Friday, April 22, 2022


 "I don't feel safe out there."

"The roads are so narrow."

"People are all on their phones."

"Someone I know was killed."

These are just a few of the lines I hear from the quitters: the people who are getting rid of their road bikes because they don't enjoy being out there on the travel ways that we all pay for with our taxes and have every right to use. If they're in the shop, these quitters aren't quitting cycling outright. They're just being intimidated into leaving the public right of way to go play on various closed courses, or highly limited corridors like what passes for a rail trail around here.

Most of the time, I overhear the conversation between the quitter and a salesperson on the retail floor while I toil away in the repair shop. It makes a weary day wearier.

To be fair, if I lived in Wolfeboro I would probably come to dislike road riding, too. Every time I think about moving closer to work I think about the severe limitations on riding, imposed by the hills and water bodies that have shaped the road system since colonial times. The typical New England road has a white line and a ditch. Combining that with resort-area traffic in the summer makes road riding increasingly stressful as what used to be a rural area gets overrun by creeping suburbia. We're not seeing too many cookie-cutter housing tracts yet, but the attitude of drivers, and their numbers, make the roads busier in all seasons, compared to how they were in the end of the 20th Century.

Creeping suburbia extends to my area as well, but the terrain of the glacial plains allows for longer sight lines and some degree of wider roads, and the lack of particular geographical attractions, like top-tier lakes or brag-worthy mountains means that most people on the roads are just passing through. But we do have our dinky rush hours. And GPS has turned the road in front of my house into some kind of "secret" escape route for southbound motorists when Route 16 is choked with traffic.

One quitter this week said that a friend of hers "passed away while riding on the road." Passing away is something you do in your sleep. Even if you die from natural causes rather than the smashing trauma of a motor vehicle impact, if you're mounted on a bike when you have your stroke or heart attack you're going to hit the ground hard. People are funny about death. If your friend's terminal experience was horrendous enough to get you to give up a form of cycling that you say you loved, say "killed." Give it the full horror and outrage that it deserves. Highlight this side effect of humanity's bad decision to prioritize the passage of motor vehicles over the health and safety of nearly everyone and everything else.

Other riders quit the road because of physical limitations that accumulate with age and injury. Some retreat gradually through upright bikes that replace their drop-bar models. Some go straight to the e-bike. Some try mountain biking. Some head straight for the path.

There are very few transportation cyclists around here. I'm pretty sure I'm one of the most persistent, and I ain't shit compared to real dedicated car-free people in areas and occupations more conducive to it. My occupation has been quite supportive of my cycling fixation. It just pays so horribly that I can't recommend it to anyone as a long-term program. But other people, better people, in generally more populated places, manage the synergy of a decent-paying career and a bike for transportation, to demonstrate how the world could be a better place for productive citizens, not just dilettante fuckoffs with silly dreams.

Transportation cyclists seem less inclined to quit than recreational riders. When you just do something for fun, you stop as soon as it is no longer fun. There are days when transporting myself across the necessary miles isn't a lot of fun. A couple of days ago as I rode down Route 28 I tried to estimate how many miles I've logged on just this route. I'm sure it's more than 40,000, possibly as high as 60,000. That may seem like a lot, but it's over 32 years. My average annual mileage wouldn't even make the charts among real year-round transporters, long-distance tourists, or anyone training to race. It's just the result of stubborn, stupid persistence. My total mileage in that time is far higher. I used to ride more for fun. And I didn't include the training miles I log to get ready for the commute or to stay in some kind of shape transitioning into winter. The 40-60 figure was just on the principal commuting route. 

