Sunday, September 30, 2007

"I have slipped the surly bonds of earth" *

Yes, today I finally realized a childhood dream, thanks to Annie.

Last Christmas, much to my surprise, she gave me a gift certificate for a ride in an open cockpit biplane at The Flying Circus in Bealeton, VA. My dad had taken me there when I was a kid, and I loved seeing all the old planes flying and on the ground. And the thought of actually going up in one of those old biplanes just seemed too amazing for words.

Alas, it wasn't until many, many years later, today, that I got to do it, but better late than never, right? So today, after watching the air show there, I found myself climbing into a Stearman biplane, built by the folks at Boeing in the 1940s. It was amazing to sit there behind that engine, smelling the oil and feeling the wind of the propeller. And then to roll across the grass, and lift into the air! Whew! And it only got better from there... wheeling over the countryside, looking down through open sky at the earth below. I must have had the biggest grin on my face. And when the pilot pulled back on the stick, taking us into a nearly vertical climb... then kicked the rudder over into a stall turn... WOW! Amazing feeling! Near the end of the flight, we circled around a hot air balloon, then another stall turn right over the field, into a low-level pass of the grass runway in front of the crowd. Absolutely incredible!

Now... they have an "aerobatic ride" option that looks like a lot of fun... hmmmmmm...

* Title is from the poem "High Flight", which you can find here:

Flying Circus can be found at:

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Interbike 2007

Well, I recently came back from my second Interbike trade show. It was a lot of fun, seeing the various companies and their wares. As I'm sure is true for most folks, there were some areas that held more interest than others. I work at a shop that specializes in recumbents and folding bikes, so those booths obviously attracted me. It was good to visit the folks at Dahon, and see what they have coming up. Nothing earth-shattering, but some nice refinements of their products. It's amazing to me how far they have progressed in 25 years! The earliest models were frankly pretty crude. Here's a nice display they had at their booth.

To the left is a reproduction of an old "high wheeler", on display at the Kool Stop booth.

John (my boss) and I spent a good chunk of time at the Rans booth as well, and found out that we sold the second highest number of their "crank forward" designs in the entire US this past year. We've been pleasantly surprised at the interest in these bikes. If you haven't had a chance to try the Rans, or another vendor's crank forward design, you should. It's a fun ride. Definitely more comfortable and safer than this high-wheeler!

Speaking of crank forwards, the Electra folks have added some new variations to their Amsterdam line, and it's nice to see. Last year they introduced the line, in basic tones of black, red, blue and white. This year they have a much wider variety of paint schemes as well as technical variations, including some with derailleurs and cantilever brakes. Given the additions, and the fact that John actually got to see them this year, we're thinking more seriously about adding their line. I think.

One of my favorite booths was the Brooks Saddles booth (not a big surprise to those that know my taste in bicycles). Like last year, it was done in a "English Drawing Room" style, with various bits of product scattered about, and displayed in glass cases. The most interesting new product to me was the waxed cotton messenger bags, the Barbican. Very classy looking, and very well made. You could even go into a "grown up" meeting with this bag. Not that I do a lot of those these days. In addition they also had a special display that you could buy as a package to show in your store... a funky bike with their new metal basket, roll up panniers, saddle, grips, etc., along with a poster. Very nice, but you'd have to sell a LOT of product to pay for it I bet.

The event is in Vegas every year, and I have to honestly say, it's not my favorite place in the world. I really just don't like the visual and aural cacophony that surrounds one everywhere you go. I'm a quiet guy, and I like my world pretty quiet.... and Vegas is not quiet. Ah well... I spent most of the two days at the show, and the rest of the time asleep, it seems.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Riding after Labor Day

Well, now it begins.

I commute by bike most days, and roughly half of my journey is on the Washington and Old Dominion Rail Trail, a very popular multi-use path here in Northern VA. I've been commuting on it for almost 5 years now, starting in December 2002, and every year, the pattern is the same. The trail is deserted through the winter, but when the first warm days of spring arrive, folks start coming out. It builds up to summer, when riding on the weekend is just crazy with so many folks out there. Even weekdays, especially after 5:00 pm, are busy.

Then Labor Day hits. The day itself is a madcap swirl of cyclists, runners, walkers, and rollerbladers, all frantically trying to get in their last day of outdoor abandon. If anything, it's even busier out there than the summer weekends.

Now, the gradual, or not so gradual, dwindling begins. Soon I'll find I see few other folks on the trail on weekdays. Then the weekends will thin out too. As evenings are drawing shorter, already I can say I have less company on the way home. Before long, we'll hit "sweater weather"... and I'll have the trail virtually to myself again. And then it will snow... and about all I will see of other people on the trail is their footprints or the ocassional, rare, wheel track. I'll be out there, studded tires and wool, and enjoying the solitude again. Knowing full well that come April...

Sunday, September 9, 2007

My VW Past

*( Note: That's not my VW, it's just one I saw I Oregon a while back.)

These days I'm very much a bicycle person. Actually, as I've said before, I've pretty much always been one, since learning to ride. I love riding bikes, and fixing bikes, and building up bikes from parts and a bare frame. And I'm starting to get into bicycle framebuilding.

