Saturday, December 8, 2007

Snow rides!

That's right! We had our first snow fall here in the DC area. My first ride in it was on Friday, going to and from work. I would have ridden on Thursday, but my winter commuter was already at work, halfway through a tire change and drive train swap. You see, I was changing over to my Nokian Hakkapelitta tires... studded tires! This will be my second winter with this brand, and my third (ish) on studs in general. It's amazing what a difference they make on snow and ice. Last winter we had one snow fall where it froze to a solid crust immediately, and I rode all the way to work without a single slip, rolling atop the crust, never breaking through.

This first snow fall this year was pretty tame, and the trails are already clear as of Saturday night, as near as I can tell. But it was a fun ride on Friday.... I had to get used to it again, after the months of normal riding. Honestly, you fall back into it pretty easily, once you get past the initial tense moments. That's one of the keys to riding on snow and ice... don't tense up! And having the studs gives a measure of confidence that helps with that.

The picture to the right shows the front studded tire, as well as my front basket and Lumotec dynamo-powered light. The bike is an early 80s Miyata 210.

The other change I made to this bike this week is to change out the back wheel for a wheel built around a Shimano Nexus 8 speed internally geared hub. Folks about my age or older will remember the old English 3 speeds from Raleigh, Phillips, Rudge, and others, with the wonderful Sturmey-Archer hub. The Nexus is a modern descendent of sorts... only it has 8 speeds intead of 3! This means it's a lot easier to get a high enough high and a low enough low, with reasonable steps between gears. And all the workings are sealed up inside the hub, away from the elements, and less prone to damage. I've wanted to set up a bike like this for a while, and a deal on the back wheel came along I couldn't refuse. If you look closely at the picture on the left, you can see the hub, and also see the shifter on the right end of the moustache handlebar. The Shimano Revo shifter won't fit on a road style bar normally, but I bought an adapter called the Hubbub that plugs into the end of the bar and gives you a smaller diameter section to attach the shifter too. Pretty neat, but pretty spendy. I've only ridden the bike couple of days now, but I like it so far.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

He's back!

Yep, Wednesday Tybalt got his stitches out, and he's basically back to his old self! Well, it's going to take a while before the fur on his hip grows back, but he's acting like the fuzzy little bundle of energy I know and love. I let him outside for the first time in over a week, and he was so excited! At first I don't think he believed he was really going to be allowed out... he looked like he thought it was too good to be true. But once he was out... in snow, to boot... he loved it! He ran around, pouncing on the snow, and wrestling with it, and just generally loving being outside again! Woo hoo! He didn't want to come in, but dinner won out. It was so good to see him having so much fun and feeling good.

Friday, November 30, 2007

No, he's not getting a haircut...

That's my little buddy Tybalt wearing what the vet calls an Elizabethan collar. He's got it on because we don't want him biting or scratching at the stitches he now has on his left thigh.

Stitches you say? What happened?

Well, apparently during the Thanksgiving weekend, he got into some kind of tussle with another animal... maybe a cat, maybe not. We had heard a fuss near the house, but neither of our cats appeared injured, so we didn't think much about it, as it wasn't the first time we've heard such things. Typically, when we've had other animals appear in our yard, Tybalt does a quick vanishing act, but this time he apparently had an actual encounter. Unfortunately, we didn't know until much later.

He was clearly feeling under the weather for a day or so, and we thought it might be something he ate, or some kind of stomach bug. But then we noticed he was walking funny, a slight limp in his back end. There were no visible signs of injury, so we thought maybe he'd pulled something, or perhaps suffered a hairline fracture or something, as he could still walk, but just wasn't zipping around the usual way.

Well, after a couple of days of improvement, he suddenly took a sharp turn for the worse, and off we went to the kitty emergency room. As the tech started examining him, an abscess in his hip ruptured, oozing a lot of scary looking goo. Yikes! So he spent the night there, getting the bad tissue removed and a bunch of stitches in his thigh. And of course that charming collar. He really hates it, and now that it's been about a week, he's really tired of having it on. Until I get him to the vet this week though, it's gotta stay in place. Every time we've tried taking it off for a few minutes to give him a break, he immediately starts fussing at the wound. The poor little guy. A lesson learned... the moment he acts odd in any way, he needs to get to the vet.

It could have been a lot worse, and I'm relieved he's on the mend.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Winter Night Ride

Had a lovely ride home tonight, what with the clear sky and nearly full moon. It was bright enough that I turned my head lights off for a good portion of the off road portion of my ride. It's a paved multi-use trail that's basically deserted on winter nights, so it's pretty safe to do that, especially since I could clearly see a couple hundred yards ahead. As a bonus, I got to see two foxes, one of which ran ahead of me for about 20-30 yards, at around 25 mph! Very cool. One of the things I love about night rides.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Quietest Purr

(Having just seen a classic submarine movie I thought of titling this "Silent Purring" or "Purr Silent, Purr Deep".)

I am of course referring to my pal Tybalt there, who at not-quite-nine-pounds is a little fella, with a little voice to match. For the longest time he only made these quiet little trilling "worried little man" sounds (whoooooooo....) as he'd scurry along. I think he was about 2 years old before he started meowing, and even now it's with a tiny little voice.

The funny thing is, we thought he didn't purr either. About the closest to purring I'd hear when petting him was basically heavy breathing and light snorting sounds.... pretty funny, coming from a cat. Just recently though, holding him close, I've noticed a very distinct, but basically silent purr. You pretty much have to feel it rather than hear it, but like any cat's purr, it seems to say "life it gooooooood". Makes you wish you could find such pleasure in simple things sometimes, you know? And it's nice to get some feedback that he likes where he's at when I'm holding him.

Who ever would have thought I'd be so very fond of a cat? Not me... if you'd told me a few years ago, I wouldn't have believed it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Seasonal changes

Well, thanks in part to the peculiarities of the Mid-Atlantic states, we seem to have gone straight from summer to winter, or something like it. We had a prolonged "Indian summer", followed almost immediately by chilly weather. Granted, by New England standards, it's pretty balmy, but when you go from days in the 80s to days in the 40s or 50s in a short period of time, it's kinda jarring.

Added to that is the change from Daylight Savings time back to Eastern Standard. About the same time the temperature dropped and stayed down, the days shifted to where night falls awfully early.

As a result, there have been several changes to my bicycle commute. For one thing, I see a lot fewer people, especially cyclists, on my rides. The cold and damp seem to scare all but the hardiest away from the multi-use trail that makes up about half of my trip. And it seems the runners and walkers are better able to adapt, probably due to the fact that cyclists pretty much always have a wind at their face to some degree.

And I do have to "suit up" more thoroughly these days. Where I used to be able to throw on a pair of shorts and a t shirt or jersey, now it's all about layers. Depending on how cold and wet it is, I generally have on a pair of lycra bike shorts, with a pair of thick tights over them, to keep my legs and knees warm. I never wear rain pants, as I find they just make me wet with sweat, so what's the point. For really bitter days, I may resort to surplus Swedish army pants made of heavy wool. On my upper body, it's a thin base layer of silk or lightweight wool, followed by a heavier layer of wool for insulation. By heavier, I mean about like a light sweater, not a big bulky one. Sometimes it's a nice jersey or cross-country ski top from Ibex or Icebreaker or Smartwool, and sometimes it's one of a bunch of light merino wool sweaters I've picked up on closeout from Target. It's amazing how useful a six dollar sweater can be! On my head, it's either just a helmet if it's in the high 40s, a headband or skullcap if it's a little colder, or a thin balaclava if it's really cold. Hands generally get some ragg wool gloves, with perhaps a thin liner, and a GoreTex "lobster" shell over them for wet or very cold days. I'm going to experiment a bit more with gloves this year, I think. Finally, on my feet, it's heavy wool socks, often with a thinner wool or silk liner, and most of the time my Lake cycling sandals. For colder days, I add either a waterproof shell over the socks, or a neoprene bootie, from Sealskinz. If there's actually snow on the ground, I'll sometimes resort to hiking boots and go with regular "flat" pedals.

