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!

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It was fun.

Well, so much for two days of riding. All week long the forecast called for a pretty spectacular January weekend, but Sunday has arrived cold and miserably windy. I will likely bundle up, get outside, and put in a few miles on the Boulder, and pretend that I’m enjoying myself. It looks and feels like January out there.

Yesterday, by contrast, was more like late March or April. The sun moved in and out, one minute gloomy and the next cheerful. Despite the cool, blustery conditions, it was pleasant enough and I took the 1946 Hobbs of Barbican Superbe out to the downtown airport for an initial test ride.

The downtown airport was at one time the Kansas City International airport. KCI moved twenty miles north decades ago, but this place still operates for small jets and aircraft. Located right next to the river, there’s little in the way of windbreak – but it’s also relatively flat, with only two rises along the 6 kilometer route that laps the grounds. Traffic, other than bikes, is almost nonexistent and accordingly it’s a popular spot for area cyclists to ride, especially those who live and work downtown.

“Flat” was what I wanted for testing out my fixed wheel build and so this location was as good as any for the maiden voyage.

I’m always excited to try out a new bike build. Because this is the first fixed wheel I’ve built up, I was a little apprehensive, hoping I hadn’t forgotten to tighten up one of the components. (I sincerely hoped I had been diligent – the only tool I had on me was a 15mm box wrench…!)

Gingerly pedaling out of the parking lot, I was immediately aware of everything: pedals in motion, getting seated, hand position. I was listening for any suspicious noises from the chain, the crank, the pedals. And unlike bikes with a freewheel, the fixed gear isn’t particularly forgiving when it comes to one who forgets what bike one is riding and attempts to coast!

For about the first 5km I found myself learning to ride all over again. My pedal strokes were deliberate and my cadence kept going up and down. After the first lap, I found myself settling in and  the crank began to revolve smoothly. After forgetting myself and attempting to coast on one of the two short descents, the bike reminded me that I needed to keep pedaling at all times. I relaxed and pedaled with the bike from that point onward.

Weaving in and out of the carbon fiber crowd felt good, and checking my iPhone app I was even a little surprised at the pace I was making. Two of the six laps clocked in at just over 30kph. Considering that I am not particularly fast, wasn’t particularly trying to go fast, and riding a 70 year old racing bike… well I felt pretty good about it.

My immediate take away was how much fun it is to ride this bike. Yes, I was riding in circles. Yes, the route was almost entirely flat. Yes, I got passed by every single racer wannabe out there. But it was fun.

And that’s what it’s all about.