Independence Day Service

It’s Independence Day, and after a couple hours of riding this morning decided this was a good opportunity to dig into a job I’ve been putting off for a while. My fully chromed Katakura Silk is a real eye catcher but the wheel set that came with it has been very much neglected. The spokes need cleaned and inspected, but I was more worried about the hubs in particular. I wondered if they’d ever been serviced in their lifetime. Pulling off the freewheel and the cones, my fears were confirmed: I was confronted by the ugliest jellied-looking grease I’ve ever seen. It’s no wonder they felt sluggish; I doubt the grease has had any lubricating effect in years!

Perhaps thirty minutes was all it took to tear the hubs down, clean them up, apply a generous coat of new grease and replace the loose ball bearings – thirty very productive minutes, and a good investment of that time. Apron still tied around my waist, I hopped on the bike and rode up and down the street, marveling at how much smoother the wheels spin now.

The spokes will take a fair bit more of an investment in time. Perhaps I’ll scrub those this afternoon.

Or perhaps I’ll enjoy a cold beer out under one of the shade trees in the yard instead.

Cyclo-Touring the French Countryside

The Early Morning Cyclist has returned from abroad! As we’re wont to do, our journeys are frequently made afoot or upon two wheels. In my opinion, the best way to see and get to know a place is slowly. Without meaning to do so, our selected itinerary took us to regions of France that are off the beaten path for Americans. So while we happily hobnobbed with folks from around the globe who, like us, were thoroughly enjoying the Alsace and Bourgogne regions, American voices were quite few and far between.

This (above) is what I had hoped to see as we meandered about, but we were ten days into the journey before stumbling across a beausaged example of vintage randonneur style of bike. Sadly, it seems France has embraced hybrid bikes. To my distress I observed ample evidence of a nearly complete abandonment of traditional frames in favor of these uncomfortable (but cheap, I guess) bikes that sport mountain bike gears and awkward flat bars. Tragic to see a loss of character as well as aesthetic in mainstream bicycle designs.

The majority of our time was dedicated to small villages and beautiful countryside. Turning any random corner often yielded a nice surprise. For me, these were often a photo op and I found myself stopping and starting to take advantage of each opportunity.


 

 

I have great difficulty not romanticizing the place, so I’ll try to temper my enthusiasm. That caveat in place, imagine a verdant countryside of lush vineyards linking one small village after another every few kilometers.

 

Once in a village, one discovers roads that, like those in the country, are in an excellent state of repair even though they are often cobbled. Buildings are mostly hundreds of years old, many dating to medieval times.

 

 

The charm and picturesque nature is overwhelming. I feel as though I’m on a calendar photo shoot for Hallmark and cannot stop making images of whatever place I find myself in. Everywhere is wonderful!

 

 

One of my favorite places was our first “base camp,” a medieval village named Eguisheim (above).

 

We were fortunate enough to be in Eguisheim for the village’s annual flea market. The entire village is wall-to-wall with tables and there’s a day-long celebration with all proceeds benefitting the incredible historic church building at the village center. At one booth we came across our host from the vineyard we were staying at. He plied us with wine and sat on a bench next to a fountain sipping the local product and eating tarte flambé. Ah! This is definitely the life!

 

Rather than shipping bikes, we hired them after arriving. This was definitely more convenient, but the trade off was that our “hosses” were the hybrid design I so despise (above). And after tallying the costs of several days rental, it is clear that even paying the extortion rates the airlines charge for shipping, we’d still have been spending less bringing our own bikes.

 

Further down the road is an incredible restoration underway of the 13th century structure at Chateau du Haut Koeningsbourg.

 

One day, struggling to make a long and steep climb, we paused beneath the shade of a grove of cherry trees for a rest. Along with a few other cyclists of like minds, we plucked handfuls of the ripe fruit, staining our hands – and I my white shirt. Enjoying the shade and a cool breeze, we were startled to hear the roar of a powerful engine coming down the mountain in our direction. Suddenly a Ferrari burst around the corner and zoomed by. It was followed immediately by another, and then another racing beauty. For the next half hour we watched as one exotic sports car after another raced past our spot and downward toward the village.

 

In Alsace, this sort of bike could be found in abundance.

 

Dining upon wine and charcuterie, we enjoyed the ambiance of the vineyard, studied maps, and made sketches. I’ll share those after I get a chance to scan them in next week.

 

I am unapologetically taken by simple charm and elegance. As a teacher I am also horrified that we no longer teach children penmanship, so receiving a lovely handwritten receipt at dinner was something I appreciated more than I could express to our hostess.


 

Although I searched diligently for vintage cycling gear, there was little to be found. I especially hoped to locate a bell or two – but alas! It was not to be. I came across the housing for a pair of tail lights, some interesting photographs of Tour riders, and a few bicycle-related toys. But that was the extent of my discoveries.

 

 

 

Rolling through the vineyards of Alsace

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We find ourselves in Eguisheim, France for the time being. Eguisheim is part of the Alsace region, a land of verdant, rolling hills blanketed by vineyards that connect quaint villages with often Medieval era structures, old world charm, and friendly people. The best way to explore this place is by foot or on two wheels; our new friends at Alsa Cyclo Tours, Maxime Helderle and Ugo Georges Meyer, helped to get us onto bikes so that we could journey forth these past few days.

 

 

 

Tiny footsteps

Riding fixed wheel is such a pleasure. Generally speaking, one’s bike is very light and the mechanism is absurdly simple. And aside from occasionally finding a need to stop, the only thing one needs to focus upon is spinning the crank.

