Sunday, May 15, 2016

To pedal back from the edge of death

The story starts with a handshake, or rather with a handshake avoided.

A landowner in the area had come to the conservation commission to discuss very preliminary plans to donate an 80-acre parcel to the town for conservation and recreation. I knew him as a customer at the bike shop. In the preliminary formalities of the meeting, I managed to evade shaking his hand. I have absolutely nothing against him. I just don't like to shake hands. It's not the hygienic aspect that bothers me most, although working in an under-staffed small business has made me more wary than I already was about anything that might lead me to take a sick day. I'm also always afraid someone might be giving me a secret handshake. I don't know what would be worse: giving no response and being revealed as an outsider, or accidentally giving a correct response and being mistaken for someone in the know. Way too much stress. I'll just nod from several feet away, and smile to add warmth. You keep your hands to yourself.

The commission and the landowner discussed general issues related to the land transfer. He invited any and all to take a site walk and check out the attractions of wooded wetland and steep ravine. And off he went, leaving us to the rest of our meeting.

The next thing we heard about him was that he had been crushed between a falling tree and a piece of heavy equipment while working on another piece of his land. His right hand had been sliced off, his left hand mangled, and his back was broken. He was in Maine Medical Center. No one knew if he was even going to make it.

Beyond the magnitude of his injuries, here was a man who had been vigorously active for all of his 70-plus years. He had used his hands and his mind together on things as intricate as bicycle mechanics and as brawny as logging. Independent-minded and eccentric, he was a model of self-sufficient ingenuity. The loss of full self-sufficiency might be enough to turn a survivable degree of injury into a sliding board into the grave.

I thought of the hand I had not clasped, lying on the ground, lost to us both. While it did not stimulate a sudden enthusiasm for hand-shaking, it added another layer of understanding to the sense of his loss.

Months passed, as months will do. Suddenly, this week, he called the bike shop to ask if we could work on his Greenspeed Magnum recumbent tadpole trike.

Hell yes, of course.

Getting pounded to the edge of death makes a person thoughtful. In the past year I have known a couple or three people who went through things like a heart attack or this guy's accident. On the other side of it, they emanate a weird serenity. No one would ask to have such a thing happen, but it seems to bring a reward deeper than just survival.

As the man talked about how he discovered the trike and found that he could pedal it, he said, and showed, that his emotions run a lot closer to the surface than they did before the accident. I knew he had enjoyed riding his bicycle, but I did not know how deeply it affected him. Why should it surprise me? Pedaling penetrates deeply into certain people's inner being. The man said that when he discovered he would be able to pedal anything after his accident, "tears just poured out." The catch in his voice showed that the feeling is still there.

This machine matters more than something that gathers dust in a garage and gets ridden a few times a summer. This is a test. This is a weapon against despair, when so much has been lost. The guy flew planes, operated chainsaws, drove a variety of things with wheels, and worked with his hands. Now one of those hands went out with the medical waste months ago, and the remaining one is not exactly deft.


I was glad I had some familiarity with trikes. My brother had bought one to ride while he was rehabbing an injured elbow. He'd bought a Trice, but had studied the other brands in his typically thorough way. They all seem to go together pretty similarly. Simple machines weed out complexity.

The biggest problem was figuring out how to get this thing to a good working height. Trike mechanics and fanciers have devised work stands that range from a few simple blocks to elegant pieces of machining. I attacked the problem from above rather than below, devising a multi-point sling to attach to my e-bike hoist.

Flying Trike

I can be a cold, clinical bastard when I want to be. I can stand on a high, windswept cliff and look down on the futility of all human striving, including my own. I'm pretty consistently immune to inspiration, and I would argue in favor of that point of view to anyone who would listen but what's the point? But somewhere in me is a desire to help my fellow futile strivers with a little bit here and a little bit there, just to try to make their time here a little more pleasant. If you want a purpose in life, that one is far superior to the exchange of dastardly deeds and deadly heroics we tend to glorify.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Awkward size nipples

I hate it when the spoke nipples on a wheel match no standard size wrench. I don't want to mangle a nipple with too loose or too tight a grip.

Life's little annoyances.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Blast from the past

Yep. It's just not training unless your upper lip is stuck to your top teeth in a rictus of agony, moistened only by occasional vomit.

For all my insistence that I do not want to flail myself through a training schedule, I rode to work this morning thinking about options to put tighter gearing on the road bike. Certainly not higher gearing, I assure you. But closer steps in the geezer range I can push will make the pain more micro-adjustable.

