Sipping the Kool-Aid.

For a while now I’ve fostered the notion of expanding my cycling horizons. It is, perhaps, important to understand that I grew up on a gravel road. Dust kicked up from that road settled in thick layers over everything on the front porch, in the front yard, on the cars, on my bike. I remember watching as my father valiantly and yet fruitlessly attempted to wash his truck; he was always left frustrated when it dried to a dull, matte finish. I couldn’t wait to get off the farm some day to ride my bike on a surface that didn’t jar the teeth from my head. Surely there was a world where roads were smooth and windshields didn’t live in fear of hand-sized chunks of gravel?

I live in a state where, in the aggregate, there are probably more miles of gravel road than pavement. Nevertheless, over the years I have quite thoroughly enjoyed exploring the myriad paved country highways and byways. But it seems that lately I’ve found myself glancing wistfully down some of those side roads – the dusty ones, those forlorn paths down which low undercarriages go with trepidation. I feel an almost siren-like call to meander down those roads, to unearth and encounter new places, new sights. And it seems that all that is necessary for one to enjoy those travels is a magic number.

650B.

I haven’t drank the Kool-Aid as so many others seem to have done. Not yet, anyway. But I’m curious, and my curiosity tends to lead me to compulsive actions. My latest compulsion is an understated and – I think – rather elegant cream color with red accents. I will, of course, be following up later with a more complete write up and reflection of the Cycles Toussaint Velo Routier. For the moment, however, I leave you only with these few photographs to ponder.

There’ve been a number of trials and tribulations, some of which have yet to be resolved. Once the build does get settled and I’ve had a chance to put the Velo Routier through its paces I’ll be sharing my thoughts. Fairly or unfairly, my Boulder Brevet, the Brooks Cambium, and the Compass tires are benchmarks for me and the gauge by which my other bikes are measured. I’m anxious to see how the Velo Routier fares in comparison.

Git ‘er done.

Oh, the many times I think to myself, “I’ve a lot to do today, so this is just going to be a quick ride.” For the first five or ten minutes, my brain is filled to distraction as I ponder and arrange and add to an ever burgeoning “to do” list. It’s not long though, before my legs begin to limber up, and I’m no longer even aware of the bike beneath me. I wave at an old man watering his lawn, nod in acknowledgement of a fellow cyclist as we cross paths, breath deeply and …

…perhaps it’s birdsong that catches my attention, or the light and shadows playing across a field as the sun climbs above the horizon. Maybe it’s the marvel of thick strands of fog, as trees and houses and cars emerge from nothingness into startling focus with an oddly shallow depth of field. An abandoned house suddenly viewed in an entirely different way, and I stop to make a photograph or a sketch. A handful of ripe mulberries, cool from the morning dew, sun sweetened and beckoning, staining my gloves – which I wipe on my shorts. What the hell, it’ll be another year before they’re in season again. Another hill, and then another, and suddenly I realize I’m miles and miles and miles from home.

And that’s ok.

Oh, the many times I think to myself, “I’ve sure got a lot to get done tomorrow.”

In the middle of frickin’ nowhere.

 

This journal entry is a sort of travelogue. Sort of.

I find myself somewhere in the middle of frickin’ northwestern Nebraska, thinking to myself that this must very well be the flattest, longest state in the Union. For much of the way coming out of the east the land was literally featureless. (Little did I know that if I had chosen a parallel route a hundred miles to the south, the terrain – while still barren of trees – was a much more magical mélange of hills, reminiscent of the Faerie Glenn of Scotland.) Silently, I apologize for every disparaging remark about Kansas for which I may have been complicit.

In the middle of nowhere, time seems to take a break. At the place I’m staying, an old geezer who is absolutely flabbergasted that I plan to ride a hundred miles on my bicycle in one day warns me that I’ll no doubt be run down by a semi, left to die and be munched upon by coyotes and buzzards. The highway is flat, the roadside is thankfully – universally – wide and free of glass, nails, and debris. And to my relief, every truck that comes my way makes a point of politely slowing and going around me. Nearly everyone waves. But on some of the country roads it is disconcerting how far one can travel without ever seeing a car or truck or house…just me and cows, road kill, buzzards, rabbits, and the occasional, stereotypical tumbleweed. More than once I think to myself that this is a land of really, really, really big skies.

Towns, when I come across them, are usually quite small, and – perhaps – not even recognizable as a town at first glance.

The architecture of the buildings catches my fancy. The verticality of grain storage breaks the ever present horizon line. Tall and imposing, they loom like sentinels over the desert-like sand hills. The ubiquitous pickup truck is the local transportation of choice, and in the heat of the afternoon a lonely rural diner seems to be the destination of choice for anyone driving one of those trucks.

Turning north, Nebraska soon eases into South Dakota. To my east are the impressively and dramatically eroded Bad Lands, to the west the equally impressive – but totally different – Black Hills geography. In Chadron State Park I find myself hungering for wider tires: the 700 x 25 Vittorias I currently sport on the Katakura Silk are not particularly suitable for the gravel road climb that will take me out to a Black Hills overlook.

