Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Winter Solstice

Happy New Year.

As of 0742 this morning, the sun is on its way back north. We won't notice much of a difference until about January 10, but the corner has been turned.

At the risk of making the years seem short and devaluing the seasons, spring will be here in no time. Maybe the weather won't get warm where you live until May or June, but the days get long enough for some riding outside even before the Spring Equinox in March.

If you like some winter sports, as I do, carry on. May the winter bring you the conditions you desire. But this is a good time to do bike overhauls. It's easy to forget until you want to take that first nice ride on an early warm day. Next thing you know, you're flogging those gritty hubs through July.

It's also hard to remember to start shaping the body to the new season even as the old one is ending. I pick up about two pounds of upper body muscle through cross-country skiing. I base this on the changing scale readings from one season to the other. It's not all Christmas cookies. Come spring, that extra chunk around the shoulders and arms is just sitting there, weighing down the handlebars when I try to climb hills. I cursed the lack of it as I tried to ski up hills in late December. In March I curse its presence.

If you're a pure cyclist, this is trainer season. I did that for a couple of years in Maryland before I developed strong winter interests. It has a single-minded purity to it. There is cycling and there is wishing you could be cycling. While you wish, ride the trainer and the free-standing rollers. Do cycling-specific weights. Weights and trainer build strength and maintain aerobic fitness. The rollers teach pure technique.

The sun is returning. Go out to meet it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Mass Production

Every outdoor activity has its industry to provide gear. Mass production is what makes products affordable, because some company makes them in quantity.

Mass production giveth, but it also taketh away. Once a company is devoted to large production runs, perhaps from a factory in a distant land, it has a strong interest in moving a large quantity of those products at regular intervals.

Frugality does not help the economy. Money that stays in your pocket is not the circulating blood of healthy commerce. So how does one separate the wise from their money?

Outdoor explorers are frequently independent-minded people who value other things besides money and the mere ownership of objects. This makes them lousy consumers. But in order to thrive, a mass-producing industry needs consumers to buy things.

Unfortunately, the mass-producing industry responds more and more to its own needs, trying
to detect and fulfill consumer wants, but still having to empty the warehouse of masses of produced products regardless of their actual effectiveness. The marketing department becomes more important than the design department. Make it look good. Make it sound good. Make it sell. Empty that warehouse.

Customers providing their own muscle to move their toys want some credit for their efforts. That drives the demand for lower prices, putting pressure on suppliers to keep production costs low enough to preserve profits.

The industry is not a cynical creation of evil geniuses, although I have my questions about certain bike companies. The industry is a creation of all economic forces. So I don’t suggest a particular remedy at this point. This overview just collects my observations for further study.

Personal adventure brings the irreconcilable difference between durability and rapid consumption into direct conflict. Stuff that holds up doesn’t turn inventory very fast. People who don’t live to shop don’t shop often. But gear that doesn’t perform can actually kill people, and too much planned obsolescence can drive people away from an activity.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Night Riding

When the sun sets, dusk begins. Dusk may be worse than darkness for a cyclist. Reflectors only work if a light hits them, so drivers who wait to turn on their lights will not activate the reflectors, if any, on your bike.

Reflectors are nearly useless for visibility anyway. The most effective ones are on the pedals, where their motion attracts the motorist’s eye. Because these reflectors often get broken or obscured, replace them with reflective leg bands you can carry in your pocket or seat pack until you need them.

A solid tail reflector can be mistaken for someone’s driveway marker. A white one on the front will similarly get lost in the clutter of many roadside backgrounds. Wheel reflectors can only be seen from the side. If you’re crossing a motorist so closely that you need him to slow down to avoid hitting you, you’ve made a hideous mistake. At night, never, ever, ever believe that someone sees you. Make sure you have lots of room to maneuver.

Dusk even swallows the power of car headlights. Your best defense is to use blinking lights to attract attention.

With a good blinking tail light or two you can be fairly safe from drivers approaching from behind. A little blinking tail light fits handily in pocket or pack along with the reflector leg bands.

