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Friday, September 12, 2014

For cyclists like Benjie Kabakoff, bicycling is very much an integral part of their lives

For cyclists like Benjie Kabakoff, bicycling is very much an integral part of their lives
By:  Michael Lander

Benjie Kabakoff has been riding bikes for most of his life and
has ridden on a recreational and competitive level and now
regularly commutes in and around Memphis by bicycle.

For David "Benjie" Kabakoff, cycling is, and has almost always been, a very big part of his life. 

Kabakoff was born in
Whitehaven, (before it was incorporated into Memphis) in the mid-1950's.  His introduction to cycling began in what some might see as a rather inauspicious start.  His dad, who was a WWII veteran, decided that the best way to begin teaching him and his older sister how to ride a bike was by setting the two of them up on a small grassy hill, on a bike without training wheels, and giving them a good push to get them going. 

"I don't recall much about it other than we quickly learned to stay upright," Kabakoff said.

Years later, when he was of driving age, Kabakoff recalled that instead of wanting to drive a car, like most other kids his age, all that he really wanted was to get a
Schwinn Varsity Sport bicycle.  Even though he did learn to drive, Kabakoff said that he spent much of his time riding his bike all over Memphis from Whitehaven to East Memphis, to Boxtown (near Chucalissa), to downtown where his dad's store was, and even across the bridge to West Memphis, Ark.

As you might expect from someone who is really into cycling, in his senior year (in 1971) at Hillcrest High School, Kabakoff chose to write a research paper that only a true cyclist would find interesting - Derailleur Lightweights and Increasing Use of Bicycles in the United States.  He optically scanned his paper to editable text and it was published on the website of Memphis' only bicycle club - the Memphis Hightailers. 

(This is a link to what he wrote: 

Kabakoff attended
Tulane University in his freshman year and, even though he readily concedes that it was not exactly a bike-friendly time back then, he rode his bicycle all over New Orleans.

"I used to even race the trolleys on St. Charles Ave.," he said.

Kabakoff had even dreamed of riding his bicycles from New Orleans to Memphis, but it was a dream that he has yet to fulfill.

Like many other avid cyclists, Kabakoff rode his bike even when he probably should not have, including the time when he rode to a doctor's appointment in New Orleans.  The campus infirmary could not detect that he had mononucleosis, but the doctor determined that he indeed had it, which explained why he felt so tired all the time. 

In spite of this, he continued to ride anyway and maybe in some way it confirmed the old saying that, "what doesn't kill you, will only make you stronger."

Kabakoff finished his college education at
Rhodes, (which was Southwestern at Memphis at the time), and in his senior year there, he regularly rode his bicycle to school.  He continued to ride until he began his early career at Baptist Hospital.  After reporting a problem with a sprained knee, an orthopedic surgeon advised him to go easy on his knees and he decided not to ride his bike too much after that. 

Benjie Kabakoff rides, on average, between 6,000 to 7,000 miles each
year.  This photo was taken of him after a rain fell during the 2010
FedEx Rock-n-Roll MS-150 bike ride, which is a charitable event
that benefits the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

For years, Kabakoff stayed away from riding and picked up other activities like swimming, but it was on the advice of a friend and current swim coach at
Memphis Jewish Community Center (MJCC), Danny Fadgen, who said that bicycles had vastly improved since he last rode that prompted to to ride again.  He went out, and bought the lowest end Specialized Allez road bike that was available.

Even though he only planned to ride around the neighborhood, Kabakoff said that during his first year back to riding, (either late 2002 or 2003), he rode over 3,000 miles and he didn't even have an odometer for the first month or two.

Upon returning to cycling after a short hiatus, Kabakoff has remained dedicated to an activity that he truly came to love as a child.  He likes to joke that after years of unsuccessful therapy, that he is still addicted to it to this day.

In 2004, Kabakoff wanted to take his cycling to a more competitive level.  He felt like he was fast and he wanted to see just how well he could do against others, especially after he bought a fast bicycle.  That bicycle was a custom-made
Serotta with Campagnolo Record components. 

It was on that bike that he participated in a few Senior Games (Olympics) in which he did well at the local and state level.  He is modest about it and says that it was only because the most competitive cyclists did not show up at the events.

In 2007, Kabakoff was in the
National Senior Games and said that he went into it with the stated goal of not coming in last place or getting injured in the process.  He readily admits that he easily met his goals.

