Thursday, December 22, 2005

Roller Boogie

I need new rollers. The ones I have give a ride like a washboard road and spit the drive belt off every five or ten minutes. They don't owe me a thing, since I got them free about 20 years ago.

Can't afford the sexy Kreitlers. Don't need or want a resistance device. I can get plenty of resistance from real life. The rollers are for smoothness and saddle time.

Once you master the basic balance and round pedal stroke needed to stay up unsupported on rollers you can begin to play games. See how fast you can spin before you self-destruct. Try some ultra-spin intervals.

One website says "your bike can list and veer just like it does on the road." That's pretty funny. It's much more abrupt and deadly than on the road. You can twitch the bike right out from under yourself in an instant. But after a while you will be able to sit up, ride no hands, maybe even scratch where it itches without slicing sideways into the nerarest piece of furniture. Then you will be tempted to try slow riding.

This really works best with a fixed gear, because you can change speed in mid pedal stroke without your brakes. The wheels respond instantly, and it's the wheels that keep you up. So slow down. Slow down more. See if you can actually come to a complete stop. Then go! You can't do a track stand on rollers.

One friend told me he knew someone who could ride backwards on the rollers. I don't know if he meant pedaling a fixed gear backwards, or putting the bike on the rollers with the rear wheel where the front goes and vice-versa, or actually sitting on the handlebars, facing the rear of the machine. Any of these would be impressive. All seem fairly pointless, so I've never been inclined to try.

Bobby Phillips, a racer out of Baltimore, could supposedly ride up to the rollers, bunny-hop onto them, ride for a while, bunny hop off and ride away. Bobby was wonderfully smooth out on the real road (and still is, as far as I know), so I don't doubt it. That's more flash than most of us need, but feel free to take any of this as far as you like.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Unfortunate Side Effect

The health care crisis in this country has claimed an interesting extra victim. Because I pay so much in premiums on a high-deductible policy that will still leave me with several thousand dollars to pay if I actually do get sick, or my wife does, I have had to give up every other extra expense. That includes my memberships in Adventure Cycling and the League of American Bicyclists, as well as donations I would have made above the membership amount.

Health insurance premiums have also driven me off the rolls of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the Appalachian Mountain Teen Project (dealing with youth at risk with a variety of programs for both youth and parents) and most other casual acts of giving.

The premiums come due quarterly, with one squatting squarely on mid-December, so they also help blow a hole in my holiday generosity. No point rejoining the millions enslaved to their credit cards just to give everyone on my gift list a pair of socks.

Bicycling is a great health plan, both physical and mental. Watching my parents disappear in their body fat as I was growing up, I resolved that, come what may, I would be physically fit. So far that is all I've been, but one always has hope.

I would ditch the so-called health coverage in an instant, but for some reason doctors' offices seem to look more kindly on someone who has a policy that pays nothing than on a person who pays their bills in full, on time, out of pocket every time. That person does not have the stamp of a giant corporation standing behind him. They were right that if I really did get sick I might have to scrape up a pile to pay for it, but I was seriously considering just dying like a good sport in return for a quality life while I lived.

This isn't political as such. It's a looming humanitarian problem with repercussions for cycling. We need to support the social and political machine that gives us a presence at the state and national level. That, unfortunately, takes more than bicycles, parts and accessories. It takes more than well-honed technique. It takes money. And in subtle ways that money is being siphoned into gas tanks and insurance company coffers as much as or more than into expensive coffee drinks or a cheesy dial-up internet connection.

Just as in a bicycle, everything in society is connected, wheels in wheels and linkages to linkages. The blossoming expenses we let billow out of control are like a rusty chain or a growing slow leak in a tire. They'll really mess up what could be a great ride.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Wash off the road salt

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Now it can Snow

When the promised snowstorm did not arrive yesterday, I got out for 15 miles to bring the year's total to 4,000.

I may slip out for more rides, if the roads stay clear. The last few rides definitely had me dancing on the edge of the ice a few times. Now I can be more fussy about conditions.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Damn it

Flip a few more pages in Bicycle Retailer and discover that Clay Mankin, of City Cycle in San Francisco, died of natural causes on a road ride November 13.

Toss Clay's name into Google and you'll get a ton of information about his life, so I won't add a link to any single item here.

Oddly enough, I became acquainted with Clay and City Cycle in 2001 when I was searching the web for a source of slotted cleats. He responded to my email, sold me his last half-dozen sets of Sidi slotted cleats for $20 (shipping included) and threw in a coffee mug I still use on mornings I need inspiration to ride.

In that brief exchange I definitely got the impression Clay and his shop represented good things about cycling. The tributes in print would seem to bear this out.

Sad News

Tom Cuthbertson, author of Anybody's Bike Book, Bike Tripping and many other works, died of pancreatic cancer on October 9, at his home in Santa Cruz, CA.

This obituary gives the details of his life.

In the article in the December issue of Bicycle Retailer, announcing his death, a bike industry figure named Jim Langley said, "To a generation of cyclists, [Anybody's Bike Book] unlocked the mysteries of the ten-speed..." That was certainly true for me. It made the inner workings of the bike accessible and understandable.

Cuthbertson was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, serving in a hospital rather than going overseas to fight. This gentle, moral expresssion of what was good about what came to be known as the Counterculture came through in his writing about cycling. To me it added a great deal to cycling's merit. It made cycling a much more positive force than a mere fitness activity or avenue to competitive glory.

On a quick search I could not find a picture of the original cover of the book, but here's a link to the revised edition, still available.

Cuthbertson rode because he loved to ride. According to articles about him, when he went for a bike ride it could be two hours or ten, and he thoroughly explored the back roads around his area. He also advocated bike commuting. But the tone of his writing was not excessively technical. He was a great voice for the "ten speed boom" before the avalanche of technophilia buried simple cycling under posh materials and scientific training schedules. When he said "Anybody" he meant anybody.

Go ride.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Wind Trainer Winter

Looks like a wind trainer winter this year.

Actually, I don’t have a wind trainer. I have a Nordic Track and a rusty old set of rollers. But Wind Trainer Winter describes the season most cyclists and cross-country skiers endure for at least part of the early winter, when dry land training doesn’t work, because the land is no longer dry, and the snow isn’t deep enough to allow real skiing.

In one of life’s little twists, even though I work in the cross-country ski business and have been able to enjoy quite a bit of groomed-trail skiing over the past few years, I don’t expect to do any this winter. Come to find out that neck and shoulder pain I’ve been experiencing is the result of being stabbed repeatedly in the back by people I work with at my winter job. I’ll be devoting my time to other people’s winter fun and falling back on a bit of tactical Buddhism to manage the loss of an activity I deeply enjoy. Sometimes you just have to suck it up. Didn’t Buddha say that?

The Nordic Track provides good all-around conditioning, though it does nothing for fine-tuned classical form. It will at least keep me from turning into a complete doughboy before spring allows me to venture out on the bike regularly. I will also be ready to trudge through the puckerbrush on my wide exploring skis, if snow conditions allow.

The rusty old rollers are great for loosening up sore muscles, tuning up the cardiovascular system and making sure the bike saddle doesn’t become a complete stranger. In an active Nordic ski season, it’s too easy to neglect saddle time until the painful reacquaintance some time in March.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Not Eliminated Yet

As of December 2, I have 75 miles to 4,000. In actual training terms, mileage alone means nothing. But when a round number hangs within reach it gives me a goal when I have no other reason to choose to ride the bike rather than train in some other way.

Monday and Tuesday I rode 30 miles each day on the fixed gear in the rain. Monday it was just above freezing. Tuesday it was just below 40, except when I rode up high enough to go into the inversion, where it was a steamy 50-something, and raining much harder.

Monday I got a flat tire at 15 miles. There was a paved driveway close by, so I didn't have to hunker in the slush to change the tube out of the way of what cars might pass.

Both rides were good. I got a muscle spasm in my back while I was changing Monday's flat, but Tuesday's ride loosened it up. In certain cases, if you just throw yourself at the pain it will give way before you do. The trick is knowing when. Experiment on yourself. Either you'll discover self-healing or cripple yourself.

Early winter days have no middle. The sun crawls reluctantly above the eastern horizon and immediately ducks toward the side door over to the west. It's far too busy in the other hemisphere to have time to climb anywhere near a decent noon height in this one. You have to run right out and grab whatever you can, in whatever weather you get.

Thursday I was able to take a dawn patrol. Wednesday's heavy rain had ended with a freeze, but the black ice didn't seem too bad. I felt my way onto it with the fixed gear again.

The fixed gear provides the closest thing to security on mildly slippery surfaces, because you control your speed directly through the driving wheel. If the surface is good, you just slow down. If it's slippery, the rear wheel locks up, but you can immediately relax your legs and let it roll again, or control the fishtail by dropping the pedal into the skid. Try not to let the bike cross up too much or you might flip over the high side if you hit grippy pavement while still sliding.

Obviously you don't want to let the bike go too fast when you suspect ice. The fixed gear is your friend there, because you can't coast down hills at foolish speeds. Nothing makes it idiot proof of course. You have to have bad enough judgement to be out there, but good enough judgement to be able to handle it.

The frost seemed to thicken after sunrise. Sections that had not been slippery on the ride out were a little dicey on the return. Only a little dicey, though.