Now the other thing is lighting. With Eastern Standard time, I'm guaranteed to be riding home in the dark, so I need good lights. My preferred set up, starting last winter, is a Shimano Dynohub generator built into my front wheel, powering a halogen front light from Busch & Muller or Basta. One of my bikes also have a generator tail light, but I mostly rely on red LED "blinkies", from Planet Bike mostly. Their Blinky 7 is great, and the new SuperFlash is startlingly bright. I generally have at least one of those, along with a blinky on the back of my helmet. In addition to the front generator light, I also have a Cateye EL-410 strapped to my helmet so I can aim it at motorist's eyes at intersections, and at signs along the road and trail. And generally, on top of all that, I have a small battery powered light clipped on the bike just in case the genny light dies. Finally, I try as much as possible to have some reflective bits and pieces on me and the bike. I guess I just don't want anyone to be able to say "I didn't see him!" Besides, I've seen enough un- or poorly- lit bicyclists in my day to make me understand the dangers.

Now, all of this may sound rather dreary and a drag. I'll admit, it does sometimes wear on me that it takes so much longer to get ready to ride, and to change once I get where I'm going. And the cold and the dark are sometimes unpleasant. But the bright side is I pretty much have the trail to myself much of the time, and I get to see and experience things many folks miss. I've spotted fox and rabbit and deer almost every night lately, in some combination. And the moon and the stars are much more vibrant in fall and winter. Most of all, I'm on my bike, a place I love being, and outside in the world, seeing it change with each passing day. And what's not to like about that?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Better Bikes! - A book

On the cover of my copy of the book, it's subtitled "A Manual for an Alternative Mode of Transportation". Oddly enough, the title page has it as "A Manual for Expanded Use of Bicycles". Both are good, but I tend to think the title page hits closer to the core of the book. Published in 1980 (thus written in the late 70s), this is the least known of three classic bike books written by the late Tom Cuthbertson, who passed away in 2005. The other two books are Anybody's Bike Book, and Bike Tripping, both classics of the 70s. Anybody's is one of the great repair manuals of its day, borrowing its approach and style from the famous John Muir How to Keep Your VW Alive, a Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot , better known as "The Idiot Book". Full of quirky but helpful drawings and solid advice, it got many cycling enthusiasts started on bike repair. Bike Tripping is more of a "here's some fun ways to use a bike" sort of guide, and probably my least favorite of the three.

But the one I keep going back to now and then is Better Bikes! In it, Tom approaches something near and dear to my heart... basically he writes about how to get to where you can and will use your bike for TRANSPORTATION as well as recreation. It's full of lots of practical nuts and bolts tips, as well as some very helpful advice about how to change your thinking about bikes as transportation. It's not a manifesto, it's not advocating societal change on a grand scale, it just tells YOU how you can make a bike more a part of your life. Some of the hardware information is out-dated for sure, but the basic principles, and most of all the philosophy, still apply. And the book is full of charming drawings to illustrate the points.

Just a sampling of some of what's in here... the first part is all about taking that 10 speed (you remember... 2 chainwheels in front, 5 sprockets in back?) you have gathering dust, and preparing it (and you!) for regular use. He covers basic care as well as load-carrying options, all weather riding, theft prevention (his thoughts on status symbols and tubing stickers is priceless) and how to deal with flats. The second section covers what he calls "Alternative Bicycles", including those strange then-new creations he calls "clunkers" and we now know as mountain bikes. A good portion of that section is also devoted to setting up a "Three Speed Station Wagon" as he calls it, for shopping and lugging the kids around. I love this section in particular, and you can tell that this sort of bike was near and dear to the author. As I understand it, he was known around his native Santa Cruz as "the guy on the three speed in a kilt". How can you not like such an author?

The Alternative Bikes section also covers "bicycle trucks" of the sort used in Asia, and now becoming more common, in some variation, in Europe and the US. And he offers advice on the then-tiny folding bike market, as well as adding a motor to your bike to give you some extra help. When I first saw the book in 1982 (in a college bookstore in Arcata, CA), it seemed so forward-thinking and even radical. Today when I look at it, it still seems ahead of its time in some ways... or maybe it's more that it's even harder now to imagine Americans in large numbers embracing the bike as a transportation option. But reading it gives me hope still, and helps remind me about one of the very big reasons I love bicycles, and why they are such an intrinsic part of my life.

Oh, and Cuthbertson also made a "Bike Tripping" video sometime in the 80s. I managed to grab a copy a while back, and it's wonderful. I was particularly happy to get a chance to actually see and hear Tom talking about bikes. I never got the chance to see him in person, so this is as close as I'll get. Unless of course we happen to be on the same road on our bikes where ever it is I end up after this particular life adventure ends. :-)

Below are a couple of links to stories on Tom Cuthbertson that appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel around the time of his death. Worth reading.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

An old "friend"...

Today I began to work on an old "friend"... the mid 80s Fuji Allegro you see to the left. I got the frame in 1999, back when I was living in Flagstaff, AZ, with the intention of building it up as a "fixed gear". For those of you who don't know, a fixed gear bicycle has only one sprocket on the back wheel, and that sprocket is directly attached to the wheel with no device for coasting included. Which means that if the wheel is going around, so are your feet. Period. It takes a little getting used to, but it's a lot of fun, and is sort of a fad nowadays. I'd like to say I was on the leading edge of the fad, but no. I didn't get it set up as a "fixie" until sometime in 2000, when I was living in Portland. And while it was a blast to ride that way, just before moving back east I changed it back into a multi-speed bike with the ability to coast, as I knew it was going to be my primary transportation to and from work here.

About two years ago, as part of the process of trying to keep my bike collection in check (it didn't work, by the way), I gave the bike to my best friend of many years. He had been using an old mountain bike for commuting, and while I had decked it out for that for him a few years previously, it never really fit him right, and never really rode great. So I let him try the Fuji and he liked it, so it's now his. And recently he brought it to me for a tuneup and new tires, so I get to work on it again. Kind of like seeing an old friend. I'm looking forward to doing the work, and to riding it again. If you look closely, it is festooned with a wide array of stickers, from bike advocacy slogans ("One Less Car", etc) to a daisy on the seat tube and dinosaurs on the down tube. I don't generally decorate my bikes that way... since many are collectible to some degree, it wouldn't make sense... but starting with the Fuji I've generally made it a habit to have at least one bike, typically a commuter, decked out this way.

For those who are interested, the frame is the only original part, a basic Fuji "Valite" frame of the 80s, with long wheelbase and a comfortable ride. The brakes are the original brakes off my beloved 1980 Trek, and the derailleurs are a mix of old SunTour hardware (yes, that's the venerable VGT-Luxe on the rear), with SunTour Powerratchet barcon shifters, a personal favorite. Crank is a Sugino VP set up as a triple, and the wheels are an oddball mismatched set with Shimano hubs and I forget what kind of rims. And those bars are "moustache" bars from Nitto of Japan... some folks love them, some folks hate them. Me, I'm a fan, but I can see how others might not care for them. Those fenders are an old set of Bleumels I picked up at the Community Cycling Center in Portland, and the rack is a classic old cheapie from Pletscher of Switzerland. All in all, a fun and eclectic bike.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"I got a great deal..." Or did you?

Thanks to recent events in the bike shop, I think it's time for another little educational moment on my blog, relating to bikes.

It seems that lately I've had a lot of folks come to me with a bike they "got a great deal on"... either at a yard sale, from a neighbor, online, or a thrift store. And on the surface, they often are great deals. I mean, who can pass up a free bike? Or a bike that "only" cost $10? Or... or...or...? There are so many possibilities!