It might be kind of a hoot to throw a straight block 6-speed on the old Campy Record rear hub I took off when I built the cassette wheel that's on there now. Swapping wheels is quicker and less grimy than changing cassettes. For flat-road intervals, how many gears do I need? I certainly don't need an enormous big meat gear.

The danger of training is that I might become stronger. Then I plateau, fall into half-fast syndrome, and have to climb the pain ladder to a higher rung to keep from getting stale.

I'm pretty averse to pain, so suddenly discovering masochistic drive in myself is not a huge worry. In any case, closer steps in the freewheel or cassette will make life better. Either that or just keep slogging with what I have, remembering that this is only for a couple or three weeks, in all likelihood.

When there's nothing to do right now, one can't help but think.

I'll go through the cog stash when I get home.


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

It's all in how you say it

Her breath came in ragged gasps. Her words, half-formed sounded somewhere between a sob and a moan. Our hearts pounded. It was starting to hurt, but we couldn't stop until we'd gotten her where she needed to be.

She'd asked me to do this with her. She said she could do it by herself, but it never seemed to work as well. She's my friend. Even though it was something I swore I never wanted to do again, she asked with such sincere desire that I could not refuse. So now, here we were, committed to see this through, not once, but over and over, to the limits of my dissipated endurance.

I tried getting verbal, but she hadn't really told me whether she preferred gentle encouragement or rough talk. This was happening on its own schedule, without much of a plan. Should I tell her to prove to me how much she wants it, or just tell her she's doing great? Mostly, I was too out of breath to speak, anyway.

Since I got married, I hadn't done this with any woman but my wife, and with her it hadn't been this vigorous. My wife and this woman know each other. There'd even been some inkling that we might all three get together for something like this. My wife and I had done some group stuff at this woman's house, in a special room she had made, with straps and devices... My wife had been more into it than I was. She went pretty regularly until the group disbanded.

My crotch was on fire. She said that hers hurt, too. It's only to be expected, going at it like that.

When we had finished, she asked if I would meet her again. I said I could only do it until my wife gets back. She said she understood.

It sounds racy, but it was only training.

We were riding intervals. My friend suffers from a problem that many competitors face: finding training partners. When I raced, I did a lot of riding alone. I also rode with groups, but you have to keep up the schedule, whether a group is handy or not. My friend remains highly focused on competition. As luck would have it, an indolent commuter and tourist like me still has enough residual energy to be able to accompany a female triathlete in her early 50s on a set of four, 5-mile intervals and only completely blow up on the last one. Not sure how much of that is beginner's luck. But she's asked to do it weekly for a while, so I'll get to find out if it kills me or makes me stronger.

I can do it weakly. That plays into another sex joke: the stages of sex life are tri-weekly, try weekly, and try weakly.

As a writer, I have a lot of things going through my head at any moment. On the first interval, when I felt okay and we had a nice tailwind, she was half a bike back, hammering hard, producing noises of effort that were, well,...evocative. Not surprising really, considering that effort is effort. Absolutely nothing else about the situation was evocative, but my brain just snatches up a bit of imagery and takes off like your ill-behaved dog with the half-eaten steak you left unguarded for ten seconds on the picnic table. It made me laugh, silently, as I breathed just as audibly as she did. I had no goal but to help her get a better interval workout.

As we discussed it in the cool-down after the last heart-stabbing, thigh-rubberizing fiver, we concluded that someone like me would be a good training partner, because I have absolutely no athletic ambitions of my own. But I have to tell you. This shit hurts, and I'm not all chuckles and smiles looking forward to the next session.

I had forgotten the energy that follows a workout that demanding. My legs feel like lead, but I didn't just flop when I got home. I resumed domestic tasks and I'm still awake now, without my usual afternoon coffee. The real stiffness will no doubt catch up to me in a coupe of days. But tomorrow starts the commuting week, so I'll be spinning that sludge out of those thighs.

How competition helped us in the 1990s

Wolfeboro has been in a bicycling recession since the early part of the 21st Century. Cycling numbers appear stable, but definitely well below their height through the 1990s and the first part of the road bike wave that rose up around the turn of the century.

These days, we only manage to feel overwhelmingly busy by having only a couple of people on the schedule on most days. But with that short roster, if anyone goes away, the others have to put in more time to make sure we have minimal coverage on every day we're open.

Boom times don't last. The bustle of the 1990s seemed like it would never end, but it was based on temporary conditions. The surge in the bike business coincided with popular interest in small-town New England. In Wolfeboro, an existing summer home tradition brought multiple generations of prosperous families, while proximity to jobs in southern New Hampshire and nearby Massachusetts brought super-commuters who wanted to situate their families in idyllic small towns while they did the heroic highway haul to bring home the paycheck. To service all this, contractors and land pimps gathered like flies on a big corpse. Good times!

