Friday, December 26, 2008

One of My Favorite Places...

... in the US, and possibly my favorite place in the DC area, is the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, better known as the C&O Canal. For those of you who live elsewhere and don't know about it, the park runs the entire 184.5 mile length of the original canal, built in the 1800s, and made almost immediately obsolete by the railroads. It became a National Park in 1971, thanks in large part to the efforts of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who fought to preserve the canal as a natural resource, rather than see it replaced with a highway as some wished. As a result, we have one of the truly great parks, in my opinion, with wonderful opportunities for cycling, walking, hiking, horseback riding, and camping. Not all of the original canal is intact today, but the towpath runs almost uninterrupted (there's one basically permanent detour on roads) from Cumberland, MD to Georgetown in Washington, DC. I've walked or cycled it on many occasions, twice riding the complete length and camping along the way at the convenient (and free!) hiker/biker sites.

Yesterday, on Christmas Day, I decided it was a good day for a walk along the canal, so I stopped there before going to see my family. I pulled in at an area known as Carderock, just off the DC Beltway. Although you're only about 10 miles from Georgetown, it feels much more remote than that, and there's a fair amount of wildlife... depending on season, you can see turtles, eagles, osprey, kingfishers, ducks, geese, cormorants, herons, and abundant songbirds and squirrels. Further out you can even encounter more uncommon critters... I've seen a number of wild turkey and a couple of goshawks along the trail nearer the western end, as well as beaver and muskrat.

On this visit, my most interesting wildlife encounter was with a Great Blue Heron, who was fishing and seemed undisturbed by my presence, allowing me to sit and watch from close range, and snap a number of pictures, such as the one to the right. I've always thought these were among the more fascinating and elegant birds, and love watching them both in flight and in the water.

I also stopped to observe a crow in the top of a tall tree, who seemed intent on calling out over and over. I commented to a gentleman watching him with binoculars "He's a vocal fellow, isn't he?" Much to my surprise, the birdwatcher informed me that the crow was clearly trying to communicate something, as he was using two distinct and very unusual calls, over and over. Well, I'm not enough of a crow expert to know, so I took his word for it. The bird did seem rather urgent.

Speaking of trees, one of the best parts of this walk, or any walk along the canal this time of year, was looking at the ways the bare trees were silhouetted against the sky. In particular, I'm fond of the striking white inner bark of the sycamores, especially when contrasted with the darker bark of some of the other trees. When it comes to autumn color the sycamore is pretty underwhelming, as it goes from green to brown to bare, with no intervening bright tones. But once bare, the intricate branches and bone whiteness of the bark are amazing.

And on the subject of bark... there were a number of folks out walking their dogs along the canal, and the dogs seemed to be having a grand time. I imagine for them it's just so wonderful to be out in someplace more wild than their neighborhood, smelling all the amazing scents to be found along the way. And for a lot of dogs, it seems nothing is finer than a good dunk in the canal!

Finally, while the towpath certainly wasn't as crowded as it is in warmer weather, there were a suprising number of people enjoying the day, considering it was a major family holiday. Two little boys were zooming along on bikes, one with training wheels, one having outgrown them, both having a wonderful time. I asked their parents as I passed "Christmas bikes?" and they said "Last Christmas!" I smiled and said I was glad they were still enjoying them. It was fun to see the sheer pleasure on the little guys' faces. A little later I encountered a couple softly singing to each other, in a language I didn't know (which is a long list, sadly), just enjoying a simple, lovely moment together. It made me smile, seeing them sharing a song together. It was the kind of day that made one want to sing, or whistle, or make some kind of joyous noise.

For the record, I whistled as I walked. People who know me well will not be surprised at this.

For more photos, see:

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Everything!

Just wanted to take a moment, on Christmas Day, to wish all of my readers a joyous holiday, which ever holiday you may celebrate... Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, Saturnalia, or no particular holiday at all!

Thank you to all of you, for visiting and reading my blog. It's a lot of fun to know that people take an interest in my little corner of the world.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve Ride

Well, once again, bikes@vienna hosted a ride around a Vienna neighborhood known for putting out luminaries for the holidays. If you don't know, luminaries are small candles in paper bags, put out as a holiday decoration. I don't know where it originated, but it's kinda pretty. This year there seemed to be fewer houses participating... perhaps the economic situation is affecting people's mood and desire to decorate... it does seem like there are fewer decorated houses in general this year. But there were a few really amazing ones out there tonight.

It was still a good time though. We had about 10 riders total, and a fun assortment of bikes... a recumbent trike, recumbent tandem, a "crank forward" from Rans, and a variety of upright bikes. We rode about an hour and a half, and just generally had a good time. This year John wanted to sing carols, so we stopped at a couple of points and sang to no one in particular. At one point we stopped at the house of a friend of one of the families riding, and rang the bell and sang... and the only response we got was their standard poodle jumping onto the back of the couch by the window and barking while we sang! Apparently the people weren't home. Oh well, we had a good laugh about it. And a nice ride all in all.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Trip to Velo Orange

Well, I've been meaning to head over and check out Velo Orange, a small bicycling specialities business in Annapolis, MD, about an hour or so from me, and today, I finally made it there. A friend of mine wanted to check out a Brooks saddle and some leather bar wrap to go with it, and I wanted to see their assortment of aluminum and stainless steel fenders, among other things.

Velo Orange seems to do most of their business via the web and telephone, but they do have a small showroom that's worth visiting if you're into the style of cycling gear they carry. Most of what they carry is aimed at the cyclo-tourist or randonneur (a cycling event that isn't really a race, but more like an automobile road rally, where you travel a specific route with checkpoints and time requirements... I haven't tried it, but do think about it now and then), so it's designed for comfort over the long haul as well as practicality. Now, in the US, when we throw around terms like "comfort" and "practicality" in the cycling world, folks tend to think "heavy" and "slow" go along with that. Not at all. One can ride long distances at high speeds in comfort and not worry about fragile gear if your equipment is designed for it. And the good news is there seems to be a groundswell of interest in such bikes over the last few years. I'm happy, because it matches my intersests pretty well.

Anyway, it was fun to visit the showroom... I wish I had had the foresight to bring my camera and take pictures, but really, you can see their products on their website ( It is better to see it all in person, especially when you can see them mounted on bikes, instead of just sitting on a shelf. In particular, I was really glad to have the opportunity to see the fenders. I'm considering using some sort of metal fender on my chrome Schwinn Paramount (, and I have a much better idea now what might look best on it. I'm leaning toward these:, which look REALLY sharp in person... and having a friend there who has seen the bike gave me a second opinion, which helps. Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts if you'd like, dear reader. Of course, the practical side of me says I should just use the black plastic Bluemels "Club Special" ( - a flickr album I just found devoted to "vintage plastic fenders") fenders I have already, but....

Anyway, I walked away without buying anything... today... but I suspect I'll either stop back in or order through the web when I'm clear of the holidays. My friend did get the Brooks and some bar wrap that looks like it will be a very good match, so we accomplished that. Look for that bike in an upcoming "Making Your Bike YOURS" post soon!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Making Your Bike YOURS (part 2)

Well, let's start by using my own 1985 Miyata 210 as an example of what I have started talking about in the previous post. To begin with, a little about the bike... I picked it up used, a few years ago, with the intent of making it over into an all-weather commuting bike. It began life as a low-end touring bike, with similar design but less expensive parts than my Miyata 1000 (which is a story in and of itself, for another day). I neglected to get photos of it when I first bought it, but here's a clipping from the 1985 Miyata catalog:

As the catalog indicates, it was designed as a "budget" touring bike. Long wheelbase, clearance for wide tires, fittings for racks, etc. All of which also made it a great candidate for a commuter, although I knew there were things I was going to want to change.

