How new wheels made me stronger and cleaner

It’s Sunday morning, foggy and humid. Droplets of water formed on the hairs of my arms about five minutes into my ride, and I feel like a weak second grader.

On second thought, a relatively healthy second grader would probably drop me going up the first hill. How strange, I think to myself. I felt so strong riding at BikeMo yesterday.


 

For the past two years I’ve been promising myself a new set of wheels for my Boulder Brevet. Those I’ve been riding since first building it up were some I had on hand – heavier, mismatched and lower end wheels. But the front had a Sanyo dyno-hub and the rear…well it fit. And so I rode that ugly, bullet proof wheel set for three years and about 20,000 miles with nary a problem.

Still, I promised myself and my Boulder better. Probably two years ago I got serious and began pondering what I might do if I possibly one day, maybe, upgraded. I even called Mark Pace at Pace Bicycle Haven and he gave me a lot of really good options to consider. This is great! I told him on the phone. I’m ready to pull the trigger! And so I did… consider the options …for another two years.

Never one to deliberate too long, I immediately acted two years later and met with Mark to discuss even further what options I had. A flurry of email exchanges began and he patiently provided me with new insights – the kind of insights that get you excited enough to get busy with other things and then promptly ignore those insights for another month. (At which time I asked him how long will these take to build? Cuz I’d like to use them on a metric century ride in a week or two. True story.)

Last week Mark called and told me to come out and get my wheels. So there I was, four hours after his normal closing time, my bike on his stand, and we’re pulling tires off the old bullet proof rims.

“Hey,” he says. “You know your rear derailleur hanger is bent? It’s also got a lot of gunk on it.”

I said “Yeah, I know, but it actually shifts just fine. I’ve been meaning to fix it for a couple of years now.”

He got out a gizmo that I think he probably fabricated himself for this very purpose and straightened it up so that the pulleys actually lined up under the cogs. I confess that Mark’s attention to this purely decorative detail did make things look and shift a lot better.

“Do you ever clean your chain?” he asked me next. I was outraged at this slight, because of course I do, once a year whether it needs it or not. He suggested that I could probably use the flat blade of a screwdriver to scrape what appeared to be a thick black sludge off the pulleys he’d just lined up. I conceded that it was a good thought.

Getting the rear tire mounted and checking the alignment, the next thing I see is a puzzled look on his face as he turns the pedals and looks down. “Hmm. The big chain ring looks like it might be out of true.” He reaches for the custom rear derailleur alignment tool, slots it up and exclaims “Well hey!” He exclaims thusly because it turns out the ring is not out of true…it’s way loose. In fact all of the chain ring bolts are loose. With the sort of patience one normally reserves for a very young child, Mark mentions that I might want to check those every now and then… y’know – to avoid the ring coming off mid-stroke and becoming embedded in my calf.

I’m a little taken aback at the chain ring. A few weeks earlier I kept hearing a clicking noise when I pedaled and couldn’t identify the source. I checked everything – including the chair ring – and eventually re-greased my seat pin. The sound went away and I was content. Apparently I should have dug deeper.

The wheels – Shimano hubs with Velocity A23 and A23OC rims – are noticeably lighter than those that came off the Boulder. Eventually we got them on, aligned, and numerous other overlooked elements of bike maintenance were taken care of, many of which were the result of poor maintenance and simply not keeping things clean. I can attest to this because it looks some industrial strength cleaner to remove the sludge that had been on my bike from my hands and arms.


 

The next day my bike was cleaned until it sparkled. All of the remaining loose bolts were snugged up and some overdue lube was liberally applied in a few important places.


 

Although I took the bike and new wheels out for a short test spin around town on Friday afternoon, the real shakedown was on Saturday morning at BikeMO. There aren’t a lot of “pay to ride” events that I participate in but the route on BikeMo starts at a picturesque winery located on the river bluffs in Rocheport, then proceeds to meander through charming small towns and farm communities in Missouri River farmland country. Rather than a bunch of racer wannabes, the riders are always an eclectic bunch comprised of racers, tourers, bike advocates, regular-average-everyday-actual-people, kids, etc. I promised myself not to attempt any sort of “event pacing,” but instead to just ride at whatever pace felt good.

Pancake flat stretches of river bottom acreage are punctuated by steep climbs out of farmland into the up and down rolling hills and inclines of bluffs that overlook the Missouri River.