From now on I will have to dodge storms to nab the final 75. I hope for a dawn patrol tomorrow and another 30 on Monday. After that a storm threatens for Tuesday.

I've been stopped as close as 3,945. It isn't in the bag until it's in the bag.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Cold

Friday morning's dawn patrol was much more comfortable at 26 degrees than the previous one had been at 36. The air mass was drier. The pavement had dried. Mud and wet sand had frozen like pavement. And there wasn't enough surface water to have made ice a serious navigational hazard.

Sub-freezing temperatures with a breeze called for more layers of clothing, better gloves and something over my ears, but nothing out of control. It was a much more pleasant ride. Too bad the day didn't turn out as well, but I'm here to look forward to tomorrow morning's ride. If all goes well and I work at it, I could get 4000 miles for the year. It isn't much, but it's a round number.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Finding the Time

This time of year, if I don't ride to work I have to ride first thing in the morning before work. That means I either have to roll out of bed straight onto the bike or as close to it as possible. If I miss by more than a few minutes, I'll be noticeably late to work.

I've never been passionately addicted to punctuality. Those who know me may now laugh. Yes, I'm known for the opposite. But I do try to hit a time slot, if not a dot. Too late and even I think of myself as late.

On the other hand, if I go too many days without exercising I will kill somebody. So it seems a small price to pay, dragging in a little later than usual, in return for a sunnier attitude.

Sunny is relative, of course. My favorite clothing color is black. But the druids considered black the color of life and white the color of death. So there. I'm mister black sunshine.

This morning, riding was work. Overnight rain had left wet roads and temperatures around 36 F. The damp cold coming in met my sweat moving out and joined forces to chill me progressively throughout the hour. Not even the constant effort of the fixed gear generated enough heat to warm and dry me. I knew I wasn't going to die of any of it, but the endless clamminess made me glad I wasn't going to spend a night out in it.

It's over now. I reap the benefits this afternoon. I have more energy. It doesn't make work any more interesting, but I can nurse the hope that I'll do something worthwhile with my evening. I got the ride out of the way. It had to be done.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Ride Long and Prosper

I love my Sport Hill clothing. It’s wonderfully effective, and a lot of it crosses over well between cycling and cross-country skiing. I just wish it didn’t look so much like Star Trek uniforms.

My Pursuit II top, in black and red, comes from the Sport Hill: The Next Generation collection.

I don’t know if they did anything in Deep Sports Nine. But they do have a Voyage Pant. A sly homage to Voyager by chance? And they have a Nomad Pant. Nomad was a poor, confused little space probe in the very first series, who had decided its mission was to sterilize (i.e. destroy) anything it deemed impure. Get real. What in this cockeyed universe isn’t at least somewhat impure?

If Sport Hill styled things this way on purpose, maybe they’d appreciate someone noticing. If it was an accident, maybe they’d appreciate someone pointing it out. And I guess it’s okay in any case. I’m just sick of getting the Vulcan salute when I run into Trekkies and I’m in my chilly weather garb.

Competitive Commuting

Real bike racing is hard, dangerous and exhilarating. It’s also expensive. It’s hard to stay active in the sport. But the lessons learned there transfer very well to transportation.

In a bike race, a whole lot of vehicles of similar capability charge around a course, shooting for the same objectives. There we all are, jostling and elbowing, attacking and counterattacking. Everyone wants to win. Someone’s bound to go down.

On the street, you’re not competing as directly. Believe it or not, you are safer in traffic than you are in a bike race. Racing motorized behemoths, the bike has the advantage in agility. We all know the car is bigger, faster and stronger, so we’re not competing on that basis. That leaves the cyclist free to work to his (or her) strengths without worrying about the ultimate test of power one frequently faces in a race.

Sporty cornering and strong climbing are good traffic skills. Strength barely adequate to even the amateur peloton will still surprise the motoring public with your ability to hang in there. You will have more confidence and enjoy the ride more if you take a bit of a racing attitude, filtered through a sense of humor and humility. Practice those handling skills.

Read the traffic to decide where you should be. When the cars are stopped or crawling, you can move up beside or between them, but resist the temptation to lord it over them by zipping by in a blur. They’re big, unpredictable creatures that could fling out an appendage without warning. Observe how they fill the lane. Use the spaces available, left, right and center, to ease forward, ready at any moment to stop or turn.

When your comfortable cruising speed matches traffic speed, take the lane and work with the vehicles around you.

Pilot Fish Technique takes a tip from the fish of the same name, a stripy little guy that accompanies big sharks. The pilot fish rides the shark’s pressure waves to save energy (drafting) and uses the space other creatures give the big fish to slip by unmolested. Just remember not to get bitten by your own protector, and don’t fall off the pressure wave.

The cyclist pilot fish rides near the bigger vehicle, usually off one rear corner. It’s actually better if the driver does not know you’re there, because most drivers don’t know how to be helpful to a cyclist anyway. Really, the best thing they can do is drive as if you weren’t there, because you are completely responsible for your own safety. Watch their brake lights and turn signals, but remember bulbs maybe burnt out and the driver may swerve without a signal. You have to decide for yourself whether you and your shark are traveling at a safe speed.

The shark can lead you through intersections, avoiding the danger of someone yanking a left turn in front of you. You can use the shark as cover for your own left turns, if you find one going your way.

Avoid riding right next to your shark, where you can’t see its signal lights and you can’t get away from a sudden turn or an abrupt dive into a parking space.

At higher speeds, use the column of moving air created by traffic to get at least a partial draft. Confirmed car chasers can draft tightly behind motor vehicles, but the danger here is obvious. Big, boxy vehicles pull the most air. Loaded trucks are less likely to stop abruptly. Just give at least a passing thought to all the things that could go wrong before tucking yourself into the pocket for a little steel surfing. Some piece of debris could come shooting out from under that truck’s rear axle and be the last thing you see before you drive your face into the pavement.
It’s wicked fun, though. Woof woof.

Back 'n' Up

Night riding on mixed surfaces has made me notice a few things about riding position.

I like to sprawl on top of my road bike, with a long cockpit and a low back. My eyeballs practically migrate up my forehead by the end of the season.

I know a more upright position works better off-road. When I ride the Cross Check on rougher trails I wish I’d set things up that way. But most of the time I’m commuting on faster terrain, in daylight.

Darkness adds a new element. For the night commutes I just put on a slightly higher-rise, shorter reach stem, to bring me back and up.

In daylight, peripheral vision around the entire eye, top and bottom as well as side, provides a lot of information you might take for granted. Night cuts that off, as vision is restricted to the patch of light thrown by the headlights. I find I want to bring the center of my visual field closer to the outer end of the light patch, especially on the unpaved bike path. That means I keep pushing myself back, trying to sit up more. Average speed is lower in the dark, so a more upright position does not have as much impact on aerodynamics.

Two-bolt bar clamps make stem changes easy enough to become a routine part of seasonal adjustment. The bike doesn’t feel that different on the road, so I may just leave it that way.

The Forgotten Muscles Remind You

One form of exercise always seems to lead to another. When I started cycling a lot in the late 1970s, the cycling-related parts of the body grew stronger. Other parts of the body soon reminded me that they needed attention, too.

Many cyclists experience neck and shoulder pain, and other discomforts. Once the bike is properly fitted, the rider needs to put some effort into strengthening the supporting muscle groups to help avoid problems there.

My program is simple and cheap. It uses free weights and standard exercises to provide a minimal level of conditioning for a commuting or recreational cyclist. If you want to get more elaborate, go ahead. A hard-core, high mileage rider in a racing or near-racing group will probably want more. But most of us can benefit from a concise routine we can fit into a tight schedule.

I know my system works because I can feel the difference when I don’t do it. This summer I let it slide and was able to get by on residual strength until quite late in my normal season. But then I developed neck problems. The neck pain comes and goes. It has many causes, from accumulated injuries over the years to tucking a telephone or a violin under there. I’m far, far better on the telephone than on the violin, but I continue to throw myself at the challenge of learning some kind of musical instrument before I die. I won’t subject anyone to my results, fear not.

My off-bike conditioning frequently suffers during the height of the summer, when I have little time to do more than ride to work, work, and ride home, rest up and go back for the next day’s repair shop madness. Lacking some of the snap I had when I was comfortably far from 50, I just don’t hop out of bed and onto the weight bench at 0600 anymore. I dive into a deep mug of coffee, eat breakfast, pack lunch and stagger out onto the road. But enough excuses.

A different affliction seems to strike me each summer. One year it might be gritty knees. Another it might be back pain, upper or lower. Muscle aches in the neck are not uncommon, though this year’s pain has been distinctly different, of lower intensity, relating to how I hold my head or move it.

All neck pain has responded well to neck curls. The muscles of the back of the neck support the head in road cycling position. Unthinking medical practitioners and chiropractors suggest silly solutions like riding in a perfectly upright position, but that is not only aerodynamically inefficient, it is muscularly inefficient as well. Cure pains by a two-pronged approach, adjusting riding position a little and conditioning support muscles as well.

Neck curls strengthen the opposing muscles to the ones used and abused by long periods of cycling with a low back angle. When I do them on a regular basis, at least three days a week, preferably four or five, I have no neck pain. They’re much more helpful than neck extensions that try to strengthen the muscles of the back of the neck. I find those muscles are usually so strong already from supporting my head that I can’t come up with a good exercise to strengthen them further.