First off, I decided drop handlebars were not what I wanted for this bike. For commuting purposes, I wanted a bit more upright posture, both for comfort and for ease of looking around in traffic. So I opted for a set of Nitto "Albatross" bars, a variation on the old classic three speed bars, with more sweep back. To go with the more upright posture, I decided on a Brooks B.67 saddle... wider than my B.17s and with springs for comfort. Next, because I ride at night as well as in daylight, I built a wheel around a Shimano Nexus dynohub and installed a Basta halogen head light and simple tail light run from the hub. In addition, I like to have redundancy in a lighting system for a transportation bike, so I installed a battery powered head and tail light as backups. Fenders were a necessity, to allow riding in all weather. In the photo you'll also notice perhaps that I had installed studded tires for winter use, figuring I'd swap them out for conventional tires in spring. Finally, since I wasn't planning extended rides over varied terrain, I wanted to simplify the drivetrain, so I went with two chain rings instead of three, with seven sprockets in the rear.

I rode the bike in this configuration for most of the first winter I had it. But a few things just didn't work for me... notably the handlebars. I found that the very upright position was less than ideal on my 6 mile ride into work, which often featured a headwind. I tried lowering the bars a bit, but it only helped a little. A bigger issue was that I found the front end of the bike felt a little too "light"... which proved a bigger problem on ice and snow. It became obvious to me that I needed bars that put more of my weight over the front wheel, so I went back to an option I'd used previously on a couple of bikes and liked... the Nitto "Moustache" bar. This gave me a wider range of possible hand positions and had the benefit of letting get a bit more weight over the front wheel AND be more aerodynamic. I quickly found I liked the bike a lot more this way.

Over time, I made a few more refinements to the bike that have helped make it a better, more utilitarian transportation bike. The biggest change was in the drive train. If you look closely at the photo to the right, you'll see that I've installed a Shimano Nexus 8 speed internally geared hub. Unlike a derailleur system, the internal hub has all of the major moving parts completely enclosed and protected from the elements. In addition, you can change gears while standing still, which is nice when you're riding in traffic. If you remember the old English three speeds, this is basically a more modern version of that with more gears. Eight is honestly plenty for a utility bike like this. I kept the double chain ring setup, with 34 and 38 tooth chain rings, figuring I'd use the lower range in winter with the studs and higher with lighter tires in spring, summer and fall. Honestly though, I never went to the trouble to reposition the chain when the seasons changed.

Other changes you'll note... a narrower saddle to go with the more forward-leaning position of the moustache bars... a better quality headlight... and most importantly, baskets front and rear. While panniers can work for shopping, it's much handier to just have baskets permanently mounted. The front is a basic Wald wire basket, mounted on a cheap front "mini rack" from Bike Nashbar, and the rear is the classic Wald folding grocery baskets, sized to take a standard paper grocery bag, and tucking out of the way when not needed. Those are attached to the classic Blackburn rack, one of the great workhorses in bike racks. A final detail is the Pletscher two-leg kickstand... heavy, but gosh it's nice to have when you have a load of groceries.

Oh, one more thing to note... in both pictures of my bike you can see several stickers plastered here and there. I tend to do that with my "utility" bikes.... it makes them uniquely mine, and perhaps less appealing to thieves. No idea if that last part works, but it can't hurt. And it's an opportunity to express some opinions, such as "If you were riding you'd be happy by now" and " Books and bikes undermine the aspirations of dictators". You'll also notice a fair number of pieces of reflective silver tape strategically placed around the bike, to help make me more visible at night. Kind of ugly, but it's a safety thing.

So that's one example... more to come. And not just my bikes, I promise!

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Blast From the Past

Last week, I was visiting my mom, and hanging some Christmas lights for her, when I noticed this piece of computing history on a desk in her back room. What you see there is a Texas Instruments TI-1250 "pocket calculator", circa 1975. My mom bought this one to handle her checkbook and such back then, and has used it ever since. If you look at the photo, you'll see it's a pretty basic machine... it adds, subtracts, multiplies and divides. But the big news, what made it "fully loaded" (according to, a site dedicated to Texas Instruments calculators, with a ton of information on many, many models), are the four M buttons which allow you to store numbers in memory so you can then use them in another equation. Pretty simple stuff compared to the modern graphing calculators and such that a typical schoolkid is carrying around today. But back when she bought this, I remember being amazed that this little box could do what it did. Bear in mind that when I was in 8th grade chemistry, I was taught how to use a slide rule! For those of you too young to know, that was a basic mechanical computer that consisted of several sliding pieces marked with numbers that, when manipulated by someone who knew what they were doing, could perform some pretty elaborate math ( Watch any documentary about the space program or even the movie Apollo 13 and you'll see that slide rules were an intrinsic part of NASA operations.

The funny thing is, as I went forward in school, I of course bought and used much more sophisticated calculators, which included such things as trigonometric functions, square roots, scientific notation, etc., as well as a specialized "foot and inch" calculator designed specifically for the building trades. All of these were indispensable tools during my career as a theatre technical director, but while I still own a couple of pretty capable calculators, the overwhelming majority of my day to day needs could be met by that old TI-1250 these days.

Now, to bring this all back to bikes... take a look here:

where you will find a page by the late, great Sheldon Brown about using a slide rule to figure out chain ring and sprocket combinations to achieve a specific gear ratio. I've never tried it, but it seems pretty straightforward... assuming you have a slide rule!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Making Your Bike YOURS

One of the things I love about working on bicycles, both my own and others', is setting the bike up so it best suits the rider and the use they intend for the bike. I think most folks assume that the way the bike comes from the factory or the bike shop is the way it's meant to be, and never think of changing it. On the contrary, any bike can be modified, and in many cases should be, in order to really become "yours".

First off, what do I mean by "yours"? Well, a bike you own should first of all fit your body. Bikes are typically designed for the "average" person, in most cases, the average man. Since few of us are in fact, average, and 51% aren't men, the first thing I recommend to folks is that we figure out how to make their bike fit them better. This may simply involve adjusting the height and angle of the saddle and handlebars, as well as the fore and aft position of the saddle, or it may involve changing the saddle, bars, or stem (the part the bars attach to). In some cases, all of the above!

I'd have to say, the most common fit complaint I have from customers boils down to the handlebars being either too low or too far from the saddle. This sometimes manifests itself as a slight discomfort, but in more severe cases can cause acute pain or numbness in the hands, wrists, arms, neck or shoulders. Most people don't spend a lot of time supporting a lot of weight on their arms, so low and far handlebars can be quite uncomfortable. Granted, there is some degree of "getting accustomed" involved, and the more you ride, the more comfortable lower bars can feel. But for most people, the answer is to raise them or get them closer or both. This can be accomplished with a different stem, perhaps, or even different handlebars. Visit your local shop and talk about the possibilities.

The next most common comfort issue (and it's nearly a tie here) is the saddle. I'll start right off saying I can't tell you for certain what saddle is going to be best for you. That's a very personal part of one's anatomy, and we're all different, so what works for me may not work for you. In fact, many people, in looking at my bikes with their Brooks tensioned leather saddles, think I must be some sort of masochist. Far from it... I have found over the years that for my behind, and my style of riding, nothing is more comfortable than the Brooks B.17 saddle. But that's me. You are different. The best advice I can give you is to talk to your local shop and get their feedback. One thing to think about is the shape and softness of your current saddle, and how it feels beneath you. Does it feel so narrow that it threatens to split you in two? Or is it so wide your thighs rub excessively? See why saddles are hard for folks to talk about? :-) Seriously though, think about the sensations you feel on your current saddle and then compare the shape and softness to other saddles to find what works for you. It may take several attempts... but don't give up until you have something that works for you.

Now beyond basic positioning issues, you can customize your bike for your needs in other ways. You may not realize it, but your bike's gearing is not set in stone. Do you feel you struggle to grind up steep hills, feeling like you're pedaling in concrete? Or does it feel like you end up with your feet flailing at a crazy high speed and your highest gear is too easy for you? Either extreme is pretty simple to adjust, although depending on the components on your bike, it can get expensive. But if you aren't enjoying the ride, you won't ride the bike, and what's the good in that? Again, talk to the folks at your local shop and see what they can do for you.