On Sunday mornings I like to take the Hobbs out to the downtown airport to ride the relatively flat 6 kilometer circuit. The airport is right next to the Missouri River. Large sections of the road are adjacent to the water. The “Big Muddy” is very wide and riders have little in the way of a wind break from any direction. On hot summer days, the wind sock hangs limp from the pole and cyclists ride circles around the airport, gasping in the sweat drenching humidity as they try to best personal or course speed records. On mornings like this morning, one simply tries to stave off the wall of wind encountered upon heading south on the long straightaway pointing toward downtown.

As usual, I woke early. The world was completely still outside as I whipped up a quick breakfast. As the sun crested the horizon though, the wind began to pick up, and by the time I’d completed my bicycle ride pre-check it had gotten pretty stiff.

At the airport this was particularly so. Flags whipped straight out from the poles, and little dervishes of dust danced across the tarmac. The starting point is blessedly free from wind however, as I initially duck under the highway and along a tunnel roofed by road and walled by buildings. I don’t ride fixed wheel every day, so it always takes me a few minutes to ease back into the rhythm. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I don’t have a freewheel and that I cannot coast, but mostly I find myself on that first lap speaking out loud to no one in particular, “Loosen up, loosen up.” The key is to simply spin and even though the course is mostly flat, there are a couple of small hills. The descent is just steep enough to get the pedals turning quite fast. If I fight that rotation, or try to control it too much I wind up losing my footing. When I manage to loosen up I find that I can spin very fast. Sometimes that’s tricky for me to maintain: Coming out of the descent and into the flat I realize how sloppy my pedaling has been over the previous week of riding bikes with freewheel hubs. There’s still quite a lot of momentum moving into the flat and I’m always surprised by the sense of urgency my rear wheel has, the sense of the crank goading my legs to spin much longer than seems reasonable. With a freewheel, I realize I must take a bit of a break, either coasting or pedaling lightly. On the Hobbs I have no choice but to continue to pedal.

I like it when other cyclists comment on whichever bike I’m riding at the time. As I’ve mentioned before, they’re often taken aback to discover I’m holding my own on a bike of a particular vintage. (“Old,” is the thought that goes through their head I am sure.) This morning a fellow rider took a couple of laps with me. I’m not sure what he rode – it was a pretty recent model and certainly much newer than my 1946 Hobbs. Nary a word was spoken about the age of the bike, but he was impressed that we were cruising along at pretty good clip and “only one bike had gears.” With the wind at our backs we rode side-by-side and picked up quite a head of steam. The tailwind made this stress free and it was easy to chat as we rode. Coming around the bend and into the head wind, it was another story. I ducked low into the drops and pushed forward, my new friend gratefully held onto my rear wheel. I managed to maintain a respectable cadence but the wall of wind took a greater and greater toll on me each lap.

Coming out of the wind and under the bridges it felt like I was being slingshotted forward. My legs still rubbery from fighting the wind, it took a moment or two to realize I didn’t have to struggle. I’m not a racer, but I imagine the sense of euphoria, emerging from the blast and into the helping hand of the southwestern airflow – well, I imagine that must make one feel as though they’ve conquered … well, conquered something.

An hour of this and I am tapped out. I think about the name on my top tube: “A. Burnet.” A few months after this bike was built, a cyclist by that name set the club record for 24 hours. Andy Burnet, atop this very bike, went 410 miles in 24 hours. By my reckoning, that means he had to maintain an average of over 17 mph for that entire time. My footsteps are very tiny indeed as I step into his!

How high’s the water, Mama?

I sat here a couple days ago, miserable and bemoaning the fact that it was noon and yet too dark outside to even read by. As it is again this morning, dense cloud cover and pouring rain blacken the sky to the extent that it actually seems as though night never really ended. Our one constant, it seems, has been rain, and many of us miss seeing the sun.

I don’t mind riding in the rain, but I have to draw the line at deluge. Over the last few weeks, Mother Nature has blessed us with nearly sixteen inches of precipitation, often coming to us via crashing thunderstorms. Flash flooding has caused the evacuation of nearby Mosby not just once, but twice in this time. I frequently ride through that small rural community, but for the moment a visit is not possible unless I pull along a canoe.

Other of my favorite routes are cut off as well. I am so grateful for full coverage fenders at the moment; when the infrequent opportunities to hit the road between cloud bursts occur, I am finding every ride is an adventure, but at least my feet and bottom bracket remain mostly dry.

My iPhone sports a handy weather app that I find myself consulting with far too much frequency these past days. And to what end? Really, this is an act of utter frustration – one minute the forecast calls for clear weather and then – literally – only minutes later the hourly prognostication shows it’s all gone to hell in a handcart. A glance out the window only serves to confirm this. There’s a new route I have been wanting to explore for a while. I thought to do so this morning, but even as I pick up my iPhone a slow rumble of thunder growls in the distance and the patter of rain begins anew, tapping out a soft staccato cadence upon the fat Cottonwood leaves outside my window. The app informs me that the rain should clear out within two hours, but my window of opportunity is both narrow and fleeting: by mid-afternoon it will return, yet again overstaying its welcome throughout the remainder of the weekend.

Trees, foliage, flowers – they are all loving it. My yard is lush. I leave for France in a couple of days and worry the weather and yard won’t dry enough for me to cut the grass before it’s time to depart. I don’t want to return to a jungle, but that is seemingly the most likely scenario.

As I type this, the room grows progressively darker. Thunder rumbles. The cat is making odd noises and pacing along the window sill, the dog is cowering in the guest room. Yet birds throughout the neighborhood are singing loudly. Even though the shower has evolved into a volley, their clamor and din can be still be heard between bursts. I think that’s a sign of some sort.

I think I’ll go check my tire pressure, you know, just in case.

I don’t want to stop.