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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Tweed Ride

I look forward to our annual “Tweed Ride” every year. First off, I get to combine two of my passions – sketching and vintage bicycles. But more to the point, it’s just a cool, genteel event. Kindred souls get gussied up in their best thrift store version of 1930s and 40s era attire. We ride bicycles, slowly and leisurely. It’s a celebration of quieter, bygone time, a day when the bicycle was a very important mode of transportation and two thousand pounds of steel didn’t rule every paved road.

Our local Tweed Ride begins and ends in the old Northeast section of the city, adjacent to the Kansas City Museum. The neighborhood is a rich subject by itself – the museum, the houses… someone could spend months documenting the great architecture. Our gathering place is a park next to Cliff Drive, with some interesting architectural follies that provide a great spot for milling about in tweedy high fashion, lean vintage bicycles against tall stone columns, and socialize in well-mannered, courteous, and decidedly polite company. After the ride, we picnic and perhaps enjoy a cup of tea (or a glass of wine from a wicker basket that – in our case – also housed a luncheon of goodies from a local gourmet eatery.)

Turns out that I’ve sketched several of the musicians providing entertainment at previous events. I started with pencil and quickly decided those drawing had already been done and didn’t really interest me to do again, so I focused on the one guy I’d not seen before – the accordion player.

(Also published on my sketcher’s blog, Just Sketching.)

Be Invisible.

This is my Sunday morning plea. I won’t call it a “rant” – I haven’t gone on one of those in a while, and frankly they do little other than to make me even more hyper-aware of whatever obscure topic happens to be bothering me at that moment.

So, a plea it is. Cyclists, if your riding is primarily JRA outings (Just Ridin’ Around, please consider wearing comfortable, every day looking clothing. Unless you are a BASC (Bad Ass Serious Cyclist) – and really, unless you’re actually a racer out racing, or at least training for a race, you’re probably on a JRA ride.

Where I live, nearly every cyclist I encounter is garbed in skin tight Lycra, covered in logos or eye-melting colors and patterns, or both. (Well, not my friend Bob. I don’t see him often, but when I do he’s comfortably sporting shorts and sneakers. Thumbs up to you, Bob!) But here’s the thing: If you’re riding around the block or doing a two mile stretch through the park on your “townie,” do you really need $75 padded cycling shorts and an equally pricey wet suit-like microfiber jersey that weighs less than a quarter ounce just because it has a couple of pockets aft?

Please understand I’m not arguing against common sense cycling gear. A good quality shoe that meets my needs is something I personally value, especially if I’m riding for distance. In yesterday’s cool 40 degree weather, a decent base layer was the right call. Sometimes I wear a pair of purpose-made cycling knickers with knee socks; yesterday it was Levi 501’s. In the wind, a good shell makes sense… mine is a windbreaker I picked up on the cheap at an Eddie Bauer outlet. Even cheaper still is the black wool cardigan I got from a thrift store (three or four bucks, if I recall correctly.) A wool cap from Walz. A Dollar Store bandana purchase.

I ride a lot, but not everything I do is riding. I get off the bike to sketch. (A lot.) Or on my return ride, stop on the square at the pub. (Actually, I do that a lot too.) I feel oddly conspicuous clacking across the floor of the pub in skin hugging super hero tights. And let’s face it, I’m no longer built like Ryan Reynolds. (Don’t you like how I implied that I once was? Fact checker: I never was.)

I think it’s just plain weird that cyclists feel the need to go through an entire ritual of dressing in special clothing just to ride a bike. (Weird? Yes. Also the result of great marketing.) So my plea: Go for a ride today. Need to change your shoes or put on a windbreaker? OK. But beyond that, just hop on your bike and take off. Go ride. Enjoy the day. Turn on your blinky. In all other ways be invisible.

Day Touring on a 1946 Hobbs

The plan was a weekend of cyclo-touring along Northwest Arkansas’ Razorback trail. Until very recently, I’d been entirely unaware of this miles-long multipurpose trail that connects various cities, including Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, Bentonville, and Bella Vista. Once discovered though, I was anxious to explore – and thrilled to discover an entrance to the trail only a few hundred feet from the apartment we use part-time in Rogers.

My initial rides left me with the impression that the trail was an octopus-like system, and without a map I found it difficult to navigate. Turns out that the signage along the trail provides excellent directions and navigational assistance; one should probably take time to read them. I know once I did it became appallingly clear how idiot-proof they’d made this trail system. Trust an idiot to put it to the test!

The other take away from my early explorations was that the trail seemed so flat that I could easily imagine how one could bike commute with abandon in these communities.  For my weekend of cyclo-touring, the plan was for slow, leisurely riding so that my wife could comfortably keep pace. Flat and slow seemed like a recipe for fixed gear touring, so I brought my 1946 Hobbs of Barbican Superbe along for the next visit.

Following the signage, we discovered a few miles down the trail where I’d been missing the turn to leave Rogers for Bentonville. (We also discovered that the entire trail isn’t flat!) My wife, who is spending more time in the area than I for her job, had already driven to the Bentonville square. I went with her on my previous visit, quickly decided I liked it there, and was anticipating an immediate return via bicycle.

The trail, which never seems to be far away from the main highways, is nevertheless quite sheltered and meanders through neighborhoods, parks, and a surprising number of wooded greenways. “Surprising,” because this area has exploded. My childhood memories of the place rely on words like “small” and “quaint.” While the “quaint” is still in evidence, what was once a few small towns every ten miles along US71 has become one single continuous and unnervingly (in a good way) cosmopolitan cityscape. The trail is a series of very well designed and thought out arteries that stitch together what was once discreetly different communities.