Another change to consider is your tires. Many bikes come from the factory with pretty generic, utiliatarian tires that provide a decent ride at a modest price to the manufacturer. Given the enormous selection of brands, models, sizes and styles of tires available today, there's a good chance that there's something better for the type of riding you do. Do you ride mostly on smooth, good roads and bike paths? Go for a lighter, faster-rolling tire. Commute on rough, glass strewn city streets, and can't afford to be late for work due to a flat? Go for the rugged, wide, kevlar belted models. Ocassional jaunts off road, in dirt? There are tires for that too. Try to find someone who does the kind of riding you do, and ask their advice. Experienced riders will have pretty strong opinions, and as long as their priorities match yours, you should get good advice.

Now, beyond all of these central matters, there are other ways to truly make your bike suit you and your riding. If you're like me, and don't want weather to keep you off the bike, you should give serious thought to fenders... they will greatly increase your comfort and cleanliness (and your bike's) in the rain. Any chance you'll be caught out after dark? Then invest in at least a basic front and rear light. I'm a big fan of the small, self contained headlights from Planet Bike, and blinky red tail lights from PB or Cateye, but there are plenty of other options. For bikes used on a more regular basis for transportation, I really like the dynamo hub systems from Shimano or Schmidt, which free you of worries about batteries. Don't forget a bell, if you regularly ride multi use trails... walkers, joggers, rollerbladers and the like seem to respond well to a "ding ding" rather than a shout.

Then there are the items that just make a statement, or simply personalize your bike so it "looks right" to you. Perhaps it's a matter of getting just the right color of bar tape on a road bike (I have been known to agonize excessively over this!), or an assortment of stickers that express your world view ("If you were riding you'd be happy now" is a personal favorite of mine). Or maybe it's something whimsical... for example, my "fixed gear" bike (a type of bike known to have some very "serious" fans) has a colorful, parrot shaped squeeze horn! These are the things that often come over time, as you and your bike become acquainted, and you slowly shape it and make it yours.

So don't be afraid to change the way the factory built it! There's nothing sacred, and as long as you know a bit of what you're doing, or know someone (like your local shop mechanic) who does, you can't do much harm. Start with the fit issues and go from there, and soon you'll have a bike that's like no other, and suits you to a "T".

(Look for a future post with specific examples... but for now, take a look at the two photos here. Both are of my '85 Miyata 210 that I built up for commuting and shopping... the first photo is how I initially set it up, the second is how she is now... see if you can spot the changes!)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Man Behind the Curtain...

... used to be me!

By that I mean to say I spent most of my working life in technical theatre. Most of that time was spent as a technical director, with lighting design as a side line. It was a fascinating line of work, and I'm glad I discovered it, but I'm also glad to be out of it now.

So, what exactly is a technical director? Well, they are the person who takes the visual ideas of the director and scenic designer and translates them into reality... taking into account the time, people, and money available.

And there you have one of the big challenges with the job... directors and designers have almost unlimited imagination.... and budgets and schedules are absolutely limited! Of all the productions I was involved in, I can count on the fingers of one hand those shows where the initial design was achievable within the limitations of time and money available. In many more shows, after the initial presentation of the design, there was always a period of revision, negotiation, and creative adaptation to get the show within budget and time. At the best of times, it's a fascinating and exciting collaborative process, where creativity is tested and flourishes. At the worst of times, it's a battle of wills that frustrates everyone. I'm happy to say, most of my experiences were of the more positive sort. I was fortunate to work with a lot of great people over the years, and very few truly unpleasant folk.

So how did I end up in theatre? Well, way back in 7th grade, a buddy of mine, Peter Watson, called me up and told me the drama club at school needed some help building some "flats". I had NO idea what he was talking about, but being best friends, I figured if he was going to do it, I would too. He and I and a few others spent a couple afternoons covering wooden frames with fabric, to make walls for the set of the next play. I remember thinking at the time that it was just bizarre to use fabric for a wall, but that was the standard for a long, long time in theatre.

That first foray into theatre led to volunteering to help out on other shows... and even led me to audition for a play... and then another, and another. Before I knew it I was regularly acting in plays in high school, as well as building the sets and hanging the lights. Then it was off to college, where I was finally confronted with having to choose... did I want to be an actor or a designer/technician? It really wasn't that tough a choice... I really enjoyed both, but knew all too well what the job prospects for an actor were. Besides, I knew in my heart that I was better behind the scenes, and found it fit my strengths and personality better.

I've never regretted the acting and actor training, however. That experience brought me a level of confidence that really came at a good time for me. Up until junior high, I had been the shy, quiet kid that nobody really knew. Stepping out on a stage, in the guise of another character, helped me to come into my own... it was something I was good at, and liked to do, and the audience reaction was an amazing thing to experience. Ask any actor... there's nothing like the connection that can happen between performer and audience.

I have to say though, that my heart was more in the technical and design aspects of theatre. As I said above, in technical direction I found a lot of pleasure (and a share of pain) in being right at the nexus where the artistic vision and the execution came together. Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, writes about two ways of looking at the world... the "romantic" view, concerned with surface appearances, beauty, aesthetics... and the "classical" view, focusing on underlying form, how things work, etc. It took me years to realize it, but one of the things I loved about my theatre work was being where the two merged... or collided, depending on the situation.

My other specialty in theatre was lighting design, and I have to say, if there's any part of my theatre work I miss today, it's that.... the molding and shaping of space and people, the manipulation of the audience's focus and reaction, the subtle art of the ephemeral thing we call "light"... I took so much pleasure in that. And I was good at it, too. Whether drama, dance, muisc or other performance form, I seemed to have a knack for connecting with the main vision of the piece and using the tools at my hands to support and even enhance that vision.

Actually, one other thing I miss is teaching... I still do a little of that in my role as head mechanic at our shop, but I really enjoyed much of my time in university teaching positions... at least the class work. The big challenge in academic theatre is being pulled between two masters... the educational mission and the demands of a production schedule. Not an easy balance, and some settings make it harder than it needs to be. But I did so love sharing my knowledge and experience with students. I hope in some way I helped enrich some lives through my teaching. I'd like to think I did.

So why did I leave theatre? Well, that's pretty simple... 20 plus years of the crazy schedules, challenging situations and the absolute deadlines of opening nights (the only deadline that could not be missed, unlike things like design submission deadlines...ahem), and the stress finally outweighed the satisfaction and the fun. And it's the kind of business where if you don't really love doing it, you have to get out, or it chews you up alive. You have to get your own satisfaction out of it, because the money and recognition and other such rewards are pretty slim. Do I ever think of going back? Once in a while I'll think about some aspect of it I liked... such as the creative process of lighting design, or the satisfaction of teaching a great class... but all in all, the whole package no longer works for me, so I think it's unlikely I'll ever go back, except perhaps as a hobby of sorts. But who knows? Life can take surprising turns.

Friday, December 5, 2008

My Dad

Back on Veterans' Day, I wrote a long post about my dad's time in the Army Air Force, during World War II. At the time, I hadn't been able to track down a photo of him in uniform, but my sister Louise later scanned one for me. That's him there to the left, in 1942, which would make him 24. According to my mom, this photo hung in the window of the photo studio in Spokane where it was taken, for a while, I guess as a sort of promotional item, and as my mom said "because he was so good looking".

Oh, and apparently the rug I mentioned was bought by my dad in Hamadan, Iran, not Cairo. I must have gotten my stories mixed up.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

"Family" Portrait

Well, after my latest burst of activity in building up "project" bikes that have been gathering dust, I've now got 3 more bikes up and running, which is a good thing. Part of what got me going on this flurry of activity was a customer bringing in his nice old Bridgestone road bike, either an RB-1 or -2, I don't recall which just now. It reminded me that I had several Bridgestones I needed to get rolling myself, so I dove in, and got all three put together. Now that my little "flotilla" of Bridgestones is complete, I figured I'd shoot a few photos of the set. A very bike-geeky thing to do, I know. But I suspect there are folks out there who will enjoy this.