A few exercises for the triceps help build those supporting muscles. Balance these with curls for the biceps, just to even up the strain on the elbow. You don’t need a bulging beach muscle, just balanced strength. Round out the arm set with wrist curls and reverse wrist curls for the forearm.

Strengthen abdominal and lower back muscles to support your torso as you ride. This helps take weight and pressure off your hands, believe it or not, because you can tighten the muscle complexes around the lower abdomen and lower back to hold yourself up, rather than bounce around with your weight held completely by your crotch over the saddle and your hands on the bars. That sort of floppy-spine flailing will lead to back injuries.

Feel the effect of tightening the lower abs and back when you want to push a bigger gear or climb a hill while seated. It will square your hips over the saddle, avoiding some of the forward roll that leads to crotch discomfort. At the same time, it gives your quads a firmer foundation for the hard effort. After a while you will learn how much you need to tighten to get the optimal effect without burning those muscles so much that you actually lose energy through them.

For abdominals I do crunches on an inclined bench and leg lifts of various kinds. Choose the specific exercises you like. It doesn’t have to be exactly my way.

For the lower back I do rear leg raises and Good Mornings, a forward bow with weight plates held across the shoulders. Start with little or no weight and gradually add it. I do long sets with light weights or several shorter sets, 10 reps or so, for most of my exercises. It really doesn’t take much, and you don’t want to lug a lot of bulk around.

To reinforce a separated shoulder, I do lateral raises and front raises with small hand weights, just under 7 pounds each. In the separation of the acromioclavicular joint, the collarbone gets knocked off the top of the shoulder. This is what you get in a crash when the collarbone itself does not break.

For the curls, flat flies and pullovers on the bench, the weight bars themselves weigh 4.2 pounds, and I have 15 pounds of plates on them, for 19.2 total. I don’t need much, just enough toning to offset the wear and tear of the cycling, and a little fitness base for kayaking and the beginning of cross-country ski season.

To combat boredom, I don’t do all the crunches or leg raises at once. If you do sets of 10 or 15, interspersed with short sets of the other exercises, you can add up a significant total by the end, without having to endure an endless count.

If I get right to it and keep moving steadily, the whole routine takes about half an hour. If you don’t even have half an hour, you can split the routine, half in the morning, half in the evening, or slip in a set here and a set there to get it all into a day. Because it doesn’t use big weights and a lot of calculated-destruction lifting, the routine doesn’t demand a really thorough warmup, although you should always warm up somewhat. One benefit to the short sets is that you can ease into it with short sets of crunches and light lifts, with some stretching.

If I have more time, I get more into it. In the late fall, after easy biking ends, but before nordic skiing sets in, I’ll expand the weight program and other exercises to build the base for the transition to snow. But that’s another whole topic.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Fundamental Issues

gundog99 said...

"Hey, just came across your blog. This post called me to comment. You're right about cycling being deceptively accessible. Except for the elitist snobs, and the consumerist industry culture. It becomes all too easy to buy into the lie of purchasing a new bike every other season. Manufacturers are building disposable bikes and components. And riders seem all too eager to eat it up. Getting the lightest this and the smoothest that. But then if you go against it, you become branded retro, or extremist. I'm not against buying new stuff, but I'm against riders blindfully lusting (and purchasing) new stuff just cause it's "new."

I don't know what my point is with this, other than you seem to be speaking about topics that are similer to thoughts and ideas I, myself am working through."

These points can't be made often enough. As people gradually find this blog, here or on, their comments indicate that cycling extends far beyond the marketed and publicized world of the popular cycling media.

Some people are more obsessed, more religiously fervent about riding than the mainstream media. Others are less obsessed. Both camps seem equally turned off by the force-feed of advertising and promotion that presents itself as the complete view of the activity. I say activity rather than sport, because for many of us it goes far beyond mere sport. I decline to use the term "lifestyle," because that trivializes it as an affectiation.

Cycling can simply be an integral part of an active, happy life. Take it as far as you want to go, in whatever direction. Change directions as you wish. The Industry will try to label and pigeonhole you, because it makes you easier to target for ads. Just keep moving. They can't hit you.

The downside is that when you do come into the shop, what you like may no longer be made, and the item intended to fill that need may not work with the rest of your stuff. That's when you have to decide whether the change reflects true improvement or just an annoying piece of industrial attention deficit disorder.

Just keep riding. The better you get at it, and at a bit of mechanical tinkering, the more you can be sure that, one way or another, you will always have something to ride.


Citizen Rider is now listed in the Bicycle Blogs Directory. Hop over there to find lots of links to other cycling blogs and a world of fact and opinion. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

High Visibility

Visibility is the primary component of traffic safety. We like to assume that if a motorist sees us he will avoid hitting us. For the most part that is true.

Many cyclists choose clothing in the eye-assaulting color I call Please Don’t Kill Me Yellow. While PDKMY certainly demands to be noticed, it has a few drawbacks that may reduce its overall effectiveness.

First of all, it only stands out because so few things in the natural or artificial world are that color, though some are. A certain species of crab spider that hunts on vivid yellow flowers masks its presence by sporting a variant you could call Please Let Me Kill You Yellow. But these spiders are very small.

If every small, underpowered vehicle followed the logic that bright yellow equals safety, anything smaller than a Lincoln Navigator, Hummer or Cadillac Escalade would blaze electric chartreuse. But then the tiny bicycle would be lost in that hideous sea of jangling color.


and when it fades to a gray shadow of its former glory it hardly shows up at all.

PDKMY also makes it impossible to make a clandestine visit to the shrubbery when need arises. Hey! Who’s that over there behind that bush, and what’s he doing!? Oh gross! Call the cops! You’d have to be 300 yards into thick woods to avoid detection. That’s when you’ll be glad if your PDKMY garment is something easily shed, like a wind vest.

In the bright months of summer I believe strongly in the power of the dark side. I wear lots of solid black or – because I got the jersey for free – a snappy black, white and red combo. Visibility comes from lane positioning in daylight and from lights at night. It comes from behaving relatively predictably and logically in the traffic flow, so you are where people expect to see an element of traffic when they are scanning routinely. Why be an eyesore on top of it?

Please Don’t Kill Me Yellow becomes useful in the fall, when days are short and commuters in particular may have to ride in the dusk. It’s also excellent in the fog. I got a PDKMY vest this fall, when we had a string of foggy days. In the dusk, when new, PDKMY garments actually seem to glow. They definitely enhance visibility in low light. At that point, aesthetics take a back seat to practicality. But given the chance I will choose aesthetics when I can.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

What About a Work Stand?

No doubt a shop-quality workstand is the best thing to hold your bike while you work on it. If you can afford one and have a place for it, buy it. Consumer workstands can be almost as good or really miserably bad. If you can see the stand and push it around before you buy it you can see how stable it is and examine the clamp. On a stable base, get a clamp as close to the pro model as you can.

Short of a solid work stand you can simply hang the bike by a loop of cord from a door frame. The bike will sway around as you turn the pedals or reef on tight threads, but it’s better than nothing. If you have to hang the bike like that, do your heavy yanking with the bike on the ground and only hang it to adjust gears or do rough wheel truing through the brakes.

Tools to Buy

Once you have a basic tool box with metric open wrenches, metric socket set, locking pliers, standard slip-joint, needle nose and water-pump pliers, assorted screwdrivers, ball-peen hammer, hacksaw and whatnot you can start acquiring bike-specific tools.

Cone wrenches are good. You can’t adjust hubs without those thin, flat wrenches that fit the adjusting flats on hub cones. Hence the name. The 16 mm wrench opens bottles.

Next you might consider the fourth hand tool used to hold cables at the desired tension so you can tighten the cable anchor bolt of brake or derailleur. I got the third hand tool, used to hold caliper brake shoes against the rim so that cables can be adjusted, but hardly ever used it after I got a fourth hand. Park makes a fourth hand with a ratcheting lock on it, so you don’t even have to hold onto it once you position it. Lifu and Pedro’s also offer ratcheting models.

My old fourth hand with no ratchet lock has a narrower snout than the new models, so it fits into tighter spaces. That can be handy.

Buy a good cable cutter. I got the legendary Felco C-7 years ago, but Pedro’s has cloned it for less money. I haven’t seen it to compare the quality. The C-7 will cut just about anything, year after year.

Jagwire cloned the Shimano TL-CT 10 cable cutter, which has a crimper for housing ferrules behind the jaws. Park’s CN 10 also has a ferrule crimper. This appears to be an improved update of their older cutter, which I found unimpressive.

Y-wrenches with 8-, 9-, and 10-millimeter sockets come in handy, thought they don’t replace spanners.

Box-open wrenches in a range from at least 8 millimeter through 19 millimeter will be more comfortable than double-open wrenches with a different size on each end. Double up on at least the 17 mm wrenches for three-wrench technique when adjusting hubs. If you have anything old and French you’ll want two 16mm wrenches for those hub locknuts.

A hex-key multi tool is great, but sometimes you want the separate keys, particularly with longer shanks. The Bondhus type, with the ball-end on the long end allow you to spin socket-head hex bolts into place even if you can’t get lined up exactly straight above them. The full set includes everything from 1.5 mm to 10 mm.

Even with the quick-disconnect links in SRAM and other chains, you need a proper chain breaker to cut a new chain to correct length or make emergency repairs in the field. A small tool like the Park Compact is good in the seat pack. A bigger tool with longer handles will be more comfortable in the workshop.