The first SAG stop is at the historic railroad depot in Boonville, on the KATY Trail. The KATY parallels part of the ride route and for those who want to avoid some of the early climbs an alternate trail route option is available.

Despite the promise I made to myself I found I was riding very fast. Maybe it was the lighter wheels. Perhaps it was the crisper shifting of the derailleur. Maybe it was purely the hocus pocus of self delusion, but my pedaling was strong. I never felt tired. I stayed in the big ring and the small cogs, hanging with the faster riders most of the way. Could the new wheels really have made so big a difference?

I really had my doubts. Clearly, clean living had paid off and this new found strength was the result. Clearly I deserved a reward for my efforts.

In spite of the winery location I opted for a honey wheat local brew, the first taste of which I can assure you tasted like a tiny slice of heaven. The remaining health foods were excellent pairings, so I had another honey wheat. Or two.


 

So, this morning I went out for a ride. Heading out to the garage I felt good. Memories of yesterday’s herculean ride effort were still quite fresh in my mind.

But one pedal stroke down the road I knew something was wrong. My legs were rubbery. My brain cried out “Downshift!” I had a sudden fantasy that involved my head buried into my pillow. Instead of taking off like a rocket, the Boulder rumbled in a generally forward direction. Today was a new and different day.

But my bike sure looks clean.

The sky threatened…

…but the rain never came. It was cool – unseasonably so for late August in Missouri – and breezy, and a nearly perfect morning to cycle aimlessly. Even more so when the clouds burned off completely a few hours later…

Eventually, morning comes to an end. I break for lunch, after which we plan to go back out again. Listen – we don’t get too many days like this, so you gotta take ’em when you can get ’em.

Why morning?

For as long as I can remember I’ve been a morning person. I like wandering around before the day has begun, before anyone else is around, before my iPhone starts the continuous vibration that indicates one more person has emailed me with a question, a concern, a suggestion. Even the dog leaves me alone, minutely raising her head from the couch she’s not supposed to be sleeping on, a single eye briefly opens nearly to midpoint then closes again, followed by snores.

Cycling in the dark before dawn and in the low light just as the sun is coming up is nearly always a wonderful experience for me. This was particularly so yesterday morning, the air cool and still – a welcome break from the noxious humidity of the last four or five weeks, the atmosphere at times so thick it was nearly unbearable.

Despite a cool start, this morning marked the return of humidity. As usual, I was alone with my thoughts riding along dark roads in the dusk just before dawn. Cresting the horizon, the sun brought forth light and sound: First birds, followed by the roar of cicadas. Returning to the city I was surprised to see the number of runners and cyclists enjoying the early morning. Perhaps we all were in search of early morning solace as a sort of preventive salve for the coming wave of heat.

What is truth?

I confess to being more than a little bit of a geek when I come across an interesting vintage bike “in the wild.” Quite often I’ll whip out my iPhone and snap a photograph so that I can examine the details later on at my leisure. Less frequently, I have the freedom and liberty to make a sketch. While a sharply focused photograph can be a valuable documentation of an unusual discovery, I find I enjoy the sketch all the more. For one thing, it’s something I’ve created by hand – and the act of doing so very much appeals to me and my aesthetic sense. For another, sketching affords me the luxury of including or ignoring as much detail as I wish. Photos include everything that appears within the frame. In my previous life I made photographs professionally, and I can assure you that a lot of effort went into set creation and organization. But out on the street, one is pretty much stuck with whatever one sees: light poles, trash, cars, people – the sort of distractions one can effortlessly eliminate in a sketch.

I also don’t feel constricted by pure documentation when I make a sketch. The mixte frame above was interesting enough that in a few short minutes I very roughly sketched it out in pencil, then continued on my merry way walking about the city of Dijon. Along the way I encountered several other vintage bikes; those that caught my eye were, perhaps, noted. Later on when I decided to tighten up the rough sketch I realized I hadn’t bothered to make field notes: with no idea what color the original bike had been, I decided to go with the colors I recalled from a completely different bike, a vintage Thiely randonneur. As I tell my students, it’s not about making your art true – it’s about discovering a greater truth. I’m quite content with this approach.

The elderly man riding the city bike (top image) never happened. The bike was leaning on a kick stand out in the street, and the opportunity to sketch a stationary object was a nice change from the quick, gestural studies I’d been making of people moving along the crowded sidewalk. Later, I added the man from an observational study I’d made of a fellow wandering around a market. The painting is a sort of collage of sketches, and I think is more reflective of what I had hoped to see than what I actually observed.