In this view, the bike closest to the camera is the latest one completed, a 1992 RB-2. The next in line is the 1994 RB-T, which I think has my favorite Bridgestone graphics, with the oval around the "RB-T" on the seat tube and a real metal head badge. Behind that bike is my XO-2, the closest to "all original" of the bunch, with only minor modifications. The "splash" bar wrap is kinda weird, but it was either that or white or black. The XO series is arguably the weirdest and most collectible of the Bridgestones, as they reflect Grant Peterson's unique interpretation of the "hybrid" idea.

Now, here up front you see my lone mountain bike, a 1987 MB-1. I'm not by any means a "serious" mountain biker... I tend to take it easy on trails, just noodling along, generally with a grin on my face. And the MB-1, with no suspension and simple, solid components and good geometry, suits me just fine. I might at some point try putting an Allsop Softride stem I have on it, to give a little bit of cushion to the bars. But honestly, I don't know that I need it for the limited trail riding I anticpate doing on this bike right now. Back when I lived in Flagstaff, I might have felt differently, but I was younger and the trails were more plentiful and accesible.

A view from behind of the group, showing the different handlebar styles.... left to right, MB-1 with MTB flat bars, XO-2 "dirt drop" bars, RB-T "moustache" bars, and RB-2 with classic road drop bars. The XO bars are original, but oddly enough are also what the MB-1 had when new. I've never ridden a mountain bike with drop bars, so I have no idea how I'd like that. Maybe I'll try one day. The RB-T would have originally had standard drop bars, but I wanted another bike with moustache bars, and from what I had heard about the RB-T's handling, it seemed like a good choice. I'm loving it so far. And the standard, classic Nitto drop bars on the RB-2 are an old favorite.

This view and the first photo give a pretty good idea of the different intended use of each bike as well. Notice the tire sizes on the bikes... skinny road tires on the RB-2, wider road on the RB-T, 26" medium width tires on the XO-2, and 26" knobbies on the MB-1. In terms of versatility, the middle two win out, but the extrems of the MB-1 and RB-2 are a lot of fun for the right conditions.

I had a lot of fun building the bikes up, and now I'm having even more fun riding them. I can't really pick a favorite... they each have their strengths, and each has a distinct ride from the others. Variety, is after all, the spice of life.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

My Office Clutter Theory

For years I have struggled with the challenge of clutter in my office... both at home and at various jobs I've held. These days, I don't have an office at work (not a big need for one as a bike mechanic!), but my desk at home still often ends up looking like a minor disaster area. Nothing awful, no cans of half-eaten food or empty bottles or things like that... it's mostly just papers... untidy piles of paper. Try as I might, I never seem to find a way to defeat this problem completely.

But at least I know why it happens. It dawned on me a number of years ago when I was teaching at a prestigious eastern university (which must remain unnamed, or they will use that "intellectual property" clause of my contract and lay claim to the theory). I call it my Sourdough Theory of Office Clutter.

Stay with me here. We've all been through this... you decide to buckle down and finally attack the pile or piles of accumulated stuff in your office. You diligently sort through it all, filing things away, recycling others, passing some onto a colleague perhaps. But then, when you've gone through all of that... there's that one, small, random pile of stuff that you can't quite find a home for, and can't yet dispose of. That, dear reader, is the "starter"! Yes, much like sourdough bread, clutter needs a "seed" pile to start from. And there it is. Waiting. Before you know it, it starts to grow, and the next thing you know you're right back where you started.

Now, having come up with this brilliant theory more than a decade ago, you'd think I would have found a solution by now. But no... look at the picture of my desk below... see it there... on the right hand edge? You can almost hear it chuckling...

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Cookies and wheels!

Long time readers of Spokes of a Wheel might recall an early post in my "How to Talk to Your Bicycle Mechanic" series in which I discussed the virtues of cookies in transacting business with your bike shop.

Well, Saturday morning, a customer came in to pick up a set of wheels I had built up for him... and brought this container of cookies! And wow are they good! And what an assortment.

By the way, bonus points for any bike geek who can identify the black gizmo in front of the cookies.

Now, this also brings up a question I've been asked several times lately... Why would you have someone build you a set of wheels from parts, rather than just buy a pre-built wheel? Well, in this age of mass produced products, injection-molded gadgets, and robotic assembly machines, there are still some things that are better when "lovingly hand-crafted" as I like to describe my wheels (tongue firmly in cheek... I do NOT take myself that seriously).

Most wheels on new bicycles are built by machines, as are many standard, "off the shelf" replacement wheels. And that is the most economical approach.. chances are, if you damage a wheel on your bike, and you're a typical, casual rider, your local shop will sell you a pre-built wheel from a mass-production house. And in most cases, that will work just fine. You'll probably find that the wheel goes out of true fairly soon, but that can be addressed with a followup truing job, and the wheel will "settle in" and remain round and true for a good, long while after that.

But what if your needs are not so run of the mill? What if you commute regularly on bad roads, with a load? Or you want to take your bike on extended, loaded tours? Or you're heavier than most riders? Or what if you simply want a very specific combination of hub, spokes, and rim? That's where a custom, hand built wheel fits in. If you come to me with some variation on one of the above situations, I'll talk to you and ask you more about the kind of riding you're doing, how often you've had problems with your wheels... I might even ask what you weigh. Then, if I believe you'd be best served by a hand built wheel or wheels, I'll tell you so and why.

So, why? Aside from being able to specify exactly the right components, there are a few other advantages to hand built wheels. Probably the biggest difference I notice between a factory wheel and one built by hand by a competent builder, is stability and reliability. The reason for this is that a good builder will put the wheel through a process called "stress relieving". This is where the builder applies a sizable amount of stress to the spokes at several points during the build, in order to make sure they are properly "settled in" in every way. Spokes have a tendency to "wind up" or twist when the nipples are tightened, and applying a load to them while building will relieve that wind up and if done properly leave you with a wheel that will remain round and true for a long time with little or no touch up required.

In addition, a hand builder will check the tension of each spoke, either using a sense of "feel" earned through experience or using a tension gauge. This results in a wheel with higher, more even tension in all of the spokes than in a typical factory wheel. Due to the demands of mass production, I suspect factory wheels, whether machine or hand built or some combination of both, have lower tension, in order to play it safe and speed production. In addition, due to inadequacies in the machinery, or the speed required when building hundreds or thousands of wheels, tension from spoke to spoke varies a lot more in a factory wheel. Uneven tension, and low, uneven tension, results in a wheel that is just waiting to go out of true, especially when the stress relieving step is left out.

I'm sure someone who has spent a lifetime building wheels professionally could explain it better, but in a nutshell, those are the main reasons I can think of for having a wheel or set of wheels built for you by hand by your local (or maybe not local) wheel builder. If you think you might need such a thing, stop in and we (or you and your mechanic, where ever you are) will talk. It's a more expensive option, but for some folks, absolutely the best choice. And cheaper than going through a series of inadequate factory wheels.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving Day Ride

Well, Thursday was Thanksgiving, and we at bikes@vienna held our annual "Guilt Reduction Ride", a casual, fun ride along the W&OD rail trail. The ride started at 9 am at the shop, and we had a pretty good turn out, with about a dozen riders. In addition to getting some exercise to hopefully offset at least a few of the calories we all consume on Thanksgiving, we also urge folks to bring along an item of canned food for a local charity.

As you can see in the photo above, we had spectacular weather... a bit chilly, but bright sunlight the whole way. John had warned everyone to dress in layers, which was definitely the way to go, as it did warm up some between the start and end of the ride. Our turnaround point, shown above, was in Herndon, about 9 miles from the shop, making for a nice, mellow ride. You can see that we had quite a mix of bikes on the ride, which is typical for us. There were several upright (what some would call "normal") bikes, including me on my RB-T, a couple of Rans "crank forward" bikes (such as the yellow Fusion in the foreground), a couple of two wheeled recumbents, including John and Ces on a Barcroft Columbia tandem, and one "tadpole" trike. A fun mix.