Not much will help you with oncoming traffic. A headlight bright enough to command respect would require a battery weighing about 50 pounds. The best accessory for safe night riding is to have a Humvee escort in front and behind.

Darkness ends my commute long before the weather would. It has nothing to do with seeing the road. Rechargeable lights give plenty of light for that. I just can’t count on being seen by motorists.

When I had no car and commuted in a more urban environment I did ride all year, at any hour. I also had a commuting bike permanently equipped with generator and battery lights. The terrain was fairly flat, the distances 12 miles or less. I was younger. There were fewer drivers. There had been fewer movies glorifying sociopathic driving habits. There were no cell phones. The average age was a lot younger. You decide if it's worth it.

Night riding can be fun if you don’t have to get anywhere on a schedule. I will occasionally take a night ride with no tail light and no reflectors, on very quiet roads. As soon as I detect the faintest glimmer of an approaching headlight or sound of an engine I dive off the road, douse the headlight and freeze.

A loop that might take just under an hour in daylight may take 15 or 20 minutes longer because I ride a slower pace and have to stop. I can’t recommend anyone do anything remotely dangerous, so don’t try this yourself. But if you do try it, keep scanning the roadside for places to bail if you detect a car. You may have to do it at an instant’s notice.

Commando night riding will make you aware of how many cars really go by you in an hour. A road that seems quiet in daylight may bring you a car every five or 10 minutes. That’s too many interruptions for commando-style riding. You’ll lose at least a minute every five, and that’s only if you can find a place to pull over when you need it.

Mountain bikers have ridden the trails at night for years. No worries about traffic there, though you may have to ride road segments to connect the whole loop. Night trail riders need powerful lights with good batteries to light the way over irregular ground. Prices range from around $60 for a basic rechargeable to more than $300 for the most powerful lighting. The little clamp-on lights that use ordinary batteries lose power too quickly. The same goes for headlamps. The rechargeable systems offer both handlebar and helmet mounting for the lights. Serious night riders will have both.

A light on the bike always points where the bike points. This is important.

A light on the helmet points where the rider looks. This is also important. The rider may be looking where to point the bike next, or may be looking for whatever’s making that crackling noise in the woods off to the side. It’s best to be able to light both choices.

If I can only have one light, I’ll have it on the bike. I’ve tried it with just a helmet mount, and it’s too easy to turn my head slightly away from where I need the light. The inexpensive combination uses the big, fancy light on the handlebars and an affordable headlamp on the helmet. You might not even have the headlamp on all the time. Save it for roadside or trailside repairs or desperately peering into the undergrowth looking for the Blair Witch.

Monday, December 06, 2004

A Bike for Mr. X

Although some details still must remain classified, the story can now be told.

In the early fall of 2003, Mister X approached us with a proposal to build him a secret weapon. He hoped we could build him a bike that weighed 12 pounds for the Mount Washington Hill Climb.

Some riders have always stripped their bikes down to the essentials for the hill climb, typically leaving only the front brake, a single chain ring in the front and maybe even reducing the number of cogs on the rear gear cluster. By removing things like the rear brake, brake lever and cable, front derailleur, front shifter, and any unused chain rings a rider might strip a pound or so off an already lightweight racing machine. Some went so far as to install cut-down handlebars and other temporary modifications that placed lightness over comfort.

Mister X’s specifications included a certain gear that restricted our choice of cranks and a seat he swore was the only one that treated his anatomy with due respect. Neither piece of componentry would be the lightest such item available.

I’ll be the first to admit that our shop is not a top-echelon road bike fancier’s boutique. We have to serve a wide array of customers in a town with a year-round population of about 7000, but a summer population supposedly numbering in the tens of thousands. We see a little of everything and can’t pick and choose the caviar and champagne at the expense of the other food groups. But this challenge was intriguing.

Although Mr. X’s budget for this was practically unlimited, his few specific requirements automatically eliminated the most exotic equipment we might have found hard to get.

