Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The high cost of free bikes..

Oh hello! Where did you come from?
A couple of months ago I was given a nice late 80s "Club Fuji" frameset(62cm) that was supposed to have a cracked downtube. I thought that "someday" I would cut out the damaged tube, braze in a new one and pass it on to someone.  When I realized it only had a cracked downtube decal, and a totally superfluous, non-load-bearing decal at that, I got all giddy and "dancy" since it meant a FREE BIKE! A free bike with nice light Ishiwata tubing in 62cm! A size that's really just a bit too big for me, but something I've always wanted to try. Yippee! Hallelujah!

For me and my friends that hoard old bikes and parts, the opportunity to build, completely from stock on hand, a FREE BIKE that isn't just another boring old bike, is a special thing. It's something we all like to think we can do anytime we want, something that justifies all the dragging home of wrecks, the dozens of boxes of bits and pieces and the time spent risking tetanus cleaning and fiddling with all those bit's and pieces. Really though, it takes a small miracle to be able to come up with enough good parts of the right quality, type, vintage and origin to build something we would think of as a Nice bike. Something interesting and special and not "just another old bike". Maybe something sparkly enough to make Velouria from "Lovely Bicycle" jealous.

 I should probably stop here and define "free" a little better; It doesn't mean you pay nothing for the bike, it just means you don't have to pay any more when you finally get a round to putting it together. You may have spent a trillion dollars on the parts but as long as you weren't buying them for a specific bike than it doesn't count. It's just "stuff you had". You know, free. It also allows you to answer the question "Where the hell did that one come from and what did it cost?" with a simple "Why I builded it mysewf  outen the bits and buttons unner my bench my Luv. Didn't cost a Penny!" without being that most miserable of creatures, a liar.

All this for ZERO DOLLARS!
It's easy to get close, maybe just short the right crank and handlebar and a few other items that end up costing $211 and 3 months of your life to track down. But that's far from free isn't it, and usually ends up as a bike you either end up cutting corners on or having to sell off pretty quick before someone starts investigating the unapproved dispersal of $211. It's even more frustrating to get almost there, to be one Brake-lever (that you know you have in a box somewhere)short of a complete Upper-Mid-Level-Late-60s-Italian-Racebike and know that that one remaining part is going to require 5 E-bay auctions lost, the purchase of 3 scuffed and bent levers that will yield all but one of the parts required to make one decent one, and 2 years of either not riding the bike or riding it with some mongrel place-holder lever until you finally find the misplaced one you gave up looking for only to discover it wasn't a Universal like you thought but only a dime-a-dozen Modolo. It's demoralizing and why I'm always telling myself to find another, slightly less frustrating stupid hobby. I swear, it would be less screwing around to find and assemble the skeleton of an adolescent female Pterodactyl, bit by bit over the course of a lifetime, than a "proper" 1967 Legnano.

But to have in your possession ALL the right parts of the correct age, brands, and condition is so exciting, so special, that it paints a picture of smug satisfaction on the face of the Bicycle Junk-Man like nothing else.  That Fuji frame was the one thing I lacked to build a really nice 80s vintage Japanese, lightweight steel roadbike. One I could try a few things out on, have a good time riding and maybe even leave at my in-laws in Florida so I could have a fun bike to ride while visiting without dragging my best bike down the interstate hanging from the bumper of my car. 
Floating spring, made from a spoke.

 I mean I had everything, right down to some nice(ish) tires and a saddle! All upper-mid/lower-upper level Japanese stuff, except for the French Mafac Competition front brake which I'm not going to try to justify, I just dig those brakes. A lot of the parts are N.O.S. stuff I've been saving for 25 years or more, just waiting for a chance to build something neat for free! 

 I decided I'd do a few extra things while I was at it. Stuff we used to think was cool back then, things like drilling out the brake levers, the chainrings, and the seatpost(which I was too lazy to clean the excess powdercoat from the bottom of since it's hidden in the tube).

Downtube front, bar-end rear.
More holes...

 And maybe drill a bunch of holes in the bottom 8 inches of the handlebars. All that stuff that makes you faster you know.
If I was going to do all that I might as well whip up  a nice stem out of some scraps of chrome-moly       and braze some centerpull brake mounts on the fork to stiffen things up a bit in the stopping              department.   Those two things alone probably saved as much as a quarter of an ounce for only 5 or 6 hours of hard labor.                                                                                                         

 I decided I ought to go ahead and strip the old paint off the Fuji while I was at it and see if I could make it look a bit better than the typical Japanese bike from the era of Teal and Green spatter paintjobs.

So I did all that, then powdercoated the fork, the headtube between the lugs and a panel on the seat-tube.  All Gloss Black (with a bit of silver metallic that didn't quite get cleaned out of the cup on the powdercoat gun but magically made the Black look like you're staring out into the milky way(it's just like the great Bob Ross said, "We don't make mistakes, we just have happy accidents...")). I shot the stem I made with that magic black as well. I painted the rest of the frame with Chevy Cobalt Blue rattle-can touch-up lacquer over a coat of some silver I had that made for a pretty decent facsimile of the old British "Flamboyant" paintjobs of yore. It really "Flammed" good. Then I sprayed it all with some clear aluminum wheel coating and it all got a bit clouded and runny. Still looks pretty good from a few feet but dang, it was better before. Oh well, it's all so fragile you can almost chip it with a fingernail so in a few years it's either going to "look like hell" or like a "Well Patinated Survivor", depending on your perspective. The powdercoated areas are going to look pretty perfect till the end of time though, the stuff I use is meant for the chassis of Kenworth trucks and is just about indestructible if you do it right. Which I did, thank you.

So now I have a nice new old free bike to mess around with. And while it did require way too much time, time that would have been better spent counterfeiting 20s or working on my time machine(although you never have to get in a hurry working on a time machine, for obvious reasons), it's a really fun bike with the best brakes of ANY dropped-bar bike I've ever owned, AND I've discovered that a light bike with 12 well spaced gears and friction shift is still a thing of great dignity and grace and also that a 62cm bike set up for me actually works really well. I don't miss the lost stand-over(I never yank both feet out of the clips simultaneously while egress-ing the machine so don't find it an issue) and I really like the late 50s British-ish look of a tall frame with only a couple inches of seatpost sticking out and the bars about level with the saddle without 100mm of stem towering over the headset.
A bike fit for a small Giant.

 It all works great for what this bike is for.

 Although I can't decide what this bike is for. It doesn't have enough clearance for the big tires I like riding on these days(I've got 28s on it now with absolutely no room for fenders), so it's not going to become a commuter. It's got way too many braze-ons to strip it down into a sleek and sexy fixed gear, and while I thought long and hard about sweating off the bosses and cable stops, it's got internal rear brake cable routing through the top-tube so I'd still have those gaping holes to deal with. Plus the dropouts are really too short for a good fixie... Anyway, it still won't let me run the 33mm CX tires that work so well on our dirt and gravel.

Maybe I will have to move it on to someone else after all.  I suppose I could just use it as a fast bike for nice days on smooth roads, I.E. semi-permanent exile in Florida where it would languish for 358 days a year which seems a little sad. Too many bikes. Sigh.

Oh well,who cares, it was free.

Moon and star cutouts on stem. Hardly worth the trouble.
Custom shifter mount, 2 hours to save 1 gram.

Cable hanger, also made from a spoke...

Mirror mirror, on the wall, how many bikes is this now?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Welcome to my ideal imaginary bike shop...

My Friend Les is moving his shop out of the place he's been renting for about 20 years into a building of his own. It's a big deal for a guy with some creative ideas and the willingness to actually try them out, to not have a landlord to worry about. I think it's going to be pretty cool and it's gotten me thinking again about what my "Ideal" bike shop would be like.
I think anyone who's ever worked in a Bike Shop has thought about what they would do if they had free reign, a bit of a budget and 12 hundred square feet. I've worked in a bunch of shops, 5 as an "official" employee, a few as occasional fill-in and "on retainer" with a couple even now for things like brazing  track-ends on old Trek's or finessing stuck seat-posts out of crusty carbon Tri-Bikes. So I've got a long list of cool things I've seen that more people should do and some dumb stuff I hope you're not thinking of trying. And, while my opinion isn't particularly valuable, I have spent a lot of time thinking about it over the last 35 years. Much of it on the clock (which I suppose makes me some sort of a professional). Anyway, If my experience is anything to go by, the subject comes up in EVERY SHOP IN THE WORLD whenever two or more employees are gathered together in the absence of the Boss so maybe it's worth exploring a bit here. I could share some of my thoughts on the matter if you wanted to hear them...

 You do? Really? Swell, let's get started!

Anyway, here, in no particular order are some things I think are important...