Buy appropriate freewheel or cassette locknut removers to fit your equipment. You’ll want a chain whip to hold the cassette still while you unscrew the lock ring, or to spin off a fixed cog from a hub.

Years ago I bought a set of sliding jaws that fit in a vise so I could clamp a freewheel for disassembly or unthread a fixed cog from a hub after fixing the cog teeth with the pins of the vise insert. I haven’t seen the tool for sale in quite a while, but it may lurk in the back of the United Tool catalog or some other arcane tome. It’s not that important. There are many other ways to loosen a fixed cog, and most of us don’t pull cogs off of thread-on freewheels anymore.

Back in the days of cup-and-cone bottom brackets I bought a flat fixed-cup wrench and lock ring tool, and a couple of varieties of pin spanner to fit adjustable cups. Kingsbridge made a burly tool for installing fixed cups, which I never got around to buying. Now it seems to be discontinued, so I bought a Hozan that seems to be based on the same principle. Machined cylinders thread together, clamping the flat faces of the fixed cup, which can then be threaded into the bottom bracket shell with considerable force, using large wrenches on the flats of the tool.

Because most of us use some form of cartridge bottom bracket, concentrate on the appropriate tool for your favorite brand. These are smaller, lighter and cheaper than the Hozan or
Kingsbridge tools for the old style BB s. Change can be good.

You may find yourself needing Torx wrenches as well. Change can be a pain in the butt.

Get a good, shop-quality crank puller. If you have a hollow-axle BB you need a special puller. You can work around it by inserting something to cap the end of the hollow axle so you can use an old solid-axle puller you might already own.

The latest-greatest Shimano bottom brackets with the outboard bearings call for a completely different set of tools.

Cranks used to come with the appropriate tools, years ago, but that was years ago. Now you have to ask and you should know what you’re asking for. Shimano alone accounts for at least a half-dozen tools in the crank and bottom bracket area. Good luck.

Buy spoke wrenches only if you feel confident messing with your wheels. The round type with multiple sizes makes a good start, but it is not that comfortable to manipulate if you’re doing a lot of wheel work. You have a lot of choices here, but the basic Park set in black, green and red covers the common range of nipple sizes. Pedro’s wrenches offer two jaw shapes in each size wrench, so you can tension a wheel quickly with the U-shaped jaw and increase the tension with the more secure diamond-shaped side of the wrench.

If you really get into wheel work, shell out for the Park TS-2 or a similar shop-quality, self-centering truing stand. Cheesy truing stands waste time and money. You spend a lot of time making up for the imprecision of the stand. I hardly ever use a dishing tool with the TS-2. I do use the T-gauge for checking the alignment of the stand itself.

The Park offset brake wrenches come in handy for aligning caliper brakes and adjusting brake center bolts.

Back in the days of the threaded headset, the home or professional mechanic needed headset spanners. Actually, a big, fat adjustable wrench was good for the top nut, because the fat wrench could hold the thinner headset spanner securely in place on the flats of the top headset race. Park’s HW-2 headset wrench is a thick wrench for 32- and 36 mm top nuts. The jaws have a semi-box shape to hold the nut more securely.

The Campagnolo crank bolt wrench was called the peanut butter wrench because the hungry mechanic could use the handle end to spread the PB on his PB and J at lunch time. That’s another loss to the 8 mm socket-head crank bolt era. Actually, I like the 8 mm bolts, but I was lucky enough to get a Campy peanut butter wrench to keep in my lunch box.

Nowadays, you might want a star-nut setter and a threadless fork cutting guide, in case you decide to slap in a new fork. But where do you draw the line? Buy a headset press? Better by the head tube reamer-facer too, and the crown race setter. Uh oh. You’re way down the slippery slope by then.

You’ll see me downslope ahead of you, in a pile of tools.

Interesting Evening Commute

Last Friday I headed out the trail after work, in the last few minutes of daylight. The walkers and runners I met looked at me like I was a nasty skin rash they thought they’d gotten rid of. I wished them good evening. Most of them said nothing in return. We sidled past each other on the long causeways where the railroad used to cross parts of Crescent Lake or Lake Wentworth. The rails were left in place for a rail-car club, so two-way traffic is supposed to be able to fit in the width of what may not have been a full-gauge railway in the first place.

Except for the causeways, the trail runs beside the tracks, where it can be wider.

Further out, a husband and wife exercising their sled dog team were much more cordial. They knew their presence on the trail was even more controversial than mine, so they were being nice to everybody. Eight yipping huskies were excited but not aggressive.

The dusk deepened under the trees. I switched on the Wall of Fire, my two LED headlights and the 10-watt Vista light on the handlebars. I was testing the 10-watt after running the 5-watt the week before. The fiver wasn’t bad, but I wanted more! More! I switched it off to save it for the real darkness.

With the lights, I don’t bother to hurry home the way I do when the days are a bit longer and I’m racing to beat the dusk. I can’t win that race now, so I prefer to dawdle on the path and let the darkness establish itself. Then I can take the long way home, avoiding much of Route 28 by taking Route 109 to minor roads to the east.

Back on the open road, I knocked one of my LED lights off its bracket at the start of a descent, just as a car came over the rise behind me. I was able to wave him off with the other lights so I could rescue the lost one as it spun in the road.

In summer, the trip over the dirt is just a pleasant afternoon tour. In the dark, approaching Halloween, it’s hard to quell all spooky thoughts, entering a dark tunnel through the forest. Hungry goats at a farm on the first bit of dirt bleated so shrilly they sounded like someone screaming. A minute later I heard a chainsaw fire up in the black forest to my left. It wasn’t very close, but it’s a disturbing sound. Who the hell is out there chainsawing in the dark?

From the height of land I could look across miles of country, across Lakes Wentworth, part of Winnipesaukee and over toward the Sandwich Range and the Ossipee Mountains. Below the dark blue bowl of the night sky, the horizon glowed with the last orange of the vanished sun.

No werewolves or people in hockey masks came charging toward me.

From that height the route is basically downhill for ten miles to my house. There are minor climbs, but much more descending. It was time for the 10-watt light.

The light held up all the way to Route 28, where I rejoin the highway to go down to Route 16 for the short jump to my next exit onto secondary roads. Then I noticed it dimming. That threw me back on just the LED lights. I knew motorists could see me, but the light patch from the LEDs wasn’t strong enough for me to see through the headlight glare aimed at me.

Life is an adventure race. You deal with challenges as they arise. When the road was dark I could flit along steadily. I could even snap on the big light for quick snapshots of the road ahead, or to signal strongly to approaching cars. Maybe the old stick battery has seen its best day. Another ride or two will tell me more.

Great Time for Bike Commuting

It’s a great time to be a cyclist in Wolfeboro. Construction has tied up one major route into town, and the flooding in early October took out a bridge on the most popular alternate route. Motorists can either wait in long lines or drive several miles out of their way to the next alternate way into town.

In the morning I can ride past the backup at a gentle pace, threading the tangle even if oncoming vehicles keep me from using the left lane. I don’t fly by contemptuously. I don’t want to annoy people. It also gives me time to react to car doors, oncoming vehicles or someone’s sudden urge to cut out of line.

At the construction site itself, I can reach a multi-use path if the street is completely closed.

In the evening, the washed-out bridge on Bay Street keeps me from using my usual route out of town. Instead, I use the Sorry Excuse for a Rail Trail (not its official name) to go all the way to Route 109 East, about three miles out of town. I generally avoid the path because its poor design makes it hazardous for many users at once, but with the dark and cold of autumn, fewer people are on it.

Consider the Toe Clip

Toe clips and straps have been pushed aside as outmoded and irrelevant, but they offer genuine advantages to some riders. They’re not just another badge of retro obstinacy.

As one who likes to make one bike do many tasks, I will wear different shoes for different applications. Because I date from the era of slotted cleats I have been able to compare the merits of straps versus step-in pedal bindings over many years. The SPD-style pedal and shoe does not answer all needs. A platform SPD pedal like the M545 or the M324, or a similar style pedal from another company only provides a flat pedal when the rider wants to forego cycling shoes.

With toe clips and straps I can use my slotted cleat on a stiff cycling shoe for any situation in which I want the full power of the strongest connection. For touring I can use a touring shoe with a moderately stiff sole and no cleat. For quick errands around town I can wedge my street shoe into the strap and still have some of the power and security to which I am accustomed.
With a platform/step-in, it’s all or nothing.

The major manufacturers, self-styled leaders of the bike industry, no longer offer a touring shoe that slips easily into a toe strap. Road shoes have the smooth, hard soles they always have, with bulky Velcro straps across the upper, to take the upward strain once borne by the relatively cheap, easily replaceable toe strap. Mountain shoes have gnarly tread on the soles. It may be better for portaging a mountain bike on an unridable section of trail, but it prevents easy entry into an old-style pedal.

Even shoes with smoother soles have thick soles or bulky bumpers around the sides, making them hard to position on the pedal.

When slotted cleats were common, you didn’t hear about the so-called “Q-factor.” Pedal designs offered more or less lateral freedom so a rider’s feet could find their natural position. If you discovered it mattered to you, you could find a brand of pedal and a cleat position to dial in that aspect of fit. People also didn’t get as finicky about microscopic details of bike fitting. You might get obsessed with a detail from time to time, but that was something to fear, not indulge.