The problem is, the bike isn't always such a great deal after all. And the fact that you are bringing it to me is the first hint. Chances are, if you've brought it to me, or to any bike mechanic, there's a reason. It might be as simple as "I don't know that much about bikes, and I just want to be sure it's safe." Or maybe you bought a new bike online, and the manufacturer tells you that you have to have it checked over by a shop to validate the warranty. Or maybe it's just not working right. Or maybe it's in pieces. Whatever the reason, the bike's not ready to ride, at least in your mind.

Right away, this pretty much guarantees that the "great deal" will become less great. Unless it's just a "safety check" and it passes, you will have to spend some more money on the bike. Even if it is just a checkover, many shops, including ours, will charge some sort of nominal fee. Twenty-five dollars or so isn't out of line for such a service, so your "10-dollar bike" just about tripled in cost right there. But if you think about it... assuming the bike is a basically decent bike to start with, and it passes a safety check with flying colors, you've gotten a bike for $35 now... not a bad deal at all.

Where it gets dicey is when you've paid a lot more to start with, and/or the bike needs real work. This is especially a problem when the basic quality of the bike isn't too high... for example, a bike that might have originally sold at Wal-Mart or some other mass merchandiser. I've seen a few of those lately, and it's tough to know how to advise the owner, without making them feel like you think they made a dumb move.

Folks have brought me older bikes that were clearly of the quality level sold in discount department stores like K-Mart (or Woolco... anyone remember Woolco?) or auto parts stores or catalog showrooms like Best or department stores like Sears or JC Penney or Montgomery Ward (whatever happened to them?). Most of those bikes were pretty terrible, honestly, even when new. But when someone comes in and proudly tells me of the "great deal" they got on the bike, I don't want to scoff and say "well, you wasted your money, it's crap". But I also don't want them to waste more money if I can help them avoid that. So, I typically go over the bike thoroughly and spell out for them all the things that need to be put right on the bike, and what that will cost. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, I explain to them what can't be fixed or improved on the bike, at least not without unreasonable expense.

Now at this point, it goes one of two ways... Sometimes they decide that it really isn't worth putting all that money into a bike they got for next to nothing. And in those cases, the customer generally seems a mixture of crestfallen and grateful... bummed that it really didn't turn out the way they'd hoped, but happy to avoid a money pit. Other folks will decide "heck, it was only $10, even if I do put another $125 into it, I'm still ahead". I'm not kidding, that's a a real example, with real numbers. At this point, I've done what I can, and after making absolutely certain they understand what they are asking me to do, I'll do the work to the best of my ability, and make the bike as good as I can. It's hard to be enthused about those projects though. When you start with a fundamentally cheap (not inexpensive, cheap) bike, it's never going to become a good one.

Actually, there's one other path the conversation sometimes takes. Sometimes the customer hesitates... torn between the two options. At this point, I'll generally bring up the idea of them either considering a new bike, or looking at one of our refurbished used bikes. It's a lot easier to convince someone that $135 for a tuned up used bike is a good deal, after you've shown them how their "10 dollar bike" is really a $135 bike, and still won't be as good a bike as the one you can sell them. I bring it up tactfully, and try to make it clear I'm not just trying to make a sale... I'm trying to get them the best bike they can get for the money. Even if that means telling them they could try another shop, or Craig's List or something.

Which brings me to another sticky situation.... the bike someone "got a great deal on online". This can be a used or new bike, purchased through Ebay or Craig's List, or it can be a new bike bought direct from the manufacturer, or other distributor or shop that uses the 'net to unload bikes. In the case of the latter, you often have to take the new bike to a shop for inspection or even assembly in order to activate the manufacturers warranty. And in the case of any bike bought sight unseen, you run the risk of getting something that isn't quite what you expected, or that might need work you didn't anticipate. It's not at all uncommon for me to have to finish assembling a new or used bike bought online, because the new owner really didn't know what they were getting into.

My primary advice to those who wish to score a "great deal" on a bike, especially online, is to make sure YOU know enough about bicycle service and repair to handle any of the issues that may come up, so you don't end up paying someone else to do it for you. That really narrows down the pool of folks who should be shopping that way, huh? It may seem harsh, but I think it's a pretty good rule of thumb. If you don't have the knowledge yourself, please avail yourself of a friend, or even talk to your local shop BEFORE you commit to buying something. Better to go in armed with knowledge, even if it's borrowed knowledge, than to spend good money on a bike, then discover you must invest a lot more to make it right.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

I Am My Father's Son

To start with, that's my dad in the middle there. And my sister Nancy on the left, Louise in the middle, and my big brother Stephen on the right. I don't know if I was even on the planet at this point. If I was, I was an infant. The story behind the picture is that my dad was a union printer for the New York Daily Mirror back when I was born. The reason you probably don't know the paper is because it's long gone. At the time of the photo, my dad and his fellow union members had been "locked out" by management, as part of a long, painful series of labor disputes, that ultimately ended with many papers closing their doors. But that's another story.

This topic came to me recently as I was setting up a new work space in the house. I've never really had my own work bench and pro-quality repair stand for working on bikes. Now that I'm going to try to do some bicycle frame building and bike assembly, I figured it was time to set something up. In the process of transferring tools from my several small tool boxes to one new large tool chest, I discovered that over the years I have squirreled away something like 13 or 14 old toothbrushes. You know... they come in handy for cleaning things.

The funny part is, that's exactly the kind of thing my dad would say. And exactly the kind of stuff he would save. As a matter of fact, when he passed away at age 77, my mom found a collection of, I believe, 23 old toothbrushes. Twenty-three... at age 77. I'm 46, and I seem to have set aside 14 of the suckers. It makes you wonder just how many I'll have at 77! But.. but they do come in handy... no, really...

Now that got me thinking... not for the first time, but for the most recent time... about the ways in which my father shaped who I am today. We're all shaped by our families in some way (although I've met at least one person who insisted that that was not true in their case), and I find it kind of interesting to examine how. So here goes... how I am my father's son...

A few years back, when I had just moved back into the DC area near my family, I was outside at my mom's house talking to her and my sister Nancy. I heard the sound of a light airplane overhead, and glanced up to see what it was. Nancy laughed and said "You're just like Dad. I bet you can tell us exactly what kind of airplane that is too." It hadn't really occurred to me before that day, but it's true... just like my father, I am drawn to the sound and sight of airplanes, and have always looked to the sky when I hear one. And for the record, I seem to recall it was a Cessna 172 that day, but it might have been one of the other similar Cessnas.

Then there's my love of the outdoors, and all of the creatures (well, okay, I could live without mosquitoes and yellowjackets) that inhabit the outdoors. Now, my dad was a hunter, and hoped that his two sons would come to enjoy that activity as well. That didn't really work out for him, as neither my brother nor I have ever taken to hunting at all. But I did learn to love the woods and fields and the whole outside world, in large part due to spending a lot of time outside with my dad, either on his hunting or fishing trips or on days where he just wanted to check out some hunting or fishing location. Actually, he did a LOT of that... scouting out a place that he thought he might like to hunt of fish one day. Funny thing is, I think he might have done more scouting than actual hunting or fishing. Maybe that's typical, I don't know, but my dad did have a penchant for "going to do" a lot of things. Truth be told, I can see how I got a little of that too.

Anyway, I love being outdoors, especially in woods and forests. And when I'm out there with other people, more often than not, I'm the first one who notices things. I'll hear the call of a bird or animal, or a rustling in the brush, before anyone else does. Or I'll see movement out of the corner of my eye and be able to immediately focus and spot whatever it is that caused it. Again, that's my dad coming through. I don't know if it's genes, or just something I picked up from all those times walking with him, but it's there. I just have an awareness outdoors that seems more finely tuned than others.