Music. Every shop needs some. Maybe not all the time, but most days. It should be just loud enough to hear in the display area but never difficult to have a conversation over. The device providing the music, whether Gramophone, Digital Media or String Quartet, must be under the total control of a Responsible Person at all times. Under no circumstances should males under the age of 20 be allowed to influence "The Program". Ever. If I ever find myself in charge of "The Program" again I think I would be tempted to find some outside non-bikey, music loving "Hep Cat"  and ask her to come in once a week or so, open our ears and keep us guessing. I may be "that old" but there will be no Motley-Crue, Journey or Bon-Jovi in any shop I'm in charge of ever again. OK?

TeeVee? With sound? In the shop and not just in the window silently playing MTN.Bike videos for kids on the sidewalk? No hell no. If you want a promotional video, go to Home Depot. If you crave entertainment, just go away.

No Mannequins.  You don't see it much these days, but back a couple of decades a bunch of shop owners couldn't seem to resist propping up a retired department store mannequin by the front door. They were invariably tall willowy things, slim hand resting on jutting hip, staring out at the street with blank eyes, high cheekbones and the air of a strung-out middle-aged streetwalker or hopeless kidnap victim.  They were also invariably covered in dust, dressed in some close-out neon lycra and a soiled yellow Campy Cycling cap. Oh yes, and constantly being vandalized by brain-dead teen aged boys who always seemed to have an extra cigarette to stick between her fingers or 2 gumdrops to slip under her jersey for that "Is it cold in here or is it just me?" look.
   I worked with Cindy at one of my first shop jobs. She didn't say much, kept to herself and never missed a day of work, but I don't think she was ever really happy at the shop. That sort of vibe just kills the mood out on the floor and I kept thinking she'd be happier back in "Service". The last straw for her was when the owner showed up with a huge brunette Bouffant wig that smelled like stale beer and ashes and stuck it over Cindy's cute bas-relief Pixie Cut. That afternoon she toppled over onto some BMX bikes and broke her neck. The Boss said he always thought she was "unstable"(ha.ha.ha...) but I just felt it was a preventable suicide if not actual murder. Incidentally, of all the shops I've worked in, this one had the lowest number of female customers. So no mannequins, thank you very much.

Artisnal Coffee/Espresso Bar. Either you're going to have a bike mechanic who doesn't give a S#@* making coffee or a Bean Head Hipster who doesn't give a S#@* working on customers brakes(sorry, "breaks"). Just dumb. There's a Coffee shop 30 yards down the street anyway.  I'm sure it works somewhere but those rare examples just encourage those who shouldn't to try. Dumb.
 One of the local shops does have a really nice water fountain specially configured for filling waterbottles that also keeps a running tab of how many disposable plastic bottles worth of cold micro filtered water it's dispensed. We like to think of it as a tally of Baby Seals saved and sometimes just hold the handle down to add a few more of the cute little beggars to the total. WAY better than an espresso machine. I don't know what it cost but I'm a fan. Put one in your shop and you will be too.

Women. It took me a while to come around(like just long enough to grow up) but I can't think of a shop that won't hire women that's worth the trouble to walk across the street to go to. Even if the prejudice against women in mechanical trades was valid there's a lot more going on in a bike shop than fixing bikes and you absolutely won't do those things as well as you should if you have men doing it all. I have a suspicion that a shop staffed by competent women would do a better job of helping men than a typical all-male shop does of helping women. Just a suspicion. I don't think it would be that hard to find the right women either. Not anymore. Whatever, my ideal shop would always have good people who knew what they were doing waiting for you to come in and if it were all male or all female that day it would only be because the schedule worked out that way. I promise. They might not even all be white.

Some tools for the customers. I don't think every shop needs to try to have a complete work station for customers who want to work on their own bikes, it's problematic and not compatible with the way most shops need to run, but enough tools for someone to adjust a saddle or change brake shoes without having to beg one from the Techs seems to me like the sort of respectful courtesy that I would appreciate. Decent quality tools that you let them use without making them feel like they're asking for loose change. If it doesn't "compromise your vision or personal brand" you might even go so far as to have an old wheel, a patching kit and a nice little stool where a person could sit and practice fixing a flat while listening to the String Quartet play Motley Crue. I'm going to do it the next time I'm in charge of a little piece of somebody's shop. A pump, a Wheel, some tire levers and patchkit and a pokey-thing of some sort to make a leak. That and whatever level of supervision a person seems to want. Even if you already know how to do it you'd be welcome to come in and fix your own flat, fifty cents for the patch and the glue. If that drives you into the red than your shop was doomed anyway so quitcherwhining. Maybe a simple fixture and instruction card so folks could get the hang of quick-release skewers and removing a wheel as well. Down low, near the floor for the benefit of the 8 year-olds.

A box of good free stuff. Good used parts from the Service Department, customer donations of mini-pumps or decent shoes, the tires the local fast guys take off that still have miles in them, that sort of thing. Don't let it overflow, and throw out the obvious crap that gets dropped off, and for goodness sake, find something better than a plastic laundry basket or a cardboard box to put it in. Don't make the bucks-down college student or working class parent on a tight budget feel like a bum, hook them up with something useful and make a friend. Again, if it drives you out of business you were just faking it anyway.  

No Scotch Tape. It's not that I have anything against the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co., it's just that in every shop I've worked in you were never more than 3 feet away from a little scrap of that almost, but not quite, invisible plastic chaff or it's grubby fingerprint of dirt and goo. 11 slivers on the front of the display case, a little tag flapping on the telephone receiver, 13 ghostly outlines of "Back in 5 Minutes" signs on the front door. It doesn't even work fer crap to anchor handlebar tape. Write your "Out to Lunch" message on the door with a dry-erase marker or even make a nice one with a pen on some cardstock and hang it with a string. Draw a monkey on a fatbike on it, use it for 20 years and when you close your shop someone will take it home with them after the farewell party and hang it in their garage. Tape. I'd rather hang that Rivendel poster to the wall with framing nails.  

I should stop now. I'm starting to get a little worked up and I'm too far into the Mortgage, Braces and College Fund part of life to actually go back to the bicycle mines. But as you might have noticed, I'm still emotionally invested in everything about bikes and the little hidden places where we go to immerse ourselves in our weird little culture. Have you also noticed that none of this is about what kind of bikes I'd have for sale in my Top-Secret Hollowed Out Volcano Bike Temple? It's not because I don't have opinions about that as well, it's just that it doesn't really matter for this discussion. I like to think that any of these ideas, if they have any merit at all, work in any shop and serve any customer well, no matter if they're coming in for a race-tune before heading out to Nationals or to buy the next size helmet for their kid.

I'll be on the lookout next time I'm in your shop to see if you thought any of this was worth trying. Especially the thing about the tape, man I hate the tape...



Sunday, November 1, 2015

What I did in Church this morning...

I was paying attention. Really.
I take a sketchbook with me most of the time, Like Da Vinci used to say "You gotta' do something while you're doing nothing".

It's nice to have it with me in case of long lines, moments of inspiration or when I make a particularly good batch of cole-slaw and want to write down what I put in it before I forget. My favorite are the small Black Moleskine brand Sketchbooks and I have a satisfyingly tall stack of them on a shelf by my drawingboard. They take me anywhere from a couple of months to almost a year to fill up and going through the old ones is a lot like leafing through a journal. There's a surprising number of notes and cryptic entries on the back pages with the recipe's and URLs. Even some Poetry that I'm not sure the world needs to be exposed to in the state things are in already...  I was going to get a new one today at the Bookstore but suddenly they only have them in RED.It's a nice red but I left empty-handed because I'm not sure what would happen if I threw one of those on the stack with all the black ones. I have to think about that before I do something that potentially disruptive.

I do some of my best sketching in Church, especially profiles of the folks a few rows over. I can't ever let one of those books fall into the wrongs hands however because some of those profile portraits include giant Billy Preston style Afro's on middle-aged white Mennonite I.T. technicians or wooden Pinocchio noses sprouting from the otherwise angelic faces of the children of my friends. It seems pretty innocent until you have to hide your drawings as soon as the benediction is over so no body can wander over and see what they'd look like with a neck tattoo.

This is what I drew today. Pretty obvious what I was thinking about during the sermon. It turned out pretty well but not that much like the image in my head.


 I aspire to draw as well as Frank Patterson who's illustrations were an integral part of Cycle Magazine back in the first half of the 20th century. If I ever get close to that quality of work I'll never pick up a wrench or a brazing torch again. Just sit around drawing all day(which is precisely what I should do starting tomorrow if I ever want to do work like his I suppose). That and hope someone decides to publish a large format Weekly Cycling Journal so I can make some sort of living illustrating it for them...

If I manage to do something better than this I'll post it and let you have a peek. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Show and Tell

Check it out, I made a floor pump! 
9 pounds of scrap wood
and used plumbing pipe

It's not like I needed another one, I think I already have 6. A nice Silca my wife gave me years ago that I keep in the basement with my bikes and tools, a Blackburn and a Specialized on the back porch(one set up Schreader, the other Presta), another identical Blackburn in the attic(I got tired of carrying one up the ladder every time I wanted to ride the bikes I have up there, so now keep one there sort of permanant-like) and another one or two out with loaner bikes. So no, I didn't really need another one, and if I did I could have just gone to the bike shop and spent $30 on a nice one.