With a website called “Weightweenies” as our guide we entered the shadowy world of gram geeks. We had many months to build the bike, but that could melt away in a hurry if we absolutely needed to track down some esoteric part. If we could work with our established suppliers it would go more smoothly.

X’s target weight was 5376 grams. As I trolled through Weightweenies and our supply catalogs I started building up sample groups on a couple of different frames I was also trying to arrange to buy. We established near the beginning that none of our regular road lines offered a light enough platform for a bike as light as X was seeking.

Like Gary Sinise in “Apollo 13", in the simulator trying to figure out how to fire up the command module with the least amount of juice, I kept adding component weights to frame weights and I kept exceeding the limit. There were too many variables, too many unknowns.

Frame choice came down to the only company that responded to my email. Fortunately, it was also the top choice, given the information I had. Naturally, in the months that followed, other contenders emerged, but at some point you have to quit crunching numbers and start ordering.

We obtained a Trek 5900 SL, 58 centimeter, frame only. We couldn’t hop on the phone and order one, but through contacts and field operatives, the frame was procured.

For the wheels, the very lightest did not seem adequate for the potential conditions. Mr. X has financial resources, but he does not ride with a tech support team following him, as do the racers one sees on television, whose bikes have to be specially weighted to bring them up to the required limit. We were not going to put him on sew up tires and all-carbon rims and then just kick him out into the world to fend for himself.

American Classic offered a fairly traditionally built wheel set that weighed in around 1362 grams. Mr. X could ride them for some training. The alloy rims could withstand normal brakes.

The bike was taking shape, at least on paper. There was only one choice for the crank. The Race Face Next LP arm set weighed in around 400 grams. It was the lightest that would take a 20-tooth chain ring.

None of this had been assembled by late spring. Even though we ordered the frame in February it was not delivered until almost July. Parts piled up in secure corners while we waited. The wheels arrived. We lifted them delicately from their boxes, dangled them from our fingers to feel their barely perceptible weight and put them away again until we could attach them to the bike. It was the same with each shipment of parts.

The only item made to order was a titanium seatpost from Bold Precision. Albert Bold, machinist, is based in Pennsylvania now, but told us he had lived in Center Harbor for years. He has also built himself a Mt. Washington bike that weighs twelve and a half pounds.

Mr. X was unwilling to have major parts custom machined. While that would have given him a very expensive and personalized bike, it would have made the bike harder for others to duplicate. As it was, he commissioned a bike any consumer with about $4000 could have a shop build for them.

We missed the 12-pound mark. The bike weighed about 14 pounds at the first weigh-in, and gained a little after that with some changes and additions. Much of that was in the crank and the saddle.

To make custom gearing we took the bolts out of a Shimano LX-level gear cluster, because all the cogs and spacers are separate. By doing that we could assemble a “climber’s straight block” with one- or two-tooth jumps between gears so Mr. X could shift smoothly on the climb to find his most comfortable speed. He only needed one fairly small cog for the few yards from the starting line to the beginning of the real climbing. He took the rest of the cogs from the two or three cassettes we had cannibalized so he could fine tune the gearing after he had trained on the bike for a while.

More expensive cassettes have groups of cogs held together on alloy carriers that prevent selecting cogs individually. While lighter overall, they can’t be as easily adapted to special needs.

We designed the bike to favor durability over absolute lightest weight.

The Cane Creek BRS 200 brake is about the lightest available. We matched it up with a lever originally designed as an auxiliary lever, which we retrofitted to work as a primary. It weighed less than the lever we originally specified, and worked better. In addition, these levers have a hinged clamp, so Mr. X could slap on a rear brake for training and easily remove it, lever and all, for the race.

Only after he picked up the bike did Mr. X mention that he’d forgotten to register for the race. But the covert operations associated with this project weren’t over.

The Mount Washington Hill Climb is absurdly popular for something that inflicts terrible pain on each and every participant for a minimum of one hour and probably much longer. Registration fills up rapidly. It costs $300 to register early (February) and $200 if you take your chances and try to save a little by registering a month later. And yet it fills up. So in July Mr. X should have been shut out.

