All Hail the Bicycle Gods!

The seasons, they are a changin’. A few days ago, the skies were filled with mile after mile after mile of bird migration – columns of them as far as I could see in both directions, generally coming out of the north in their southward bound trek. The ground is blanketed in dry leaves that crunch like potato chips as I wheel through them, hiding anything and everything that lies beneath. This would, by the way, include a rather more than gigantic fissure a few hundred yards from my driveway, a four foot long by four inch wide gash, deep enough to swallow even a moderately wide tire and wheel, the better to toss a rider from his or her perch. I discovered this chasm last night, returning from a late afternoon ride on what will likely be the last marvelous day of the year. I also discovered how terrifyingly fast one can be unceremoniously dismounted and thrown headfirst into the pavement.

Say what you might about the wars that exist between cyclists and drivers, I’ve had overwhelmingly polite encounters with the vast majority of motorists. The few trolls who have somehow managed to elude the highway patrol and maintain a valid driver license – obviously – stand out in my memory. But I’ll forever recall those drivers last night who immediately pulled over to check on a guy they saw take a flying leap over a pair of bicycle handlebars. One fellow helped me to my feet, concerned that I must be badly hurt, and was visibly relieved to discover I could walk and talk coherently. Another brushed off my back. Good people.

Today began with light, cold rain and gusts of wind that lowered the wind chills down into the 20’s, despite the mid-40’s temperatures. Gingerly, I felt my arm, my wrist, my fingers, my shoulder. Stiff. I’m pretty stiff, but nothing broken. Definitely a bruised deltoid. Definitely some abrasion on my right palm and hip. A couple of fingers feel stiff or jammed. I probably won’t attempt pull ups for a couple of days. But otherwise no damage to me – or, to my bike.

Naturally enough, that was the first thing I checked. Would my fork be bent? My wheel a taco? But no – just a slight abrasion to the braking surface of the rim. The wheel is still true for some reason. Considering the prone position I found myself in, which involved my legs somehow being higher than my head and just as inexplicably somehow lying over a low stone wall, I feel like I got lucky. My wife, who was out for a walk, and who saw my acrobatic dismount, cannot believe I’m so cavalier about the event. I know it could have been much worse – probably should have been much worse – but it’s all good. And that’s the way it is.

But my shoulder is stiff and the weather is crappy. And my studio needed cleaned and reorganized. So I spent a good portion of the day indoors, vacuuming errant dog hair and moving things around and recycling an unbelievably huge pile of things that had stacked up since the last time I cleaned up the studio.

My L’Avecaise hung in one corner. An annoying noise had been driving me just a little crazy and I decided that until I tracked down the source I would keep it off the road. No sense in tempting the bicycle gods by riding a clicking bike.

Like every other time I’ve had to track down a distracting sound, it appeared to be emanating from the bottom bracket. Of course, that’s never really the source. One time it was my saddle rails, another time the stem. Yet another time it was the lace of my shoe! I’ve invested a ton of time investigating each and every possibility and in what has proved to be an absolutely maddening experience, failed to identify the root cause.

But today was a perfect day for nailing that bastard of a sound to the proverbial wall. What was left to check though? Only the bottom bracket, it seemed, and clearly it wasn’t the bottom bracket because it’s never the bottom bracket.

In fact, it was the bottom bracket.

Specifically, the fixed cup was somehow not fixed at all. It was loose enough that I could turn it by hand. How this came to be I cannot say, but what I can say is that it’s not even remotely loose now.

Maybe the events of the past eighteen hours were purposely put into motion by the bicycle gods. I speculate they might’ve grown weary of watching me pedal past, grimacing at the cyclical tick-click tick-click tick-click! Perhaps they felt this afternoon would be an excellent time for me take time out of the saddle and heft a wrench or two. Who knows? Maybe the congestion of a studio filled with detritus and bikes and art supplies dishonored them.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that I must now perform a ritual sacrifice to the gods by killing a bottle of dark beer. Or maybe even two. After all, who am I to take chances with the bicycle gods?

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dawdling.

Dawdle.

What a great word! And it is, as I think about it, precisely how most of my bike rides tend to go. Take one’s time, be slow, waste time. Describes many of my rides to a “t,” as it were.

Especially on days like today.

Especially on days when I’m carrying a kit of watercolors and the forecast calls for 0% chance of rain…yet I’m riding along, pleasantly enough, in a shower.

Especially when I pass a donut shop on my way out of town and the sign reads “no donuts. No Baker showed up. Would you like to be our Baker?”

Especially when the bite in the air reminds me so much of Ireland, and there is a faint glimmer of a rainbow peeking out of a stormy and darkened western morning sky.

Especially when as I prepare to cross the Missouri River I notice off to my right a freshly combined field with a flock of 50 or so wild turkeys strutting about, picking over the chaff.

Especially when it’s harvest time and the crops are morphing into fields of gold and brown and orange.

Especially when, despite the intense greenery of the foliage, the morning feels like the first legitimate day of autumn.

Excuse me now. I’m pretty busy.

Dawdling.

…and then it began to rain.

I’m nursing a bum knee at the moment. I’ve no idea what’s wrong or what I did, but things feel all wonky on my downstroke – especially on climbs. So I’ve been taking it easy, avoiding the temptation to overstress the joint and haul it, full tilt boogey.

The thing is, I’m antsy and want to open it up. Y’know, and haul it, full tilt boogey. 

Despite these inclinations to do the wrong thing, I’ve managed to avoid mucking things up further, let my knee and all of the attachments rest, and spin for short periods of time over pretty flat territory. The situation has me in a funk; I crave some real exercise.


