solution, even while working at Aaron’s, and that guy could fix anything, knew the internal workings of every bicycle part made, and would do it with a smile always. I still keep his “We can do it!” waterbottles as keepsakes. What an amazing guy.

    I don’t know what to say. I’m really crushed by his passing. I hope to attend the funeral.

  3. Val was the best. He will be sorely missed.

    I ahd the opportunity to interview Seattle cargo bike pioneer Val Kleitz a couple years ago. Listen as he gives his first person account of cargo biking and his own highly customized bicycle.

  4. nice writing, made me tear up. there will never another Val. hope to see on the cargo ride.

  5. sorry I am tearing up, should say I hope to see you on the cargo ride

  6. I was introduced to this man with a Handlebar moustache riding an english racing bike in cowboy boots by a transexual ex bike racer turned carpenter. – If thats not the definition of an eccentric then I don’t know much. I will miss you Val.. pedal on

  7. Requeim aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lumen perpetuum illuminare eum.

  8. I just heard about Val’s passing. My sympathies to his family and all at SBS. He will be sorely missed.

    Back when I was importing niche bicycles from England, he was one of my most ardent supporters. When I would deliver bikes with my very young son in tow, Val always had a box of ginger snaps at the ready. My son is now 16 and still remembers that.

    Matt Dekker

  9. Oh, I just found this article and makes me sad yet know that he lives on in each of us. My daughter remembers eating those ginger snaps and asking countless questions on what him and the other bike mechanics would do with bikes… My daughter is now 13 and still remembers Val and his bike shop.

  10. RIP, ol’ buddy. The Squirrels love you. <3 :(

  11. This is a wonderful article and heartwarming comments. Thank you all. I promise to never refer to squirrels as ‘limb rats’ ever again.
    Our son used to say that his Val could fix anything. It wasn’t just that he was a child and easily amazed, it was true. I sometimes thought he would solve the problems of the world with bailing wire, duct tape and vice grips.
    My heart hurts a little less when I read the things people write. Thank you all.
    Connie Kleitz

  12. Oops, I almost forgot…
    There is information about the Labor day ride and Val’s wake on rideyourbike.com. Probably a hundred other places too. Add to the list of names at the beginning of the article, Scarface, Mutant from Another Dimension. It was the first nickname he had, to the best of my knowledge. But I only knew him for 29 years so there may have been others. ;)

  13. Sorry I will miss the wake. The ride too.

    I met Val several centuries ago. Mine was the couch he landed on when he first moved out of Las Cruses for Seattle. OK, not a couch, being Val he rented a room. Space in the garage was no problem, I was building motorcycles and bicycles in a 2 car garage. We got along just fine.

    Yes he had that mustache way back then too.

    The world is lessened by his passage. Not just the bicycling world either. Nor the vice grip world.

    I have always admired his taste in women and he mine. Bicycles we diverged on.

    Miss you Val. Miss that smile.

    Connie, feel free to contact me.

    – Danny

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