Ah, but “we have ways...” Mr. X came in a few days later to report that he had somehow managed to get into the closed field. We don’t even want to know how. On a very wet day in August he got to ride to the summit with 537 other sufferers. It wasn’t a personal record time, but wait ‘til next year.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Surly=Lasting Value

If I could only have one bike, it would be a Surly Cross-Check.

I didn’t really want cantilever brakes when I bought the frame to build my commuter-explorer, but the rest of the package was too good to refuse. Since I got mine in 2000, they’ve made it a little better by including rack bosses on the seat stays.

You could build a Cross-Check frame into almost anything. The geometry provides secure handling on dirt, but sporty enough performance on pavement. I wouldn’t want to chase a froggy bunch of roadies on it, but it does well in the daily traffic criterium.

The long dropouts in the rear allow you to use it as a single-speed and to adapt some combinations of derailleur and cluster God never intended. I wish more frames in the Surly line had those dropouts, but they’ve fallen into the VD epidemic that swept cycling in the 1980s.

The whole Surly line reflects a fine balance of performance and durability. If you had the tools and knowledge you could build a small fleet of Surly custom bikes for the price of one high-end bike, mountain or road.

Since I built up the Cross-Check I have taken it into places where I welcome the cantilever brakes. I recently built a second wheel set so I can have my skinnyish commuting tires for the daily grind and a set of fatties for exploring the dotted lines on the map.

The Pacer road frame and Steamroller fixed gear also tempt me, although the top tube is a little short for me on the Steamroller, and the Pacer has VD. Still, for a dedicated road bike I guess VD are okay. I could still mix and match drive train parts, because I don’t care about index shifting.

Other makers offer one or two models that match Surly versatility, but you have to know what you’re looking for. Rivendell takes the high-end hand built approach to versatile bikes. But Surly provides it for the working class.

Vote with your wallets for the guys who provide lasting value. Don’t get suckered into buying a dispos-a-bike dripping with trendoid componentry.

The Bike Industry

The bike industry is one of cycling's biggest problems.

The threat became clear during the mountain bike boom. I said I blame Shimano, but they were just the leaders of a movement most other suppliers were all too ready to join. All of a sudden there was money to be made in the bike business. The battle for shares was fierce and continuous.

Many bike industry companies were run by cyclists. They carried the competition from the roads and trails to their corporate strategies. The free market is supposed to thrive on competition, right?

Things got out of hand. Shimano seized control of the drive train market with products that weren't always the best, but were good enough to avoid a bad reputation most of the time. They took a hit during the great Cranks of Death recall in the mid 1990s, but by then they had crushed most other competitors. How? Why? Many customers coming into the shop where I work found the new shifters confusing. The fact that Shimano changed them every year or two only made matters worse.

Competitive cyclists might replace equipment often enough that the product changes didn't bother them. But ordinary riders, who might keep a bike longer than two years or refurbish an old one suddenly found out how miserable the manufacturers' technical support really was.

It comes back to the cocaine analogy. If you're really hooked you will pay what it costs to get your high. But that is not a sustainable lifestyle.

The bike industry sells products, not an activity. It feeds off the activity. It manipulates availability of products to suit its desire for cash flow. The smart money ran like hell from the bike business by 1998. By 2000, mountain biking was solidly a niche sport again. Other forms of bike have grown, but the glory days were over, crushed by the technofascist juggernaut.

Bikes launched the age of mass-produced transportation. In many ways they are the grandparents of everything that rolls or flies today. They were high technology in their day. I don't want to ride a 90-pound hunk of iron-mongery. But watch out lest the slogan "Innovate or Die" becomes "Innovated to Death."

Joke's on you

Regardless of who really built them, the first mountain bikes were clunkers made from junk.

"Oh man, I crashed and bent my frame!"

"Oh well. The bike only cost you $50 to build."

That was then. Today the conversation goes like this:

"Oh, man, I crashed and smashed my suspension!"

"Oh well. The bike only cost you $2000."

Joke's on you.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

R U Shimano's Bitch?

