Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Inspiration and encouragement

My brother gave me two books by Jan Heine this Christmas. The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles and The Competition Bicycle, a Photographic History are luscious picture books of fascinating machines.

The hand built bicycles draw mostly from the world of randonneurs. The bikes are sturdy and capable but many are surprisingly light, as are some of the "primitive" competition bikes from the 1920s and '30s. My long commute has always had more elements of a day tour than a race anyway. As I add equipment for bad weather and darkness I appreciate the technology used by riders going long distances without support.

I rode my first and only double century with a support car. I had never envisioned it as a supported ride but when I finally did it I needed to document it as efficiently as possible because I hoped to sell magazine articles about it. I needed the income because I was unemployed after the magazine I was working for as a staff writer was unable to produce a paycheck I could actually cash. I came up with a route and a concept that seemed like it would sell. It did, though never for enough to make a significant dent in my expenses.

On my second double century attempt, a companion and I got dropped off in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and set out for Effingham by a route we hoped would come out to 200 miles. I had measured on the only maps I had. We only rode 180 that day, but we did not feel like going after the other 20 when our shortfall became obvious as we came down from Crawford Notch. The important thing to us was that we did it without support, even dealing with one or two minor mechanical issues.

The rider who came with me on the Sherbrooke ride came with me on a number of other rides longer than 100 miles, all but one of them completely unsupported. We would start at my house or his and end up back there, hours later. On one ride we finished in Bridgton, Maine, where someone met us with a car. It was prearranged that way, not a result of rider or machine breakdown.

We had a racing mentality and racing bicycles. Some of the discomforts we endured would have been less of a problem if we had equipped our bikes with lights and fenders. My road bike is comfortable for long days, because it's vintage steel and not excruciatingly tight and steep like modern racing steeds, but it's still a racing bike. With the 700X28 tires on it, there's no room for fenders. It does not have rack eyelets the way my old Eisentraut Limited did. The Eisentraut was only a little tighter than the Cross Check. The 'Traut doesn't have the tire clearance that the Cross Check does, but it certainly had all-day comfort. Of the original frame, the chain stays and seat tube have each been replaced once and it's on its third fork. A split in the underside of the lower head lug has been filled with brass. I got the 1975 frame used in 1979 and rode it a lot until 1995. My torch wizard recommended after the last repair that I retire it to ceremonial use only. She provided the Tim Isaac Trek that now wears my motley assortment of heirloom components.

The constructeur bikes in the Heine volume take the concept of proprietary products farther than Shimano ever dreamed, yet somehow it's nowhere near as offensive. The bikes were unabashedly pricey. On the other hand, the builders did not turn around and try to yank more and more big money out of their customers with short warranties on fragile crap and constant changes to drive trains that made repair expensive and difficult. The bikes were built for endurance. The riders who bought them planned to own them for a long time and ride them long distances.

As my colleague George and I turned the pages of the book devoted to competitive bicycles he noticed what I had, that the bikes seemed less and less interesting as we approached the most recent examples. The art was replaced by an industrial feel, as if the engineering, the cold, hard numbers had taken the humanity out of the bikes. They are something to clip yourself into with mechanical latches and switch on a machinelike part of yourself to push them and yourself to your physical limit. It's glorious, but  -- in the execution -- joyless.

Even as I write that I recall exultation in a strong racing performance. Much of the time, though, it only feels really good after you stop. Then it feels better and better in recollection. When you're actually hammering there's a lot of re-swallowing puke and trying to control fear in tight corners in a large field or swooping down a steep descent with a bunch of suicidal maniacs.

The rando and camping bikes provide a lot of ideas for the budget-conscious rider to add to a practical bike built on a mass-produced frame. Options include vintage bikes from the 1970s and early 1980s, expensive and affordable steel frames from custom and production builders today and current examples from constructeurs working today. One approach to economy is to buy something truly first-class and take great care of it, like a man I know in Maine who bought a diesel Mercedes in 1974 and still has it.

I can't say how much endurance riding I'll get to do beyond my commute. For various reasons I can't even predict how much I'll be able to do my commute. I certainly  hope to, but you really never know what's going to happen to you next. The perspective of middle age has killed off the ignorant optimism of young adulthood. You can train and plan and say what you hope to do, but the resolve, however strong, may not be the strongest force in your life when the actual time comes.

In the meantime, the beautiful bikes of builders who cared about every detail reassure me that such people exist and they value some of the same things I do. The bikes are also just nice to look at.

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