Well, that's probably untrue, I really couldn't have just gone and bought one, I have the money, I'm employed and all that, but buying a pump isn't something I've ever done or am ever likely to do. Other people do though. People who then dispose of the last one with the broken chuck or the loose barrel that wont seal any longer. People who's trash I pick through when I go to their houses to meet them for rides. I've never had a new one except that gift from my Sweety, just repaired whatever ones turned up in the skip and used them.

Pumps are really simple, once you've had a couple apart you will cease to find them very mysterious and eventually you might even think to yourself," I could totally MAKE me one of them floor pumps". Then one day you find a scrap of heavy copper plumbing pipe, and thinking how sharp it would look all polished up, stuff it under your workbench to make a lamp or whatever out of someday. Then a year or two later you're bickering with yourself about whether to throw out that bent up vintage French handlebar with the cool engraving, and suddenly think"SHAZAM! That would make a sweet floor pump handle!" and then remembering the chunk of pipe under the bench, spend the next 2 weeks investing all your spare time into making what you could have purchased for $30... While the grass grows up over the mailbox, the garden goes all to hell and you forget to wash socks and have to wear sandals everywhere.

Not that that's what happened to me or anything.

Just relax and take a deep breath...
I had a lot of fun making it though. There was enough easy stuff like gathering up and polishing all the brass and copper hardware and fittings to go with the copper pipe and brass manifold and check valve I had to make. The woodworking was only about a 5 on a 1 to 10 scale of difficulty but it took me a while to figure out how to form a leather cup to seal the piston. It worked the first time but required way more messing around than I thought it should have. But as a result, I now consider myself the Worlds Foremost Expert on the manufacture of leather cup seals. I suspect I may be about to become wealthy as people clamor for my services. Time will tell. 

I already had the perfect hose, it's from my plumbers leak testing kit. I'm not sure whether I should go buy a new one to replace it or make one out of cheap rubber fuel line from the Auto Parts Store like all the other amateur plumbers. Maybe I should just stop doing any plumbing... Either way, it looks properly vintage with a braided fabric covering and shiny brass fittings. It and the black steel industrial pressure gauge with the magnifying lens really finish off the old fashioned vibe. I hope with a few years of use it will pass for something my Grandfather would have used. Nothing would please me more than to tell someone I made it and have them accuse me of being a big fat fibber(at least about the pump, not in general of course...). It's usefully huge as well, in a 1920s sort of "keep it by the garage door to top off the tires on the Model T" kind of way. If you need to pump up your Fat-Bike with the 5" tires without resorting to a compressor or 6 or 7 CO2 cartridges, this is the pump. There's even a half dozen patches, a square inch of sandpaper and a tube of rubber cement rolled up in a scrap of handkerchief inside the handle. I truly fear no flat while in the company of my "Pumpe Gigant"(that's German for big ol' pump).

Anyway, that's what I spent some of my time doing lately. I like making stuff and when things turn out well I get an amazing amount of satisfaction from having and using those things. Especially if they look really cool.

I have a couple of ideas about what to make next, I'll just have to go dig around under the bench to see what I have to work with...                                           

I will crush you little Girly pump.
Legible from 6 feet up.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Longest ride of the year. So far.

Last Sunday was our local Bike Club Century(100 miles in one day), I did a few extra miles on my ride into town and finished with enough extra on the way home to complete a Double Metric Century(200 Kilometers or 124.3 Miles). It was my longest ride this year due to a bit of surgery in June and a huge backlog of chores and projects that accumulated during the time I wasn't supposed to lift anything over 10 pounds(you really can't get anything useful accomplished with a 9.9 pound maximum payload, Hell, my conscience alone weighs 13). 200km has become something of a personal test for me over the last few years, long enough to give me an idea of how much momentum I'm building on the "Downhill" side of 50, but not so long that it requires dropping everything and "training" like some of the bigger, more epic distances that sometimes sound like fun. And summer is slipping away fast so it seemed like time to go do it, I also wanted to see if I was back in shape or becoming "enfeebled" as my Daughters claim. I got it done, not as fast as last year but I got to ride with some people I really like and one of my regular riding partners finished her first 100 and I was glad to be a part of that.

A 124.3 mile ride is also an opportunity to get lost in your thoughts for 10 or 11 hours. I always have a lot to think about and this time came away with some new thoughts and ideas about a couple of things. If you promise not to make fun of me or point out my inconsistencies and hypocrisy I'll share some of it with you. Promise? OK, read on...

I spent a good part of the first few hours trying to figure out how big a jerk I really am, it was on my mind because recently I commented on someone Else's bike blog that I had, on several occasions, intentionally, and gleefully, bumped 2 different riders who habitually do stuff that cause them to drift backwards into the rider behind them in a paceline or tight pack. It was the typical offhand comment of someone who feels justified in their actions and assumes everyone reading it will raise a glass in their honor with a hearty "Hear! Hear!" But everyone didn't raise a toast to me and proclaim me to be a grand fellow. In fact, the consensus seemed to be that I'd been an Ass. That was sort of a surprise and my first response was to try to explain the whole situation so everyone(all my close personal internet friends at least) would see that far from being an Ass, I was acting Bravely, in the interests of cyclists everywhere and might even be a HERO!(blahblahblah...). But the more I tried to explain it, the more I became convinced that, with certain caveats, I really had been a Jerk(I was also reminded that the internet is a dangerous place if you're a bit insecure, prone to talking too much or too loudly and blush easily, sort of like the Cool Kids Table in Jr. High).

I'll just run through those caveats here before we go any farther and then I'll try to explain where I actually ended up on the subject of my being an Ass...

Caveat A) It wasn't a violent shove or anything like that, it was simply not getting on the brakes when he came back at me (caused by him sitting up in the draft, tapping the brakes after moving over in front of me or any number of things the rest of the riders around him sincerely wish he would stop doing), and lining my tire up with his so they "barked" and he would feel the sudden contact. Worse stuff than that happens on every other ride, sometimes because of the squirrel tactics he himself employs. Dang-it, we don't have to take it! When I say it like that it's easier to convince myself it's no big deal and people should calm down...  But it's still mean.

Caveat 2) I never wrecked anyone.  True, but that's not quite the same as saying if I keep doing it I won't eventually wreck someone.

Caveat  D) That's how I was taught how to ride safely in a fast group(this is where I think I really got off track).   Sure, this was how I was taught to ride fast in a group. When I was 18 and 19, by a bunch of older Racers who dis-invited you pretty quickly if you were sloppy or erratic. It was definitely a different setting from a casual Club Ride but it made sense, Racing is pretty serious business as pointless amateur athletics go, and as the risks increase with speed and urgency, so does the need for everyone to be skilled and focused. It's one of the ways you honor your Mates and The Sport, you take it seriously. One ends up taking pride in that skill and focus. It's one of the things I really like about Racing and it's easy to decide that everyone who rides around me should ride to the same high standard that I do. But the fact is I'm not sure what riding to that "standard" really means. And who am I to assign that task to everyone anyway? It's not like anyone's coming on these rides to learn my fabulous technique. And do I really ride so fabulously anyway? It's nice to think so but I don't Race anymore, I wasn't good at it when I did, and I wouldn't want to ride with the punks I learned with now anyway, even if I could(actually I really could, they're all even older and fatter than me now and half of them probably can't remember where they left their bikes, so those guys I can handle). It's all stuff I should understand better than I do but it's only now starting to sink in in a new way.

So yeah, scrubbing those guys tires like that was a shabby thing to do and if I was a Mensch, I'd find an opportunity to apologize to them and not do it again(but also give them a bit more room cuz' they're still going to run somebody into a mailbox someday). I'd feel better about myself if I did so here's my chance to lower my P.J.I.(Personal Jerk Index) and feel free to eat my lunch at the Cool Kids table again.

But all this thinking about how we treat each other when we're "playing" reminded me that there are situations when we have to accept that harsh "That's the way it is in this League" sort of approach if we're going to get more out of things, but also how hard it can be to figure out what those situations are. I used to play Softball in a local league, I was "OK" I suppose, but not great. Some years I played in the "B" League and other years when our team didn't have a better Catcher I played "A" League. Same game, same rules, ostensibly the same goal of playing your best and having fun but the expectations about skill, focus and etiquette were far greater. I played so much better in "A" than I ever did in "B" and I absolutely fell in love with playing Catcher, but I remember how dumb I felt a few times when I showed up with my "B" league habits and attitudes.

 Like the time the Ump called me "out" before the pitcher was even facing me because I put a foot out of the back of the box. I knew that rule, and I knew what the purpose of that rule was; to keep Batters from taking the heads off Catchers like me. In "B" we'd just remind the batter and the Ump would warn them a couple of times before finally calling them out. I was constantly having to watch out for the guys who liked to step way back for a deep pitch and make me scramble. I didn't have that habit but I was a bit sloppy about lounging around in the box waiting for the Pitcher to get ready. In a place where people came to experience a more intense and challenging version of the game I was suddenly the guy who couldn't be trusted not to do something dumb. So it was "THE BATTER IS OUT!", and go sit down. I was super frustrated at myself and annoyed at the Umpire who wouldn't give me a break.