According to a news story I read the other day, single-speed bikes represent the new wave sweeping the biking world.

As usual, those of us who have kept the faith in the dark ages will be swept aside and forgotten if a fashionable tidal wave rolls in. A spokesperson like Sheldon Brown will pop up and become the new messiah and the rest of us who held onto simple cycles will be indistinguishable from the other wannabes except by our gray hair and scarred shins.

In the 1990s, when Shimano introduced their under-bar shifting in answer to a nonexistent problem, they simply continued a tendency they’d shown since at least the beginning of the 1980s. Their indexed shifting gave them an edge with the gearing-impaired, but the so-called Rapidfire system and the road STI that followed it were a bold move to hijack cycling.

Once gear systems became proprietary, bikes became much more expensive to repair. Since the technology came from Shimano, planned obsolescence was guaranteed.

I blame Shimano’s aggressive business tactics for the collapse of the mountain bike boom. Shimano made sure no one else’s parts worked with theirs, in an effort to corner the bike componentry market. It worked. They’re just about the only game in town. But they turned off most of the cyclists in the process.

Plenty of the remaining riders swear their devotion to Shimano’s products. But plenty of cocaine addicts swear their allegiance to that product as well. In fact, drug dealing may be the perfect model for consumer goods marketing in general. Shimano exemplifies the technique.

It’s pointless to recommend that, if you have shifting at all, it should be friction shifting. It’s true, but too many riders justify the expense and dependency of indexed, convenient shifting systems provided at the whim and indulgence of one corporation.

If you use STI, repeat this mantra: STI am Shimano’s bitch. STI am Shimano’s bitch.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Winter Riding Tips

There are real winter riders out there, but I’m not one of them. I will definitely ride in any month, but if the snow is good I’ll be on Nordic skis. So I haven’t delved into the realm of studded tires or traffic techniques for snowy days.

When I lived in Annapolis, where cross-country skiing was much rarer than weather too bad for riding, I did commute in the snow a few times. Eventually I decided it wasn’t worth antagonizing the motoring public for marginal gains. I could skip the day or two the roads were slick. Bike commuting is not practical for many people in the warm months, and for even fewer people in the winter. I will only ride in winter when I can function efficiently in traffic.

That said, I have gleaned a few techniques, tips and tricks.

First off, the fixed-gear bike is your best friend. Cheap to build, easy to maintain, the fixed-gear deals best with slick roads and poor braking conditions.

Direct drive means you can’t coast. Your control is better if you pedal continuously anyway. With direct drive you can keep a constant, steady pressure on the pedals. Vary it slightly for fine-tuned speed control. Reinforce your brake with a little resistance-pedaling to slow down quickly under optimum control.

In cold conditions the fixed-gear keeps your muscles moving. It also keeps you from getting too frisky, pushing big gears or descending too fast through frosty air. I’ve been happy for decades with a 63-inch gear for cruising and most climbing, with a 73.5 as the flip-side gear for long descents, tailwinds, or increasingly rare days of extraordinary energy.

Tape over the front vents on your helmet. Leave the rear vents open to let moist, warm air escape. I use a very light helmet liner in cool to cold conditions, with little biscuit earmuffs for temperatures below freezing. These are sold in bike shops under the Pedro’s brand, and in ski shops as Swix. You probably don’t need as much hat as you think you do.

Keep your legs warm. It should be obvious, but I’ve seen too many riders over the years, legs boiled-lobster red, maybe even blotched with white, who insist on riding in shorts in the cold. Because they don’t feel the discomforts that day, the next day or even within a few weeks, they discount the fact that their bad habit will catch up with them later in life.

Warm legs help you keep warm feet.

For ultra-warm feet in the coldest conditions, put on a micro-thin liner sock. Cover this with a plastic bag. Put your outer sock over the bag. Put on your shoe. Use an insulated shoe cover on top of everything. The plastic bag keeps your unavoidable moisture from working its way all the way out through your insulators to chill you. Just make sure your winter riding shoes allow room for reasonable socks.