I don't push myself as hard as I used to. When I pushed myself harder, it didn't feel as hard. I was younger. The key to longevity as a road cyclist -- aside from not getting crushed by a motor vehicle -- is avoiding debilitating injury. Especially with a somewhat long route, a dedicated bike commuter is an athlete with more than just the riding career depending on completing the course, day after day. So I go ahead and take the car on the grossest days. Recovery is key, and an aging body doesn't recover as well over a single night, especially if the aging rider has gotten too frisky the day before. Commuting turns into a time trial. Oops! How did it get to be so late?! Oh well. I'll sprint this one as hard as I can and promise to do better tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow, stomps in this hectic pace to the last syllable of yet another work week.

The rides are frantic, sandwiched around days so incredibly tedious for the most part. But you go from moment to moment of reward, finding something of value in the neck-deep mud of your own created predicament. And be glad because the mud so far remains below your face. If I could have imagined anything else in sufficient detail, while there was still time to implement it, I would have done it. So without real complaint -- just a continuous profane grumbling and self reproach -- I get on the bike for another day.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Cold, Clear Water, Thawing Manure

 Here in the southern part of northern New England, April weather notoriously bounces between occasional pleasant days and raw, wet ones that can bring rain or snow. This gradually transitions to the somewhat milder promise of May, before giving way to the tepid disappointment we call June.

Yesterday was one of the mild ones. The wind was light, the sky was clear. I needed a ride to continue my recovery program from a sedentary winter. The commute doesn't feel any longer than it used to, but it takes a little longer, and I feel its effects longer afterward.

During my first spring in New Hampshire, in 1988, I was training for an epic ride that I hoped would form the basis for one or more magazine articles. Starting in March, I went out on a set of training routes through the rural landscape just to the south of the eastern Sandwich Range. I watched the snow recede, the brooks and wetlands fill to flood, the brown and tan dead vegetation pressed flat by the weight of winter slowly rebound, pushed up by the green growth seeking the sun. It was a time of creativity and hope.

Every spring has its version of this, enriching spring training rides with actual and remembered rejuvenation. Where I live now, I pass several places where they keep livestock. First is the draft horses, less than a mile down the road. Their manure pile is well thawed now. On the opposite side of the road, a brook rushes with clear, cold runoff, that started as snow melt from our meager winter, and now conveys the rains that follow. Wood frogs and peepers have begun to sound, when the air is warm enough.

A cold snap shuts them up. I imagine their annoyance.

Around the route I pass several other places where the smell of animal dung dominates the atmosphere. It reminds me of a race I used to do in Carlisle, PA, when I lived in Maryland. It was a 50-mile race in April. For some reason I believed that the other competitors would be in a similar state of early season development as I was. I thought I trained over the winters: commuting, riding rollers, sneaking in a road ride or some fixed-gear training as it fit with weather, daylight, and a full-time -- albeit low-paying -- job. Hey, it's April. We should be easing into our season. Right?

Invariably, I ended up chasing the breakaways from somewhere in a splintering field torn apart by the riders who had gone south for their early miles, or perhaps for the entire winter, or who had pounded their bodies with high-intensity alternative training during what passed for winter in the Mid Atlantic coastal and Piedmont region. Any longer race -- more than 30 miles -- was open to Cat. 2,3, and maybe 4, in the years before Cat. 5 was anything but a joke we would make about novice riders. The difference between the categories is not subtle, it's exponential. The top category sets the tone, chased by the most ambitious of the category below them.

Once the field breaks up, you may find yourself alone or with a group of riders sizable enough to create the illusion that it's the main field or a significant chase group. Thus I would hammer through the early spring landscape of central Pennsylvania, sucking in oxygen with whatever other freight it carried. A lot of that air smelled like a large farm, because a lot of large farms lined the 50-mile loop of the Tour of Cumberland Valley. Except for the part of the course that crossed the Appalachian Trail, we rode through a landscape dominated by agriculture.

Regardless of the annual rebuke the race always provided, it still felt good in its weird way to be out there, immersed in the almost inescapable hopefulness of spring.