Before we started, John asked me to ride "sweep"... which means I bring up the rear, keeping an eye out for stragglers, and calling John on his cell phone if I think we need to hold up for someone. I had a lot of fun in this role, as we had no real problems along the way, and it gave me the chance to hang back and chat with several different people along the way. And being the shop's head mechanic, it makes a world of sense for me to be the guy bringing up the rear.

All in all, I think everyone had a wonderful time. Good company, sunshine, a day off, and a bike ride... what's not to like?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Yet Another Bridgestone!

Well, here's another bike I've built up from a frame that was gathering dust and parts that were doing the same! And yes, it's another Bridgestone! This one is an RB-2, from 1992, the second from the top-of-the-line road model from them. None of the parts are what the bike originally would have had, but I wasn't trying for a "correct" restoration, but rather wanted a light, zippy road bike with parts I had on hand. Cranks are an older Shimano XT, set up as a double chain ring instead of a triple. Derailleurs are older Shimano Ultegra, and shifters are the Shimano barcons so many of my bikes seem to have these days. Brakes are a pair of short reach Royal Gran Compes from sometime in the 80s, I think, with lovely script lettering on them. Bars and stem are Nitto, again a personal favorite. Right now the saddle is the original Avocet Racing saddle, but you guessed it, I'll probably put a Brooks on there soon.

I've only had a chance to take a short spin around the parking lot, but it feels good so far. The top tube is a little longer than a lot of my bikes, as is the stem, so we'll see how I like a more stretched out position. Part of the point of this build was to try that out, so this should be interesting to see.

Oh, and I predict the white bar tape will be swapped for something darker, like, say, black, before too long. But gosh it looks pretty with the white!

Monday, November 24, 2008

One Reason I Like My Job

A couple of weeks ago, a customer brought in one of the two tandem bicycles he and his wife ride, and ride a lot, if the wear and tear on them is any indication. I'll be honest... their bikes are always a challenge, needing a lot of work and frequently needing some vital part replaced. This visit was no exception... the bike arrived iwth "a broken spoke", which turned out to be a wrecked rim. Once I had addressed that problem, a series of other issues arose, adding expense and time to the whole project. Truth be told, I got pretty frustrated with the whole project, which dragged out much longer than I expected, due to parts needs.

But yesterday the couple came in to pick up the bike. They're an older couple, and very sweet, especially towards each other. You can just tell they are devoted to one another. They paid the rather large bill for the bike, then went off for a ride, despite the cold. When they came back, even though they had already paid, they stopped back in the shop before loading the bike on their car, to thank me for the work, and to tell me how much better the bike was riding. The wife even said, joking, "I think I now have another year of riding in me!" It was nice of them to make a point of telling me, but more importantly, I really appreciated the smiles on their faces. They had just had a lovely bike ride together, and I helped make that possible.

And THAT is why I like fixing other people's bikes... to help them enjoy the pleasure of a bike ride. I could get my "tinkering" fix by working on my own bikes, but there's something so satisfying about getting someone else rolling again.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Almost Winter Ride

Today I used part of my midday break (I get about 2 hours in the middle of the day, as the shop now keeps somewhat unconventional hours) to go for a bike ride. It was a short ride, just a little over 6 miles, but a lovely one. I'm lucky in that the shop is only a block or so from our major rail trail, the Washington and Old Dominion.

What set today apart was that it was the first ride in a long while that felt like a winter ride. It may not be technically winter yet, but it sure felt like it today. High temperature in the 30s, with a wind chill making it feel like the 20s!

Speaking of wind, for the three miles out, it was all about a headwind, and a brisk one at that. Made for some chilly fingers, especially since I hadn't really expected it to be so cold, and had just some light wool gloves. Brrrrr! But it was a beautiful ride, with the afternoon light slanting through the trees casting some great shadows and slashes of dazzling light.

Very few other people on the trail, most of whom were running or walking, not cycling. Around here, I think most folks hang up their bikes for the winter, or put them on a trainer. I own a trainer, and I used to pull it out in winter and set my bike up on it, ride it a few times, then give up in boredom. Nowadays, I don't even bother to pull it out... I'd rather be out there fighting the wind and braving the cold than feeling like a hamster on a wheel, not matter how good my music is (for the record, King Crimson's "Discipline" CD always worked for me). Even with rain or snow, there's something more satisfying in an outdoor bike ride for me. And on a day like today, what's not to like?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On Top of Mount Huffy...

...all covered with rust!

Yesterday I went to help Keith Oberg, head of Bikes for the World, a non-profit that sends donated bikes overseas to be fixed up and put to good use by folks who need them for transportation. You can check out what they do here:

Anyway, I went to their storage trailers, to look at a few nicer road bikes to help Keith determine their ultimate fate. I know a bit about older bikes, and he occasionally asks my advice on things. I arrived ahead of him, but he called my cell to let me know he'd be there in a few minutes, and to ask if I'd mind moving a stack of bikes for him while I waited. I looked at the pile:

And it reminded me of my earliest days at the Community Cycling Center in Portland, OR, in their original location. The shop and the whole operation were a lot more modest back then than they are today. A tiny cadre of paid staff, and a bunch of volunteers, a cramped basement for bike storage and not enough space for bike or accessory sales. And out back, Mount Huffy! That was the name given to the pile of bikes out back that had been deemed beyond redemption. You see, like many non-profit bike shops, the CCC takes in donated bikes and fixes them up. Some of the bikes are then used for various programs, such as the Holiday Bike Drive for kids or the Create a Commuter program, where a qualifying adult is given a bicycle, accessories, and a half day class to help them get around by bike. Other bikes are set aside for sale, the proceeds from which helps fund the programs and keep the doors open.

Inevitably in such a situation, some bikes come in as donations that just aren't useful. They may have one or more mechanical problems that there's no cost effective solution for, even with volunteer labor. Many donated bikes are bikes that have been left outside and neglected, so they are heavily rusted, so far gone that there's no hope. And in some cases, it's a combination of mechanical issues and the fact that the basic bike was very low quality to begin with. In situations like that, one has to decide whether or not it makes any sense at all to put a lot of time and energy into a bike that in the end will still have inherent problems. Many such low end bikes were built by the Huffy company, famous for the bikes sold in discount outlets like K-Mart. Thus the name Mount Huffy!

Now, the picture above is NOT Mt. Huffy... it's just the small pile I found yesterday at the Bikes for the World site. To get the true sense of Mt. Huffy, you have to picture a pile of the same sort of bikes, in roughly the same condition, but piled higher than a tall man's head! The footprint of Mt. Huffy was probably about the size of a small bedroom... oh, call it 10 by 10 feet, give or take. And very densely packed. It was a sight to behold. I sometimes wondered, humorously, whether the bottom layers would some day be crushed enough to form a new, man-made geologic strata!

About six months after I started volunteering at the CCC, the shop moved down the street to its current location, a much better space. I wasn't around for any of the actual emptying of the old shop, so I never saw how they cleared out Mt. Huffy. I suspect the bikes were piled into a pickup truck and hauled off to recycling. However it happened, Mt. Huffy was no more. In the new location, a different, better system was worked out. Former Mt. Huffy candidates would get loaded into a large trailer and periodically taken to the recycling center. That's actually one of the many things I liked about working at the CCC... every effort was made to reduce waste. Many old parts were sent over to Resource Revival where they were turned into decorative objects such as picture frames, candle holders or even furniture. For a while, all of our old tubes went to a guy who made flip-flops. And anything else was taken to a recycling center instead of the dump. I'm sure even to this day, some things still end up in the landfill, but as little as possible does I bet.

Bikes for the World has a different mission from the Community Cycling Center... their focus is international, not local. And where the CCC fixed up the bikes themselves, Bikes for the World partners with organizations overseas that handle the bulk of that. While they serve different communities, both operations do a lot to help people who can really use the help. And both demonstrate what I see as one aspect of the transformative nature of bicycling. I've seen it myself, and heard it over and over from others, particularly those who work in non-profits... get somebody on a bike, and show them how useful it can be, how freeing, and it will change their life. It changed mine.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

When you visit someone's house...