I prefer to wear extra fuzzy layers rather than put on a shell jacket. Even a breathable wind breaker will trap moisture which will eventually chill you in winter conditions. Extra fuzzy layers transport moisture outward and slow the inward flow of cold air toward your skin. Body moisture will condense whether you are wearing a shell or not. Without a shell, you at least have a chance that it will reach the surface, where you can brush it away.

I’ve been pretty happy with a Craft Shift jacket with Gore Windstopper in the front of the body and sleeves, but I do note that it traps more moisture than the 20-year-old Italian wool jacket it replaced. The Craft jacket has a nice rear pocket, which is handy in winter when your jersey pockets may be buried under a couple of layers.

Speaking of layers, I layer everything. Rather than have a pair of heavy, wind-front tights, I put long johns under my regular tights, and then leg warmers over them. This uses three pieces I already have. It saves the expense of one limited-use piece. More dedicated winter riders in more consistently wintry conditions may feel they get good value out of the heavier winter tights. It’s your call.

My favorite gloves are North Face Windstopper fleece gloves. They seem to work in a wide range. I can stick liner gloves under them if I need more protection. On really cold days I stuff a pair of mountaineering shell mittens in a pocket as last-ditch emergency cover. On the fixed gear I don’t have to worry about operating shifters or brakes.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Daily dosage

If you want to have ridden, you have to go ride.

Hit the snooze bar one less time. Dredge yourself up. Have half a cup of coffee and a banana, and head out. The rest of breakfast will taste so much better when you get back, even if you have to grab a toasted peanut butter sandwich and the rest of the coffee and haul ass out the door to work.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

The Impoverished Athlete

A musician joke asks, “What do you call a drummer without a girlfriend?”


You could as easily ask that question about a bike racer without a girlfriend or accommodating parents or any friends or acquaintances who will let him crash on the couch.

Steadily over the years, a number of women have also followed the lure of cycling performance. When I raced they were rare. That’s changing.

A bike racer in my district, or the next one over, supposedly lived in a self-storage warehouse whenever he was in the town he called home, because it was the cheapest roof he could put over his head. He used the bathroom at the gas station down the block. He ate out or bummed meals off friends. On racing trips he lived out of his car.

Almost every racer I knew was poor. It was part of the challenge. In a peculiar way, it was part of the reward. Focused on racing, we had to arrange the rest of our lives into some form of order, even if some riders did it by abusing and discarding personal relationships until they were left with a bike in a bare-walled room with a naked light bulb hanging above their grubby sleeping bag on the floor.

No one was going to find their ticket out of the ghetto on the bike racing circuit. A few of the penniless strivers might make it to the big time, with some sponsorship to help them in their subsistence lifestyle, but more often they came up against racers favored with a bit more money going into the race.

Racing takes money, it doesn’t make it. The number of million-dollar salaries going to bike racers would barely put a single starting lineup on a pro basketball court. In the United States it probably wouldn’t put a doubles team on a tennis court.

Racing bikes is more like riding rodeo. Battered competitors drag themselves from one event to the next. Win or lose, they usually leave quietly in the end. Face it, who’s watching? And yet some riders remain devoted even as their hair turns gray, their knees stiffen up and that separated shoulder begins to ache with arthritis.

Most people don’t stick it out that long. Riders may keep riding, but the holy quest of youth, to be faster, stronger, more resistant to pain, gives way to a wiser, more measured pace. Sure, one might go for a little hammerfest, or duke it out with a group of friends and acquaintances, but that isn’t real racing.

Many sports begin with this trial by poverty. You get just enough, or maybe even not quite enough, to get by. In sports with real earning potential, the payoff can make the difference between unimaginable wealth or selling used cars and polishing your high school trophies.

Just as backpacking is really just recreational homelessness, some racers just play at being poor. Those of us with really tight finances had to guard our resources and our bodies carefully, while the rider with the safety net could tolerate more risks. We used to say you could tell the sponsored riders from the unsponsored ones because the sponsored riders would pull their leg out in a crash and let the bike scrape across the road, saving their skin. Unsponsored riders would lift the bike up and take the burn themselves. Flesh heals, equipment doesn’t.