And finally, I see echoes of my dad when I'm working with my hands, whether it's fixing bicycles, or in the past when I built theatrical scenery and such, or worked on my old VWs. Dad didn't have a higher education, barely graduating high school, but he had a real knack for the kind of analytical/practical thinking that would have probably made him good at something like engineering. He could look at the parts of a mechanism, and just understand how it worked and how to approach working on it. I seem to have the same sort of thing too, and maybe that's why I gravitated to the things I did in my life.

So, I'm a packrat-airplane-buff-lover-of-the-outdoors-with-a-mechanical-knack, all thanks to my dad. And I'm grateful for that. And for having him as my dad.

Vincent B. Fricker
1918 - 1994

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.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Kayaking class

Well, Annie and I took a beginning kayaking class with the folks at L.L. Bean in Freeport, ME, during our recent vacation, and it was a lot of fun. A lot of work too, but a lot of fun. And we both feel a lot more confident about kayaking, and will probably rent them from time to time.

The class lasted basically the whole day, broken up by lunch, which was included in the price of the class (very reasonable). The morning session was primarily about basic paddling technique, for both straight paddling and turning, as well as reversing. To begin with, we had a little demo/lesson on land, then went to the dock to launch our kayaks, two at a time, from ramps. I have to admit, it was a little unsettling when the fellow next to me on the ramp rolled right over the moment his kayak entered the water! As it turns out, he got to be the first one in the class to learn a "rescue" technique. And then he capsized at least two other times, getting even more practice! But by the end of the day, he was paddling along confidently, and smiling broadly.

Anyway, the basic paddling part was fun and fairly easy. The finer points do take practice, and I imagine it takes a number of times kayaking before they start to become second nature. But at least I have the proper form in my head, and have experienced what it feels like when it all comes together.

The tougher part of the class came in the afternoon, when we learned about what to do when you capsize. The two instructors taught us both a "T-rescue", in which the capsized kayaker is assisted by another, still-upright kayaker, and a self rescue, where (as you might guess), you have to save yourself. The T-rescue was pretty easy, all in all, and the basic rules are pretty straightforward. The self rescue is quite a bit harder, and only one or two of the twelve of us succeeded at this. Then again, not that many actually tried it, as it was up to us whether we wanted to. I'd like to say I was one of the ones who succeeded, but I wasn't. I did try however, and I feel like I at least understand the principles.

One thing I learned... or rather re-learned... during this process, was that when you find yourself in a "team-taught" class, and the class is split into two groups to learn a specific, hands on skill, make sure you are in the group with the older, more experienced instructor. Annie and I ended up in the other group, alas, and I think that was part of the problem with the self rescue for me. Annie told me afterward that she had been watching the older instructor coach his group in the self rescue, and he was apparently much clearer and more instructive than our guy. I couldn't tell you, as I was at that moment spending an amazing amount of time in the water, trying to get OUT of the water and into my boat. I lost count, but I know I was in and out of the water at least four times before I finally decided I was just too tired by that point to do it.

At that point, one of my classmates happily volunteered to do a T-rescue with me... and proceeded to do it all wrong, dumping me into the water yet again. Argh. Ah well, it was just water. And while at various times my hat, shoes, and sunglasses were set adrift, the only thing I lost was the sunglasses. I ended up bruised and scraped in a number of places as well, but not seriously. I'd have to say my pride took the biggest blow, at not having succeeded at the self rescue. I felt a little better though, after I watched another member of the class succeed at it... and doing it very differently from the way I approached it. When I asked the younger instructor about that he said "well, yeah, that way is easier, although either way will work." Well, it would have been nice to get that tip while I was in the water. Oh well.

All in all it was a lot of fun, and I look forward to doing some more kayaking in the future. I'm still not sure I'd prefer kayaking to canoing (which I've done more of), but there are some aspects of kayaks that seem better than canoes. And vice versa. I'm not ready to run out and buy either right now... especially since I don't live on or near enough a lake or some other body of water to make it worthwhile. But I can always rent from time to time, and even take another class or two. I highly recommend the L. L. Bean classes to anyone that wants to learn an outdoor skill that they teach.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Back from Vacation!

Funny, I was just starting to get into the swing of posting more often, when I went away on a vacation and stopped writing again.

But now that I'm back, let's see if we can write more often.

I'll start with vacation...

Annie and I headed up to Maine, with the goal of getting to parts of the state neither of us had seen. Basically, neither of us had been further north than Bar Harbor, so that left a lot of ground to cover. We had just over a week, and leaving from Virginia, that meant a lot of driving. Too much driving, in hind sight, but we still had a great time.

First stop in Maine was Freeport, where we "camped" in a friend's backyard for two nights, giving us a chance to take a kayaking class with L.L. Bean. A lot of fun, and I learned a lot too. I've really never been given any sort of guidance in a kayak, and had really only been in one a couple of times previously. I'll cover more about the class in a separate post, hopefully.

Next, we headed up the coast, to the very tip of the Maine coastline, camping at Cobscook Bay State Park. A lovely park, with secluded campsites for tents, with water views all around. Really pretty, quiet, and fun. And much to our surprise, not far from Campobello Island, where FDR had his summer "cottage"... all 34 rooms of it! I guess everyone has a different definition of cottage. :-) It was a lovely place, and it's very well preserved and presented. And the rest of the island is lovely. Small quiet villages with modest homes and great views. Alas, there's a plan to put a Liquified Natural Gas terminal in Passamoquoddy Bay up there, to get gas to Boston... and wreaking havoc on everything up there in the process I'm sure. Needless to say, the residents of Campobello (which is in Canada) are less than thrilled. Lots of signs protesting the plan all over the island.

Our next stop was Presque Isle, near the northern end of the state, inland. While I'm sure there's more to the town and the region than meets the eye, we just weren't that excited by it. Not a bad place, but not a place I'd race back to either. And I have no clue why it's called Presque's land locked! Anyone who knows, drop me a line.

Oh, on the way to PI, we ran smack into a parade in the small town of Houlton. Turns out it was their 200th anniversary there. We had to make one heck of a detour to get around the downtown area. It would have been nice if there had been some signs, but oh well.

Our last big stop in Maine was a night in Baxter State Park, in more or less the center of the state. Wow, that's a pretty area! Right at the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail too, at Mt. Katahdin. I took a little hike the evening we got there, and it was great. No moose sightings, but still some pretty scenery, and I did get to watch a woodpecker for a while.

All in all it was a great trip. If I had it to do over again, knowing what I know now, I would visit fewer places and stay in each a bit longer... especially the nothern coast. Baxter was great too, and would be a fun place to camp for a week or so, I bet. It must be gorgeous in the fall!

And it was wonderful to have daytime high temperatures in the 70s, instead of the 90s we had when we got back. I could really get used to cooler summers, honestly. Then again, I imagine winters must feel pretty long sometimes up there. I enjoy winter, but I haven't lived somewhere where it really hangs around for a very long time. It would be good to try it though.

Well, that's about it. I'm going to try to post more steadily now... wish me luck.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Today's Kids and Their Sports Heroes

This morning I was listening the the Saturday edition of NPR's Morning Edition, and they were doing a story on a baseball field somewhere that was going to give the local high school a decent place to play, as well as others. I'm not that much of a sports fan, so I was only half listening, until the started talking to a 10 year old kid about how good a hitter he was. The reporter asked if he considered himself a "slugger", and he said "Yeah, I guess so". Then, in the background, you hear another kid, probably his best friend, half whisper "Barry Bonds!" The first kid was still talking about his own prowess on the diamond, but paused to say "I'M not on steroids!" before he went on.