But as the season went on that Ump was the one who taught me the most about how and when to stand my ground at the plate and not let super aggro runners drive me out of the base path when I was covering a throw to Home. I learned that I had been giving runners way more room than I needed to and that in this league I was going to be throwing games away that my team was working hard to win if I didn't learn when and how to give some guys a shoulder when they were trying to get away with something. When some runner would charge me at Home and try to knock the ball out of my glove and I could dump him on his ass and come up with the ball I felt like I was playing a completely different game than when I used to just make a show of getting shoved out of the way and assume the Ump would call the dude out for it. But when I went back to playing "B" league in later seasons I didn't go knocking runners down who didn't yield even though the rules would certainly allow for some of that. Different league, different people looking for a different experience. I don't think I was ever really tempted to bulldoze anyone at the plate but I did do a much better job of keeping everybody honest, there was also a few times I thought "That guy would probably enjoy this game so much more if his bag of tricks was deeper than just charging the Catcher".

I'm not going to risk my 50 year old shoulders and knees playing ball anymore and I don't ride quite like I did 10 years ago, but I still want to feel like I'm "On the gas", you know? That attitude of "Not taking any crap from these Guys" can sometimes take the place of really getting out there and doing something worthwhile for us "Masters" and I want to make sure I don't get trapped in that particular swamp. I do a ride with some faster, mostly much younger riders occasionally and even though it's not their "hard day", I am just hanging on. It's challenging and a chance to actually get some benefit from whatever elevated skills I might actually have and those people have been super nice and encouraging to me which has been cool. It hasn't made me start thinking about getting a license again , but it has helped me keep looking forward to the next adventure. I appreciate that. I should probably try to be a little more like that myself...

Monday, September 7, 2015

Gravitational Amnesty and The New Way Of Everything

I fell off my bike the other day. I seem to do that a few times a year and it's usually not a big deal but this time I thought it was going to be bad.

 It was a combination of going a little too slow on a steep downhill turn and finding the gravel to be a lot deeper and looser than the last time through. More speed and I would have just rolled a bit wide, maybe slid the rear wheel out in a dramatic spray of rocks but certainly not dug in like I did, ending up in a textbook "High Side" dismount. That's where you fall toward the outside of the turn, accelerating as you launch over the bike and head for the clouds in the "Superman" pose (toes pointed-arms outstretched-stern look)  instead of the more benign "Low Side" where the bike slides out from under you, and you grind your speed off feet-first. Neither are any fun but if you have a choice, take the low road. I think I gained more altitude than I did distance this time, and in that discreet little span where time seems to slow and the individual leaves on the trees popped into sharp focus and the birdsong blended with the sounds of the stones I sent skittering across the road, I thought to myself; "I am about to break my collarbone and 7 fingers", and then, "That Poison Ivy on the barb-wire I'm going to crash into is such an incredible shade of green". And then I was running down the hill in the middle of the road in that bewildered way of a child waking from a fever.

 And I was fine.

Not a mark. Well, nothing other than bleeding from the corners of my eyelids from them opening out over the top of my head in terror when I was in midair and anticipating getting killed in the face with a dirt road. I wasn't even sore the next day which is un-freaking-believable considering the high-G maneuvers I had to have executed to land on my feet pointing roughly in the direction I was going. My bike even came out better than could have been predicted, just a torn brake hood, a scratched fork and scraped fenders. The saddle was covered in dirt and had some grit embedded into the leather but no gouges or scratches, almost like it bounced(!?) off it.

It's as if I got some sort of a pass. I drew the short straw for the suicide mission at the moment the war was called off, had the trapdoor of the scaffold drop out from under me as a runaway cart of mattresses rolled underneath. I can't explain it, it certainly isn't the product of clean living. And while I know this crazy turn of events is just a coincidence of a thousand factors coming up in my favor, it SEEMS like something more, something Cosmic or Divine. Like this was a sign, you know? I mean, one moment I'm resigned to a sudden painful stop and a lungful of rocks and five minutes later I'm back on my bike, sipping from my bottle and trying to remember what John Calvin said about predestination. Or maybe it was Camus.

 I'd like to say I'm a Rationalist, that I'm not superstitious. But if you know me, have hung out with me, have seen the books on my night stand you know what I really am. I'm a Romantic. Yearning for the mystical, susceptible to the promises of religion, spirituality and revolution, a lover of Thomas Merton, George Eliot and Cervantes. Of all the people you will ever meet, of all the dudes standing on the sidewalk, gawking up at the buildings as you step around, I am the one most likely to come away from an experience like this with a message, an altered perception. A man with a new and radical plan for myself and the rest of the world around me. A mission.

I just need to decide what message to take from my near-near death experience. I'm pretty sure it's about bikes. I know it's going to change the World. I'm convinced it's too big to be stopped and I alone have been chosen to bring this revolution to fruition. This Revolution that will bring about The New Way Of Everything. I might be about to force Mandatory-Helmet-Usage-For-All-Outdoor-Activities-At-All-Times down the throats of all the warm blooded creatures of the Entire World or it might be a FER REAL Total-Solar-System-Wide Helmet-Ban FOREVER. I'm not sure which, but it's coming.

 I'll be in touch...

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Double Metric Firewood Century

What did you do yesterday?

I was going to get up early and do a Double Metric Century on my bike. That's 200km, or a bit over 120 miles. I've done that distance a bunch of times over the years and It's just about at the limit of what I can readily do on the spur of the moment, by myself, without any preparation. It's doable and "fun", but not something you knock out in a couple of hours and then go about your bidness the next day like nothing happened. At least not for me anymore.

Spur of the moment in this case was realizing on Friday afternoon that my project for Saturday, replacing the waterpump on my wife's Bentley, wasn't happening because the "Bombe de Aqua", as it's called in Spanish, hadn't come in("Bombe de Agua",I really like that. What if we ditch "Waterpump" all together and just go with "Bombe de Agua" from now on?). I figured if I was all casual and did the "Yo Baby, maybe I'll do a ride in the morning before it gets hot..." thing, I could take off and do a nice long ride, be back by mid-afternoon and still get a couple of things done before the "Lovely and Talented" figured out I wasted a whole day screwing around on my bike. But by nine o'clock on Friday evening I was starting to have second thoughts. Guilty thoughts. Winter's coming and there's hardly any firewood thoughts. Once the guilt gets up about ankle deep it takes the fun out of things, and it was sloshing around approximately waist level. So instead of getting up at 5:30 and getting the bike out to go ride a "double", I "slept in" till 6 and hauled out the chainsaw to go spend the day cutting wood instead.

And it was OK. In fact, it actually wasn't that different. Really.

You see, they're pretty similar activities in a lot of ways: A) They take about the same amount of time and effort, 2) I go out in public in some remarkably unbecoming clothes, and D) I get to eat more snacks and drink more Cherry-Limeade that I normally would in a couple of weeks. Oh, and wear some marginally useful safety gear that in the event that something dreadful happens, will simply make me appear to have been a more careful, if no less unfortunate, dope than if I had gone out and done it in my underpants and flip-flops. The equipment's similar too in that there's all sorts of messing around that can be done if you want, changing the spark-plug and touching up the chain on the saw with a file accomplishes about as much as replacing the pads and lubing the chain on your bike. Especially if you don't really know what you're doing and are just copying the Guys that do.

Anyway, I went down the road to the Cemetery where they'd cleared out an old fence row to expand the grounds(it's getting a bit crowded, folks are DYING to get in there you know(!) (I love that joke SO much, I work it in somehow AT LEAST twice a month)) and got started. They ripped everything out with a Dozer and a Track-hoe, pushing all the brush and wire and rocks up into a huge pile to burn this winter when the risks of a fire are lower, and "stacked" the hardwood in another pile for me. It was sort of a mess with 1000 lb. logs jumbled up in a pile 6 feet high and 30 long. A bajillion tons of energy stored up ready to tumble down and mash everything in it's way. It's safe enough if you know the basics, have the tools to move things around without climbing on or under anything, and keep your brain turned on. You can still get hurt but if you're careful you probably wont, even if you do it your whole life. But it could. Sort of like riding your bike.
 I only got half the pile cut up into ready to split billets, but every log is on the ground in 10 foot sections, spread out safely and I'll be back over the next couple of weeks to finish cutting it into 24" chunks, then back with Bruce's splitter(I replaced the valve body and fixed the flat tires in exchange for using it on this job) to split it up and get it all ready to haul 2 miles to my house. I'm not exactly sure how much wood is in that pile, I don't do this enough to be an expert but it's easily all we'll need for this winter and most of next if we don't have another horrible one like we did 2 winters ago. Maybe there's more than that. We'll see when it's all split and stacked.