We became battlefield medics for ourselves and each other. Washing down after a crash was called The Screaming Shower. Cyclists traded folk remedies and little tips and tricks we got from real emergency room doctors and paramedics. Keep that road rash moist. Change the dressings several times a day and never let the wound dry out. Treat it as you would a burn, to minimize scarring and stiffness. We didn’t care too much about appearance, only fast healing and full range of motion. Crashing isn’t the worst part, it’s the down time afterwards.

Soon I hardly knew anyone with a normal collarbone. The bump was either in the middle from a fracture or at the end from a shoulder separation. If you hadn’t busted a collarbone, were you really going for it? Riders without the telltale bump were either very smooth and very good, or had simply broken something else instead.

At a time when the country wasn’t having any popular wars, bike racing was our own trial by fire. It was a great way to test yourself without involving any innocent bystanders. On the best of days it hurts. On the worst of days you may not wake up for several days afterwards.

Life is simple in the race. If you’ve ever watched a professional race or a good film about one, you notice how the racers are surrounded by their motorcade, separated from the world around them. In some areas spectators can reach in and touch them, but often they proceed as if in a tunnel. In an amateur race there aren’t even many spectators.

The race becomes a miniature world. The objective is clear. You see the reward for your effort immediately. Once you cross the finish line you want to start the journey toward the next one, to preserve that clarity. Once you care about anything else, the pure intensity is gone. You might serve another cause with your racing, as Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton do, with their charitable foundations, but they do it as part of their racing, not as a distraction from it.

At the start of it all is the impoverished athlete who has chosen this hard journey to see how far he can go. The price will be the same when following any dream. It costs your life, no matter what. The time passed. What did you do with it? It wasn’t about winning as much as about trying to win, because you can’t win without trying. It was about distilling life to one pure effort.

At the time it is just how you live. You live in the rhythm of training. It becomes as big a part of life as you want it to be. If it becomes the biggest part for a while, it is because you wanted it that way. Only after it is over might you notice the skeletal simplicity and the dedication to it that snuck up on you. We leave a life like that for many valid reasons, but it was good to have lived even a little of it.

Benefit Ride

A bicyclist finds bicycling solutions to transportation problems. Cyclists also find bicycling solutions to other problems, like fund raising for charities and other beneficial causes.
There was supposed to be a 150-mile ride to benefit Attention Deficit Disorder, but everybody lost interest after five miles.

I hope you know I’m kidding.

Since bike riding is beneficial in so many ways, many rides could be considered benefit rides, helping more than just the rider to health or fitness or glory. In a way, Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France victories make that grand spectacle into a benefit ride for cancer research and treatment. He would have raced anyway, even if he hadn’t gotten sick. The race would have been its own great showcase of athletic performance with its own heroes and role models, but Lance’s brush with fatal illness added that other dimension. Perhaps no one will ever view the race the same way again, because Armstrong’s human struggle connects to so many lives that would never have been connected to that race.

Back in the real world most cyclists inhabit, the benefits are less spectacular, but no less meaningful. Perhaps cycling just helps one or both partners in a marriage to maintain their sanity. Perhaps it allows two people to exist with only one automobile for all or part of the year.

Last week my cellist had an evening gig in North Conway at Schouler Park. I had to work in Wolfeboro that day. How would I get to North Conway without a car so we could come back together after the performance? Ride the bike.

Only people who value a physical challenge will understand that the prospect of a 41-mile ride racing both sunset and the weather can be a pleasure. I admit it would not have been, had I dug deep and found nothing. But in that case my musical friend would simply have scooped up my exhausted body wherever I happened to have fallen by the roadside. Pride’s easy enough to swallow. I couldn’t lose.

The ride let me rekindle my acquaintance with Route 153, one of the best bike roads in the state. There are roads with less traffic, and probably roads as good, but 153 provides a great route up the eastern state line.