... for the first time, what do you notice? What catches your attention? What draws you in?

For me, it's their bookcases, and the books they hold. Invite me to your home, and before you know it, I'll be quietly examining your books. Why? Well, several reasons...

First, I just find it interesting to know what people read. Is it what I would expect them to read, from what I know of them? Or is it a complete surprise? If it's a shared collection, can I guess which person brought which book to the shelf? Is he the one responsible for the copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or is she? Hmmm... a copy of Wuthering Heights... I suspect that's hers... but what a fine surprise to be wrong.

And what does someone's book collection say about them? Heavy on fiction? Classics? Non-fiction? Are there a number of weighty tomes on some specific aspect of science? Why does this theatre person have so many physics books? (what, a personal example from my own bookcase?) For that matter... how are the books arranged... one person might sort them by subject matter, another dividing fiction from non-fiction, poetry from prose, alphabetically by author. What about the shelves of books perfectly arranged by size? What does that say?

I also enjoy perusing a friend's shelves simply to see if I discover something new. "Hmm... there's an intriguing title...!" Or perhaps I'll see a book I've always meant to read... or read a review of recently... or.. or... or... Depending on how well I know the person, I may ask to borrow it (knowing that for some, books are precious and not to be loaned lightly, while others freely give them away)... or perhaps just make a mental note to seek it out at the library.

And sometimes I simply find something I read long ago... perhaps a favorite book from my childhood... and the memories that brings will usher a smile to my lips. I suppose it makes others wonder..."What is he looking for? And why is he smiling like that?" But I really don't mind, I'm too busy browsing the collection.

So if you ever come to visit me, feel free to browse... I won't mind. What will you find? That's for you to discover.

Monday, November 17, 2008


I have to say, autumn is my favorite season overall. There are wonderful things about each of the four seasons, and I love living in places where you actually get all four. But if I had to pick my favorite, it's happening around us right now.


Well, one obvious reason is shown in the photo to the left here. I took this during my ride in to work on Halloween morning. The colors you see during autumn are just spectacular sometimes, and like no other time of the year. Whether it's the nearly insane explosion of reds, golds, yellows, oranges, etc, of New England, or the simple, brilliant splashes of golden aspen among the evergreen Ponderosa pines of Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, the colors of autumn are a joy to me.

But I also just love the fact that autumn is all about transition and change. Sure, every season has changes, but to me, autumn has always seemed defined by change. The trees going from green to gold/red/orange/yellow to brown to bare grey is just the most visible expression of this change. But I also love the change of temperature, the inevitable slide downward on the thermometer. Sure, nature may tease us with those precious, glorious days of spring-like warmth here and there, and their lovely, but everyone knows that winter is coming, like it or not (count me in the like it column). The winds grow stronger, the clouds and skies wilder and more dramatic. And the light.... don't forget the light. Not only do the days grow shorter and shorter (and abruptly shift an hour at one instant), but the quality of light is utterly different. The sun is lower, the shadows longer, the light slashing across the land picking out highlights we've forgotten since last fall. Even the color of the light is unique. Perhaps it's because I spent a good portion of my life working with and looking at light in the theatre... or perhaps it's the other way 'round, but I dearly love watching the way the light shifts and changes this time of year.

And I suppose one more reason autumn says "change" to me is that it's often been the time of new beginnings. The first day of school... whether it was literally that FIRST day ever, or the first day of high school... of college... always a time of anticipation, excitement, sometimes even a little trepidation. New places, new faces, new friends, perhaps even new loves... the fall, particularly during our school years, is all about change. For me, having spent most of my working life in either professional or academic theatre, and even now in the bike industry, fall brings change to me. When teaching, each autumn brought a new crop of students, new shows, new colleagues, new challenges. Professional theatres typically open their seasons in early autumn, so even there I had a new beginning each year. The bicycle world, in retail anyway, is more about ending than beginning, which is different for me. But I still look at it as a beginning... the time we start to regroup and get ready for next season, planning and thinking and exploring new ideas.

So, fleeting as it is, and in the mid-Atlantic some years it is very fleeting, I love autumn... so bright and wild and promising of change. Enjoy it and embrace it while it's here!

Sunday, November 16, 2008


"Snorfling? What the heck is snorfling?" you ask.

Well, it's the noise Tybalt makes when he's in my lap, semi-conscious, just enjoying life. It's not a purr...his purr is so soft you have to have your ear against his side to hear it. No, it's his own special sound... sort of a heavy-breathing, soft snoring sound. It goes sorta like this... "snorfle... snorfle... snorfle..." :-)

You have to see it and hear it to appreciate it, but I find it makes me smile. The little guy is good at that.

Another Bridgestone Hits the Road (and Trail)

Well, I seem to be in the midst of some sort of surge of activity on getting some of my "project" bikes up and rolling. And it seems to be my Bridgestones that are the beneficiaries of this burst of productivity. The latest to get running is my 1987 MB-1, one of their mountain bikes. There's a little bit of history about these late-80s MB-series bikes... according to some, they were the first production bikes to introduce shorter chainstays and steeper seat and head tube angles to mountain bike design. Whether or not this is true, they were certainly among the first, and everyone else quickly followed suit. The advantages to the "new" geometry are better traction on the back wheel, and more nimble handling around obstacles. It certainly makes the bike more agile than my old '85 Schwinn Cimarron, which had really long chainstays and a really stretched out wheelbase. It was comfy as all get out, but just didn't climb or maneuver that well.

The MB-1, on the other hand, seems pretty quick and responsive. Now, I'm not a "serious mountainbiker" (actually, I try really hard to not be a "serious" cyclist of any sort... I like to smile and laugh too much), so I'm no expert. Really hardcore MTBers would probably think this bike is a dinosaur, or at least a thing of the past. Why? Well, there's no suspension, aside from the cushioning provided by the tires. These days, purely rigid mountainbikes are an oddity at best. But I'm simply interested in having some casual fun off road, nothing too hairy. I used to have a mtb in Flagstaff that was a lot of fun to ride on the trails out there, just exploring and enjoying the scenery. I expect this one will be much the same. If I ever do find myself craving greater "performance", there are plenty of options, but I suspect this is all the mountainbike I need for the forseeable future.

Riding it last night and today reminded me of how much fun my first MTB was, out in Flag. The first rides I took on that bike brought back memories of when I was a kid, tearing around dirt trails on my old single speed British bike. There's just something refreshing about a roll through the trees and leaves on a comfy, nimble bike.

It's sort of a mutt, equipment-wise... a few of the parts are original, like the wheels and the derailleurs and I think the stem. But the rest... brakes, crankset, etc, are not. Most notable are the handlebars... originally, this year's MB-1 had drop handlebars, similar to a road bike (and just like my XO-2). That apparently didn't catch on with the masses, because it's the only year Bridgestone set it up that way. I've never tried drops on an mtb, but I'm not in any hurry to swap things out here. The straight bars seem just fine, for now.

Anyway, it's nice to have a mountain bike in the stable again... variety is, as they say, the spice of life!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Piece of Cycling History

Well, here's one you don't see every day!

This is a Campagnolo Gran Turismo rear derailleur, from the early 70s. Bike folk know Campagnolo (Campy for short, unless your British, then it's Campag) mostly for their fine racing derailleurs and other components. This one was intended for touring, and was designed with a wide range of sprocket (back of the bike) and chain ring (front) sizes in mind. And it's nothing like their famous Record series racing derailleurs in any way. They were light, pretty, elegant even. This one, not so much. It weighs in at nearly a pound, and it's made of stamped steel, with a lot of seemingly uneccessary bulk to it. I've always thought it had a vaguely "Klingon" look to it, with the pointy/swoopy thing going on at the front/top of the pulley cage.