Since then, Kabakoff said that he is not at all interested in racing anymore.  He was mainly doing it, he said, to see how well he ranked against others.  These days, he believes that there is too much of an emphasis on competition in cycling.

"There is much more to be gained in riding slower, more safely, and enjoying the scenery," he said.

Along with cycling itself, Kabakoff also seems to enjoy doing bicycle maintenance and repair.  He
took a few maintenance classes at Revolutions Bicycle Co-Op just to see what I could learn and, in November 2010, he attended a series of classes at from Tony Griffin at Bikes Plus.

When it comes to doing maintenance and repairs, Kabakoff knew that he would never learn how to do it unless he went ahead and got the tools that he needed.  He considers the purchase of a few hundred dollars worth of tools a great investment as it allows him to make customized adjustments and one that satisfies his curiosity about the mechanical aspects of the bicycle. 

Even though monetary savings are possible, this is not the primary motivation for him.  Local bike shops remain an important part of the maintenance process for him in getting advice, parts, and alternative support for advanced and unusual type of repairs. 

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when President Bush encouraged Americans not to drive unless they had to, Kabakoff started commuting and has not stopped since then.  He rides throughout the entire year from the oppressive heat of summer to the bone-chilling cold of winter. 

Benjie Kabakoff, (kneeling in the center of this photo) is a member of Temple Israel team,
which is one of many teams that participate in the annual FedEx Rock-n-Roll MS-150 ride. 
Kabakoff has ridden in this and many other charitable bike rides over the years.  Also pictured,
(on the back row), is Karen Roth, Jeff Hirsh, Simone Loket, and Jed Weintraub.  Left of
Kabakoff, (in the front), is Sonny Solomon, and Vic Butcher is on the right.  Butcher is the team
captain and he has consistently been recognized as one of the top fundraisers for the FedEx 
MS-150 event in Memphis.

Until he decided to do this, he was mostly doing recreational cycling, but he found that he could combine this with an element of practicality by commuting as frequently as he possibly could.  He quickly discovered that he could ride short distances and go to the grocery store, shopping, and carry heavy loads with an inexpensive
NashbarCargo Trailer.

He learned many of the tricks of commuting on a bike from various articles in Bicycling Magazine and other periodicals.  One of these tricks that he picked up involved learning to adjust his travel routes according to anticipated traffic conditions.  

When he does drive to work, (which is at Baptist Hospital), he typically takes clothing (scrubs) to and from work.  He then carries only what is essential when he commutes via a bicycle; however, if necessary, he has also found that it is possible to load up everything that he needs in a back pack and carry that with him on his bike.

He routinely tries to arrive at work approximately 30 minutes early.  That additional time leaves him with plenty of time should he encounter any problems along the way, such as a flat tire, and, during warmer weather, it gives him sufficient time to cool off and to wipe away any sweat that he might have on him.

One of the most anxiety-producing events for Kabakoff is the possibility of getting a flat during winter months.  As anyone who is out in the cold long enough knows, the cold temperatures make trying to do things with your fingers a real challenge.  For that, he recommends
Bar Mitts, which he sees as the best passive device for keeping the hands warm.   For the most part, his commutes are rarely over an hour in the winter time, and his hands quickly recover with the use of the Bar Mitts.

For commuting, Kabakoff uses regular shoes with regular pedals and his commuting bike is the Specialized Allez road bike that he got over a decade ago.  The bike has had almost every part replaced on it, (some of which have been replaced several times), except for the handlebars and the frame. 

When he parks his bicycle at the grocery store, and elsewhere, he typically leans the cart and bicycle alongside the racks designed for people to leave the shopping baskets.  From there, he  locks the bicycle up with a cheap lock and a cable and bicycle alarms that he purchased in bulk from for about $4 each.

For the last two years, Kabakoff has split the mileage between his car and his bicycle at approximately 7,000 miles each. This year, he said, his mileage may be somewhere around 6,000 miles.

Kabakoff, like other avid cyclists in Memphis, is happy with some of the recent developments and changes in our river city and how much more cycling-friendly it has become.  He is particularly appreciative of Memphis Mayor
A.C. Wharton and his implementation of cycling facilities.

For cyclists like Kabakoff, it is a good time to be a cyclist in Memphis and the future looks bright for him and others who love to ride a bike in our city.