Both funny and sad, honestly. We used to be able to look up to athletes and admire them, even dream a little of being like them some day. Honestly, I never did much of that, not being a sports fan even as a kid. But in my teens I did start reading about Eddy Merckx and Felice Gimondi and other bicycle racers... even some young kid in the western US who people were starting to talk about... some punk named Lemond who was beating older riders at their game. So, while the Barry Bonds thing doesn't hit close to home, it was pretty depressing to watch this years Tour de France and find myself thinking "who is next going to leave the race due to some doping incident or suspicion?"

Maybe those golden days when we could just admire our heroes were an illusion. It seems pretty certain that there has always been some level of chemical enhancement in many sports for a long time. But it still feels like we've lost a little innocense, when I hear a kid say "I'm not on steroids" on public radio.

Do Lycra and Aerobars Make One Mute?

That's the thought that went through my mind this morning on my ride to work. I had just had yet another "Serious Cyclist" whiz past in the opposite direction, with not even the slightest acknowledgment that I was there.

Now, I understand training and discipline and all that, but when one after another these folk zip on by, with not even a flicker of recognition of another human being... another cyclist, it just bothers me. I don't expect them to break their cadence, sit up and give me a high five as we pass or anything. A simple "hello", or even a nod of the head would be nice. And I know there's nothing that says they have to react to me in any way... it just seems like a decent and human thing to do.

I say hi or some other greeting to just about everyone I see on the trail, and I like to think it might brighten someone's day now and then. I don't know... maybe most folks think "who the heck was that and why were they talking to me????" But I find a simple "hi" or "good morning" is nice, when it happens. And a fair number of folk do at least respond in some manner. The older man on his 70s road bike, the woman walking her dog, the couple just enjoying a morning stroll... those are the people who at least say something or nod.

It's the lycra crowd that pretty much universally acts like I'm not even there. Not a word is uttered when we pass in opposite directions, not even a glance my way. And don't get me started on how many times a "go-fast" rider has overtaken me and zoomed past, without even a word or sound of warning to let me know they were about to pass. THAT really annoys me... not just because it sometimes startles me, and is rude to me, but because it is the type of behavior that makes other path users resent cyclists as a whole.

Oh well, no matter. I will keep cheerfully calling out a greeting, even to those who stare right through their Oakleys past me. It costs me nothing, and I think it might even make a person or two feel better about their fellow humans now and then.


"You sure have a way with people", Harold said as they left the amusement park and walked along the pier.

"Well," said Maude, "they're my species."

Colin Higgins, Harold and Maude

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Memories of childhood

I'm sitting here on a hot summer's day... nearly 100 degrees and humid here in the Greater DC area... sipping on a cherry Slurpee. Brings back memories of growing up on the other side of the Beltway, over in suburban Maryland, in the late 60s. Back when the town of Bowie was "way out there" and a brand new bedroom community sprouting on a former thoroughbred horse farm. Long before the sprawl of suburbs that now sees folks commuting to DC from across the Bay Bridge, or from places as far as Frederick and Hagerstown, MD, or Warrenton, VA. Back when my family bought a four bedroom Cape Cod for just under $20K... and a bottle of Dr. Pepper was 16 cents, 2 cents of which was the deposit on the bottle.

Which brings me back to the Slurpee. Moving to Maryland from Long Island when we did, 7-11 stores were a new thing to us. We had one within easy walking distance from our house, and my sister Louise and I would walk up there to get sodas, candy, ice cream, or of course, Slurpees. Back then they only had a few flavors... as I recall, you could get cola, cherry, or orange, I think grape... maybe root beer, but I'm not certain of that. And back then, the machine offered you only a choice of two of those flavors, depending on the day. Now there's an amazing array of flavors, and something like 8 of them at any one time. And the cup sizes were tiny by today's standards. But they sure hit the spot on a hot day. Even today, I have to admit, this is tasting mighty good. I couldn't drink more than one or two a summer now, but on the right day, it's fun to revisit an old favorite.

The other thing about those trips to 7-11 that was different... My sister and I would stop by a nearby construction site, where a batch of new town houses were sprouting, to find discarded soda bottles, so we could cash them in for the deposit. The workers tended to leave a lot behind, so we managed to finance quite a bit of our trips from that site, or at least augment our own cash. I was probably 6-7 at the time, and Louise would have been 10-11. I have to wonder... would anyone today let two of their kids roam a construction site unsupervised? Or head off into the local woods for an adventure of frog-catching or playing "army"? Probably not... and I have to imagine childhood is poorer for it.

I guess today is my official "codger-in-training" post, huh? :-)

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Time Capsule on Two Wheels

No, I'm actually not talking about one of my bicycles, although one could make the case that they are, in fact, snapshots of a bygone era.

Actually, today I'm going to write about a cyclist I saw yesterday on my commute to work, and the bike and equipment he had.

The first thing I noticed was his helmet, because it was one of the original Bell Biker helmets, from the 70s:

(Shown is a photo from the Smithsonian's "America on the Move" collection online at:

A very cool exhibit, both online and in person. Alas, the American History Museum is closed for renovation.)

As I got closer, I saw that he was riding an old Lotus (no relation to the cars, it was one of many Japanese brands introduced in the 70s and 80s in the US), with old school toe clips and straps. On top of it all... or rather, on the bottom... he was wearing an old pair of "touring shoes" from Cannondale. These shoes haven't been made in a couple of decades... my best friend bought a pair back in the early 80s. All in all, it was like seeing a bit of living history on the wheel.

The best part was, the gentleman looked to be a few years older than me... probably in his fifties (Where did the years go? That used to seem so old!), and he was tooling right along at a decent pace and clearly enjoying himself, out on a morning ride. If I hadn't had to go to work, i might have asked to join him.

I wonder what his story is... did he recently decide to start exercising again, and pulled the old bike from storage, dusting it off and riding? Or has he ridden and cherished it all these years, as I have with my Trek? Or does he have a collection of old bikes that he appreciates in much the same way I do, my own rolling time capsules... 78 Centurion, 78 Raleigh Pro, and now 73 Scwhinn Paramount? My hunch is it's either the first or second. Most likely, the first, given the ancient helmet and shoes. The shoes looked to be in very good shape for their age, and I can't imagine too many folks using the old Biker helmet steadily for 30 years or so, while watching other folks get lighter, better ventilated helmets. Then again, maybe he's frugal, and just sees no point to "upgrading" such a utilitarian item.

Who knows? I hope one of these days to see him out there again, and perhaps chat a bit. It might be fun.

Friday, July 20, 2007

A Midsummer Night's Ride

For the first time in quite a while, I rode home on a summer night. I used to do this all the time, when I worked at a theatre near here, often working until 11:00 pm or later. It's been a couple of years, and my current job at the bike shop doesn't keep me that late, luckily. Tonight, however, I had a meeting to attend after work, and didn't start home until after 9:30. It turned out to be a lovely ride!

A summer rain storm had passed through earlier in the evening, and the ground was still wet, and a slight drizzle was still falling when I left. The rain tapered off right away though, so it left me just a vaguely misty feeling and a little cooler than it had been.

About half of my ride home is on a rail-trail, which is pretty well surrounded by trees and shrubs. The first thing I noticed was the amazing number of fireflies that were out, flashing and blinking alongside me in the trees. Add to that the song of katydids (funny, their call sure sounded more like "Katie did!" when I was a kid) and the chirping of some frogs, and it was a classic summer night.