Yes, it was a pain in the ass to have to flip a pedal up so you could get your foot in it. Step-in pedals eliminate that. Off-road, the ability to snap in and out quickly seems like an excellent feature. But at most street intersections I will try to do a track stand. If you don’t take your foot out, you don’t have to put it back.

Off-road I twist my feet laterally as I work the bike through technical sections. The strap keeps my foot from slipping off entirely, while allowing me to be half in the pedal. If I do come out, I have more trouble getting back into it than I would with a step-in pedal, but I put up with that inconvenience.

I’ve stockpiled as many slotted road cleats as I can find. I buy inexpensive shoes, because they have thinner straps across the top of the shoe. With a leather punch I can make my own holes for shoelaces, allowing me to trim away the straps as necessary to make it easier to slip the shoe in and out of a toestrap.

It’s harder to find a toe-clip friendly shoe for heavy-duty trail riding. Muddy conditions around here destroy shoes quickly, meaning I can’t nurse a favorite through many years. But lately I’ve enjoyed exploring dirt and paved roads on the cyclocross bike more than full-on trail riding through forest and bog. Rides like that don’t abuse the Diadoras I modified for cleatless touring.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Gear Choice

Back in 19-aught-80 or so, when Shimano first announced the "cassette freehub," it promised to simplify a popular trend for customized freewheels. Suntour had their cog board. Regina had a similar layout. But ratcheted freewheel bodies required cogs with different internal diameters and attachment methods, splined or threaded, depending on position.

The cassette body moved the ratchet to the hub. This shifted the right-side bearing outward, to support the axle better, and made all the cogs except the last one splined with identical inside diameters. A rider could construct custom gears at home from a single size range of cogs. I thought it sounded great.

The drawbacks became apparent when trying to remove the last, threaded cog that held everything onto the freehub body, but the Hyperglide system with the separate lock ring cured that. But for many years now Shimano has not made the full range of cog sizes available.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Working Class

Cycling is deceptively accessible.

I was lured into racing soon after I got my first road bike in 1975. That summer I hung out with a racing crowd that was also a mechanically-inclined crowd, so I linked the two things from the start. Coincidentally, it made cycling even more accessible, because I didn’t have to pay anyone to work on my bike.

At the time, you could buy the bike that won the Tour de France for about $300, and for an extra $600 they’d throw in the guy who rode it. But $300 was a lot of money for a bike.

We all heard the legends, about the European racer whose off-season job was digging graves or cleaning chimneys. We met our own working-class heroes. And our training ground began at the end of the driveway. It was right there. We could ride around the block or across the continent.

Componentry advances have upped the ante considerably. Things just didn’t wear out as fast in the – dare I say it – old days. Shifting wasn’t as slick. We had to limp along with five or six speeds in the back. We had to feel around for the right gear like a violinist finding the right note. You thought about it before you shifted gears. It might make the difference between success or failure in launching an attack. Some people clearly were better at it, just as some people have the talent to play the aforementioned violin. But the rest of us fiddling hacks could still improve our chops by practicing. And chains and clusters just seemed to go and go and go, because our standards of precision were lower. We were much more likely to blame ourselves for a missed shift.

Real advances were welcome. The slant parallelogram derailleur improved shifting even with friction shifters. Aero brake levers cleaned up the cable jungle above the bars. The difference was slight enough that everyone remained competitive, or at least as competitive as they had been already.

The rider still wins the race. But riders demand more of the bike because they can.

Bike racing needs more divisions. Perhaps price categories as well as rider categories. Perhaps material divisions. As fun as it is to stomp past the carbon fiber steeds on an old steel frame, it takes its toll as time goes by. And people of lesser means deserve the choice to buy quality with fewer doodads instead of just cheesier doodads.

I say this as a person of lesser means. When I read or hear of the exploits of people with large amounts of disposable income, I know better than to become enthralled by the gaudy trinkets and bragworthy races or tours. It’s just pushing the pedals after all, whether it’s Tuscany or Tulsa.

Maybe what evolves is what’s really for the best. The few who want to keep it simple have cultivated the skills that go with it. For us there are an appropriate few choices in new gear we have to assemble and maintain ourselves. We don’t have to keep beating a dwindling stock of vintage bikes to death on the long, hard road. The fundamentals have never really changed.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Itch to go Retro

I’m sorry. I just don’t miss wool.

I know it’s the miraculous natural fiber that inspired all the synthetic under- and outerwear, but it inspired them for a reason. I know it’s the badge of the true retro devotee, but I put up with years and years of nip-rash and pit-chafe, finally resorting to a cotton tee shirt under the wool, which half defeats the purpose.

Protogs gave us Superwash, which was definitely softer than some of the steel wool coming out of the cheaper European clothiers. But I could always tell. Sooner or later it got to me.

I hate putting sheep out of work. But now they can get their haircut to suit their own fashion sense, not my need for cycling apparel.

While we’re at it, natural chamois presented its share of challenges. After one washing it turned into sandpaper without constant lubrication after it dried. And as a natural substance it certainly seemed as if it should happily host all manner of fungus and bacteria.

Natural chamois isn’t enjoying the vogue that wool jerseys are. Retro posturing ends where the pad meets the privates.

The retro jerseys do stir up a few fond memories of times when we all looked like that. I like them on other people. Maybe I’ll dig mine out of the bottom of the dresser and sport around on cooler days. I’ll have an excuse for the undershirt then.

Chasing the Patch

I always knew night riding felt weird, but I only realized last night what really caused the visual effect.

With little or no visual horizon reference and not much peripheral vision, the rider focuses almost exclusively on the patch of light on the road ahead. Things are visible in the patch for a much shorter time than they would be in full light, so the mind barely registers them compared to the seemingly unmoving patch of light itself.

Other senses convey a sense of motion and speed, which only highlights the fact that the most visible object in front of you never gets any closer. The patch becomes an object in its own right.

Off-road, larger objects come through the light to provide a bit more visual reference to speed, but even then the confinement of the light patch alters perception.

In cities, with more ambient light, the effect may hardly seem noticeable. Out here in the country it's almost constant.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Own Tools

The first rule of mechanical independence is “Buy tools.”

The second rule is “Buy good tools.”

After a few years slacking off on buying tools, I suddenly made up for lost time this week.

The contrast between the workshop at the bike shop and my workshop at home was getting too great. It was a combination of little things, like double-ended cone wrenches, and big things, like having to drag a frame to work or a heavy tool home to do something like press a headset or chase a bottom bracket.

I don’t live right in town. It’s a big deal for me to haul a heavy shop tool home on my bike. And then I have to make sure I get it back immediately. Transporting a big tool usually ends up involving a car in some way.

Is it worth more than a thousand dollars to avoid all that? Apparently. But I could spend that much on a home theater setup and just have something to sit in front of and get fat. Tools open up vastly more possibilities.

Part of the motive is competitive. Among the athletes, riders match their strengths, sprinting, climbing, endurance. Among the mechanics, we match our skills and equipment. I’ve already conceded it’s a bit late in life for me to build up a complete machine shop. But I like to own the tools I know how to use. You never know when one might come in handy. Once they’re bought, they cost nothing to own.

The danger in buying a bunch of serious tools is that you then buy something to work on, or hope something serious breaks. Actually, with the sudden increase in my tool inventory I now have to reconfigure my work space just to be able to unpack the real big dogs. The major frame tools still nestle in their boxes. I need to talk some friend into buying a frame.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Into the Night

In my rural area I tend to give up the bike commute when I can no longer complete the route in daylight. I've pushed it a few times, but it was easy enough to slip into the car, riding dawn patrols for exercise on the bike before driving to town for work.

With gasoline prices charging upward, and my paycheck still crawling in the weeds, riding in the dark looks a lot more attractive. I have lights, including at least four flashing rear beacons. The Planet Bike Beamer headlight is a remarkably effective small light. The whole array is readily transferrable from Cross Check to fixed gear to road bike as the need arises. It's not like my old generator light, which remained permanently bolted to the bike I used for commuting at the time.

Last Friday morning I got up just after 4 a.m. to get ready to ride 41 miles to get a car back from the mechanic. I've developed the habit of riding from Effingham to Gilford to get the car before work when I need to fetch it, which means I have to leave by 5:30 to complete the route in time.

It's still dark at 5:30 now. I piled on the lights, the bright vest, the reflector leg bands, and headed out into the murk on the fixed gear. The forecast was for showers, so I had a rain jacket, and had clipped the fenders onto their brackets.

The pre-dawn motorist crowd seemed pretty kind and accommodating. It encourages me to try the commute in darkness again. Too soon I'll have to travel 70 miles a day commuting, and that's just not practical for an old dog, day or night. I'll be stuck in the car then.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

You Cyclist

A road cyclist in the USA gets a taste of what it's like to be in a minority. And if you happen to be in an actual officially-recognized minority on top of being a cyclist, I really salute your courage.

We find, on the road, that some people are sympathetic, many are tolerant --though not necessarily pleased with us-- a fair number are contemptuous, and a few are down and out cross-burning, lynching bigots.

I stress that the most virulent are rare. The contemptuous are less rare. Much of what gets thrown at cyclists, verbal or actual, is just heckling from people who consider themselves better than the idiot out there pedaling. The hecklers don't usually go the next step, though some do, thinking the sight of a cyclist sprawling in the gravel is as thigh-slapping as an episode of The Three Stooges.