We don't heat just with wood but it saves enough money that it helps make up for me not having gone to Medical School or whatever I gave up to be whatever it is I am. Sometimes I wish I had a job that let me spend my way out of more problems but I don't, and it really only means I do things like cut fire wood and do my own plumbing and car repairs instead of riding my bikes all the time or going Rock Climbing or Golfing like my friends who listened to their Parents and went off to the Dental Mines or the Counting Houses. At least I work indoors now and can go home at the end of the day without having to scrub off all the grease or shake the welding slag out of my hair anymore.

I spent enough years doing donkey work that  spending a Saturday cutting wood doesn't seem like a hardship. But it does to some of my friends that I ride bikes all over creation with, just like spending a whole day riding a bike sounds like a daunting challenge to some of my friends that spend their days hanging sheetrock or roofing houses. Jobs that are just plain hard that they just do, getting used to and getting satisfaction from doing well in a way that should let them see that a hundred miles on a bike isn't anything you have to "train" for, you just have to want or need to do it and go out with the minimum of appropriate gear. And realize you're going to be sore and a little uncomfortable till you've done it a bit and learned the tricks.
Just like what they do most other days.

Most jobs are like that too I suppose, I worked on a geological drill for an Engineering Company for a while, really long days doing crazy hard work out in the boonies. It was absolutely the hardest work I'd ever had to do but after a couple of weeks it was just my job. A 10 hour day made you tired and a 14 hour day made you REALLY tired but you still got in the truck the next time feeling like you could do another day. It was a lot like how I felt after doing 200 Miles in a day back when I was a few years younger. But the drilling job was at a point in my life where I wasn't riding bikes anymore, and when some of my old Racing Buddies tried to get me to go do a 100mile ride with them I begged off saying I couldn't get away, but inside I was thinking to myself there was no way I could ride a bike that far anymore. I think I was 31. One of them told me later he was thinking "I can't understand how he can do that job, I never could", about my drilling gig. But he survived a Residency where he had to do 72 hour shifts in an Intensive Care Unit. It seems funny now.

I know some people would read this and say "Duh." And I guess it is sort of self evident to most people, but like a bunch of things that many of us learn when we're 15 in Marching Band or Girl Scouts or in the Gym, others of us learn it later, and I'm one of them. Some of this didn't sink in till I was way too old for Girl Scouts, I would have had more fun if when I decided to quit pretending to be a Bike Racer, I would have just kept riding because I loved it, and not wandered off and done all my sweating in welding shops and the cabs of stinking diesels, giving up on things that just seemed too hard and going off to do just as difficult things because I didn't realize I could choose. Oh well, I finally learned some of that stuff. I'm glad I did because it made what I did yesterday feel as satisfying as what I had to postpone, and it's why it's going to be so nice in a week or two when I do get up early and go blow a whole Saturday out on my bike.

 I wish ya'll could come too, it's going to be great...

Friday, August 21, 2015

"Excuse me, could I have your autograph?"

Jimmy Carter is getting treatment for cancer, I suppose the fact he's spending some of his time in Hospital shouldn't surprise anyone since he is 90, but still. Oliver Sacks has been saying his goodbyes and working on some important things as well as he deals with the cancer that's going to punch his ticket. I'll be sorry when he's gone. This is on my mind because they are both people that I've admired for years and whose writing I've benefited from reading, and, this is sort of embarrassing, they're both people I hoped I might get to meet someday.

I'm really not one of those "Can I have your autograph Mister?" sort of persons and it's not like I thought I was going to make a new Best Friend and start sitting in on patient sessions with Ollie or goofing off pranking the Secret Service Detail with Jimmy or anything like that. It's more like secretly nurtured hopes to bump into Mr. Carter in an out of the way part of the National Gallery on a rainy afternoon(He does Paint after all) or find myself in line behind Dr. Sacks at a vintage bookstore somewhere. You know, a setting that would automatically define me as a thoughtful, insightful person, a person you might want to extend a hand to and engage in conversation with when I shamble up and ask "Can I have your autograph Mister?"  It's not exactly hero worship but it's more than just "Hmmm, that Dude makes some interesting points, I wonder what he's like to talk to..." 5 minutes chatting with either of them would be a big deal to me and put a finer edge to the satisfaction I'd get reading their work for the rest of my life.

I was thinking about this the other day in the bushes outside the White House; What is it about some people who we'll probably never ever meet, that makes us want to connect with them somehow? And other people who write just as well, sing or tell jokes just as well or whatever, can stroll past in the Airport and we don't do more than jab our partner in the ribs and whisper, "Check it out, THAT'S HER!... you know, the one that does that thing! On TeeVee..." For example; I really like reading E.O.Wilson but have never been tempted to write him a letter or plan what I would say if I ever bumped into him at Wal-Mart. Same with Stephen Jay Gould, I've read at least a dozen books of his and got something worthwhile out of every single one of them but when he passed away I wished his atheistic soul farewell but never thought "too bad I never got to meet old Steve". In fact, I once passed up an opportunity to hear him speak in a situation where it might have been easy to meet him after the lecture and ask him to sign a copy of whatever book he had just cranked out, but I passed it up to go see Russ Myer's "Faster Pussycat, KILL KILL!" with some young ladies my Grandmother would describe as having "Fallen short of the Glory". No regrets on that one.

When I was in college I went with some friends to hear Betty Friedan speak at Hollins College and had this startling realization about why I kept finding myself trying to date Feminists. I'd read "The Feminine Mystique" and it had all sort of gone over my head, but after hearing her speak from 20 feet away, I started trying to unravel some thought I'm still untangling today. There are other Writers who plow that same field that I respect and admire but I'm content to engage them in print, but if she were still around I'd like to go get in Ms. Friedan's bubble again. That was a powerful experience and I still feel a bit of it every time I read something she wrote, see her photo or hear her name.  It's not just Writers I feel this way about either, there are some Artists and Musicians(Chrissie Hynde from "The Pretenders", Buddy Guy) a VERY few politicians(who, like President Carter, get on the list because they have something useful to say AND can write really well) and a couple of spectacularly squared-away people who don't really have a catagory. I'd really like to spend half an hour asking any of them some questions and getting a sense of the person behind the work.

There are a few people that are important to me that I would avoid if given the chance. Christopher Hitchens for example. I can't think of anyone else that is as challenging, as thought provoking or so able to make me want to go brush up on some subject as he was. I agreed with him on a great deal but could never come around to some of his other positions and would have liked to have had the opportunity to ask him some questions.Or maybe not. Really, I don't think I would have ever willingly taken a seat next to him. Perhaps somewhere conversation would have been impossible(a Tractor Pull perhaps?) but where I could have gotten my picture taken beside him to hang on my wall. I think engaging that guy in a discussion about anything he gave a Damn about would have been like walking up to Blackbeard and asking if he might show you his Cutlass. Risky. Very risky.

Anyway, this was supposed to be about Jimmy Carter and Oliver Sacks. Both of them have helped me understand things that I needed to get a handle on. Things that have helped me reconcile the crazy assortment of things I believe and wonder about and hope for, and also things that have helped me be a bit more content when there is no way to reconcile those things. Anyone that does that for you is a friend and you can be forgiven for wanting to shake their hand or give them a pat on the shoulder as a way to connect and keep a  bit of that friendship, or whatever it is, alive when they've gone. I suppose I need to give up on my hope to share a sandwich with either of them so I'll just say what I would then, now.

Thank you Mr. President. Thank you Dr. Sacks, you've both been good to me and I won't forget.

Peace and Blessings on you.


Thursday, August 13, 2015

I Heart Coaster Brakes (and so should you).

When I was about 9 or 10 I took apart the coaster brake on my Stingray and became not just a person who liked riding bikes, but a person who LOVES BIKES. I'm not sure if there was a problem with it or if the temptation to take it to bits was just too strong to resist. I do remember that it was the same day I found my first 8" adjustable wrench on the road, so the old Schwinn was going to get flipped over onto the seat and handlebars and dissected in any case. Call it fate.

Coaster brakes are not particularly complicated, but there is a gratifying degree of sophistication and elegance to how they go about their business if you're sensitive to that sort of thing. I find them particularly satisfying little devices and even now have a big box of them under my workbench. You really don't have to be very mechanically inclined to get one apart and back together, but, if you're a "nuts and bolts kind of person", this might be when you discover it. That's the way it was for me. The instant I had all the parts spread out in the dirt it all made perfect sense to me, and so I naturally considered myself to be a "Fully Qualified Coaster Brake Expert" and made myself available for troubleshooting and lectures on the subject from that moment. The fact that my bike was as likely to fall over from my coasters bearings being impossibly tight, as it was to weave about as the hub wandered aimlessly back and forth across the axle from being comically loose did nothing to shake my faith in my abilities. I think that sort of confidence building is a good thing for a kid, delusional or not.