But that wasn't the end of it... soon I found myself watching bats zooming around above me, and then came face to face with a lovely deer, who scampered to the brush and stood to eye me suspiciously. I talked to her for a minute, to assure her I meant no harm, then was on my way. Finally, shortly before I pulled off the trail onto the roads, I saw a few bunnies hop into the brush just beyond my headlight beam. What a wonderfully alive night it was out there tonight. I'm glad I had the chance to see it all.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

How I Got Into Bicycles

My life with bicycles started later than most. My parents bought me my first bike, a red Dunelt coaster brake single speed, around my 9th birthday, I think. It was much later that I learned to ride. We moved when I was six, to a house on a busy main street, at the top of a steep hill. My dad apparently worried about me riding there... he was a cautious guy by nature, so it makes sense. I wasn't exactly the daredevil of the neighborhood either, so time passed. I think I was about 12 or so when my brother took it upon himself to teach me to ride. He'd moved out to a nearby townhouse, and it happened to have a nearly unused street behind it. So one day he took me back there and slowly, patiently, got me started riding. The first time I felt like I was moving totally under my own power and control was like magic.

The funny thing is, unlike many kids, I never stopped. Maybe it was because I started late, or maybe not. I rode that Dunelt everywhere, with friends, and alone. On streets, down dirt paths into the woods, you name it. As I got more into it, I lowered the handlebars for a more "aerodynamic position". The funny thing is that this was the late 60s/early 70s... so all my friends were on Sting Rays and the like, while I was on this red, fendered, "British Professor Bike". No matter, I loved that bike... it was freedom, fun, and adventure for me.

But of course... we always want more... something new and different. And those were the early days of widespread appearance of that magical creation... the TEN SPEED! My sister got a lovely blue Raleigh Record, and I was smitten. I launched a campaign of hinting incessantly to my parents that what I really needed was a 10 speed... preferably a white Raleigh Record! I have no idea now how long this went on, but I must have driven my parents crazy with constantly showing them pictures in catalogs and such. I had just about accepted the fact that it just wasn't going to happen... it was just too big and expensive a thing for a couple with five kids growing up. Then on Christmas Day, I was asked to get one of my sisters out of the living room so my parents could surprise her with some big present. She and I were both surprised... I've long since forgotten what her big gift was, but there by the tree was a white Raleigh Record, all for me!

If I thought the Dunelt meant adventure and freedom, that Raleigh was a whole step beyond. With that bike, I rode farther and longer than I could have imagined... even going to OTHER TOWNS! Seems silly now, but that was huge back then. I was in junior high by then I guess, and I explored far and wide. And I began to learn about the mechanics of bikes. With the Dunelt, it was pretty basic... one speed, and a coaster brake. The Raleigh had 10 speeds, two derailleurs, and hand brakes front and rear. I learned how to adjust the gears and brakes, even learned how to overhaul hubs and the bottom bracket. A whole new world opened up to me there... I'd built models and things like that, but never really done anything mechanical before. Learning both the riding and mechanical skills that Raleigh taught me did a lot to help me gain confidence and grow up.

And I started reading everything I could about bikes. Much of what I learned about riding and mechanics I learned from two classics of the era: Richard's Bicycle Book, by Richard Ballentine, and Anybody's Bike Book, by Tom Cutherbertson. Wonderful books, and since I was always a book lover, it makes sense that I would turn to books to learn. Besides, I didn't really have anyone else to teach me... my dad didn't really know about bikes, my brother had moved away, and none of my friends were really into it either.

Now reading those books, and others, lead to the inevitable desire for something better... something new. So I set my sights... on a Fuji S-10S, Special Road Racer. Don't let the name fool you... the bike was anything but a racer... but it was a highly rated bike in several publications, including my favorite, Richard's. By this time I had started earning money in a small kite company my then-brother-in-law and I started (the subject for another post?), so I saved up my money, until I had enough to buy the bike myself. It was a very happy and proud day when I plunked down my $225 plus tax on a shiny new 1977 S-10S. I went from the white Raleigh to a black and chrome Fuji... and interestingly, my next two bikes were also variations on black. Come to think of it, the "trashmo" bike I bought for college ended up spray painted black, so I guess it was a theme of sorts. Not sure why... I think I thought black was classy.

That Fuji was a revelation... lighter and smoother riding than the Raleigh, with a much more reliable drive train, and the first bike I tried toe clips and straps with. Those may seem quaint now to some, but they were the ultimate in connection to your bike, and a statement about your expertise. That Fuji was also my ticket out of the horrors of gym class for me. I hated the team sports and such, in part because I was terrible at most of them, and was the classic "last to be picked" kid. Luckily for me, as I was about to start high school they instituted a new policy, that if you would commit to some number of hours of some regular athletic activity on your own, you could opt out of gym. Hmmmm... an hour a day of humiliation and sweat with a bunch of other guys, or ride my bike to my heart's content? Tough call. Funny thing is, I don't recall that there was any sort of real proof required that I was doing it... but no doubt I did. I rode that bike constantly... even after getting my driver's license. Unlike most teens, the driver's license didn't lead me to put away the bike. I just enjoyed riding too much.

After a year of college, and having a beater bike stolen, I decided it was time for something better again. I did a lot of shopping around and research, and there was this newish shop in a town called College Park near me... carrying a brand of bike that was largely unknown back then. It seems that after years of nothing but low end bikes made in the USA (apart from Schwinn, that is), this little company in Wisconsin by the name of Trek was starting to make a name for itself building frames and bikes by hand. It was May of 1980 when I bought my Trek 414... their low end model, but still hand brazed in the US. A wonderful, amazing bike, that I would have for many, many years. I still have it and ride it today, 27-plus years later. I've raced on it, toured on it, ridden it on pavement and dirt, in many states. Over the years it's become like an old friend, and I can't imagine parting with it now. I've changed out all the various parts except the frame, but if a bike can be said to have a soul, it is still intact in that frame.

I've owned many bikes over the years, and now own quite a few. Almost all of them have been or are great bikes. Some are "better" than the Trek in ways, or better at some kinds of riding... but the Trek goes on, as my reliable companion, and it just feels right and fits right. It's the bike I really entered adulthood with, and the bike that saw me through good times and bad. I hope to keep riding it for many years to come.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Summer in the Mid-Atlantic

Well, it's come a little early this year. Sometimes it holds off until July or even August if we're lucky, but this year, it's mid June and the humidity and heat are here. Not my idea of fun at all. I grew up in the region, but I've lived a lot of other places, and honestly, I prefer summer most other places I've lived. The slightest activity leaves me soaking wet and tired.... and working in a shop where we generally keep the a/c off most of the time, it's pretty challenging some days. Thank god for fans!

Riding isn't much fun this time of year either. The air feels heavy with moisture... you feel like you are having to push through the damp like a boat at sea. Breathing is harder, due to the heaviness, and the fact that pollution levels rise at this time as well. And while riding along on the flat or a downhill isn't so bad, when you come to a stop your clothes are instantly soaked through and you feel the heat rising off the pavement and from the tailpipes of the cars around you. It makes me miss the cold of winter. At least then my cycling warmed me up and made things better.

Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch. The thing to remember though is that I am out there... riding my bike. It's been one of my favorite things in the world since I first learned how. So I try to stop and remind myself what a gift it is to be able to simply ride, whatever the weather. I watched the movie Venus recently on DVD... starring Peter O'Toole. It tells the story of a man (and his friends) very late in life. Watching it reminded me that being able to hop on my bike and simply ride off somewhere is not something I should take for granted.

But of course, being human, that doesn't stop me from complaining about truly silly things like the weather from time to time. The trick is to catch oneself and remember the joy of just being here. And riding.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

First Paid Frame Job!

That's right folks, I just completed my first paid frame job. A simple one, really, brazing on a set of brake cable housing guides on the top tube, and bottle bosses on the seat and down tubes. The customer was really happy and excited to get his frame back, and he's off to the powdercoater now. I particularly enjoyed having this one as my first job, as the frame was a 1980 Trek 412 frame, the same as the one I have had for 27 years now, only smaller and a different color. Interesting coincidence, this one was originally bought from the exact same shop where I bought mine. Small world. Actually, given how relatively unknown Trek was in 1980, there weren't very many shops carrying them. Hard to believe, when you see what a juggernaut they have become.