It's easy to get caught up with worst-case scenarios and forget that most rides are peaceful. Your results may vary, depending on local custom, but most of the time we get where we're going with few, if any, ugly incidents. It's just that the ugly ones point out uncomfortably ugly truths about human nature. Those people need to ride a bike. If it didn't open their eyes, it might at least numb their genitals and keep them from reproducing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Machinist Advantage

Bicycle manufacturing launched the modern era of mass-produced transportation, but because bicyles were relatively small they could be produced in small facilities.

Modern industrial economics moved the Bike Industry into gigantic (not to say Giant) facilities, but small operators still produce bikes. Some are status symbols from exclusive builders, others are obscure for various reasons. More people know about Richard Sachs than about Victory Bicycles, but Victory's immaculate reproduction Ordinaries are status symbols among their devotees. But I'll bet few people reading this have heard of Dennis McKinnon, Paul Carpentier, Albert Bold, or Brian McCall.

My machinist friend Diane, a partner in Victory Bicycles, grew up in a machine shop and then built another one with her late husband. At home they built bike frames, restored airplanes and motorcycles and generally built any sort of mechanical toy they wanted. In the 1980s, before the aero bike craze, they had already built themselves a pair of time trial bikes using aircraft strut tubing, aerodynamically shaped. They had to make all sorts of odd-shaped parts and adapters to get the componentry to fit the bikes.

Working for their own amusement, they never publicized any of what they did beyond the word of mouth they generated in the Orlando area and wherever else they might go.

Diane built her own 20-inch wheel adult bike to take in their Cessna. She figured out the gearing and geometry so she could sit at the height of a conventional bike and join group rides wherever she happened to find one. The bike disturbed some of the other riders because it looked so weird, but apparently it rode like a normal-sized one. Bike Friday makes the same claim. People I know who own them can't say enough good things about them.

I'm happy to be able to do as much as I do. Some people even consider me a good, experienced mechanic and a creative problem solver. But I tell you it's hard to compete with someone who not only miters their own tubing and builds the frame from scratch, but actually manufactures the rims, shapes the tubing, cuts and threads every spoke and practically raises the cows that produce the leather from which the saddles are made.

Every machinist I know has the same casual attitude toward building or rebuilding things most of us would simply replace. But they also have several thousand dollars' worth of serious stationary tools somewhere around the house or barn. Most of them do not earn their primary living from bike work. Even the Wright Brothers had to branch out. There's a perfect example of machinists who wouldn't say they couldn't.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Some Commuter Math

If I drove every day, my car would probably consume roughly ten gallons of gasoline a week. Commuting by bike for 20 weeks, that's 200 gallons of gas I don't consume. I generally manage to commute uninterrupted for about 26 weeks before short daylight and the need to carry bulkier equipment forces me into the car.

By cycling instead of driving, I make available 150 to 180 parking spaces in the course of a season.

When I lived where I could commute by bicycle all year, the rest of the motoring public got to enjoy that much more of the gasoline and parking I wasn't using up. But now that area has turned into a megalopolitan meat grinder of hustling traffic honking past "Share the Road" signs.

Biketopian Notion

In Biketopia there are transportation centers near concentrations of workplaces, industrial or office complexes, downtown areas and shopping districts. These centers provide safe parking for bikes, locker rooms, showers and transfer to mass transit if that's available in a given area. They might even provide work areas and small parts like cables and tubes (for a fee), or have commercial concessions selling parts and service. The centers would at least create an area nearby, where commercial service providers could prosper in a location convenient to the people who need them the most.

I wonder if any bike shops are offering safe, secure parking to local commuters, perhaps with a service deal thrown in. A business would need to realize income from the square footage in order to continue to afford it. A public facility could spread the cost over a wider base and use it to encourage more healthy behavior among citizens who might be more likely to ride if they knew they had a nice place to work from, once they got to town.

The first concern of any rider is safety on the road. The second is secure parking. Will the bike be there, rideable, when I get back?

Protected facilities extend the range of rideable weather. If the bike itself will be protected, and the rider can freshen up before reentering society, no one need fear a little rain, chilly weather or breaking a sweat on the way to work.

So YouThink You Can Drive?

We need to build race tracks in every community. These would not be real sporting tracks. They would be proving grounds for all those people who consider themselves great drivers.

Anyone could drop in at any time to run a quick heat against whoever else was around. They would get no guidance and no training, just a starting flag and a finish line.

At regular intervals, crews would remove the wreckage.

In a closed environment, dangerous idiots would finally be a danger only to each other. Concentrated in that way, they would be more likely to take each other out.

Traffic would be two-way, to simulate the environment in which these self-perceived experts usually operate. To goad them further into doing something homicidally or suicidally impatient, we could insert remote-controlled slower vehicles.

Drivers would pay no entry fee. In addition, anyone convicted of a traffic offense would be sentenced to run a certain number of laps, increasing with the severity of the offense.

All participants would be encouraged to sign up as organ donors.

Spectators would pay huge admission fees. The money would go toward highway safety programs and improvements in bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Accidental Mechanic

I never considered myself mechanically inclined. I took devices as I found them. Growing up, I did as little as possible to any of my bikes, and never dug into the mysteries of mechanisms, as my older brother did.

By the time I got into college, I had started to do a few minor things to whatever car I happened to own, though nothing major. Then my mechanically-inclined brother sparked my interest enough to get me to buy a bent used Peugeot ten-speed.

Under his instruction, soon reinforced by a classmate who had been a year behind me in high school, I found myself ripping bearings apart. The classmate, a girl named Diane, had grown up in a machine shop, so she wasn't afraid of anything. She went on to become an expert wheel builder, then a torch goddess, and now practically starts by mining her own iron ore when she wants to build something.

I stopped short of that, but the simplicity of the bicycle showed me I could have transportation independence very cheaply. I couldn't afford a good work space and all the heavy tools to keep a car going through all the things that might go wrong with it, but I could completely overhaul my bike in my apartment. If I laid down some old newspapers, I wouldn't even be a landlord's nightmare. It could be socially responsible, yet revolutionary.

Even the heavy tools, like a shop-quality workstand and truing stand, fit in an average room. A dedicated workshop is nice if you're going to start lathering solvents around, but you can do a decent overhaul at your kitchen table if you're neat and patient about it.

I guess maybe I am a little more mechanically inclined than I thought. The number of people I meet who find the inner workings of a bicycle mysterious still surprises me. Or maybe it's too trivial to be worth their attention. Being good at bicycle mechanics often seems about as respected as being good at armpit farts.

In need of a day job, I got sucked back into the bike industry in 1989, and have remained the itching powder in its bike shorts ever since. I won't leave, because I like getting parts and tools at cost, but I won't play along with the dispos-a-bike trend in sophisticated, temperamental componentry. I still want to be able to fix it at my kitchen table, or in a camp site somewhere. At heart I remain sympathetic to the consumer. That will put you on the outside of most industry trade groups.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

In the Car

I decided to drive to work today, because the forecast called for showers and downpours. The day began with a thunderstorm at 4 a.m., though the rain had diminished to drizzle by 6:30 and humid haze by 8:00.

As I sat in the driver's seat, I felt the stupor of driving overtake me. It seeped up from the upholstery, turning my entire body and brain into one giant, untoned gluteus maximus.

It'd better pour this afternoon.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Good and the Great

A good bike shop keeps all -- or almost all -- of its old parts. These can be used for the "wizard jobs" in which experienced, talented mechanics can improvise, substitute or re-engineer components to fix them quickly, without having to expend the time and money to order complete new assemblies.

A great bike shop actually sorts and catalogs the old parts. Perhaps they even offer them for sale, along with new old stock and other stashes of retro treasure. See Harris Cyclery for an example. And we did it at the first shop I worked for. In the slow months of late fall and winter, we had time to dig in the crypts of the shop basement and set up the used parts area. One of us also reconditioned a number of used bikes with those parts, to use for rentals.

Fixing bikes is a lot like the cable television show Junkyard Wars, in which teams compete to make usable mechanisms out of whatever they find lying around. Depending on how well equipped the shop is, the bike mechanic starts with some advantage, knowing certain items will be there. But with all the variety in bike parts over the years, we often come up against a challenge that calls for more ingenuity than simply going to the pristine parts shelf and picking out the exact item in a sealed package.

State of the Art

When I started as a cyclist, I never demanded that my componentry be the most modern. I didn't think of things in those terms, and still don't. Whatever I didn't know yet was new to me. I wanted it to work, that's all. I had as much to learn about history as to discover about the future.

The higher priced componentry was usually lighter and always had a nicer finish. But often a lower model would function as well, look almost as good and cost a lot less. That was how the Japanese companies got their foothold, by making nicely-finished parts at a lower price than the best Italian stuff. It was a mark of experience and distinction to know what less expensive or more obscure parts you could buy and still have agood bike.

Because the best European components looked kind of old fashioned, cycling seemed more rooted in tradition than dragged by a rocket of modern technology. The chain drive had been around for almost a century at that point, and the engine hadn't changed in thousands of years.

The most modern stuff today is still just a refinement of those old concepts. Frame materials are more exotic, but the basic geometry remains the same as it was in the latter part of the last century. There are more gears, shifted with more precision when the mechanism is painstakingly adjusted properly, but you still push pedals to pull a chain around. It's a more fragile chain, that wears out faster, but it's still a chain.