Until a few years ago, I had only seen one briefly, in passing, on a housemate's older Schwinn. Then my buddy Geoff at the Community Cycling Center found a Schwinn Sports Tourer and bought it. I don't recall what he ultimately did with the bike, but he decided right away he didn't want the derailleur, and I asked for it as a curiousity. Geoff was more than happy to be rid of it. I've kept it around as a little piece of history and a paperweight, and don't expect to ever put it on a bike. I'm all for period correctness, as long as it doesn't mean using a really bad piece of equipment, and from what I've heard, that's what the GT is. I've heard more than one person derisively refer to it as the "Gran Trashmo", and the esteemed bike technology historian (yes, there is such a thing) Frank Berto wrote "The Gran Turismo was arguably the worst rear derailleur to carry Campagnolo's name. I blew the whistle on it. The Gran Turismo was my litmus test for bicycle writers. If a writer praised it, it meant that he had never pedaled it or he was lying..." (The Dancing Chain, Van der Plas Pub., copyright 2000).

The funny thing is, my 1973 Schwinn Paramount P-15 ( has its original "Schwinn-Approved" rear derailleur, a re-badged Shimano Crane GS, which was new to the Paramount that year. The '71 and '72 models actually came with a Gran Turismo instead! And that's why I'm glad I have a '73! If I had an earlier one, I'd have to decide between "correct" and "good"... and the Crane is both of those things, as well as prettier than the GT.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

DC Metro System

Now, I grew up in the DC area, in the 60s, so I remember all the excitement and anticipation about the planned Metro subway system. Every time we took a trip into the city, it seemed like there was yet another excavation underway, with a big hole in the ground surrounded by construction fencing, plywood barriers and the like. The bank where my parents had their account even gave away little folded card models of the futuristic looking Metro cars, with a slot in the top, to be used as a coin bank. It was heady stuff, the idea of a subway system for the Nation's Capital.

Several decades later, and it's lost a lot of the luster. Above, you can see what greets riders at the West Falls Church Station in Northern Virginia, as you head toward the escalators. This isn't a joke... for quite some time now, there has been this corrugated cardboard sign, hand printed, to indicate which escalator takes you to the platform for the DC-bound trains! Snazzy, huh? Nothing says "this way to the seat of power" like corrugated cardboard and a Sharpie, right? And I've run across a number of other hand printed signs that are put in place to make up for the fact that a more "official" looking sign doesn't exist, or because the official signage is confusing. A common example is some form of handmade sign on the elevators to indicate which button to push to call the car... and honestly, looking at the panels, it's easy to see why extra info might be handy... it's not all that obvious which is the button for the car and which calls a station attendant.

And don't get me started on the reliability of the elevators and escalators in the system! You know it's bad when the system announcer comes on the loudspeaker one day and announces that there are NO elevator outages, and you can hear the note of surprise and pride in her voice! Seriously, at any given time, there are typically 4-6 elevators in the system that are out, and sometimes quite a few more. And the escalators are at least as bad, if not worse. It struck me a few months ago, after a few trips to NYC, and riding their subway system... when the DC folks were planning this system, did they ever think of that radical invention... STAIRS?!?!?! Seriously... the reliance on motorized escalators is a little bizarre, at least in the areas where it's a short trip up or down. Stairs seldom fail to work, and perhaps if they had gone that route, they could have put in more and better elevators for the folks who really need them.

Harrumph. Oh well, there are a lot of good things about the system... it's mostly just showing its age, and the fact that funding has always been tricky for them with three govermental jurisdictions to deal with. Wait, make that four... DC, MD, VA and the Feds. No wonder it has problems!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

First Real Ride on RB-T

Well, today was a day off for me, so after doing a bunch of stuff around the house (which included writing the previous blog posting... please check it out), I headed out for the first "real" ride on my new-to-me Bridgestone RB-T.

The observant among you will no doubt say "wait a minute, that photo of the bike looks like it was taken at the same time as the ones from the earlier post". And you'd be right. But I wanted a picture of the bike in here too.

Anyway, it was a lovely ride. I went out on the local rail-trail, the Washington and Old Dominion, and it was a beautiful, if somewhat chilly day. Mostly blue sky, with some clouds, and a bit of a breeze, but nothing too challenging. And I managed to dress reasonably well for the ride, so that I was comfortable for the whole trip. All told, I did about 25 miles, and thoroughly enjoyed both the day and the bike. I had a pretty good idea, based on my short hops around town, that the bike was going to be a fun one, but it was even better than I expected. It feels light and nimble, yet not at all twitchy. And the moustache bars with stoker levers were a winner. Not a huge surprise, given that I had had the same set up on my old Fuji Allegro, but one never knows for sure with these things until you try it. I'm pleased to report that it works beautifully. Plenty of hand positions for variety, from upright and relaxed to low and stretched out, and several options in between.

And it was a lovely day out, all in all. The trees have mostly lost their leaves, so we are settling into the bare, grey look of mid-Atlantic winter now. Still pretty, especially when you see bare branches against clear blue sky, as in the photo to the right.

There are still some small, dramatic bits of color as well, such as whatever this plant is against the background of woods and stream. This is overlooking Broad Run, near Sterling, VA.

It seems every year there's less and less of a "wild" feel on and near the trail... so much development has happened in this area, even in just the five years I've been living here. And it doesn't help that the power company keeps the edges of the trail pretty clear for their lines. I understand their concerns, but I liked it better when we had more of a canopy on the trail. Ah well, it could be worse. Even with these complaints, I have a beautiful ride, and it felt good to be out in the air.

Veterans' Day

Today is the day we Americans try to take some time to remember and reflect upon those who have gone to war for the nation, and the sacrifices they have made. I can't possibly do justice to, or pay adequate tribute to the millions of men and women who have put their lives on the line for those of us who have never had to.

What I can do though is to write a little about one particular WWII veteran... Staff Sergeant Vincent B. Fricker... my dad. He passed away almost 14 years ago, so I'm going pretty much totally on my own memory of stories he told, and stories I've since heard from my family, along with the few sketchy bits of official info we have from the government. An incomplete and imperfect portrait, but I just felt I wanted to sketch it out here.

My dad served in the US Army Air Forces in the European Theatre of Operations (ETO). After being sent all over the US for training, he was shipped over to England on the Queen Mary (converted to a troopship for the duration) in June of 1943, where his unit was attached to an 8th Air Force bomb group... as near as I can figure out, the 92nd Bombardment Group operating out of Alconbury and later Podington. He was a member of the 861st Chemical Company, which for him entailed the loading and arming of all types of bombs on B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers. This meant he spent a lot of time around really, really large piles of high explosive, which, while not as hazardous as daily combat, certainly had its risks. A few years ago, in trying to sort out where he was stationed when, I read of an incident, just prior to his arrival at one of the bases, where a fully loaded bomber blew up on the field, destroying three planes, killing a number of men, and leaving a very large crater in the ground. It made me really appreciate the risks those guys took every day.

Which pales in comparison to what the crews of the planes he serviced faced. Casualty rates for 8th Air Force bomber crews were astoundingly high, especially early in the campaign. If you've ever watched one of the many movies made about them (Twelve O'Clock High, The War Lover, Memphis Belle), you've seen the scenes where the ground crew and command staff count the returning planes after a mission, and notice how many are missing. Those aren't Hollywood fabrications... my dad used to talk about doing exactly that. In particular, I recall him talking about one of the missions to Schweinfurt (home to the German ball bearing industry), and seeing only a couple of bombers return from the dozen or so the group sent out. For a significant portion of the war, these crews were required to complete 25 missions before being rotated home... and statistically stood little chance of reaching that number alive.