Anyway, I had a good time doing the work, and learned a few things along the way. And I had my first experience dealing with Nova Cycles Supply, who were my source for the cable guides. Great product and great service. Nice folks to boot!

It's a small beginning, but here's hoping it leads to bigger things.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

How to talk to your bicycle mechanic part 5 (or "It's not dead yet!")

So I've covered those situations where the bike really has a serious, pretty much fatal problem. As I said, often that's pretty straightforward, and the owner can understand that it's time to move on. More difficult though, are the tougher cases (forgive me sounding like a doctor)... the ones where the bike needs SO much work that it's debatable whether or not it makes sense to go ahead with it.

The things that come into play here are typically: the sentimental value of the bike, cost of the repair vs. monetary value of the bike (and for want of a better way to phrase it "what will I end up with at the end of spending x amount of dollars on this bike?"), and finally the age of the bike and where it fits in the evolution of bicycle technology,

To start with, I often ask customers, when I've examined their bike and found it needs a lot of work, just how much sentimental value there is to the bike. To many people, a bike is simply a form of recreation or transportation (or both) with no really emotional attachment involved. In those cases, it's pretty easy to lay out the other factors and let them weigh their choices and make a decision.

Where sentiment is involved, it's a bit trickier, and I have to often remind myself that rationality is not necessarily a factor. Luckily for those customers, they have an understanding partner in me... I have a bike that I bought 27 years ago today, and I wouldn't part with it for the world, even if it required major, hugely expensive work. Granted, I'm pragmatic enough to keep in mind the possibility that one day it will suffer some fatal failure, and I'll have to retire it to the status of "wall art" or some other purely sentimental state. But I love that bike, and I can understand why others might feel the same way about theirs.

Another example... a gentleman came in last summer with a very neglected old road bike from the 70s, a Soma I believe. It was crusty with dirt and oxidation, and the paint looked awful. It desperately needed a thorough overhaul and a number of new parts. In many cases, the customer would have just said "oh, never mind, that's just too much"... but this fellow had bought the bike in college and had many, many fond memories wrapped around it. So we talked about it, figured out what made the most sense to get it ridable again, without getting too insanly expensive, and he went away happy, knowing his trusty mount would be saved.

So if you are presented with a "not quite dead" diagnosis, the first question to ask yourself is "how emotionally wrapped up am I with this bike?" That will help inform your choice in light of the other factors, and may even answer the question regardless of the other factors.

You also have to weigh the value of the bike (or the cost of replacing it) with the cost of the repair. Generally speaking, the more you paid for the bike initially, the more likely it is that it makes sense to have the work done. To illustrate, I work in a shop that is an odd mixture of your "small, friendly, family-oriented shop" and "high-end recumbent and folding bike enthusiast shop". A fairly common major repair is a complete or partial drive train replacement. As you may know, over time the chain and other parts of the drive train wear out and need to be replaced. A typical cost for a complete drivetrain replacement on a high end recumbent can easily run into $200 just for parts, while a similar job on something you bought at Wal-Mart would set you back something more like $75-100 in parts. However, the replacement cost for the entire bicycle in the first case is going to be upwards of $1500 typically, while the Wal-Mart special can probably be replaced with a similar bike for around $150. Added into that is the fact that the rest of the bicycle in each case is vastly different, both in ride quality and longevity. If you spend the $200+ on the 'bent (or a similarly high end bike of any kind), the other parts of the bike will continue to hold up well for a long time, assuming reasonable service and treatment. And the bike will ride "as good as new" with the new drive train. On the other hand, given the low quality of parts on a Wal-Martesque bike, once you've replaced the drive train, the rest of the bike is unlikely to hold up and last a long time, and I promise you, the ride quality, even when new, is nothing like that of a fine bicycle.

That's not to dismiss such bikes entirely. As someone who works in an IBD (Independent Bicycle Dealer), I do feel you get a much better bicycling experience all around by buying a "real" bike from a "real" bike shop. Perhaps I'll go into the reasons why in another post, but for now, let's just accept that as my firmly held belief. Even so, depending on what you expect out of a bike, and how much riding you will do, and where bicycling fits into your life, the -Mart bike may be just fine for you. Just bear in mind that in most cases, barring a strong sentimental attachment, major repairs on such bikes quickly outpace the value of the bike and become unwise.

Another factor to take into account is the age of the bicycle and where it fits into the evolution of the bicycle. That may sound pretentious, but bicycle design does evolve and change over the years. Twenty-seven years ago, when I bought my Trek 414, such things as indexed shifting, integrated shift/brake levers (or "brifters" as some call them), carbon fiber frames and components, high quality/high performance wired on tires, and many other things were either nonexistent or considered highly exotic and rare. So when you look at repairing an older bike, you need to consider whether or not you wish you had the newer technology, and whether it is practical or even possible to upgrade to the newer gear on your current bike. Some upgrades are easy, and some even make a lot of sense depending on the nature of the repairs your bike needs.

For example, if you have been hankering for indexed ("click") shifting on your old early 80s mountain bike, and it needs a new chain and sprockets already anyway, and compatible modern parts are available, it may be a simple matter to swap out your shift levers for indexing ones while you're at it. On the other hand, you may find that such an upgrade becomes prohibitively expensive if your bike is really old or has unusual components. In such cases, think about how badly you want to move to newer technology, and whether or not it's time to just start over with a new bike. And listen to your mechanic, assuming you have one you feel you can trust. They will know what is compatible with what, and how big a job it would be to move you into the early 21st century.

So, to wrap up, when your bike has reached the point where it needs major repairs, you need to think about the monetary and sentimental value of the bike, and determine whether it makes sense TO YOU to get the work done. It's your bike, and only you can decide that. As your mechanic, I will try to point out the pros and cons, and if I really think you are headed the wrong direction, I'll try to find a way to let you know, kindly. Honestly, it's pretty easy... most folks who bring in a really rough bike know it's probably in bad shape, and know how attached they are to it, and I can usually figure that out from them pretty quickly.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Mother's Day, etc.

Yesterday, my family gathered to celebrate Mother's Day. One of my sisters (I have three, two of whom are local to me now, as is my mom) had a bunch of us over, and her husband made an amazing meal, as he always does. Like most of our family gatherings, it was very laid back and relaxed, and fun. Good food, and good company.

Now, not only was Sunday Mother's Day, but Saturday was my mom's birthday. Yes, she gets to celebrate two things at once typically. But this year, as she's reached her 80th birthday, we did something special. A couple of weekends ago, ALL of her kids and grandkids (one of whom is about to have the first great-grandkid) gathered with her at a nice hotel in Baltimore's Fells Point area, and had a great dinner in a nice little restaurant. Afterwards, we went for a walk around the neighborhood, and then just hung out and talked a while. It was nice... having the whole gang together in one place. Doesn't happen very often.

But the greatest thing about it all is my mom. She's 80 years old and sharp as a tack. And still getting around under her own steam... heck, sometimes I'm not sure I can keep up with her! And on top of it all, she volunteers for an organization that provides transportation and other small services for folks who can't get around themselves. Pretty amazing lady she is.

And finally, yesterday was also about saying goodbye to my nephew Mike, who is off to boot camp with the Coast Guard. He's a great guy, with a wicked sense of humor... which he realizes it's best to keep to himself for the next couple of months! We had great fun kidding him about the various rules and regulations he is faced with now, but we also all wished him well on this. I'm sure parts of it will be very trying, but I'm also sure he's going to do great.

And today is a beautiful spring day... clear skies this morning, crisp air, and warming to the low 70s. Woo hoo!

