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!


4 thoughts on “Tiny footsteps

  1. My post-three speed tour Quickbeam doesn’t have the interesting history of your lovely Hobbs, but it’s back in fixed wheel configuration. I enjoy the sensations, and with the fancy tires it rolls along at a (for me) spirited pace. Sweet simplicity.

    • I couldn’t agree more. My bikes sometimes register an odd look or comment from observers who don’t get that point. I love that this bike has led an interesting, full life – and continues to do so.

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