Bike Sketching

As I consider how to write today’s post, I am given pause to think that my original intentions for this journal have evolved considerably. In the beginning The Early Morning Cyclist was mostly about the “creative restoration” and riding of vintage road bikes. Over time I began to focus more on the different ride qualities inherent in the various road bikes I encountered. This has been an enjoyable pursuit, by the way, and I especially appreciate having had the opportunity to consider which bikes best met my own cycling needs and wants. I am a taller rider, for instance, and so that particular characteristic had to be considered. Too, bicycles that rode very well or had a great reputation for doing so for smaller riders might not necessarily be appropriate for my longer legs. And because I prefer a stretched out position on the bike, my opinions would be different than those who opt to ride in a more upright position.

The past few years, the emphasis of The Early Morning Cyclist has been more about the ride itself. JRA outings. Staying in the saddle and heading for destinations unknown. Exploring the world on two wheels – that sort of thing.

I’ve used this opportunity to combine two things that are dear to me: non-competitive cycling and drawing.

My interests are often fleeting – or at any rate, evolving – and what interests me at the moment is what I refer to as “bike sketching.” Bike sketching is just something I made up, and very far from anything even remotely formalized. Because, quite frankly, I’ve grown very weary of labels. Are you a road biker or a mountain biker? Neither? Really? (Oh. You must be one of those randonneurs I’ve heard talk of.) Are you a painter? Do you do portraits or landscapes? Are you a Modernist? Are you a member of the Urban Sketcher movement? What watercolor society do you belong to?

Holy crap! Enough already…let me just do my own thing the way I want to do it.

So.

Bike sketching.

Bike sketching has only a couple of requirements: a comfortable, classic bike that fits me; a minimal sketching kit, and the means to carry it. I don’t have to dress up in Lycra to go bike sketching, and I don’t have to measure up to anyone else’s cycling standards or artist expectations. I just go out and do it when time, opportunity, and the inclination strike me to do so. At times, I feel a bit like a documentarian, stopping to scrawl a quick interpretation of the place or people I encounter along the way. At other times I’m interested in something as simple and aesthetically pleasing as the way shadows are falling across buildings or early evening light is cast across a hayfield. I’m not interested in capturing anything remotely or photographically accurate, but the honesty of the moment, of the marks I make on paper, and of the reactions paint makes upon that surface – yes, those things interest me very much.

I’m often asked what I do with those drawings – many people presume I must have some greater purpose, that I’m preparing for a big show, or continuing the research for a new book. The answer might surprise many people: Nothing. I do nothing with these drawings, other than scan them and add them to The Early Morning Cyclist when the fit hits me. Archive them on my Flickr account. Allow them to remain bound within my sketchbooks, safe on a shelf, perhaps to be rediscovered years from now. Who knows?

This summer, the most enjoyable bike sketching has come about from visiting the farmer’s market. There are so many interesting people wandering about, picking and choosing vegetables, selling bread, and so forth. They seem to come from so many walks of life, too. The two fellows I’ve included in today’s journal were both farmers selling their produce. I don’t know a lot more about them than that, and maybe I should have spoken with them, gotten their stories. But I was quite content to quickly scribble their likeness onto a page using just a stub of a pencil, light construction lines forming a mishmash of scrawled artistic shorthand that is probably only interpretable by me, and me alone. Sometimes I’ll forgo the pencil and work directly in ink using a fountain pen, but the examples I share today were inked at the drawing table, days later.

Like the act of riding itself, I’m not so much interested in “the product” as I am intrigued by the process: how a combination of pencil lines on paper can suggest a likeness, the loosely controlled lines of ink emerging out of the chaos of a construction drawing, and the dynamics of water and pigment, dancing across the page like a surfer who understands that one does not control the water so much as learn to ride the wave.

Just ambling and rambling

Ambling and rambling, just riding around. No real destination in mind, no actual course or route either. These last few days have brought us an unseasonably early chill in the mornings, and luxuriously cool afternoons. Autumn is upon us, arriving quicker than anyone thought possible. Life is otherwise a bit frantic, so my bike time and JRA outings combine well with this enjoyable weather.

I need these opportunities to chill, relax and let my mind wander. To amble around and pretend for a moment that I’ve no responsibilities whatsoever. The carefree nature of wandering is liberating as well. I know there are lessons to be planned, meeting notes to digest, groceries to be bought, laundry to ignore. So it’s nice to allow all those things to slip away for an hour or two.

I’m surprised to see so few other cyclists along the road. Granted, the wind was pretty fierce yesterday, and the sky so gray one might be forgiven for thinking the clouds were about to burst open and pour buckets. Still, the wind can be overlooked for a while, and the rain never did make good on the threat. Sunset is arriving earlier each day, and I have to remember to keep my headlight charged so that it will be available should my cycling excursion go longer than anticipated.

I usually hate the wind, but a blustery Autumn day – even a day that arrives when it’s still quite fully summertime – well a blustery Autumn day suits me just fine. I’m not planning to ride like a racer under any circumstances anyway, so I’ll plug away when the winds blow against me, and enjoy the boost of a tailwind when my journey loops in that direction. And then I’ll continue to amble along. To wander. To mosey. And ramble, and roam.