Wednesday, May 2, 2007


Well, not really. But ever since we brought home a couple of bales of straw for the garden, young Tybalt has spent a lot of time around it... perching on it to get a better view, lurking behind it to get the drop on some bird, or just sprawled on it or next to it relaxing. Looks pretty tough there lolling among the dandelions, huh?

Tuesday, May 1, 2007


I ride to and from work on a rail-trail... one of those multi-use paths that use a former railroad right of way. It makes for a nice ride, in part because of the flora and fauna along the trail, especially at this time of year.

One treat this year has been the discovery of a fox den not far from the trail. I was tipped off to it by another rider who comes into our shop a lot, and I now have been lucky enough to see both mama fox and her three kits on several occasions.

Yesterday was the best so far though. I was riding home around dusk, nearing the area where the den is, when I suddenly realized all three kits were frolicking right beside the trail, and in fact stepped onto the pavement at one point. I stopped and watched for a minute or two, and it was delightful. Clearly they were playing... chasing each other and wrestling and jumping on one another. At one point, a pair of runners passed within 5 feet of them, totally oblivious to the kits! I guess they were too wrapped up in their training or whatever. I don't understand that... I always pay attention to my environment, and notice the little things, even when riding along at a good clip. Guess I'm just not totally focused on the "fitness" side of things.

Anyway, the kits eventually retreated back to the relative safety of the brush, but were still visible from the trail as I rode off. I was both grateful for the chance to see them, and concerned at their lack of fear of humans. That usually doesn't turn out well for animals. And I have to wonder where mama fox was all that time. Seems odd that she wouldn't have kept them out of sight with so many people still around. I think about a half dozen folks passed by in the short time I was there. I hope those little guys do okay.

On another note, my cat Tybalt had his annual checkup and vaccinations today. As usual he cried all the way to and from the vet, and the whole time he was in the waiting room. He just doesn't see much of other people or places, so it kind of freaks him out. The vet was very gentle and patient with him though, so it went well. And he's got a clean bill of health! Woo hoo!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

How to Talk to Your Bicycle Mechanic, part 4, or "It's dead, Jim"

I'm a bicycle mechanic, not a magician (faith healer, miracle worker, fill in your favorite McCoyism here)!

Yep, it's true. Sometimes a bike comes to me that is just beyond help, or hope. It's actually pretty rare, but that doesn't make it any easier.

I wanted to address these situations, because they are difficult, for both the owner and the mechanic, assuming the mechanic really cares about what they do. And let's assume that here, ok?

The most straightforward, but by no means easy variation on "it's dead" is when I discover some really serious damage to the frame, such as a crack in the tubes. Sometimes, dirt will hide such things from the owner, and even the mechanic, unless the bike is cleaned and examined closely. Upon discovering this kind of damage, I stop work, and contact the owner, if they are not already present (sometimes, rarely, we can catch it on the initial check in). A crack in the frame, anywhere, means "game over" in almost every case. The cost of repair is such that unless the bike has great collectible or sentimental value, that it just doesn't make sense to pursue that option. For the typical customer, a crack means a new bike, or at least a new frame. If it's within a warranty period and terms, that's better, obviously, but in many cases, it's just a loss.

The reason I say those cases are straightforward is because just about anyone can see and understand that a break in the frame of the bicycle means it's finished. Even the most optimistic rider can grasp "if I keep riding it, bad things will happen" when they see a crack. Not so the more subtle problems that I've seen, such as a bent frame. And depending on the location and nature of the damage, and the material of the frame, a bent frame may be salvageable. But even then, it's important that the customer understand that the bike has sustained damage which may affect it's long term safety and utility. And in some cases, a bent frame can not be made safely rideable. I've found that convincing people that this is true can be a big challenge, especially if they have been riding it in that condition for a while. It's my job to make sure they are told the truth about the damage, as well as my professional opinion on the best course of action to take. But I cannot force someone to give up on a damaged bike, and that puts me in a tough position. I hate the thought that someone might get hurt, but if I have laid it all out for them, and they choose to continue riding the bike, I can't stop them.

What I can and will do, in addition to warning the owner, is not allow myself to be pulled further into responsibility for any future problems. By that, I mean I can tell them I will not work on the bike in its damaged condition. If I feel the bike is not safely rideable, it would be irresponsible of me to do other repair work to get them back on the road. And it would be even worse for me to attempt a "repair" to the damage that will not work. What do I mean by that? Well, take a frame that has a bent fork, for instance, or a misaligned rear triangle assembly (the parts surrounding the back wheel)... If it's a steel frame, due to the nature of the material, I can sometimes safely "cold set" the frame or fork back into alignment. On the other hand, aluminum, a very common frame material these days, does not respond well to cold setting. In fact, aluminum is very prone to failure if bent and then re-bent back to its original shape. Titanium and carbon fiber are basically impossible to cold set.. in fact, carbon doesn't bend, it breaks. So if you bring me an aluminum bike that's been bent, I won't even try to straighten it, and I will discourage you from trying yourself. And yes, I have had someone propose that. Luckily, as it turns out, we found him another bike for such a good price he changed his mind.

It's important to point out here that any frame that has been bent in some way needs to be examined by a professional, and it's best to listen to what they say. Your bike was designed around certain angles and tubing configurations, and any alteration of those could adversely and dangerously alter the bike's ride qualities. I've had folks bring in bikes with forks bent back badly from hitting a curb or something, and getting them to understand that a) the metal has been fatigued, and depending on the severity, may fail later, and b) the handling of the bike is now compromised and could prove dangerous to the rider. It helps to show people clearly what I'm talking about... I use a straightedge, or a frame alignment tool to show the problem, and explain why it is a problem. Most of the time, with patience, people "get" it, and will follow my advice.

Another category of "dead" bike syndrome is when some component that is meant to be removable or adjustable becomes permanently fixed to the frame. This can happen due to rust or corrosion, or it can be caused by a chemical reaction between two different metals. The latter commonly occurs with seat posts and some types of stems. It's standard procedure when assembling most bicycles to grease those items when they are installed, providing a barrier between the two metals (typically steel and aluminum). If that step is neglected, it is possible over time for a chemical reaction (as I recall, it's called galvanic corrosion) to cause the two metals to bond to one another. As a mechanic, I can try a number of things to break that bond, but sometimes it just won't budge. If the seat or handlebar position is fine as it is, then it's not a huge problem, as long as the customer understands the limitations they now have. If there's any need ever to move or remove those items, you're stuck, literally and figuratively, and it's time to look at a new bike or frame.

In other cases, it may be rust or similar corrosion that is the culprit, and often that occurs in the bottom bracket... the area where the crank bearings reside. Moisture can collect there, as it's the low point on the frame, and if rust is allowed to take hold long enough, it can be impossible to remove or even adjust the bottom bracket bearing assembly. Again, your mechanic can try a bunch of different things, but sometimes it just won't move. And as I said above... if you can live with the fact that those parts are frozen, then the bike is still ridable, but most often it's time to shop for a new bike, or at least prepare for that when the frozen parts become a fatal problem for the bike.

I always find it hard when one or more of these problems crop up on a customer's bike, especially if I know they really like the bike. If it's "just a bike" to them, obviously it's not that big a deal... but many folks really become fond of their bicycles. It makes sense... my bikes, especially those I've had the longest, or ridden the most, are almost companions, having shared some good times with me. So it's hard to say goodbye, silly as it may sound to some. I understand that, so when I find a problem that I think is "fatal", I try to be honest, and make it clear that I understand that it may be hard for the customer to hear and accept. I want to fix all of them... but sometimes I can't... and it's important to explain why, so the customer knows I'm not just trying to sell them another bike, or am too lazy to fix it. I suppose there are people out there who approach it that way, but I've never met them, and I hope I never do.

Next: "It's not dead yet!" Or what happens when it's not a total loss, but is very, very far gone.