The spike in year-round population meant the schools had to expand. That meant more building, more maintenance, more buses, more bus drivers, more teachers, more administrators. More kids meant more toys. And the 1980s had already seriously promoted the idea of adults playing outside, with slogans like "he who dies with the most toys wins."

It was a great time to be selling the toy everyone wanted. But we know how that goes.

The competition between bike shops in this pre-Internet age could be vicious. The business values of the 1980s met the influx of cash to produce things like Zane's in Connecticut, and a corrosive climate of slander as shops battled to gain market share. In Wolfe City, with a year-round population of about 7,000 people, three shops tried to operate year-round.

We were there first. We're the last one left.

While we bemoaned the loss of sales revenue, and the sleazy gossip people told us they heard about us in the other shops, our repair business kept us alive. Those other shops couldn't seem to find a good mechanic, no matter how many rocks they turned over, offering minimum wage and an employee discount on all the shiny trinkets. But that wasn't the only way competition helped us. It also kept us from having to grow large enough to feed the voracious market all by ourselves.

When things went down, it was like that pinhole puncture you can't quite feel at first. Then things get squishy. Then, after several miles, you definitely feel the bump of the valve stem. But, unlike a puncture, we couldn't just put a new tube in and wail it up to full pressure again. To push the metaphor a bit further, we could only do as well as our frame pump would allow. You know what I mean: you will probably never get it up to race pressure again, and it will take hours of tedious labor even to get close.

If we had become the giant powerhouse of a regional shop, we would have to feed that beast now on the scraps that come to us. Mountain biking has become a destination resort activity, not a daily dose of fun. Road bikers are fed a steady diet of newer and more complicated parts by an industry that hopes their customers become addicted to buying things and discarding them. The industry categorizes riders and tries to feed them tailored products, rather than capitalizing on the kind of rational anarchy that thrived through the 1970s and '80s, and that held on through the 1990s while the "innovators" of mountain biking repeatedly shot themselves in the foot.

Shop staff in the age of Big Bicycle are expected to wear the company shirt and spout the company line. Expertise means being expert in the company's products and the proper care, feeding and euthanasia thereof, on a steady schedule of obsolescence.

Our little outpost on the banks of the Big Lake will never be that shop. We don't have the year-round revenue stream to make us big enough to look attractive to Big Bicycle's bean counters. We have to rely on our ingenuity to be able to deal with whatever comes through our doors, including nothing at all. We have to pay full freight, get the crappiest terms, and deal with our handful of customers who still believe in the old idea that you could buy a nice bike and enjoy it for years. And by that they mean decades.

Our mechanics take a perverse pride in figuring out how to fix what the industry wants us to throw away. It is born of necessity. We can't always just order a new part, even if one is still made. Especially during summer visitor season, we get thrown these challenges with short deadlines. They're more fun than the routine, boring bullshit that makes up the bulk of our repair income. We can't always win, but we always try.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Dying on the Highway

I just got back from burying my sister's husband in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It's okay, he was already dead.

The deceased was a more complicated person than most. That being the case I will not try to sum him up to a world that mostly did not know him. He did classified work for the government as a Russian and Arabic linguist, so he might have affected all our lives without having an obvious connection individually, but he was one of the numerous functionaries well below the newspaper headlines. He had been retired from the Navy and from private work for several years when he suffered his fatal heart attack on the eve of receiving bypass surgery at age 57 this February, leaving my sister in their home, in his boyhood home town, hundreds of miles from her nearest blood relative.

For the memorial service, we -- her kin -- arranged to gather from New Hampshire, Connecticut, Oregon, and Virginia.

I had assumed I would shepherd our parents through airports or train stations on a journey tightly focused on the memorial service itself. Instead I learned that they wanted to go by car. Oh joy. My favorite. They had their reasons, based on Chattanooga's surprising isolation from airline and rail connections. You can't take the choo-choo to Chattanooga.

I quit enjoying road trips by car 30 years ago. I do what I have to do, but the craziness of pouring ourselves through pipelines under high pressure had become obvious to me. Every year, thousands of new drivers take to the streets and highways, all intent on making their best time from place to place.

My father will be 89 this year. My mother will be 87. They don't walk very fast. They don't bend and unbend very well. They are tough and determined, but the body forces issues that add another layer of stress to the already high level of alert required to rip down the average Interstate at the average speed dictated by the cumulative haste of thousands of people. And none of us felt like we could withstand the kind of 14- and 18-hour days behind the wheel that we used to pull in our peak years. So that meant breaking the trip over at least one night each way.