Don’t be nuts

It’s 50 degrees outside, the birds are singing, and absolutely no wind is forecast for the coming day. We shouldn’t top out above 70 even, so if you’re in the Midwest and you’re not living every stinking moment outdoors today, just wandering and taking it all in, then you’re absolutely crazy. 

Words can wait until later. There’s an art fair in Westport today. Gotta go check the air pressure in my tires, stuff a sketchbook into a jersey pocket, and then I’m out of here.

The hiatus is over.

 

The Early Morning Cyclist has been on a bit of a hiatus. The end of summer is a busy time: Preparing for the return of students seems to take longer and demand more attention than one might imagine. The start of school also means that I have less opportunity to carve out time to ride, fewer occasions to sketch. I’ve managed to keep both in my schedule, but not with the frequency or freedom to which I grow accustomed each June and July.

650b has provided me an opportunity to extend my cycling a bit further afield during these sweltering summer days. One morning I scurried along the gravel segment of Bluff Road near Missouri City. 

I discovered yet another gravel road intersects it before meandering up into the bluffs and hills, and then tantalizingly disappearing into a surfeit of trees and thick foliage: this fact was duly noted and further exploration of said road planned for a later date, when the foliage begins to transform into a bouquet of burgundy and ochre and burnt sienna.

Less time means shorter outings, so I find myself having to relearn how to “think small,” to take advantage of those serendipitous moments that Chance throws my way. Saturday mornings, for instance, are when I visit the local farmers market. It’s only a few miles to the square and the fresh produce for which I shop will easily fit in my front bag. And who doesn’t enjoy just wandering around a farmers market? Colorful produce, interesting looking people, friendly hustle and bustle – it’s all good, and provides me with quite an abundance of opportunity to sketch while I’m there.

I carry a sketchbook and pen with me most places, especially when I ride – I’ve begun to call this “bike sketching.” Hardly a catchy phrase, I know, but it pretty much sums up the approach.

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The one long ride I managed to crowd into my schedule was BikeMo, a charity ride benefitting the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation. This organization advocates for bicycle and pedestrian access, safety, and education in our state, and they put on a great annual ride. This year’s route, as it did last year, began outside Rocheport, Missouri and traversed highways that bisected bucolic pastures and endless rows of corn, rolled over hills and through woods and up to and around scenic vistas of central Missouri, and the Missouri River.

Rocheport to Booneville to Blackwater, and on to Arrow Rock – all small, charming, and historic town. And while the heat was truly stifling this year, the SAG stops were well maintained, the people friendly, and the drivers sparse and (mostly) courteous.

I was interested to see how the Cycles Toussaint 650B handled over a 96 mile ride that included heat, flats, rolling hills, and a couple of long, steep climbs. I don’t ride at race speed on the very best of days, and this was no exception. Early on, and while I was still fresh, I did manage to impress myself with the speed at which the flats were covered. Moving into the rolling hills, that speed began to fall off precipitously. My gearing is intentionally low; even though I was passed by many, I never had a problem climbing any of the hills. The Brooks Pro saddle, as I’ve often said, is a good fit for my sit bones and was well suited for the long, hot ride. I remain impressed by the comfort of riding high volume/low pressure 650B tires, and I am happy with the Velo Routier for both short and long outings. The biggest issue I confronted was the heat: As the thermometer began to flirt with the upper 90’s, I found myself with 13 miles to go and probably bordering on heat exhaustion. I was ecstatic to discover the final SAG stop had ice!

Hot, sweaty, and frickin’ exhausted, my tank was totally empty by the end of the ride. I could have stuck around for a couple of hours for the music, but food beckoned. 

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By total happenstance, we stumbled upon a criterium race while visiting Burlington, Vermont over the Labor Day holiday. The Cat 1 race was particularly exciting, with a nineteen year old rider – in his first professional race – totally wiping the field.

The reason you see him alone in the photo below is because he was cleaning everyone’s clock, and very nearly lapped the pack. Over fifty laps, he held the break away for more than thirty laps. No one ever came close to reeling him in, and the crowd became more and more excited.

And me? I enjoyed a frothy repast while that speedy kid worked for his purse.

 

So How’s That Kool-Aid Taste?

How much of the mystical, mythical magic carpet ride quality of 650b is hype and how much is reality? I confess that I was fully prepared to be underwhelmed. Instead, I’m more than a little astonished at just how significantly these tires and wheel size improve my riding experience. For one thing, the wheels spin up much more quickly than I had anticipated they would – whether it is the slightly smaller wheel diameter, or the Pacenti Pari-Moto tires, the Velo Routier is not the sluggish beast I feared it might turn out to be. Additionally, riding wide, low pressure tires that are quick is an exceptional characteristic that really does enhance one’s encounter with the road.