The road changes character as it passes through different towns. In Wakefield it crosses some steep hills. But I’ve ridden the full length of it once and portions of it many times and always had a good ride. Rude encounters with motorists have been few and mild. The speed limit is often around 40 miles per hour. Drivers don’t tend to really rip. The country character and pretty scenery may make people less aggressive.

Cycling gets its hooks into you. I got hooked in the mid 1970s, a particularly good time for it. Road bikes were near the height of their beautiful evolution as handmade works of usable art. They had not yet become the soulless, mass-produced tools of today. Buying a bike was the start of a long-term relationship. Nothing that technology has added has changed the basic reality of pedaling or the basic physical dynamics of the position.

You can still develop the relationship with the modern product, but it’s easier with some than with others. And maybe you just don’t have the temperament for it. If you like to ride, ride the way you like.

As it happened, I pulled into North Conway under drizzly skies, just after sunset. The benefit to the cellist was obvious in her welcoming smile from the stage. She would be happy to have company on the drive home and I was happy to have dragged my aging carcass out for another stomp over the countryside. The massed motorists in the North Conway jam were happy, though they did not know it, that I had removed one car from the mix. There were plenty of others to take my place, but one can only do so much.

After I stashed the bike in the cellist’s car and put on dry street shoes and a rain jacket, I bought some food from vendors whose proceeds benefitted local causes, and tossed some money in the donation bucket for the arts group sponsoring the concert.

Children played with beach balls and glow-in-the-dark throw toys on the rain-sodden baseball infield. The clouds jostled turbulently overhead, but no more downpours fell. A little puppy on a leash touched my ankle with a cool, wet nose. Music played and fireworks ended the show. It seemed like a beneficial evening for all concerned.

Say What?

Don’t you love it when they yell? Someone in a speeding car going by yells what sounds like “aileron!” or something and then rolls the window up.

“Broccoli stalk!”

“Inna Gadda Da Vida!”

What the hell are they saying?

There’s a little thing called the Doppler Effect. It makes sound do weird things when the source of the sound or the listener is moving at a high rate of speed. Add wind noise, motor noise and so many people’s mush mouth delivery. They only have a half a second to get their point across. Yet still they try.

Is it encouragement or criticism? Unless they accompany it with a digital gesture or a thrown object, I can’t tell.

Something about a person on a bike just says “captive audience” to these public speakers. They’re inspired to share something with the world just because they saw a cyclist.

“Albert egg-timer!”

“Get the fuzz off the toad!”

Now that last one I can decipher.

I would much rather hear a yell than a horn blast at close range. The automobile horn was designed to convey alarm and disapproval. It’s like a fanfare of trumpets to announce the arrival of a majestic middle finger. Horns are put on cars to tick other people off. We use them to anger the people who have angered us.

Thrown objects also send a message. Frequently the message is “Don’t quit your day job and sign up for pitching camp, Buttercup.” But the marksman intends to send more of a threat. Sometimes the missile connects, damaging the bicyclist as the thrower intended. Intent counts for a lot with me.

Motorist harassment seems to peak in the spring and fall. In spring, cyclists are out there retraining the motoring public to expect to see people on bikes. In the fall, frustrated teenagers are back in school, days are getting shorter, schedules are getting more full as school and business settle down after summer’s hiatus.

Fall is the time for broken glass. I attribute this to young adults chafing against the restraints that school and work bring after summer’s freedom. In all my years of riding I have always seen some kind of increase in the number of broken bottles in September.

You can do a lot of amateur anthropology and sociology from a bike. The human parade goes by in all its uninhibited glory. You can step aside from the hurtling roller coaster of tailgating maniacs and just watch them work out on each other. Feel the love.

Cyclists have figured out that the journey is the destination. Do you really get more out of life if you have to get somewhere as fast as you can so you can hurry up and do something there so you can get back out on the road and hurry somewhere else? And all you leave behind you, echoing in the breeze is the mysterious word “aileron.”

Friday, November 19, 2004


Citizen Rider is the title of my bicycling advice column. This blog will reproduce issues of it for web viewing. All material copyrighted by Tim White