 

So, no school yesterday, no one else at home – I’m free. Fat, cushy, supple tires; bum knee; crunchy leaves; overcast sky; cool weather with a brisk wind coming off the lake; leisurely pace; no particular destination in mind. Just about perfect.

This is the kind of day, the kind of path, the kind of riding I built this bike up for. My bike kit is a pair of well worn jeans with velcro ankle clips, a pair of hiking shoes, a gray sweat shirt. The path is very mildly rolling and the surface incredibly uneven. I’m in no hurry, stopping along the way to take photographs as the color, the texture, the muse strikes me.

Squirrels suicidally breach the path, scurrying through brown leaves, scooting past my front tire, chattering in alarm. I’m sure they have something nasty to say about my intrusion. A small group of deer look up, startled as I come round a bend. Slowly, but deliberately, the trio moves off deeper into the trees and then disappear, camouflaged by the underbrush. Birds seem to be as busy as the legions of squirrels, flitting from branch to branch. I wonder if they are preparing to leave for the season? Or just steadying themselves for the looming change?

The sky is overcast, the light is flat, but the day is not gloomy. In fact, far from it. I love these kind of conditions.

I remember the days when I would carry a backpack of photography gear with me, earnestly hoping to make The Great American Image, the iconic and defining photograph of our landscape. These days I carry an iPhone and it’s so much more liberating.

Stop. Compose. Tap the screen. Reposition. Recompose. Tap. Ride onward.

The ride is short. It’s decidedly flat. And I’m not in the least bit tired, at no point am I winded. But my knee warns me not to push things to far, too hard. Dammit. Time to stop and paint for a while.

I’ve carried my sketch kit with me for years, purposely planning my cycling journeys to allow ample opportunity to stop along the way and draw. I’ve even named these outings, referring to this as “bike sketching.” Is that preposterous? Pretentious? Feeling the need to name such a natural extension of my JRA outings? (Oh yeah, I just realized that I acted in similar fashion by giving a title to my leisurely cycling: “JRA.” Just Riding Around.)

Lately, I’ve been painting en plein air in oils again. I figure I’ve been away from oils for close to a decade, the solvents and toxic heavy metals (like cadmium and cobalt) having weighed heavily on my mind. Not long ago I began to experiment with oils that clean up without solvents and are free of toxins. It’s a lot like rediscovering an old friend, and I’ve been carrying my field kit in the back of the car with me.

My ride is a loop, timed to bring me back round to the car just as my knee begins to twinge. Yes, time to stop and paint for a while.

My hands are cold. I’m still getting my chops back with oils and bristle brushes. I have to think deliberately about placing colors, cleaning the brush after each stroke, mixing and matching – which is functionally quite a different process than with the watercolor media in which I’ve been immersed over the past decade. At some point it will all come back to me, to be a natural set of motions – you know: just like riding a bike, as the adage has it.

As I lost myself in painting, I thought to myself that I’m still pretty fast at laying in shapes and colors and values, even if my brush strokes for the moment feel a bit too deliberate. I allowed myself a moment to yearn for those fluid strokes, but also knew that I can be patient, wait, and they will return. Perhaps doing so will ease this parallel wait for my knee to heal.

Yes, my hands were cold and stiff. The wind began to pick up, and I had to chase down a suddenly mobile paint-drenched paper towel. A mist was in the air and tiny water droplets began to appear on top of the oil paint.

Moments later it began to rain, and all was well in the world.

Progress

Suddenly, the afternoons and evenings are much cooler. As the temperatures begin to drop and I find myself wrapping up a week so incredibly long that  I haven’t had even the slightest instant to pedal a single stroke, a shroud of anxiety falls over me. Each day is shorter than the next. My work area is illuminated as I scramble to shoehorn in a little time here and there on my 650b build. I should have ridden more this summer, I tell myself as Autumn further encroaches upon my dwindling daylight hours.

The Katakura Silk 650b build progresses. There’s a lot of finessing and fine tuning left to make, but I was very impressed with the quality of the short ride I made up and down our street yesterday evening. OK, so I suppose I did manage a couple of revolutions of the pedals after all – but no more than a couple hundred yards: Five minutes under cool night skies. Had I not been feeling such exhaustion at the time, it would have been more than perfect for a night ride.

My goal to mimic the ride quality of my Boulder – but in 650b – has moved one step closer to reality. The rough fit is surprisingly close to my Boulder Brevet and really cushy. I’m disappointed with the initial lack of “grabbiness” of the Tektro 559 calipers. I also am unhappy there’s barely enough reach in front…close enough that I’m concerned and will likely investigate center-pulls instead. (This, of course, I should have done in the first place.)

 

Terminus

The chorus of a million frogs, crickets, insects engulf me as I coast down the hill at 4.30 am. Behind me lightning flashes on the western horizon, its telltale reflection in my mirror followed by the rumble of thunder. A cool, persistent breeze: But it’s difficult to say, really, from what direction it hails. Fallen leaves – a premonition of Autumn, that beacon of days to come as arrived earlier than I would have imagined; they swirl at the edge of the road, spinning and dancing a wild dervish. Rain drops fall, eerily ghostlike, briefly tracing glowing white trails across the beam of my lamp, coating my arms with moisture. The road is still mostly dry but the canopy above me betrays Mother Nature and a staccato beat of falling rain slowly grows more insistent. A jogger comes into sight, raises a hand of greeting, then disappears, engulfed by night. Summer ends.