I Like A Bike

Now for something much less serious… bikes!

I have always had a love for bikes. Whether it was a sidewalk bike, my old Stingray, the 10 speed that my dad didn’t use (but I sure did), a freebie BMX crasher that I rode around the parking garage in college… all the way to the present where I can afford a “decent” road bike. I like the feeling of freedom, the uncomplicated nature, and the sights and smells that I am shielded from in a car. Back in the late 00’s I had not been riding as much because of some attitude and health issues. As usual that didn’t last long.  I always end up back in the habit of riding, one way or another. I decided to give the bicycle another shot as a part of a fitness program, and this time it was a program designed (by me) to not cause any injury and allow me to keep up a steady level of activity without burn-out.  FWIW, I’m in year three and so far, so good

As many of the male persuasion are wont to do, I became somewhat “serious”. Ick. Clipless pedals, bike shorts, and other trappings of the “Spandex Mafia” ensued.  In my case I was lucky enough to have a few chance encounters that changed things for the better. The first was that while searching for some kind of accessory, maybe pedals or a rack, I stumbled upon Rivendell Bicycle Works of Walnut Creek, CA. The products were neat, and the attitude reminded me of the old Patagonia catalogs or The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance. I kinda plugged the name “Grant Petersen” into the back of my mind and went on about grokking the website.  I started reading the articles, and they led me to a grand realization: I Like Riding Bikes. The articles on the Rivendell site are a collection of essays on thing like how to fit a bicycle to a rider, clothing, shoes, and so on. The common thread is one of keeping it simple and fun.

I started to take a fresh look at bikes, and specifically *my* bikes. Why were they uncomfortable? Why was I having foot pain? Why was I worried about a one-pound tool kit when I was 30 pounds overweight? Why did I feel worse at the end of a moderate ride than when I started? All excellent questions, and they are all apparently akin to heresy in virtually every bike shop in North America. Aerodynamics, efficiency, and technological trickle down from the ranks of elite cycle racing are the themes that dominate most shops. All other forms of bike are pathetic and to be viewed askance, if at all. A mild exaggeration. Very mild.

First order of business: Fun-ifying my Specialized Tricross. Flat pedals, fenders, better saddle, lights. The transformation was dramatic. A bike that I would only ride on sunny days and on bone-dry roads was now a suburban assault vehicle. Foot pain: gone. Back pain: less. Fun Factor: elevated. One problem still remained: the bike was on the small side for me, and the fit was never going to be great. Most bike shops will put a rider on a frame about 4-6cm shorter than the rider would like. This is because sport riders find the smaller frame to be stiffer, and quicker handling. For most riders what they actually get is a cramped “cockpit” and handlebars that are too low. In my case I am a 6-footer and something in the 58-61cm range would be a good starting point, hence, I took the shop advice and ended up on a 56cm cyclo-cross-over. FWIW, the Tricross is a great bike, and it can fit a wide range of riders and riding. If I had gone with my gut, put my foot down, and got it in a 58 or 60, it might very well be my main ride today.

This “fun” epiphany led me to take another look at bikes that I own, but were sitting unused. I made a few simple modifications to my old mountain bike, and created a bike that was amazingly fun to ride. Before that it had been a truly awful mountain bike. Dating to the mid-1980’s, this Peugeot “Orient Express” is basically a small touring frame with 26″ knobbies and a straight bar. If I wanted to buys a Japanese-made lugged steel frame bike today, which is what the Peugeot is, it would cost me about $2,000.  I bought it used back in 1989 from a co-worker who was leaving to man a fire lookout tower in Alaska. I rode it on trails back then, but it was a disaster waiting to happen. In fact, it was several disasters that actually did happen! The bike sat in my garage waiting for me to realize that it was a great bike in bad-MTB clothing.  One set of cruiser-bike slicks, one swept back handlebar, and the springer seat from my Specialized Expedition, and suddenly it was a great freakin’ bike. Currently dubbed the “sand panzer” it positively reeeeeeeks of fun. Floating over every obstacle, stable on loose terrain (including its namesake sand), and comfortable on my normal 15-20mi rides. Do I look like a bit of a dork on it? Yes, yes I do. Am I having a great time? Hell Yes.

What the Peugeot taught me, again, is that I really enjoy riding a bike. Like the way a kid enjoys a bike. That I still enjoy the freedom, and I can still handle the physical nature of it, and maybe most important I am re-convinced that if it doesn’t feel good it probably isn’t good. This bike feels great.  Hence, the Tricross got a similar treatment: Clipless pedals, overboard. Racing posture, eliminated. Any excess gear, canned. I went back to riding flat pedals in sneakers* or hiking shoes, and keeping the technical clothing to a bare minimum.

With that bloated premise it should come as no surprise that the writing and thinking of people like Eben Weiss (bike snob nyc) and Grant Petersen have resonated with me. I recently read both Peterson’s “Just Ride” and the Snob’s newest book “The Enlightened Cyclist”. I find a lot to recommend in both. I’ll put full reviews in separate posts, but know that “Just Ride” is retooled material from Petersen’s website and Rivendell Reader newsletters, and The Snob wrote a nice philosophical treatise while still remaining Snobby as all hell.

Here in New England we are about to hit the best part of the bicycling season, and I thank Grant and Eben for helping me get back to the fun part of it, and re-engage the bicycle on my own terms.

*(One of the few times a random fellow cyclist has struck up a full-fledged conversation with me, and I mean a total stranger who I was passing at the time, was a man who was dumbfounded that I wasn’t using clipless pedals.  He was similarly shocked that not only did I know of them, but I had use them and ditched them!  I even had the audacity to know why they were causing the freakin’ neuroma in my left foot and that going back to flats had solved the problem.  He gave me this weird lecture about how I should really stop riding in street shoes.  Honestly… WTF?)

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