Every brook and stream, every vernal pool, marsh, and wetland is about as full as it's going to get, unless we have a summer of floods. Yesterday's route was calculated to mix steady cruising with some climbing. The fixed-gear forces continual effort and smoothness. Every pedal stroke moves you the exact same distance forward, regardless of the slope or wind. Slope and wind determine the effort demanded from the rider. Grunt harder or spin faster. Look to the scenery for distraction and inspiration, or just to enjoy it. Each year adds to the fund of similar memories to deepen the connection to grateful observance.

Sunday, April 03, 2022

Big Dealerships take over bike retail

 As part of the bike industry's damage control response to the Covid-19 bike boom, major players like Specialized and Trek have cut loose dozens (at least) of small shops in what they consider minor market areas. At the same time, they have started offering online direct sales, and bought up larger independent retailers to establish concept shops for their own brand where population is more concentrated and disposable income theoretically more common.

In 2021 we managed to wrangle several Specialized ebikes for wealthy customers who ordered them fully prepaid in the fall of 2020. First the orders were delayed by the supply issues that racked every industry, but hit the bike business particularly hard. Then the Big S jacked the price on them even though they were fully paid at the original price, requiring the customer to fork out hundreds more dollars per bike. Then Specialized told us that they didn't think they could deliver the bikes, which would have required us to refund all that money. The full order arrived eventually, a bike at a time over months. We ordered electronic diagnostic equipment to communicate properly with the brains of these technological marvels. Then Specialized terminated our dealership, leaving the people who bought their bikes in good faith with no reliable product support. 

Schwinn used the dealership strategy to build and hold market share for decades. Capitalizing on the dealership concept accepted without question in automobile sales, Schwinn had its shops, where a customer could be assured that all the parts were "Schwinn Approved," and would definitely fit. They had their own size of 26X1 3/8-inch tire, so that a generic 26-inch wouldn't fit the rims on Schwinn bikes. Their shop manuals standardized procedures for their mechanics. The bikes were mostly notoriously heavy, but undeniably durable. The business model weathered competition in the 1970s bike boom, but fell apart in the mountain bike boom that followed, although a lot of that could have to do with mismanagement by the inheritors of the company, who considered the family fortune to be as indestructible as the bikes themselves.

In Concord, NH, Trek has gone into direct competition with one of its own established and popular dealers. Trek bought the Goodale's chain of shops and converted them to Trek concept shops. This included the Concord location. Sorry, S&W. You're just collateral damage.

To the bean counters, a shop network that only follows the money is a good thing. The accountants don't care if riders find themselves in a town or village many miles from an authorized service center and suddenly need a proprietary part, or "dealer-only" service on an electrical component. While I have no sympathy for riders who shackle themselves to proprietary parts and electrical components, I acknowledge that new riders don't think about those issues when they buy their great new bike. Even a lot of riders who have been doing this for years never thought to worry about the trend. The onus is on them for enabling and encouraging the bike industry to do this to us all. Only a few relentlessly annoying voices spoke out against it.

Interesting footnote: I found some ridiculously expensive rigid mountain bike forks on the QBP site the other day when I was looking for rigid 26-inch forks to retrofit customers' bikes that have cheap suspension. This indicates to me that a cult of rigid mountain bikes may be taking hold. While they still embrace the ridiculous drivetrains currently fashionable, the new converts to rigid bikes are seeking refuge from the ongoing costs of maintaining suspension, and the generally poor function and heftiness of cheap and mid-price suspension parts. By making some crazy expensive forks of space-age materials, the industry helps the convert to rigidity show the world that it's a step up, not a step back. See the price tag? For that kind of money, it's got to be good.

The big dealer concept is going to hurt Big Bicycle eventually, if not sooner. In the meantime, my advice is what it always was: buy simple, durable stuff whenever you can. Hold on for its eventual return. There may always be people who will pay too much to have a very limited and expensive experience like technical mountain biking, but I wonder how long that sort of indulgence will survive the kind of economic and social reckoning that is being forced on us by consumer society's willful neglect of the consequences of its appetites since the mid 20th Century.