Dump the chain drive and develop a different transmission, you'll still have a sweaty grunt pushing something like pedals to make it go forward.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Stephanie's New Bike

Stephanie just picked up her new bike, and she's HAPPY. She's laughing, asking good questions. She's delighted, eager to get out onto the road.

We've told her about shifting, braking, how to operate the quick release wheels. We've set up her riding position, told her about how she might feel, getting used to the bike.

She's really happy. Did I mention that?

We haven't mentioned hostile bastards who may try to run her off the road, like the prick in a pickup truck who played chicken with Laurie and me just a couple of miles from home the other day. Unlike most such cowards, he actually stopped when we waved our arms and yelled, but he said it was because he thought he knew me. This is how he treats his friends? He seemed contemptuously amused by my concern.

When a child learns to ride a two-wheeler, it's a moment of liberation. A wider world opens up. It's a less common ritual nowadays, since we've turned most roads in to race tracks. No parent wants to encourage the young explorer on two wheels to venture into curb-lined canyons full of impatient drivers.

Children of my generation rode their bikes to school, the library, friends' houses, sports practice. A child who rode a bike took pressure off of parents to provide transportation everywhere. Now the parents have to drive the taxi until the child is old enough to get a driver's license.

Adults who continue to ride have to make a very sober choice to expose themselves to the unjust persecution of a very few dangerous individuals who try to discourage road cycling by intimidation and assault. It's the last thing anyone wants to talk about on the sales floor of a bike shop, but it's the big elephant in the room. It's not a bicycling problem. It's a social problem. It's a fundamental philosophical issue with the abuse of power, in this case horsepower and the mass and hardness of a vehicle set against the inoffensive enjoyment of a healthy and economical activity by a brave individual.

Thrown Objects

The best thing a motorist ever threw at me was a piece of breakfast pastry. It looked like a cinnamon roll. I don't think he'd even taken a bite of it. Unfortunately, the throw went wide. I had to watch it hit the dirt beyond me. The five-second rule did not apply.

The worst thing anyone ever threw at me was a 1978 Camaro with an unsecured child in the front passenger seat. The driver of the car had erupted in rage when he was unable to pass me and another cyclist in a short stretch of narrow road. When he finally blasted through, he then launched into a game of fender-tag, swerving, jamming the brakes, punching the gas, as my friend and I twitched our bikes back and forth to avoid him. We were in our 20s then, and raced criteriums, so our reflexes were at their best. The driver was too shaky with his temper tantrum to calculate a good shot at us.

We weren't toying with him, just trying to stay upright. When we saw the boy slamming around the front footwell we asked him if he was concerned about the child's welfare.

"Shut up! He's my kid!" the man snarled, along with a thick stew of obscenities. He finally laid down a stinking patch of smoking rubber and roared away.

I don't count as an officially thrown object the 18-wheeler that lunged at me in a serpentine swerve like a Chinese dragon, coming the opposite direction on a wide two-lane highway in Maryland. He was far enough away for the maneuver to have been a coincidence. Maybe he'd just poured hot coffee in his lap.

Many cyclists report bottles, cans, rocks and baseball bats flying through the air toward them. One rider, a Navy pilot then based in Pensacola, Florida, said someone in a passing pickup truck actually launched a framing hammer at him. Seems like a waste of a tool, but fun ideas often overcome common sense.

"Damn, I lost my hammer, but it woulda been some funny to see it split that faggot's skull, huh."

Personal Security

Every year around this time I consider getting a good handgun and renewing my concealed weapon permit. But the doctrine of preemptive war does not apply to cyclists who feel threatened by malicious or negligent drivers in huge vehicles. Replying to a close pass or an aggressive swerve with hot lead would not be considered self defense. It would only make matters worse. By the time you could be sure that deadly force was justified, it would be too late to use it.

Since armed resistance would not improve the riding environment for any cyclist, the artillery is not worth the weight and bulk. If anything it would justify a driver's more deadly actions. They could claim to have been threatened first.

After September 11, 2001, all Americans felt what it was like to fear an unprovoked deadly attack punishing them for actions they considered harmelss lifestyle choices. Bicyclists on the road have felt that for years.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Last Heat

A strange madness comes over the motoring public this time of year. They seem as angry as late-season yellowjackets, whose days are numbered as pickings grow slim.

It seemed early and worse this year. In the week after Nathan Williams' death, half the motorists seemed unusually solicitous, waiting to pass and passing wide. But the other half acted like sharks who smell blood in the water. They passed close and fast, as if anticipating the taste of my flesh when the frenzy finally starts.

I couldn't believe how much aggressive motorist behavior I saw during that week. It really was as if the motorists who hate cyclists consider killing one to be just a good start. I even got the double down-your-throat pass, as a Cadillac Escalade and a pickup truck barrelled out from behind another SUV to blast past me a few inches off my elbow as they hammered by in the opposite direction. I wished my middle finger was the size of a baseball bat. I wished my middle finger could shoot a death ray.

I always attributed the jump in aggression and the little flurry of broken glass to the end of summer and the resumption of people's humdrum, busy lives. But around here we also deal with heavy tourist traffic all summer. When that leaves, the locals see clear running room.

It's already started to calm down again. A potentially worse problem replaces it as people slow down mentally with the shortening days. Careless driving replaces reckless driving. They need some fresh air and exercise.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Death of a Cyclist

Last week, bicyclist Nathaniel Williams, 23, was killed by a motorist in Tuftonboro. My deepest sympathies go out to his family.

When a cyclist death is reported on the news, we riders listen a moment, usually to hear that it’s a motorcyclist, not a bicyclist, or that it was in a distant town, an unhelmeted child, someone riding against traffic. It’s sad, but it isn’t someone we know.

This time was different. The rider was local. I did not know Nathaniel Williams well, but I know people who knew him better. He was supposedly a good cyclist, a young man, properly equipped and capable.

As I understand it from news reports and one of the emergency personnel responding to the accident, Williams was riding fast, in the dusk, without lights, when a motorist turned left in front of him. As summer days shorten, cyclists can get caught out at dusk.

Road cyclists have to assert themselves to get the right of way the law grants them, but that motorists often seem reluctant to concede. Be bold, but not foolhardy. Refuse to back down. If Afghans and Iraqis can risk death just to go to the polls to claim what should be the routine right to vote, we cyclists can face the much lesser peril of claiming the routine right to use the roads for which we all pay taxes.

At sunset, the rules change, even if the laws don’t. Even with the lights and reflectors required by law, a bicyclist is far less visible to motorists than they are to him. Right of way no longer exists, because the rider no longer exists. Out of sight, out of mind.

It’s easy for a rider to forget how cut off a person is in the sensory deprivation tanks we call automobiles. A driver looks for objects as large or larger than the vehicle the driver is operating. As dusk deepens into night, the driver looks for lights, big, bright lights.

When cyclist and motorist are going the same direction, the rider is the safest, because the motorist is looking ahead, seeking the red tail lights of vehicles in the same lane. A blinking beacon and moving pedal reflectors catch the driver’s eye. But when rider approaches driver from the opposite direction the danger increases sharply, lights or not.

We riders can forget this all too easily. Even in daylight we have to remember that a driver may misjudge our speed and try to shoot a gap that we’re already filling.

Motorcyclists will tell you that even with their much larger headlights and greater speed, drivers overlook them with terrifying, if not tragic, consequences. A light large enough to stand out against a busy background will require a generator or a battery weighing several pounds.

When I commuted year-round in an urban area, it was over short distances, usually less than ten miles each way, on relatively flat ground. My commuting bike had a generator light permanently installed, with a battery backup that provided power when my speed would not turn the generator fast enough to produce bright light. The rig weighed at least an extra pound, and the generator produced resistance equal to a harder gear. It made the bike harder to ride, but the security at night was worth it. But it was only as good as the vigilance of drivers looking at it and my own defensive driving.

The scary thing is, we all get careless. It’s so easy to forget that the approaching vehicle in the opposite lane could cut across. Bicyclists want to maintain momentum, so we make the decision to keep pedaling and maintain our speed sooner than perhaps we should.

As a courtesy, cyclists work around the limitations of drivers until such time as driver education finally catches up with all the responsibilities that go with operating a huge chunk of steel at a high rate of speed. We would certainly produce much better drivers if they would not receive their license until they had completed a full year using a bicycle as transportation.

Meanwhile, the death toll from human haste includes everything from salamanders to critters the size of raccoons, to deer, moose and humans. And that doesn’t even include the casualties from wars to seize natural resources from abroad. Our cars leave a trail of blood we have yet to acknowledge.

What Works at Night

A new bike must be delivered to the customer with a white reflector on the front, a red reflector on the rear, white reflectors on the wheels and orange reflectors on the pedals.

To ride at night, New Hampshire law requires a white headlight visible for 300 feet on the front of the bike and a red reflector on the back visible when struck by a light from 300 feet away. Pedal reflectors visible for 200 feet are also required. Reflectorized leg bands are a legal substitute.

The required reflectors provide a minimal level of safety. The state-required headlight provides a little more. But what really keeps you safe?

Reflectorized leg bands are better than installed pedal reflectors, because they generally have reflective material that wraps all the way around the rider’s ankle, providing visibility from the side as well as just the front and rear. They’re light and compact enough for even a weight-conscious cyclist to carry them in a pocket in case of need. You can even strap on a couple of extras.