Anyway, as soon as the workings of that beat up Schwinn stopped being a mystery to me, I started trusting it to be able to take me farther and farther past the end of our road(to the dismay of my Mother), and still get me back again. Because of bicycles, my personal territory started growing and growing, and still is to this day. I hope it never stops even if  I get so old it only keeps expanding in  my imagination. Maybe when I'm a hunnert' and five, grumpy and covered in Chicharone and bacon crumbs, I'll have to resort to riding a coaster brake as only my very oldest muscle memories will be left. That would be sort of cool, get started on one and spend the next half century working my way up to ever more complicated and expensive gear and then 50 years working back to where I started. About the time I have to resort to a scooter to get around I'll likely be about finished with the whole endeavor anyway and be ready to go take a nap and be done with it.

I'm glad coaster brakes are simple enough for even a 9 year old to understand, because if it would have taken more than another year or so I think the magic might have seemed too small and not been sufficient to capture me. As it is, the Magic of the Coaster Brake seems to be at just the right level of simplicity while also being capable enough to challenge a curious, willing young person to go "just a little farther". Of course being able to lay BIG SQUEALING SMOKING SKIDS is also pretty cool and has been enough to turn a bunch of Girls and Boys away from Soccer and Basketball and that sort of thing before it could get out of hand and turn to Golf later in life. That's what a Coaster Brake can do. They've been doing it for over a Century too. Did you know that? It's true, they were one of the very first "Trick" parts and they're still making them today. Like right now. In the time it's taken me to write this(weeks and weeks actually) the factories have filled another shipping container with everything from the crappy ones on those Wal-Mart bikes that will give you Tetanus, to Multi-speed internally geared, alloy-shelled beauties that carry the flag with head up and fists in the air.They can seem invisible but like some other "obsolete" but really useful things(axes, manual transmissions, wooden pencils and maybe pink plastic Hair Curlers), enough people still want them bad enough to spend money on them in the face of all the "better" alternatives so we probably don't have to worry about them disappearing  anytime soon. 

In spite of all this cheerful propaganda, I think part of the reason I still like messing around with them is the sinister reputation the venerable Coaster Brake still has among those of us who grew up hearing the dire warnings about the other, darker side of the Coasters friendly personality. All those Urban Hipsters who jumped on the Fixed-Gear bandwagon a decade ago may have thought they were Bad-Ass but they had NOTHING on those of us that rode our Wheelie-Bikes to adventure and glory back in the dim past...

You see, the lore of the coaster-brake is rich and varied, and we need to see that it's never lost. We need to keep telling the tales of ghastly tumbling wrecks caused by broken chains that started halfway down huge hills and finished part-way up the next, the stories of brush fires started by overheated Bendix's that burned entire counties, or the old Nightmare of the kid who, after flipping his bike upside down to work on it, gets his finger caught in the chain and due to not being able to backpedal to free himself, has to drag the bloody bike into the house and wake his sleeping Mother to get help! That one really happened, honest to God. It was my Neighbors cousin who lived like two towns over. Really.

So the next time that nice old man in the Sweater and Velcro Sneakers tools past on a bike with no brake levers, don't wave and smile, get off the sidewalk. Because with a coaster brake, anything could happen...

Thanks Coaster Brake!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

There's a snake in my car.

Sunday evening after stopping for ice cream, my Wife and I walked over to my Blue 1990 Mazda Miata, which I love as much as a person can love the car that is standing in for the Aston Martin one richly deserves but forgoes out of love and concern for ones family, and as we were about to get in, she leaped up in the air, threw out an arm in a dramatic gesture and spooled up to a High "D" which she held, without taking a breath for at least 12 or 13 seconds. She also managed to suspend herself  11 inches(!) off the ground for that little moment in time. The very INSTANT she hit her panic button I thought to myself; "Snake!? How can there be a snake!? There must be a snake!". I ran over, put a hand on her shoulder to calm her and draw her back to earth before she could gain more altitude and slip away, glanced down onto the floorboard of the car and saw the snake that I knew was going to be there but could not believe was going to be there.

 Tiny little grey thing, 8 or 9 inches and no bigger around than a french fry. All curled(not coiled) up with it's little paws over it's ears and an astonished expression on it's cute little furry face. Well, if it had paws and ears and fur. It was absolutely as harmless in demeanor and equipment as any creature can be. But having been through all this a number of times in the last 19 years, 11 months and a few days for Cleopatra and I, and innumerable times since "The Fall From Grace In The Garden" for our little serpent, we all knew our parts and dutifully followed the standard script; She, shrieking her lines in that glass-shatteringly calm, matter-of-fact way of hers, stating that she would not be riding home in that car, today, tomorrow or any day before the end of time, Me, standing slope shouldered, muttering, sotto voce, words of common sense and wisdom, uselessly, to the wind, and the Snake? The snake darted off stage via the opening in the carpet for the seatbelt bolt, with a flip of the tail and a cheerful "Later Losers" to the delight of the audience.

So let's just go over our respective roles in this tragic comedy before going any further, just so you can concentrate on the action without worrying about how the plot is going to develop...

Cleopatra, my lovely Wife(and she IS a fabulous Babe, BTW), aggrieved Heroine,guaranteed to end the play recumbent on a pallet of satin cushions, blowing kisses to the crowd who shower her with roses and applause.

 The Snake. Noble Trickster, will show itself to be equal in wit and humanity to the rest of the cast, impossible to outsmart and invariably able to turn all attempts on it's life and person back onto it's reluctant assailant with uproarious comic genius.

Me. Shlub. I will end the play barefoot, covered with soot and holding a smouldering steering wheel, spent airbag draped at my feet.

How can it be otherwise? All I have to defend myself is common sense and reason against all the forces of Nature and Culture. You have no idea how my life has changed in 4 days. Absolutely nothing is as vital as proving to my Wife that the snake is gone and will never come back. And I will still have to burn my car to the ground even if I can produce a snake cadaver of the right size and description. I may have to burn her Packard too, as a preventive measure, then buy her another one and possibly burn it as well if that one does not feel sufficiently snake free over time. You see, this is not the first time. This spring in Florida we all watched in disbelief as a 3 foot black snake shot across my In-Laws yard, up the front tire of the knackered old Bentley we bought for our oldest Daughter to drive, and into the engine compartment. I, as the responsible Husband and Father, got the hose, opened the hood, saw the serpent nestled under the intake manifold plumbing and sprayed it with a good blast. Knowing, KNOWING, we were going to see that bad old snake drop to the ground and take off for the everglades. Alas no. It did disappear but it did not drop to the ground and slither off. It just, disappeared.

 I, as many of you will know, am a Liar, so you will not be surprised if I tell you that I, for the good of my family, lied and lied and lied over the course of the next 24 hours. "No, there is NO POSSIBLE way for a snake, OF ANY SIZE, to find it's way into the passenger compartment from under the hood", and, "I can ASSURE you that that snake crawled out of there as soon as the coast was clear since it's a SCIENTIFIC FACT that snakes are repelled by the smell of automatic transmission fluid", or, "There's NOWHERE for him to hide! We'd be able to see him if he was still in there!". I'm pretty sure he's still in there. All the way back to Virginia I was dreading the moment when a sleek, glossy, indigo head was going to emerge from a dash vent leaving me speechless and alone in a speeding station wagon, with only my snake and the empty seats and broken windows where my wife and daughters were just before the "Rapture".

Also,We almost had to burn our new house down because there was a wee little 5 foot snaky thing under the dining room table one afternoon a year or so after we moved in. That was an eventful day. I was able to rescue that guy and put him out in the field with instructions to never come back if he wanted to preserve his cool dry skin and high frequency hearing.

You see, I don't mind snakes. I'm not especially into them or anything, for romping and playing catch in the yard with a Frisbee I typically prefer a dog, but I don't have anything against them. I mean, The whole garden of Eden thing is so far in the past, and really, Serpent or no, we were eventually going to get around to consuming everything glossy and bite-sized within the walls of Paradise anyway so let's just shake hands(metaphorically speaking) and give it a rest. Of course the rules are different with venomous types, I'm really going to have to insist you stay a long rifle shot away from the house, but provided you do that I promise to watch my step out in the wilds and not be all injured entitlement if you sink a fang in when I tramp on your tail.

So I really don't want anything bad to happen to this little dude. In fact, if it was just me, I'd leave him alone. Let him stay as long as he wanted, maybe even have a chat and a laugh on a Sat morning going to the market with the top down. He could keep any mice from moving in and prevent me from having to do to my Miata what my friend Bruce is having to do to his, rip out all the seats and carpet AND the dash assembly to remove the mouse nests and tangy smell that accumulated while the car sat idle for a couple of years in a carport. I think it's sort of a settled issue in any case, it's moved in apparently. I've seen it twice since then, once yesterday sunning itself across the rear of the console when I went out to go to lunch and this evening I think I saw it's glittery little eyes peering at me from under the passenger seat as I waited for a light. It gives off a sort of domestic, proprietary air, as if "this is my Home, you know? And why do you have to keep trying to grab me or lure me into little Tupperware containers with the lid propped open with a stick and a string like we were living in some ridiculous "Road Runner Cartoon?"