Yes, nearly every upper end restaurant, mercantile, fashion outlet, and bar can be found here – but travel a block or two and you find that at the core that “quaint,” hometown flavor is still evident in great abundance. The Bentonville Square, for instance, is a terrific destination for a cool mixture of throwback architecture, warm and friendly locals and gawking visitors, hip eateries and food trucks, and easy access to the Crystal Bridges art museum. In fact, the Razorback Trail has a spur that takes you right to the museum; we were able to ride through the forested museum grounds and park our rides right next to the main building.

As of this writing, there is an outdoor exhibition of Dale Chihuly’s glasswork. My bike seemed to appreciate taking in his work as much as I did!

This was by far the longest I’ve spent in the saddle on my ’46 Hobbs. Usually, I’ll get in a fast-paced 20 mile ride, so slow paced touring was a different sort of testing ground. How did this work out? Well, it’s important to share a few changes I’ve recently made.

First off, after pining for Lauterwasser bars I bought a pair of Soma reproduction bars a year and a half ago. I love the way they look but could never get myself comfortable for riding more than a few miles: Getting the stem/height/reach optimized never happened for me. I pulled them off and replaced them with drop bars and a different stem. If I’d had on hand another set of randonneur bars, I’d likely have used them but the new combination was immediately lightyears more comfortable. While I was at it, I replaced the Weinmann center pulls and levers with dual pivot side pull calipers and a much more modern set of levers. I think they look fine, stop even better, and feel good to my hands. I left the Campy pedals, but after five nearly continuous hours of touring I’ve decided to replace them with a pair of MKS Sylvan touring pedals. They look the part, and just work better for riding without toe cages.

Back to the point: How’d the Hobbs do? I was quite happy riding it on these paths. I did have to muscle my way up a couple of hills, but nothing I will complain about. I’ve come to enjoy pushing myself on fixed gear and look forward to riding a little faster on my own the next time I’m in Arkansas. But I will definitely be bringing this bike with me for my visits.

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.

Smiles

If you haven’t read the Autumn 2017 issue of Bicycle Quarterly, well shame on you – you’ve no idea what you’re missing. Go out right now and find a copy, or get online and order one.

I enjoy BQ because the content focuses on so many of the aspects of bicycling that interest me. The current issue reports on the 2017 Concours de Machines, a revival of the annual event in France that introduced many cycling innovations we tend to take for granted today.

I’ll occasionally watch bicycle racing on television, or if I’m in the right place at the right time I’ll do so in person. But most cyclists – most especially, me – are not racers. We ride. Period. And for me that means my interests are in those things making the experience of the ride more enjoyable. Thus, the bikes I consider to be my primary riders reflect those attributes: wide, supple tires; a more upright riding position; responsive frame; low trail, etc. I enjoy the stories BQ shares about epic rides, and I don’t mind living just a little bit vicariously through the eyes of Jan Heine and his crew. BQ conducts fairly exhaustive real-world in-the-saddle reviews of bikes and equipment, and those articles allow me to geek out on the mechanical side of my cycling obsession. Arriving in my mail box quarterly, it allows me the opportunity to step outside my normally quite conservative approach to the hobby and dream a little, perhaps even obsess a little more than usual over things I already tend to overly obsess about.

Their fascinating report on the Concours de Machines included photographs of the various entries, and a story about the joint entry of BQ’s Jan Heine and legendary constructuer Peter Weigle. One thing I seldom obsess over is weight, but Peter’s story shared the weight of his award winning bike – a remarkable 20 pounds, not including the bag. For a bike outfitted with fenders and rack and such that simply astonishes me. I read that the entries were penalized if the overall weight – as ridden! – wasn’t at or below a particular weight, and it got me wondering how my bike measured up. Never having actually put my Boulder onto a scale until now, I was heartened to discover I would (barely) squeak by with an even 24 pounds. For the sake of comparison that is actually a few ounces lighter than my ’66 Paramount – which does not have the wide tires, racks, or fenders I use on my Boulder. Does this information mean anything substantial? Well, only that any real ride deficiency I might notice probably isn’t attributable to the bike.

I’m mulling over such thoughts as I ride down deserted country roads this morning. Ride time is “reflective time” for me. As I pedal, I solve – or at least puzzle over – the various issues of the past and coming weeks. If I’ve a writing assignment, my thoughts are often a sort of word stew, and if a particularly interesting arrangement of thoughts and words appeals to me I’ll pull out my iPhone and dictate them into the Notes section. Some of my favorite turns of phrase have initially occurred to me as I’ve ridden up a hill or over a long stretch of gravel. Time in the saddle often gives me the opportunity to focus my thoughts on upcoming lesson ideas; with no other intrusions in sight I can usually come up with a plan, test out the “what if’s” in my head, and return home with a well formulated learning experience planned for my students.

Regardless of how my bike compares to any others, if – as it does this morning – it disappears under me as I ride; if I can myself disappear into my world of thought experimentation, then I’m more than content. I’m happy. And as I draft a few new ideas into my iPhone this morning, I realize I’m smiling.

Illuminated Ride

Predawn hours. It’s black as night.

Oh. Maybe that’s because it is still night.

Country lanes are devoid of illumination, save for the thin sliver of a crescent moon and the distant twinkle of yard lights. The headlight on my bicycle has an adequate charge and the lane before me reveals bumps and sticks and stones in a narrowly channeled beam.

There are no other headlights. None from cars – mercifully, none from trucks either, not even as I roll through town on my way into the rural hills of Clay County.

The absolute quiet of night is a fallacy. A complete fabrication. In fact, on this early and wondrous September morning, the air is filled with sound: billions of crickets and other insects are playing a tune, singing their song. A light breeze buffets my helmet.

To the east a faint, rosy glow emerges along the horizon; night wanes and the dawn approaches.