To Hell With The Groundhog.

Waiting in the wings was Baby, my 1966 Schwinn Paramount, holding out for an afternoon ride in the country.

And what an afternoon it turned out to be! Not a puff of breeze, completely still except for the trill of birdsong and quiet voices of couples and families out for a walk on an incredibly pleasant day.

Heading north, the sun disappears behind a thick cloud cover. It’s cool enough that I’m barely breaking into a sweat, but pedaling at a nice steady pace my legs quickly warm. All around me the world seems to be bathed in ochre and sienna and umber. A closer look reveals fresh sprouts of green peeking through the underbrush and dead leaves that blanket the ground.

Trees, not yet laden in foliage allow a view of the lake and land and hills beyond.

It’s weird. I’m riding through rural Missouri, about as far from the ocean as one could be, smack dab in the middle of this land mass we call America. But high above the water, dipping and swooping, are gulls. At the end of one small body of water, in the shallows, a school of some kind of small fish is breaking the surface, the water boiling, making quiet popping sounds as they do.

To hell with the groundhog. Spring is on the way.

Yup. Or something.

Cyclists are – or at least they should be – kindred spirits. At our core, we’ve made a conscious decision to ride on two wheels under our own power. No doubt, our reasons for doing so are legion: healthy lifestyle choice, going fast, racing, environmentally sound decision making, etc.

Pretty much any time two people (guys in particular) line up next to each other, they see an opportunity to compete. “My lawnmower has more horsepower than yours.” “I can shave faster and smoother than you.” “Hey, want to see who can fart the loudest?” And so it goes with bicycles as well.

It shouldn’t puzzle me how often even the smallest effort gets viewed through that competitive lens, but maybe I’m not especially bright. Because it does. One almost laughably – certainly, lamentably – odd behavior that I bet you’ve noticed before is when two cyclists approach each other from opposite directions. You know they see each other because almost immediately they rearrange themselves from the most comfortable riding position they’ve been in to the much more competitive-looking spot, riding in the drops. It’s silly, but I’m confident in my opinion that we do this to look more bad ass. Right? The clear message is: “You aren’t nearly as bad ass a rider as I am.”

I’m riding through the middle of nowhere this morning, exploring some of the gravel around here that until now I’ve neglected. It’s a beautiful day, the third in a row on a holiday weekend, no less. The roads are narrow and flat, with a few requisite bumps and holes, but nothing really challenging. It’s been miles and miles since I passed the last farmhouse, and not one single vehicle of any kind in probably an hour. I haven’t even seen a train, so it’s remote. Reclusive. Secluded. Isolated. In the freakin’ sticks.

In the distance I see a small figure moving towards me. The dot on the horizon gets larger and eventually resolves into the image of another cyclist. I laugh to myself because he does “the thing” as he draws closer, hunching down over his bars in the drops, and suddenly becomes seriously intent on the road. I notice that his cadence changes, having dropped into a higher gear despite the fact that he’s on a skinny tire road bike and we’re both on a gravel road. But this approaching cyclist seems to have a need to impress anyone in sight that he’s A Serious Cyclist. Out here in the middle of nowhere. “Hey. I’m a pretty Bad Ass Serious Racer Cyclist. Or something.”

Yup. Or something.

As we pass, I raise my finger in a small wave and simultaneously nod in his direction.

From my fellow cyclist: Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Not a glance. No acknowledgement at all.

And this really chafes me.

I really believe cyclist are kindred spirits, despite our different reasons for riding. A simple acknowledgment is de rigueur, or at least it is here in the Midwest when two solitary riders, drivers, hikers, or UFOs pass. Out in the middle of nowhere. In the sticks.

I know two farmers – old farts, really – who haven’t said a good word about the other in fifty years. But they always wave as they pass one another on a remote country road. This concept of being so intent on your riding that you can’t even nod at your fellow rider is really puzzling to me. It doesn’t happen often because the vast majority of cyclists are courteous, but when it does the little thesaurus in my head fires up, looking for words of description as I try to make sense of this tiny little event: detached, aloof, cool and reserved, uninvolved, withdrawn, frosty, unapproachable.