 I've thought about just telling Cleo that the snake is gone, "I totally saw him sliding out the wheelwell with an overnight case and a garment bag", or scouring the road for a dead one of approximately the same description and planting it under the seat or whatever. 'Problem with that is the whole "Everybody knows I'm a big fat liar" thing, so I'm probably doomed to going everywhere in that car alone until she finally drops a match in the trunk herself. What should I do? What would YOU do?

Oh well, time will tell how this play ends. Updates as events unfold...

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Martha Stewart Vs. Tommy Chong

You know the old saying, " A place for everything and everything in it's place"? What do you think about that? Is that just your normal Martha Stewart sort of rule for everyday order and efficiency, or crazy, wistful musing about life in a faraway perfect world. As in "A place for everything and everything in it's place...Whoa... like, far out Man"(read in your best Tommy Chong voice to really get what I mean here).

I wish I was a "Martha" but I'm a "Tommy" who can't find my hat in my handbag or whatever the saying is(WAIT! I just realized, I might have insulted Mr. Chong right there, which would be a shame because I really like Tommy Chong (and hope you do to), so if he's a neat and tidy, squared away sort of person, and I've inferred he's a slob like me than I'll have to apologize if I ever meet him, which would still be cool, if now a little awkward...). Anyway, like I was going to say before all that, I don't do a very good job of keeping my things organized, and since I have A LOT of things and am forever rooting around in my proverbial handbag looking for my hat, it can become something of a crisis at times.

Like right now.

You see, while I'm sitting on the back porch trying to write a blog post, the washing machine is spread out in chunks large and small all over the laundry room because I can't put my hands on a specific pair of Vise-Grip pliers I need to try to get the crumbling remains of the rusty bolt out of the top of the agitator shaft so I can get the tub off to replace the seal that's been trickling water onto the floor for a week. I have 3 or 4 of the size pliers I need(I think the Brits call them "Mole Grips", which if true is pretty interesting because it seems to infer that Moles might have some sort of preternatural gripping powers which would be news to me... wait here, I'm off to Google "Mole Grips", back in a jiff (insert "on-hold" music here), I'm back, Mole is just a U.K. brand of locking pliers similar to Vise-Grips, nothing to do with an obscure species of rodents with "Super Chromium Plated Over-Center Gripping Powers"(sadly)), anyway, I have any number of those clampy kind of pliers but cant find a single one of the right size to go after that bolt. My Lovely wife is KEENLY interested in the progress of this repair, so to buy myself time to find the Mole Grips (I think I'm going to start calling them that instead of Vise-Grips, I'm a bit of an Anglo-file and it's not like Vise-Grip are paying me, so until I start getting checks or free tools from them it's Mole Grips from here on), Oh dear, where was I?, Washing machine, Wife, probing questions about progress of repair... Oh yeah, to buy myself some time I soaked the remains of the bolt with penetrating oil and have now retired from the field for a period of "Soaking and Penetration". I have some breathing space to try to dig up some tools and or work on this little essay before she realizes I'm screwing around and I have to admit to what's really going on here. Sigh.

Care to take a little stroll down the basement steps to see for yourself why I'm in this mess? C'mon, might as well... As you can see I have a big basement, about 30 by 45 feet, really high ceilings, woodbox under the stairs, stove and stone chimney in the middle of the space, air compressor, water heater, well pressure tank etc. in the mechanical room over in the corner, and a bathroom complete with un-finished shower beside it. And 3,000 cubic feet of debris and corruption making all that invisible. Every single thing I own that my wife hasn't taken on the responsibility to wash and fold for me, is contained in this ever-changing landscape of tools, firewood and worn out bicycle tires. You see, I'm not merely untidy, I am also a Gifted Amateur Hoarder.There's all sorts of things down here I have no business having, and most of it is crap. I can see 23 bicycles in various states of completeness, about half crap. Several pieces of old(not antique) furniture waiting to be repaired or fed to the woodstove, all crap. Woodworking tools, large and small, power and hand, most worth keeping but some significant portion crap, enough hand tools of all types to outfit a Railroad Shop, an Appliance repair shop, a Sheet Metal Fabrication shop and a Musical Instrument repair shop(don't ask, it was a phase), only about 10% crap but worthless while mixed with all the crap. Then there's all the welding crap. You've got something metal with a crack in it? Yes I can fix that, please don't ask me though because I'd have to climb a waist high pile of semi flammable crap to get to the Torch, and while there's a fire extinguisher on every wall, it's impossible to reach them. Because of all the crap.

Sometimes I joke about the situation down here and call it the "Collyer Brother's Living History Experience". After the famous pair of wealthy Bachelor Hoarders who died in their Mansion full of Crap in the 40s, and caused a sensation as the New York City Fire Department emptied the building through the windows onto the sidewalk while trying to find their bodies. After seeing the pictures of their house I was struck by how much of the crap being thrown out onto the street looked "interesting", or "valuable" to me. And, this is true, I wondered if onlookers were free to help themselves to any small items they thought might be "useful". Pathetic. So I really shouldn't treat the poor Collyer Bro's as a joke so much as a cautionary tale.

Now, I am in no way so far down the path of compulsive crap collecting as Homer and Langley, but unless they were born in possession of  54 bicycles between the two of them, at some point they had to have passed through the stage I find myself at right now. Were they already doomed then or was there still a chance for redemption? Did they realize the dangerous path they were treading and put up a fight, maybe still throwing out the least valuable of their rescued single shoes after returning home in the wee hours with 7 orphan Brogans? Or possibly they occasionally gave something away to whatever friends they might have still had, only to experience actual chest pains whenever they remembered watching that friend wheel the 25 year old wreck of a bike out to whatever was the 1930s equivalent of a Subaru... But maybe they just gave in and threw themselves, heedless and headlong, into grabbing IT ALL. As long as I'm married I'm probably safe, certainly not off the hook, but safe. But I completely empathize with that compulsion; to hang on, to pick up from the curb, to rescue and repair. The uneasy urge that clutters up the corners of our houses and basements and free time.

 I'm due for another big purge. It happens every few years when I find myself stepping over something that I have no good place for, and realize I have no good use for, or reason to be clamoring over it and making myself unhappy in the spot where I could be most free to concentrate on things that interest me and give me satisfaction . So I spend a morning or a weekend seeing how far I'll go. Will I really throw out 3 perfectly good sets of 27x1 1/4" rims? Sometimes, yes. A box of still good used tires and tubes from the bike shop? Certainly, after quickly picking out the  best 3 or 4. Ditch that bent Austro Diamler frame that I ran into the back of a mail carriers car in 1984? Uh, not yet, but sometime, sure. Next time probably. Unless I decide to go ahead and replace the down-tube even though that bike was always 2cm too small even before I got all crippled up with age and hard living. These are good times to stop by my house. Let me see your gaze linger on that Bontrager saddle that was never quite "perfect" and you'll be gifted it with instructions to go put it in your car RIGHT NOW before I can change my mind. Same with any of those 8 speed Shimano Deore shifters and derailleurs. There's a cassette or two to match in there somewhere as well... No really, feel free...

I hope it happens soon. My shop in the basement is a special place when it's cleared up and swept out. There's a big bench with a vise and more tools than a few of the bike shops I worked in as a kid, enough nice bikes to have neat things to see where ever you look and all the most interesting bits and pieces from a long time spent messing around with bikes. I've been working and hanging out down there long enough now that it's become a bit like what I imagine the classic European or English shop or framebuilders place to be. I see old photo's of Jack Taylors place or Alex Singers shop and my place isn't completely different, and I like that. I've got some posters on the walls, some of my race numbers and cheesy medals, a bunch of semi iconic vintage parts laying about and all the various tools I've made for myself over the years. I'm not building frames but I can do most repairs on any good steel frame that deserves it and even though I'm not running a bikeshop for money, if you want to come hang out I'll let you use my tools and even do it for you if you ask nice and are good to my dogs. I can't believe I so easily let a place that is so pleasant and important to me get so cluttered and jammed with junk. It would be nice to sit down at the truing stand and relax with the radio playing some Erroll Garner while Andre LeDuc smiles at me from his sepia toned portrait over the bench. But not when it's under a pile big enough to cover a dead horse.

Tomorrow is a good day to get up early, find a shovel and broom and clear out my shop(Yes, yes, after finishing the washer. That's totally what I meant.). Maybe I'll set up my laptop on one end of the bench and start writing down there when it's raining or the porch is too cold, and maybe this time I'll manage to get my act together and keep it that way. Sure. If my "Inner Martha" can make peace with my "Tommy Chong" long enough to gang up on me and stop me dragging home every scrap of 2x4 and angle iron I see.

 In the meantime, I've got to find those pliers...