Taking it easy, the hill tops out and the road turns to dirt, clay, dust – and in the distance, trees.

The weather threatens at times, but I am fortunate to avoid anything untoward other than occasional drenching. The temperatures are almost universally cool, hovering between the low 60’s and the mid-70’s: a dream, really!

In the Black Hills there are occasional reminders of fire. Skeletons of trees, stripped of foliage and starkly black against barren hills, contrast with the rest of a world that is otherwise lush and verdant.

Businesses are few and far between, but the people are friendly. Down to earth. The buildings are quaintly out of date, out of touch with iPhones and laptops – and even cyclists, it seems. Everyone politely, pointedly, avoids asking about my sweat soaked clothing, my helmet, my shiny Japanese bicycle, the rear view mirror dangling from my glasses.

For a few days, I’m very much a nomad. A man without a home. I have my bike and my camera, a pen and my sketchbook – and not a whole lot else. And I’m good with that for the moment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What road?

I’ve never been a big fan of gravel. One reason being that the word “gravel” – in Missouri at least – is a relative descriptor. Mind you, I’ve never conducted any type of quantitative analysis of road conditions across the world, but I’ve always felt like the rural roads of Missouri are particularly insidious. Ours are comprised of long sections of bone jarring washboard, huge wheel crushing ruts that are almost gully-like in dimension… and “gravel” itself? From what I’ve read of other areas, gravel pathways are quaint and casual riding affairs of packed, mild mannered chat. Here, our gravel is mean-spirited, loosely distributed and much less like crushed chat and more like… well, like boulders. Lots and lots and lots of fist-sized boulders.
I used to live on a gravel road. We were about five miles from any sort of pavement. Then, as now, my choice of riding tended towards road bikes and not the sturdier framed mountain bikes. The big difference, however, was that back in the day I only rode 23C size road tires. Getting to those paved surfaces chewed up my narrow rubber tires and had my teeth chattering unrelentingly the entire five miles.
So I tend to avoid gravel…which occasionally has me at odds with a natural inclination to wander and explore. The past few days I’ve had a hankering to get off of the familiar routes and do a little meandering. Taking it slow, I wandered off the pavement on Saturday in search of new places. Heading out of town, I found myself with an unexpected urge to climb so I took the hilly route toward the bluffs along the Missouri River.
Some of the structures along the way are dilapidated, yet have the charm of homes that have been well-lived in for many a year. It’s easy to imagine, looking at this building, what the early days of Clay County must have looked like.
Atop one climb, I decided to take a side road to see what was there to see. It’s a pleasant (but short) detour.
The ride down was quick and uneventful, as was the miles of flats through the river bottoms. My Boulder Brevet is sporting a new pair of tires by Compass that have been growing on me as they seem to have settled in on the rims. Rough farm road surfaces seem to be absorbed better than when I’m riding typical road tires. Maybe I’m buying into the hype, or maybe I’m trying to justify to myself having shelled out the extra scratch for the tires – or maybe they’re actually doing what Compass bills them to do. Either way, I’m happy with the ride.
The first gravel road is flat for a couple hundred yards and then begins to ascend steeply back up into the bluffs. The road twists and turns abruptly, but I’m going uphill and slow, so no worries.
I ride my lower gears, but for some reason don’t need to rely on granny at all. The gravel is loose enough that my tires will spin if I shift into the very lowest gears. The line of sight is short and more than once I find myself wondering what might be over the next hill.
At one point, the road comes to a gated end and I have to turn around to look for another junction to explore.
And at another point, the road simply ends. The signs proclaim “Road Closed.”
What road?” I wonder.

Lake Pepin Three Speed Tour

My ears are sunburned.

Or wind burned. To be honest, I’m not sure which – after languishing for months indoors, it seems I’d forgotten all about skin care and UV protection. Neither was I particularly mindful of the prevailing riding conditions several hundred miles north of home. In point of fact, I had no idea where Lake Pepin or Redwing were actually located beyond the generalization of “Minnesota.”

Me (as I finish loading the car, five minutes before hitting the road): “Hey, how do we get there?”

Wife (rolling her eyes): “What does the Garmin say?”

And with little more fanfare than that, this is pretty much how we came about embarking upon our journey to the Lake Pepin Three Speed Tour. As I’ve made abundantly clear in the past, my preference leans toward solitary riding and I tend to avoid most forms of group riding and ride “events.” What differs about this affair is that (a) riding takes place on vintage bikes, (b) it’s an actual ride, not a short parade of museum pieces, and (c) the riders are undoubtedly similarly to me, in their slightly skewed concepts about aesthetics and life philosophies. The ride itself is purportedly 85-ish miles over two days – but that doesn’t take into account any additional voyages down side roads, lingering and exploring the quaintly charming towns one rides through, or the OOORE (Occasional Optional Off Road Excursion).