But my dad lived in relative safety on the ground, in England, and I believe he was always a little (okay, a lot) grateful for that. He slept in a Quonset hut (or was that a Nissen hut? he told me, but I can't recall which it was or what the differences were), and had hot meals and could get leave to go into town and drink in a pub from time to time. Then one day, according to my mom, he offered what he saw as constructive criticism to the company captain. Needless to say, a staff sergeant isn't supposed to do that... so he soon found himself back at plain sergeant, and on a journey that took him through the Middle East, ultimately ending up at a base near Piryatin, in what was then the Soviet Union, and is now Ukraine! Few Americans even today are aware that we used three bases in the USSR for "shuttle bombing" missions... taking off from England, bombing deep into Germany or occupied Europe, then landing in the USSR. Well, we did, and my dad was there to service the fighter escorts on their arrival. Some might have read of this recently, in an obituary for Col. Don Blakeslee, who lead the first fighter escort mission this way. Now, according to my dad, when Blakeslee landed, he was the guy sent out to pick him up in a jeep and take him to the base headquarters. Of course, one never knows... there are probably at least a half dozen dads who made that claim to their kids after the war... but I like to believe it's true. A tiny, obscure, "brush with fame", I guess.

The stint in the Soviet Union was considerably less pleasant than England had been. The German Luftwaffe showed up not long after our planes had landed and bombed and shot up all three bases (Poltava, Mirgorod, and Piryatin) pretty badly, destroying or damaging a number of planes, and sending my dad to a slit trench for cover. Accomodations were also more primitive... canvas tents, which at least had wooden floors... and a very active mouse population which provided entertainment for my dad and his tentmates. He used to tell stories about using empty ammo boxes as improvised traps for the mice, and waiting until one crawled in after some crumb of food, then tugging a string to bring the box down on the hapless rodent. Time and again, I've read tales of how soldiers of all types pass idle time, and it always boils down to some really odd, simple passtime like this.

The trip to the USSR wasn't without it's benefits... my dad got a chance to see parts of the world that a kid from the Bronx could never have otherwise have hoped to see. He sailed part of the way on a steamer named the Alcantarra, and spent some part of the trip on a troop train through the desert, where he supposedly took a potshot with his rifle at a bird on telegraph pole, inadvertantly severing the line in the process. Might be another tall tale, but he did enjoy speculating about just what line of communication he might have cut off. His journey also left my family with a few tangible bits as well... several of the US Goverment "how to behave in foreign countries" booklets (including Iraq), and a lovely, small rug he bought in Cairo, which my mom still has to this day.

Eventually he was shipped back to England, and after the Nazi surrender, spent a chunk of time tearing apart many of the thousands of aircraft that had been shipped over there during the war. All the while, he and many others were waiting in dread to hear they were going to the Pacific theatre (as the 8th Air Force, was in fact slated to do), but the war came to an end before that happened. Finally, in late November of 1945, he was shipped back to the states, as part of what was known as "Operation Magic Carpet":

For all I know, he's somewhere in that picture... it was taken on the hangar deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (not the nuclear one we know today, but a predecessor), the very ship that brought my dad home from England. He mustered out on December 5th, 1945, as part of the huge de-mobilization that happened right after the war.

So that's a snapshot of my dad's service in the military... and my small attempt to say thank you to all who have ever put on a uniform in service of the country. Regardless of what action they see or don't see, the members of our military all make sacrifices for the greater good. So thank you, all.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Update on Alpine Owner

I've been meaning to post this for a while now, but as you've noticed, I've been suffering from some form or writer's block.

Referring back to my post of October 1st, the owner of that broken Alpine has a new bike. He had been considering another bike even before the Alpine broke, but the mishap spurred him to action a little sooner than planned. On my advice, based on things things he said he wanted from a bike, he's purchased a Surly Long Haul Trucker, a bike designed for loaded touring. I've worked on and built up a few, and have been really impressed with the design and ride quality. One feature I really like is the ability to mount very wide tires ("Fatties Fit Fine" has long been a Surly slogan), making the bike very versatile.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I got an email from Glenn, complete with pictures, regaling me with tales of his first big ride on the bike. It was gratifying to see how happy he is with his new bike... both because he was acting on my advice, and because I was the guy who discovered the crack in the Alpine. Seeing him so happy with the Surly takes away some of the "ouch" of that. Most of all though, it's just great to see him smiling like a kid.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

My "New" Bridgestone RB-T

Another "project bike" hits the road finally!

I picked up this frameset longer ago than I care to admit, and it's been hanging in the attic for too long. It came my way when I casually mentioned on the Bridgestone Owner's Bunch internet list that I would someday like to own an RB-T, if I could find one in my size. Next thing I know, I have a guy emailing me and telling me he's got one he'd like to sell. That's actually the same way I got my Bridgestone XO-2. The BOB list is an amazing bunch of bike nuts.

The RB-T was a early 90s bike, Bridgestone's version of a light touring bike. Not a full on "load up all your camping gear and strike out across the US" bike like my Miyata 1000. Sure, you could use it that way, but it's not as "hardcore loaded touring" as that. Bridgestone described it in their 1994 catalog, which you can find here:

Since I got it as just a frameset, none of the parts are as described in the catalog. Rather, I put together a combination of parts I had on hand to create a bike I could use for commuting and casual fun rides on pavement as well as mild off road riding. Nothing too hard core... canal towpaths, dirt roads, that sort of thing.

To start with, I wanted to put moustache bars on the bike. I've had them on a couple of other bikes over the years, and in general have really liked them for the kind of riding I mentioned above. Also, based on past experience with an old Fuji road bike, I wanted to add "stoker" levers in addition to the real brake levers. You can see them in the pictures... they give you a nice comfy hand position near the stem, which is otherwise lacking on moustache bars,as well as giving you a large flat expanse to rest your palms across the stoker levers, bars, and brake levers. The rest of the parts are an eclectic mix of mostly 90s parts... Deore DX crankset, XT rear derailleur, RX100 front. The hubs are more modern Deores from the early 2000s, with Sun CR-18 rims, one of my favorites. Strong, reasonably light, and easy on the eyes. The saddle is my all time favorite, the Brooks B-17, with a Carradice Nelson saddlebag to carry my stuff. I also opted to put one of my Shimano dynohub-based wheels and a Busch & Mueller DLumotec Oval LED headlight, since I plan on using this bike for a lot of my commuting. Finally, like most of my bikes, this one is set up with fenders... SKS P45 Chromoplastics to be precise. I'm a big fan of fenders, as they vastly increase the usability of a bicycle. It's all about versatility.

Yes, some of you are no doubt saying "geez, can you say 'Grant Peterson acolyte'?" It's true, I've been a fan of Grant's views on bikes for a long while, and some of my choices were no doubt influenced by him. The moustache bars and saddlebag, definitely. But I've always been a fan of Brooks saddles, and have also always preferred classic, lugged steel bikes over aluminum, carbon, etc. And I've long leaned toward the practical niceties in bikes... such as fenders and having some way of carrying things, even if it's just a simple rear rack.

Anyway, I've only done a few short rides, mostly test rides and errands, but so far I really like the bike. It feels light and zippy, but I suspect it will handle moderate loads well too. And the frame has enough clearance for fairly big tires... I can get 32mm tires under fenders on there, which is plenty big for the riding I want to do on it. All in all, a great bike!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Next President is Barack Obama!

I've stayed away from any political discussion on my blog (well, honestly, I haven't written much at all lately), but tonight I have to say, I'm really happy to see that Barack Obama is going to be our next president! It's an amazing, historic moment, for all Americans. And the fact that he won by a big margin in some really important races is a relief. I was afraid this was going to be another hairs-breadth election, with disputed results and the resulting rancor and chaos. Nope, this time we have a clear winner, and a good one for this time and place, in my opinion.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Pictures from the parade

Well, here are a couple of pictures of me from the Vienna Halloween Parade.

To the left there I am, zooming down the street, ram's horns on, shot from behind by part time employee Robert Hakim, who is quite the photographer. Robert rode a Catrike, which is one of the "tadpole" style trikes, which have two wheels in front which steer and one in back which is the drive wheel. Very low slung and sporty, they're also handy if you want to take photos while riding.

Then here to the right is me, stopping and folding up the bike. I didn't take into account the relative lack of light on the parade route. Nor did I factor in the fact that I would be wearing gloves. For that matter, I have to admit, it's an entirely different thing to do ANYTHING with a bunch of people watching!