This pleasant riding experience resulted in a rare lucid moment of clarity for me: I realized the profound difference between a road bike and the type of bicycle that meets my needs. Road bikes are designed and marketed around racing bike technology. They are marketed to racing wannabes – or, at least, to some twisted vicarious illusion of racing. Walk into any bike shop around here and the conversation is all about speed. Racers ride bikes with the sole purpose of getting someplace fast. As quickly as possible. Think about it, the longer a racer spends in the saddle the less chance there is of winning the race. There’s no real upside to staying in the saddle any longer than absolutely necessary – and that mindset certainly rubs off on many, if not most, riders.

On the other hand, I’m interested in staying comfortably in the saddle. And the kind of bike that fits my needs allows me to do precisely that. An epiphany? Maybe. Profound? Perhaps I’m overstating things a bit. Nevertheless, I am duly impressed with the 650b experience.

The majority of my riding is upon the lunar landscape of chip seal and potholes that is the connective thread we call a “road system” in Missouri. I’ve become quite adept at dodging cracks and holes and all manner of debris that seems to be strewn willy-nilly across the rural highways and back roads of Clay County. And frankly, you just about have to be a cycling acrobat if you want to safely negotiate some roads on 700 x 23 tires.

I gave up on those years back.

Most of my bikes now sport 700 x 28 tires that absorb some of the road crap. I’ve become quite enthusiastic about wider, sportier, cushier tires. And maybe it’s a little surprising that it’s taken so long for me to finally investigate 650b. But as I’m a suspicious guy, and if it walks like hype and talks like hype and smells like hype…well, it’s my experience that it’s generally going to be hype.

Only, as it turns out, it’s not.

And no one could be happier to discover this deviation from human nature than good old cynical me.

So now I’m a proud 650b cyclist. I’ve added a Cycles Toussaint Velo Routier to the herd. The Velo Routier came to me with a full build kit, and (of course) I replaced much of that kit. The MicroShift front derailleur is gone, replaced by a braze-on Shimano 600. The Gyres saddle that looks so nice and is as comfortable as a porcupine shoved up one’s rectal cavity has been exchanged for a 70’s era Brooks Professional. Velo-Orange makes an excellent “add on” for saddles without bag loops, and I’ve installed those to facilitate the hanging of an Acorn bag. What else? Oh, I really like the Velo-Orange Grand Cru Chris’s Rando Handlebar and the Shimano M-324 pedals I have on my Boulder, so those are now on the Velo Routier as well. Unlike the Boulder, this bike requires a quill stem, so I’ve traded the flexy thing that came with the bike for a tall Nitto Technomic with a little extra reach.

I carefully prepared the bars with seven layers of clear shellac over two layers of red Tressostar cotton twill. I like the feel of cotton bar wrap coated with shellac against my hands so much that I seldom wear cycling gloves with this set up. I also appreciate the smooth, matte appearance of shellac-coated bar wrap after it’s been handled by sweaty, ungloved palms for a few hundred miles.

What I like most about my Boulder Brevet is that it just fits me perfectly. That perception is very confidence inspiring. I feel like I can just get up and go, without worrying about anything. I’ve tried to dial in the fit of the Velo Routier to mimic that same feeling, while also being able to take advantage of the qualities of a wider tire.

Part of the process of getting the fit dialed in is simply getting out there and riding the bike in a variety of conditions. (And I’ve no problem with that!) With the number of my free summer days swiftly dwindling, I’ve taken to an assortment of roads and pathways.

My first real shake down ride was on the flat gravel of the KATY Trail. Riding from Pilot Grove to Rocheport, Missouri I started out gingerly enough. I’d experienced several flats while still in town. Even though I diagnosed the problem (some weird holes on the inside of the rim) and had remedied the situation (electrical tape over the holes), I didn’t relish the thought of having to change tubes again and again. My worry was needless; the electrical tape solved the problem, and by the time I had eaten lunch and was on the return jog, I found myself pedaling along at a brisk pace. The tires ate up the gravel and the pace was enjoyable. Time to give things a real test.

I hit the road bright and early. The plan was to navigate into the city, through some industrial areas and across the river into downtown, loop back through a different industrial area, cross the river and head back to the comfort of suburbia.

The roads in downtown are remarkable similar in disrepair to those in the countryside. Stop lights at every intersection, a few hills here and there, and one certainly hopes to be able to accelerate quickly, to stop with assurance. In this regard, the Velo Routier does not disappoint. As mentioned before, the wheels spin up quickly, and I was pleased with responsive acceleration – not race car g-force acceleration, but neither did it feel as though getting going was a chore. Stopping, slowing, and modulation of braking is a pleasure. The brazed-on Dia-Compe 750 brakes work perfectly. I love and prefer center pulls anyway, and these simply confirm the rationality of my affection.

Because I planned to stop along the way at the Cellar Rat to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t jarring the bottle terribly.

This was a very real concern because from The Cellar Rat, my route took me through some pretty torn up tarmac to get to The Local Pig to pick up something to eat for said dinner. Little good would it do me to select a nice vintage, only to destroy it crossing the infinite crosshatchings of railroad track. High volume/low pressure tires – what a wonderful concept! Magic carpet ride, indeed! I imagine that my bottle of Cab enjoyed the cushy ride as much as I did.

 

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.”