Saturday morning we arrived a little before 7 am to a near empty parking area. It was at this point that we discovered the phrase “Be prepared to leave promptly at 7 am” was some sort of evil initiation rite for the first time rider. Although a few riders showed up over the next forty-five minutes, the majority arrived around 8:30 and after very casual registrations took place, we all rolled out somewhere around 10 am. Vague as the start time turned out to be, the ride organizers are quite clear about some things though: Leave your derailleurs and Lycra at home – this is an internally geared affair, the ride is leisurely and not a race, the philosophy hearkens back to an earlier and much more civilized day and age. In some ways, The Lake Pepin Three Speed Tour is reminiscent of the tweed ride phenomena. Riders are most appropriately attired in English duds from the thirties; most carry baggage and sport tweed caps – Carradice bags were in abundance, as were Brooks saddles of all sizes and shapes. And the ubiquitous Raleighs, along with scores of other similarly British tourist bikes, were oiled and rolling.

I was pleased to start and end the ride with my friend Ron. He has recently completed a Phillips three speed road bike. Along with another rider on a lovely Bates, the three of us comprised the drop bar category of three speed riders. All three of our bikes are somewhat “creative reinterpretations” of British club racers, rather that faithful restorations.

Camaraderie, rather than competitiveness, was a pleasant way for cyclists to journey over the roads and hills and rivers of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Stops were frequent and speed was not mentioned. After all, that would be bad form, sir. I enjoyed making new acquaintances, meeting folks like Shawn Granton who I “know” from various online locales - but was greeting in person for the first time, and was enjoyably startled by the number of people who knew me from The Early Morning Cyclist. 

On the first day, we stopped to enjoy a quasi-English garden luncheon. The costume of our group entertained many passersby and the vintage bikes stimulated not a few conversations.

I’ve never met a hill I couldn’t tackle on my Raleigh International three-speed conversion, geared as it is. The devilishly steep climb up to Maiden Rock – a side excursion, at that – proved to be my undoing and I wound up walking a couple hundred yards until the angle became more reasonable.

Getting to the top of the climb, then riding a loose gravel road, we thought we’d arrived at our destination. Little did we know that there would be a couple miles of bushwhacking ahead of us before we arrived at the Maiden Rock overlook.

The view from the top was well worth the extra effort, and the stiff wind that we felt was welcome as well after sweating and struggling up the slope!

My decades-old Carradice did its job well. As a reward, I’ve adorned it with the commemorative bag tag from the Tour. (I am afraid the leather straps from which the bag hangs off the saddle need replacing though. I guess fifty years is all one can expect out of them.) The bag support that I fashioned to function like a Carradice Bagman – and which has served me well over the past year or two – made the rough trip up and back, and supported the loaded bag the entire tour without issue. Back home this morning, I put the International on the bike stand to clean everything up, post-tour: One of the bag support stays snapped off in my hand! Time to fabricate a new one, I guess. Oh well, I did take today off from work after all…

Alex Singer Sportif – Chrome c.1980

azorch:

I believe I’ve made clear my admiration of Herse, Singer, Barra, and other bicycles of similar ilk. The ca. 1980 Alex Singer that is documented on the Vintage Bicycle blog (and which, incidentally, appears to be close to my own size) is one very impressively handsome looking machine.

Originally posted on Vintage Bicycle:

DSCF3940

Constructed around 1980 by Ernest Csuka in Reynolds 531 tubing, this is a fairly minimal sporting machine for fast riding. It is light, and equipped with the finest French components of the period. The Tevano triple chainset, made by TA, is basically a copy of its Campagnolo contemporary, with some arguing that it is even nicer than the Italian piece of kit! Gearing is the excellent Simplex SLJ5500 group which functions smoothly and quietly. Braking is via Mafac Competition calipers fitted with new Koolstop blocks which are indistinguishable from the original rubbers in all but their braking efficiency. Rims are Super Champion laced to Maillard hubs. The fittings are completed by Philippe bars and stem and a Brooks Professional saddle. There are the usual Singer refinements such as the custom made front brake cable hanger, chainstay protector loop, and brazed on rear cable hanger. Although the machine was filthy when…

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Easter morning in the Ozarks

Swish swish swish.

The sound of my legs rubbing against riding shorts as I pedal is almost deafening, contrasting as it does with the solitude of early morning in Mark Twain National Forest. The only other sound one hears is the crumble of gravel under my tires, the cawing of crows, an underlying cacophonous twittering of song birds, the rustle of dried underbrush as critters unknown shuffle unseen and nearly unnoticed along the ground. It’s Easter morning and I’m riding through the Ozark hills near Table Rock Lake. The roads are mine and mine alone. No one else is about.

Stopping to sketch in these dusky hours is a treat. The sun is only beginning to crest, shadows stretch across the road and merge with woods on the opposite side. Those trees are not yet choked with the lush and verdant foliage with which they will be festooned in the weeks to come. Young, green leaves peek out from branches that are otherwise yet bare, and I can see between the armies of thick tree trunks for hundreds of yards.

I’m moving slowly, my gearing is low. I have no place to be, no hurry to get there. I’m happy to discover that I have everything on my bike dialed in: from the overall fit, to my choice of gears to the – yes, once again! – change in saddle back to a comfortable leather Brooks.

Coming round a bend, I hear the distant murmer of breakfast sounds quietly filtering down the mountain from a house somewhere far above. People are beginning to stir. It’s time for me to return.