A rear reflector is a little better than nothing at all, but an active tail light really does the job, especially one that blinks. At dusk, motorists may not yet have their headlights on, rendering reflectors completely useless. Therefore, one or more blinking beacons provide both the active illumination and the motion necessary to catch the motorist’s attention.

A headlight that meets the letter of the law still doesn’t give the rider a functional view of the road. A generator light or a large battery light not only produces a brighter light to attract attention, it also puts out a useful beam so the cyclist can actually see to ride. Generator lights are no longer common, but bright lights with rechargeable batteries come in a variety of styles and price ranges to suit all types of bike and rider.

Wheel reflectors, while fun to look at, should not be considered much of a defense. If a cyclist is crossing the path of a motorist at night so closely that the motorist has to respond to the wheel reflectors, the cyclist has made a serious tactical mistake. If the cyclist is crossing clear ahead, the wheel reflectors are irrelevant. In addition, wheel reflectors can throw a wheel out of balance, making the bike feel somewhat unstable at times. Should they happen to fall off, it’s not as serious a loss as having a light burn out, or forgetting your reflector leg bands.

As inconvenient as it seems, the last line of defense is, “When in Doubt, Bail Out.” At night, I don’t ride in cleated shoes, and I keep a constant eye out for places to get off the road if I have a bad feeling about who might be coming up. This is just about the opposite to my behavior in daylight, when I will enforce my right to the road without reservation. Just never get off the road because a motorist ordered you to do so. The only appropriate response to that involves a single finger giving a widely recognized gesture of defiance. Or better yet just ignore them and hope they go away.

If the motoring public ever decides to declare open war on cyclists they can kill us all within a day. That’s not how we do things in this country, at least not yet, so thousands of riders still get to pursue the invigorating and delightful activity of cycling. But riders have to remember that the motoring public has limitations they themselves do not even realize, encased as they are in glass cubicles, watching the scenery outside as if it were a movie. If you want to be seen, you have to make a scene.

Monday, August 29, 2005

A Quick Jaunt

Laurie really wanted to take some sort of bike tour this summer. A tight schedule had reduced it from a week to three or four days to an overnight, but we were going, no matter what.

I took my first tour in September 1980. It was a leisurely three weeks from San Francisco, California to Eugene, Oregon. The woman I rode with was still in school, doing a year at the University of Oregon on an exchange program.

Almost a month on the road really spoiled me for anything shorter. The fact that I was out of school, essentially homeless, gave the trip a serious feeling my companion may not have shared. I also thought I was working up to a transcontinental tour. I did not know that the transcon would keep falling through for the next several years until I put it aside in favor of other activities that seemed more important, and other forms of recreational homelessness that seemed more rewarding.

So there I was, loading the Surly Cross-Check for this micro-tour, this Cub Scout sleep over of a trip, when I realized that my panniers, my bar bag, my Bleuet stove, even the Blackburn rack on the bike itself were 25 years old.

In 1980, two cyclists rode about 700 miles without a flat tire or a broken spoke.

In 2005, two cyclists rode less than four miles before hearing the angry hiss of a punctured tire. Or did we? Still in the first few shakedown miles, still in our own neighborhood, we pulled off the road to see whose bike had suffered what.

Both tires of both bikes felt firm thumb pressure. The hissing noise had ceased. We remounted and continued.

We’d gotten a bit of a late start. You need just about as much gear for an overnight as you do for a week or a month. What seemed easy in the mind was a bit harder to find and stuff into a pannier. But decades of camping experience helped. We could still make the short hop to Sebago Lake before sunset, even if we barely averaged 10 miles per hour. I wasn’t going to assume I could set any records, riding with a load for the first time in such a long time, coming off a full commuting week, and barely emerging from a very busy couple of months in the repair shop.

The route is mostly flat, through the glacial plains of the Saco River valley. There was just one climb, on Route 5/117, heading over from Cornish to pick up Route 113. It’s not too long, but it’s almost steep. It wasn’t too bad. Aside from that we just had a few rolling grades on 113.

We arrived at Sebago Lake Family Campground by 5 p.m., checked into our site, pitched the tent, stacked the bikes and walked back over to the lake to scout out the nearby store and take a little swim. The water was surprisingly chilly for late August, but the bottom was clean sand. The nearby store had some welcome items to add to dinner, as well as beer for the evening and coffee available in the morning. Life was good.

The campground was almost eerily quiet. A lot of the sites clearly belong to regular residents. They weren’t tremendously outgoing, but then neither am I. Our site was tucked back into the woods a little bit, so we could just settle back against the forest and enjoy the quiet. ATV tracks went around a gatepost right at the corner of our site, but no one drove by. The trail was probably used by the maintenance crew.

The idea of trying to have a relaxing getaway while sharing the highway with impatient motorists had made me think that only an epic trip would be worth the aggravation, so I was really pleased, though surprised, when the peace of self-propelled travel kicked in right out of the driveway. The trip instantly took on the timeless quality that makes self-propelled travel so rewarding.

Bike touring has an advantage over backpacking, because you can do a lot of it in civilized areas. You can sample local delicacies, buy necessities, shop for groceries each evening, rather than carry absolutely everything in your bike bags for every possible circumstance. The disadvantage, of course, is that you share the road with people who may not respect your choices, no matter how courteous you attempt to be with them. No one ever honked, yelled or threw anything at me when I was hiking a remote trail in the mountains. But then again, they don’t always do it when I’m riding. You just get that edge of anger and anxiety after it has happened a few times. You wonder when the next unprovoked attack is coming. But that seems to be the pattern of modern life now, doesn’t it? You might as well be doing something you enjoy when the brick or the cruise missile comes at you.

The first night out in 1980, I felt very far from home as I stretched out on the cold, hard ground without even a sleeping pad. I’ve slept on the ground many times since then, but I have to say that camp nights can be weird. I get a little claustrophobic in the tent sometimes, so I felt really trapped when Laurie zipped the tent door. Her tent only has single-slider zippers on the door, and they stop on her side. That left me looking out through the mesh with no handy escape hatch in front of me.

After a couple of long hours, Laurie asked if I minded if she opened the door to admit more air.

Did I mind? Whew. No more dreams of entrapment. That was fine until I started thinking about disease-ridden mosquitoes and hungry raccoons and skunks sashaying in.

The eerie quiet of the campground extended to insects and animals as well. We heard a bit of light scurrying in the woods, but nothing ever came close. There weren’t even any bugs after the early evening mosquitoes. Maybe the place is built on a toxic waste dump. At least it keeps the critters down.

Dawn was welcome. Not only could I crawl out of the tent and stretch my kinked joints, I could also stumble down to the store and pour a steaming cup of fresh coffee into my brain cells.
The kinks gave way to a feeling like the aftermath of a deep massage or a really aggressive stretching session. The combination of the mellow ride the day before and the firm sleeping surface left me feeling remarkably rested and well aligned.

Going over the bikes to get ready for the day, I discovered that Laurie’s tire really had been going flat. It felt a little soft to thumb pressure and hissed sharply when I pushed the valve stem sideways.

Using some spare cord from the tent, I tied a line between two trees. Hanging the nose of her bike saddle over this I could suspend the bike to work on it. The cord was nearly invisible.

Laurie devised some tasty food that required minimal refrigeration for supper and breakfast. Grilled vegetable and havarti sandwiches on ciabatta rolls we could heat in aluminum foil over the fire for supper. Precooked sausage and egg sandwiches we could heat similarly for breakfast. A soft cooler with a cold pack fit easily in a pannier with the light load for a quick overnight. We also had some carrots and celery for salad.

After breakfast we set out for the leisurely ride we didn’t have the day before. With time to spare, we diverted from 113 onto Pigeon Brook Road, to River Road, coming onto Route 5/117 right next to the Saco River. River Road turned out to be dirt, but that’s why we have Surlies.

Laurie doesn’t get to ride every day, or even several times a week, so doing more than 30 miles a day, back to back, tired her out a bit. We stopped several times, but that’s one of the major pleasures of touring, as opposed to performance riding, whether officially racing or not. Sometimes it’s fun to ride without stopping, but it’s also fun to stop and check out things along the way. For instance, we had never found time to stop in Cornish when we drive through there, but on the bikes it was easy. We didn’t have to block traffic or find a place to park a full-size vehicle. And the same was true for riverside overlooks or enticing side roads.

I doubt if another quarter century will pass before I load up the bike for another tour. I have a lot of catching up to do.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Truckin' toward Sebago Lake.
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Laurie conquers The Hill.
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Laurie's bike impersonates a Terry. Perspective is a wonderful thing.
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The panniers and bar bag are 25 years old. I just didn't tour for some reason, so I never wore them out.
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This is not a flash picture. It's a time exposure using a 3-led bike headlight for about 7 seconds.
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This shot was made using only fire light. The 1.8 lens on the Olympus C-3040Z is amazing. My brother hooked me up with that. He also started me on serious cycling. The bastard.
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Laurie records the events of the day.
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Laurie's bike on The Invisible Workstand.
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Uh oh! Who took the pavement? Did we get cross? Heck no! We have Cross-Checks!
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Some of this stuff is almost as old as my panniers.
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It's never convenient to stop in Cornish when we're driving. So we'd never sat in Thompson Park and had ice cream before today.
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