There was a time however, when I was into cars... VWs to be precise... air-cooled VWs to narrow it down further. It all started when I was a little kid, and my dad took a job in DC, while we were still living on Long Island. He couldn't leave my mom with 5 kids and no car until we could all move down to join him, so he bought a small, simple, economical car... a 1966 VW Beetle. I don't know why exactly, but I just really liked that car. I guess it was just so different from every other car. We had it for about 6 years, and when my dad sold it, it broke my heart.

A little earlier, my older brother bought a used '67 VW Bus... and I fell in love with that van. I remember my brother taking me for a ride in it shortly after he first got it, and it was just so cool. Heck, part of it was probably just the thrill of my brother, nine years older, wanting to spend any time with his punk brother. Either way, I really liked that van, and knew I wanted to own one some day.

Two of my three sisters had Beetles as their first cars as well, so VWs ran in the family. My first one wasn't wildly successful... a friend and I went in on a semi-abandoned Bus together, putting the engine back in and playing around with it a little... driving it (illegally!) locally...until one day my buddy crawled under it, and saw a little rust. A gentle tap, tap with a screwdriver... and lo and behold, a hole in the frame! Needless to say, we gave up on it

Shortly after that, I bought a used '70 Beetle of my own. It too proved to have a variety of issues, but I learned a lot, and got a lot of use out of that car. Several good road trips, and basic getting around. And I first learned how to tune a VW on that one.

Then along came Hildegaarde. That was my '71 VW Bus. Not the classic old "split windshield" type my brother had, but a better engine and vastly better brakes. And more room. I had that bus from fall of '85 until late summer of '87, when a missing fuel hose clamp spelled her doom... it takes about seven minutes for a VW bus with a full tank of gas to be totally consumed by fire. That was a sad day... some friends and I had an "Irish wake" for Hildy... lots of beer and stories.

Before that all happened though, I had such a good time with that van. Multiple road trips, including a 2 week tour of the Rockies (where I learned about advancing the timing at altitude). And I tore the engine down to the "short block" as part of a total overhaul, which included a few minor performance improvements. Not that I was going for speed mind you... it was, after all, a giant box on wheels. No, it was just an attempt to make it a little less grueling to climb hills and keep up on the highway. Pretty successful, actually.

I went on to own two more Buses, and a Bug... my sister's old Bug when she decided to sell it. None of them ever lived up to Hildy... in fact, the very next Bus after Hildy lead my then-wife to threaten to walk to the local airport if I didn't get rid of it after the cargo door fell off in my hand. I didn't blame her then, or now... that van had been a pain in the butt since the beginning, and the door was the final straw.

Anyway, my last Beetle went away back in '96, and I haven't owned a VW since. I miss them, the simplicity of them, and the "personality" they had. But these days, with traffic being what it is, and highway speeds so high, and SUVs prowling, I don't know that I'd like driving them so much any more. Sad.

But I learned a lot from those cars. Thanks in part to the John Muir "How to Keep Your VW Alive" book (aka "The Idiot Book"), I gained a lot of knowledge and confidence about mechanical things. On top of my bike experience, this was a wonderful thing, even if I never work on a car again, which seems likely.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

My "New" Bike!

Okay, so it's not really new. It's new to me, but it was built almost 35 years ago. It's a 1973 Schwinn Paramount. Those of you who know older bikes, know that this is a good one. Those of you who don't are probably thinking "aren't those old Schwinns tanks???" Well, some of them were, like the Varsity, their low end 10 speed designed to take the abuse of adolescents. The Paramount, on the other hand, was their top of the line model, handbuilt in the USA, using high quality steel tubing (Reynolds 531 double butted), and excellent components.

The funny part of it is that I used to look at Schwinn catalogs and dream of owning one of these, way back when this bike was new. There were of course other bikes I dreamed of, but the Paramount was really high on the list. And now I own one. And now I understand why they were so sought after then, and still are now, in some circles. It's a beautiful bike, especially in the full chrome finish that mine has (it was a special order option, I think). And the lugs are classic Nervex lugs, with the lovely curves, very nicely filed and cleanly brazed.

And on top of it all, it rides great! I've only done short rides with it, but so far I love it. Smooth, stable, yet it feels light and nimble when I turn. And comfortable! About my only complaints so far are the fact that it has down tube shifters... no biggie, I rode with them for years, it's just I've grown accustomed to, and fond of, bar end shifters... and the gearing, which is set up as "half step plus granny". "What the heck does that mean?", I'm sure some are wondering. Well, with three chain rings up front, and five sprockets in back, the gear ratio differences between the two outer chain rings is basically half as big as the difference between each sprocket. This used to be a fairly common approach, and it was pretty versatile, and worked well with the components of the era. But it's very different from how most modern bikes are set up, and I haven't ridden a half step bike in years. I figure I'll give myself some time to get used to it, and if that doesn't work, I can change it.

All of that aside, I'm having a blast riding the bike. And it sure is pretty to look at too.