Oh. And puzzling.

The first one is on me.

So I’m pedaling up one especially long and kind of steep hill toward the end of BikeMo when I come upon a cyclist stopped at the roadside.

“You doin’ ok?” I ask.

“My legs have cramped. I can’t move this one off the top bar.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

“No man. Thanks. Just let me die.”

“No prob,” I say, continuing up the hill. “Rest in peace, dude.”


You just couldn’t ask for a nicer day for a long bike ride. BikeMo starts and ends atop the tall bluffs that line the Missouri River outside Rocheport, Missouri at a local winery. It’s not a huge crowd, but I figure we eventually wind up with around 125 riders or so.

The first SAG stop at Boonville always seems to come quickly. Although I’ll ride about ten miles further, my route this year will kind of be one that I invent in order to loop back around and meet my much slower moving wife. We’ll ride together at a leisurely pace, returning by way of the KATY Trail.

Some riders seem to breathe a collective sigh of relief as they roll into Rocheport through the old railroad tunnel. But I know there’s still another couple miles to go, almost entirely up, up, and up before those fantasies of chilled wine and cold beer can become reality. I like those climbs, as perverse as it might sound. But they tend to really whack some of the other riders.

That’s ok. The first beer is on me.

It’s the light.

Yeah, it’s the light I think. Heading out in the morning, just before the sun breaks the horizon; the roads are dusky but the light changes rapidly. Mornings like this morning are a gift in a way. The world is shrouded in fog, moisture glistens on my arm hairs as I roll downhill, a bead of it is just visible on the nose of my helmet – then the droplet falls and spins away, lost as momentum propels me forward.

The fog is magical. It turns the everyday into something mysterious. I truly cannot decide whether I prefer the saturated color in which the world is momentarily painted, or the wonderfully smooth gradations of tonality that gets rendered in black and white on this day.

So why choose? I shoot both ways. And yeah, it really is the light.

 

Some days are like that…

The day was shaping up nicely – or so I thought. My top layer had already been peeled off and stowed, and a pleasant sheen of perspiration glistened on my brow. Yet by the time my destination had been reached the sky had clouded over and the winds had whipped into something of a fury. Today’s ride was looking to be shorter than anticipated.

In search of a wind break I left the open road in lieu of a few miles of undulating state park path, encased for the most part by trees on all sides. Leaving the trail I encountered gravel roads, narrow and steep and loose – but also blissfully free of windsheer. Climbing the first hill, I lowered my gears into the granny and yet still found myself standing. Am I really that far gone after a relatively mild winter of slothfulness?

To be honest, I really don’t get the whole “gravel thing” – but to each his own. I’ve friends who live for this stuff. There was a time not so long ago that I thought there’d be greater appeal for me. But alas! That appeal has thus far eluded me.

I far prefer exploring neglected and forgotten back roads, those crumbling chipsealed blacktop tracks that few people except locals have need to travel. And while my Boulder meets those needs quite well, on this day I found myself wandering along, content to be enjoying the benefit of wider 650b tires.

At the top of the very first hill, at the edge of the park, stands a brick structure. The building is a restored  one room rural school house. Growing up in rural Missouri, my teen years were often spent in exploration of back roads where my friends and I encountered many a crumbling derelict of a school house. Those abandoned buildings, built by the farming community with great care were now crumbling, no longer of much use as schools consolidated and students moved into larger buildings in the surrounding towns. It’s remarkable to encounter one in this condition.

On the same patch of ground, just adjacent to the school is this intriguing – and to my eye, anyway, rather mysterious looking multi-sided building. I’d like to know more about it, and I suppose it would be easy to find out its original purpose simply by asking at the park offices. I couldn’t help but think what a wonderful painting studio it would make though!

 

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.