I often use this space to share what I refer to as “bike sketches,” those quickly and often very spontaneously inked studies of the places I happen to find myself visiting by bicycle. Like this study of the Broadway Bridge spanning the Missouri River in downtown Kansas City, these are normally more gestural than anything else. Only infrequently does a bicycle actually appear in these scribbles: the bike tends to be the vehicle that makes possible that view I’m attempting to capture. And thus, I call them “bike sketches.” I think it’s notable the difference between the more graphic nature of a bike sketch and the subtle and more sedate watercolor sketches at the top of this page. For me as an artist, they are both equally valid means of expression, and equally valid means of communicating something I find important either via a bicycle, or in relation to bicycles in general. I’m not interested in riding my bike fast, and not especially interested in the latest, greatest technological innovations either. I prefer a slower paced, more thoughtful essence, I suppose. It’s significant that two seemingly different behaviors – cycling and drawing – are yet remarkably similar in the way they mirror that attraction.

And there, it seems to me, lies an interesting truth with much more to be further explored.

Rain

I’m usually not a big baby about rain – really, I’m not.

Waking early this morning to the rumble of thunder, I tried to peer out into the darkness and get some idea just how wet the world had become overnight. No lightning, which was positive. I tried to roll over and go back to sleep, but I was enjoying listening to the patter of rain against the window immediately above my head. I lay like that for another half hour and then realizing I was wide awake and probably staying that way, I gave up, crawled out of bed and wandered out to the kitchen. Still too dark to get any sense of things, I opened the outside door.

Whoooom! The dense humidity and latent heat shocked my system and immediately fogged my glasses. Only a few droplets fell from above, but I couldn’t see anything else to give me any sense whether this was a brief respite or the end of things. Dawn would arrive in about forty minutes, so I headed back indoors, figuring I’d use that time productively. I’ve a commission I needed to begin, and forty minutes later I’d made a good start on the sketch. Glancing out the window the world was beginning to brighten, but it was still very gray. Time to ride.

A few drops here and there don’t faze me one little bit. As I pedaled down the street, the rain was light but steady. Interesting, the rain was almost comforting. No wind, just the steady fall of warm water. Within a mile I was thoroughly soaked, but feeling not at all like turning back. It’s Saturday, and the vendors arrive early to set up the local Farmer’s Market. I had shopping to do and headed for the square.

It was surprising to see so much hustle and bustle so early. Normally at this time of morning, the square is very quiet with perhaps a solitary runner or walker in view. Today, folks were up and about and wandering around from stall to stall, carrying armloads of melons and corn and bread and beans.

I wheeled my bike from stall to stall, studying the produce, pondering what I might cook for dinner tonight. Stowing my purchases carefully in the front bag, I felt a change in the air. Suddenly, the wind began to pick up. Farmers grabbed and held onto the poles of their tents. Rain began in ernest, coming down in sheets. The world was immediately wet – really, really damn wet. Taking shelter under a tree next to one of the Amish stalls, I decided to wait things out for a few minutes. Clearly, Mother Nature had more rain than I did patience. So with a wave to the Amish, I mounted up and headed out.

Rain blew directly at me, a wall of water for a few more minutes. My clothes were drenched. My cycling cap was a sponge. Water poured down my face and I could taste salt as it ran across my lips. Puddles were broad lakes and I dodged them when I could, thankful – not for the first time, and certainly not for the last! – for full coverage fenders. I turned on my front light, “just in case.”

Then just as suddenly as it had begun, the world of water went slack. Once again, it was just a steady, light rain. As I said before, I’m usually not a big baby when it comes to rain. And I certainly wasn’t going to start being a baby today.

Swap meet score

The best ten dollars I’ve spent in a long time: Several pairs of CLB brake hoods for MAFAC Racer brake levers, new in the bag and still incredibly supple; ten real, honest-to-goodness rubber tire patch kits (not pictured)…the glue is questionable, but the patches are like gold to me; a pair of obnoxiously bright pink toe straps (the wife’s bike gets pinker and pinker every day); several NOS cycling caps…all in all, a nice little score for a tiny little swap meet. And the best part is that the big one – the El Torreon swap meet – is still yet to come this Sunday!

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.