Stopping for a night adds a day to the trip. The days are still long, incarcerated in the car, dealing with whatever your fellow motorists dish out. After we arrived in Chattanooga, we drove some more. We helped the widow with whatever we could, even if it was just presence. We ate a lot, because it's what people do when they don't have time to settle in and have an actual life. We sat, because the gathering included a number of people who were not mobile. We've come to be together. What can everyone do? We can sit.

There was a little walking, but mostly as an offshoot of a motor tour of the area. Chattanooga has a strong cycling culture, apparently, but mostly I saw only road signs, and one solitary racing cyclist reaching the summit of Lookout Mountain while a party of us was there in the car. I wasn't about to go splintering off on a personal errand of athletic tokenism when our mission was to be together.

After a couple of days, the northeast Yankees squeezed back into the capsule to launch back onto the Interstate. I had not had a good night's sleep in seven days. I did have a hilarious night of laughter and cheap Scotch with my brothers and my nephew. Just as well to spend the time that way, if I wasn't going to be able to melt into the mattress of a hotel bed anyway. There's apparently a natural reason for this, according to a recently publicized study. On the road, every night in a hotel is the first night.

Now thoroughly a creature of caffeine and endurance, I noticed for the first time that the people I saw along the way, at rest areas, gas stations, convenient restaurants, and in the highway hotels almost all looked sick and lame. Overweight, with skins of various unhealthy tones, we all limped or wobbled to some degree from the high-speed armchairs we ride down the road to the restroom or the service counter or the hotel lobby or, eventually, to our own front doors. This is the world we have designed for ourselves. Even using faster modes of transportation can blow most of a day getting to and aboard the bigger, faster conveyance at its base of operations. And while aboard, you sit. You sit and sit and sit. The gory smash-ups get the headlines, but anyone who spends the majority of their time piloting motor vehicles in multi-hour stretches is dying of it in slow, inexorable motion.

Our bodies were not designed to sit for hours. Our bodies evolved through walking for hours. I grant you the convenience of modern transportation, but it insidiously leads us to sit and sit and sit while we make our way to the places where we sit some more.

The time pressure of a long road trip magnifies some of the unhealthy effects, because we want to process ourselves through things like food and fuel stops with the shortest interruption of progress toward our destination. That influences food choice, favoring things that are served quickly, in easily ingestible lumps, that will stave off the pangs of hunger for another few hours of sitting.

Dehydration staves off urination. You hope to combine things at stops, so you can "make good time" when you get back on the highway. You don't get where you're going by stopping every couple of miles. Synchronize your bladders, people. When the youngest bladder in the car is almost 60, you know you won't reel off the miles the way you did when you were 25 or 30, but you do your best.

Getting there is most definitely not half the fun, even if you are not going "there" to bury a family member.

I'm pretty sure I was working up a kidney stone by the time I got back to my shack in the woods. Of nine days away, six were spent on the highway. I poured out the last of my trip coffee and started guzzling water as soon as I walked into the house.

People I know who live in urbanized areas where driving is the norm and a lot of it is high-speed, aggressive driving show the symptoms of road fatigue all the time. They get used to it, but few of them seem to get to like it. The on-the-go syndrome leads them to the same rushed food choices and marginalization of exercise that the long-distance highway haulers manifest. Destination fever dominates their lives. Get to the next place, do the next thing that needs to be done. Try to get to a specific venue for a specific type of exercise if the schedule permits, but that's only if you want to do that in the first place. I guarantee it is just as easy to decide to find a comfortable place to sit and ingest something, after a few hours of thrashing around among your fellow motorists.

When I left New Hampshire, we were enjoying daytime highs in the 50s. Trees were flowering, ground plants were sprouting. The weather seemed to have committed itself to springtime. In Tennessee, of course, everything was in full leaf. We drove through the transition north to south and south to north. But the weather will have its little jokes. I came home to 34 degree temperatures and full snow cover. It looked like I was arriving home before I had left. Drove off in mid April and came home in March.

Now I get to see what has brewed at work in my absence.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Spring Snow

"Spring snow is poor man's fertilizer" is an indirect way of saying "This is bullshit!" After a day in the 70s last week, it's about 12 degrees here this morning, after a day of steady snow and temperatures in the 20s.

It is beautiful, sparkly fluff. It will be washed away by Thursday's torrential rains. The rest of the forecast shows temperatures appropriate to early March, with a threat of hypothermic moisture on every day.