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

New thoughts on old habits

I was reading some comments on another blog the other day, people were offering their thoughts on a list of the 10 most important innovations in cycling as compiled by someone who is as close to an authority as you can be. I thought it was interesting how much discussion there was about some things that you would think people would have settled long ago, or at least grown so tired of arguing about that there wouldn't be a battle to be fought any longer. Things like indexed shifting and clipless pedals. Things that, like them or not, have changed cycling in ways that make them as permanent as anything can be these days. But the Pneumatic Tire was on the list as well and more than one person seemed to have reservations about it's place on the list. Seriously? You don't think air-filled tires qualify?
I cannot for the life of me imagine cycling becoming what it is, practically, commercially or, I dunno', spiritually(?) without them. Or conceive of what they would suggest as an acceptable substitute. It wasn't a list of the 10 BEST innovations remember, just the authors choice of the most important, so you would think people would use that little loophole as cover for not getting their bibs in a twist defending whatever bit of tackle they've invested their emotions in. Not so, the battle shows signs of flaring up again so maybe some of these things aren't so settled as I thought. Perhaps someone out there really wants nothing more than to find a brand-new carbon fiber Specialized or Giant under the tree this Christmas, one with 7 speed friction shifters, and shiny chrome and leather toe-clips and straps.

And solid rubber tires.

As a middle aged guy who started forming opinions back when clipless pedals and indexed shifting were fringe ideas that never caught on, in spite of appearing then disappearing every decade or so, I learned on the prevailing technology of the day and just got on with it. Never spending much time predicting what would come along next, but believing that my beloved bicycle had reached some point of perfection only incrementally short of complete.  But things change, and now my newest, most expensive bikes have clipless pedals and integrated indexed brake/shift levers and threadless stems and more cogs than you can count without bending down and running down the cassette with an increasingly greasy finger. And I like them fine and don't really miss the romantic connections with some earlier time whenever I'm out spinning along or grunting up a hill.

But you know what? I still like friction shift and clips and straps and some of that stuff.

What comes next is like a hundred paragraphs of boring old man ranting and lecturing. I apologize but, really, I can't help myself. There's a couple of better bits in the last paragraph or two so you might just skip over there now. Again, sorry.

 I have some nice old bikes so equipped and have even included a bit of that old tech on some my modern(ish) bikes that would have been simpler to build with the new standard parts(Are you now wondering how many bikes I actually have? Well, so am I. We'll talk about that another time. Promise). Two bikes in particular have become favorites, a late 70s Austrian Puch "Ultra-Somethingorother", a typical mid level Racer from the time of Disco and leather "helmets". Super stable, not too stiff, but I can still sprint it without the rear tire or the chain ring rubbing the frame like cheaper, more willowy bikes sometimes did under the onslaught of my grotesquely over-developed quadriceps. The other is a 73' Raleigh International with a mish-mash of Italian and French components from that time and big fat Cyclo-Cross tires. I enjoy riding this bike on dirt and gravel back roads so much I've started to think of it as some sort of Proto-Mountainbike. It's more nimble and a steadier climber when standing and slowly turning the cranks like big wooden Grist Mill machinery. Both fit me well and are comfortable places to spend long days so are most of the way to being perfect regardless of how you push the chain from cog to cog or clamp your feet to the crankarms.

 "Up-Grading" either of these old bikes to more closely resemble the current fashion would be like putting skinny jeans and a lip ring on a 50 year old guy with thinning hair and a bit of a belly(not that I have EVER done that, the bike thing or the lip ring...) and you would lose so much of the charm and satisfaction they have to offer.
 Things like instant shifting. "Wait!" you say, "instant shifting? That's what indexed systems ARE ALL ABOUT! You canna' be serious you chucklehead!" But I say, there is instant shifting that takes place, reliably and almost silently, when you ease the power a tiny fraction, push the shifter that well practiced increment, taking the chain by the elbow and giving it a good push where you want it to go. As soon as the chain climbs off the tooth it's on, it's going to get picked up right away by the adjacent tooth. Every time. Lubrication, proper adjustment and a little skill provided of course. But on an indexed system, nothing happens until the chain rolls off a tooth configured to kick it up or down to the next cog configured to catch it. Granted, that's never more than a few teeth but if you spend a bit of time getting all heavy and intimate with a properly sorted friction system, you will start to sense it and you might find it satisfying in a way the "skip a half-beat then BANG" system you've been riding, never will be. I think the "BANG" might be engineered into some of these systems, perhaps the brittle report of the modern $300 hair-trigger 11spd. derailleur helps one not to notice the ever so slight hesitation to shift. It's sort of like the over paid guy sitting at his desk day-dreaming, the boss steps through the door and the first thing I, uh, he, does is bang a couple of keys, smartish and loudly, if a little belatedly. The friction derailleur on the other hand is the Poindexter at the next terminal who had his nose to the digital grindstone the whole time and is now looking down that exquisitely sharpened nose at you as if you had just been caught with your finger in your own. I took a lot of pride in learning to shift quickly and neatly way back then, and it's still satisfying to be able to do it well and intuitively even if I must take a hand off the bars and reach down to the shifter on the down-tube. I don't think the Earth is a worse planet to live on now that we can shift and brake and answer our phones without ever moving our hands more than a few inches, in fact I really dig the way I can brake and downshift simultaneously on my Ergo-power bikes. Even if I never needed to be able to do that before discovering I could. But now it's a skill I take some satisfaction from and would sort of miss doing if it stopped being an option. Cut's both ways.

Another thing about friction shifting and then I promise to move on... R.P.M.

On modern integrated shifting systems where the next gear is a flick of the wrist and a fraction of a second away, we shift a lot. Even the local pro's seem to be shifting quite a bit as they swerve around me out on the road. I find myself and the people I ride with tend to stay within about 15 or 20 r.p.m.except when climbing the big grades where we run out of gear and have to grunt. That really isn't a problem but when you have to disrupt things a bit to change gears, you naturally tend to do it less, encouraging yourself to develop a much broader R.P.M. range. I have a comfortable range of about 50 or 60 r.p.m., from about 65 to about 115/120. I can spin faster if there's a reason but let's not pretend I'm particularly smooth or graceful. On my friction bikes I use it all, spending most of the time in my sweet spot of approx 95/100 where I'm still smooth and my best power is available right on up to my comfortable max. On my indexed bikes I tend to find myself pedaling 10r.p.m. slower and shifting so often that I stay in a narrow band of about 25R.P.M. from about 75 to 100. That means I have to have more gears, shift more often and relinquish the strongest part of my ability. I have to make myself resist that inefficient tendency on my "modern" bikes but it's the natural rhythm of a friction bike. I know that one of the selling points of the new electronic systems is the promise of staying at your "Ideal" R.P.M., which is likely anything but.

Oh my word. I"m still gassing about all this even now? And did you notice how often I resorted to the "Personal Pronoun"? Pitiful. It might not be so bad from here though...

I like clips and straps too, but again, I use the current default, clipless pedals, on the roadbikes I ride the most. I sometimes even put them on those old bikes I was talking about earlier, especially if my clickety soled clown shoes seem like the comfortable choice that day. But if I want to go for a spin in my smelly Adidas trainers or my old Bata cleats, then classic quill pedals with chrome steel clips and the raggedy de-laminated Alfredo Binda leather straps let me, which makes me happy. Happy to be able to tap the tab on the pedal with the tip of my shoe, just so, then tilt my foot so the clip slips right over it as it comes over the top, a quick squirm and the cleat pops over the cage and a little tug on the strap and I'm imagining myself to be Federico Bahamontes, "the Eagle of Toledo", or Joop Zoetemelk or one of my other teenage heroes. It's just old habits and romantic notions, but also, old skills, hard won and satisfying to do well even now when there's no time to be gained or respect to be earned.  If you can become one of "The Greats" for a moment, simply by showing a toe-clip who's boss, then your world get's a little bigger, you know?

The other day I was about to leave the house for work and on an impulse grabbed the Raleigh instead of the Mercian with the modern gruppo. It was a nice spring morning and no one had called to say the shop was engulfed in flames, so I took the long way. At some point I found that perfect position and cadence where you feel smooth and electric, able to fly almost, I dropped one hand to the shifters and did a nice rapid double shift, first one then the other to drop into the little ring and up 2 in the rear at just the right time as the road tilted up the hill. At the top, the free end of my right toe strap was brushing the grass along the edge of the road making a sound I instantly remembered but hadn't heard in a decade or two, then I rolled over the crest and tucked for the dive towards the Quarry Road and marveled at how comparatively serene and quiet it was, no cassette hub whining away to disturb the rumble of the wind in my ears and announce to the world at large"He's COASTING, the lazy bum is coasting again!"

I don't know, maybe there's not much of great value to be gained from all this old kit, but it makes it more fun sometimes. I never had any success racing and no one comes to me for advice or guidance but my past is as much part of why I still cycle as the promise of tomorrows ride. You might not get it, but if you see me out on some 40 year old bike, a long afternoons ride from home, looking a bit distracted and muttering to myself in bad Spanish or Dutch, at least you'll know why.