Monday, June 29, 2009

Take Me Out To The Ball Game, Smithers

It's not often that I get to see how the other half lives. Sure, the life of a World-Famous Author of a Bicycle Blog Enjoyed By Dozens can be glamorous, but it certainly hasn't propelled me into the stratospheric upper reaches of society... yet.

Thankfully, I happen to be married to an unpaid graphic design intern, which -- in case you didn't know -- is quite the lucrative gravy train. For instance, just last week she was able to procure us a pair of these:

I can hear you saying, "Oh, c'mon... you expect us to believe that you had skybox seats to the non-stop thrill ride that is minor league baseball as played by a subsidiary of the ever-disappointing Chicago Cubs?" Yes, indeed, I did. Triple-A ball plus air conditioning, as our local Iowa Cubs did battle with the New Orleans Zephyrs at Sec Taylor Stadium. I know, the ticket says the game was played somewhere else, but a refusal to call this local landmark by its recently-purchased corporate moniker is the secret handshake into the "grumpy old locals" club.

I knew I'd made the big time when I settled into my seat (casting glances of mild disdain at the sweat-soaked riffraff far below in steerage) and a server immediately appeared to tend to my every whim. Not only that, she offered me the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to purchase this beautiful, collectible souvenir for the low, low price of only six dollars plus a small gratuity!

And when my souvenir arrived, it was full of an intriguing frothy, fermented liquid in a curious shade of yellow. When I summoned the sommelier, he informed me that I had been served the "light" offering from a grower in the Budweiser region, 2009 vintage. Delightful!

Lest you think the evening was all fun and games, there are serious responsibilities for the titans of society who inhabit the upper reaches of the stadium. Late in the top of the eighth inning, Iowa Cubs manager Bobby Dickerson called time and strode with purpose to the mound. His relief pitcher Justin Berg was having some control problems (no doubt brought on by the searing -- I'm told -- heat and humidity outside my Bubble of Affluence) and had given up a few runs. When Dickerson turned toward home plate and cast a glance skyward, I knew my moment had come. I rose to my feet, and -- like the great emperors before me -- raised my arm to deliver a "thumbs down" signal. Dickerson gave a grave nod, turned to Berg, and broke the bad news. Berg trudged off the field to what's called the "bullpen," where -- I assume -- he was trampled and eaten by a herd of angry bulls. All I know is that he didn't play the next day... how do
you explain that?

Sure, the sour-grapes eaters out there are whining that watching baseball in a skybox is like sitting at home and watching it on TV. To those people, I say, does your TV look like this?

Or maybe this?

If so, the World Series party is at your house this year.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


It's like the lead-up to the last night of Hannukah here at The Cycle World Headquarters. I mentioned a few days ago that I was going back to clipless once I scared up a decent pair of SPD-compliant shoes, as my old ones are held together with duct tape, Shoe Goo and used chewing gum.

The problem is, I have mutant feet. In a New Balance running shoe (bless you, New Balance, patron saint of the paddle-footed), I take a U.S. size 10 in an EEEE width. No, that is not a typo or an attempt to transcribe the music from the
Psycho shower scene. I said four (count 'em, four) E's. Basically, my feet are about as wide as they are long. Most bike shoes are dainty princess slippers cut for the wispy European wood-nymphs of the professional peloton. And SPD sandals, the supposed savior of the wide of foot? Most mash two sizes into one, hanging me out to dry between the too-small 43-44 and the "grab an oar to paddle 'em down the river" 45-46.

That problem only gets compounded when the selection of bike shoe brands at the local shops goes something like this: Shimano, Specialized, Specialized, Specialized, Shimano, Sidi, Shimano, Shimano, Specialized, Shimano, Shimano. Of those, only one offers sizing by width, Sidi... and the locals don't stock the wides (called Mega, which brings back bad memories of "Husky" boys' jeans from my even-fatter youth), so even if I wanted to drop the equivalent of a car payment on a fancy pair of Italian SPD-loafers, I'd have to special order.

But not so fast, Mr. Frugal Fat-Foot... turns out, mail-order monstrosity Performance offers one of their house-brand Forte shoes (just a rebranded Exus or Exustar or The Artist Formerly Known As Exus, or The Unpronounceable Symbol Formerly Known As A Generic Shoe That Everyone Rebrands) in a WIDE width for about 1/3 the price of those stylish and spendy Sidis. Normally, I regard mail-order shoes like food from a dollar store... sure, it's cheaper, and it might be OK, but do you really want to take the chance? In this case, however, I'm going for it.

They're on the way to World Headquarters right now. I'll report (and provide links) for the benefit of my fat-footed bike bretheren once they arrive.

Friday, June 26, 2009

I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me

Before you shuffle off, that title (and the obscure reference to Rockwell's 1984 hit single, with its creepy video that made 12-year-old me afraid of the shower for longer than I'd like to admit) is not my lead-in to yet another Michael Jackson memorial, even though MJ rocked the chorus on said single. I will take credit, however, if the song gets stuck in your head on a ride, especially if you happen to be Pal Scott of Landscape Cycling, who absolutely loves my obscure, brain-sticking musical references. (Aside to Scott -- you out there, buddy? No action on your much-appreciated blog in a while. We aren't allowed to have real lives, you know.)

Bring it back, now, Digression Boy... what I'm really talking about is an interesting micro-trend (consisting of two measly instances) here at
The Cycle. I've been pinged via comments recently by two businesses I've deigned to mention in these hallowed pages, Kryptonite (hi, Karen!) and G and L Clothing (hi, Sara!) In the age of Google alerts, I guess I'm not too surprised -- all these companies have to do is set up a listener that pings them whenever some knucklehead (like yours truly) utters their name, and they can watch just what said knucklehead is babbling about without the hassle of wading through the rest of my drivel.

The master of this trick among cycle-web-geeks was the late, great Sheldon Brown. He was so well known, so respected, and in so many newsgroups, he actually put a listener on his inbox for messages that mentioned his name so he could get through the chaff to find the people who were looking for his help. Once I knew that, I always managed to slip in a mention of, "I'm sure Sheldon Brown knows the answer to this," when I had a particularly tough question for a newsgroup. It was kind of like invoking Beetlejuice: "Sheldon Brown! Sheldon Brown! Sheldon Brown!" (although he never did take care of that pesky Catherine O'Hara infestation...) Part of me hopes his old listener is still running somewhere on a forgotten e-mail account, racking up piles of messages letting The Man know just how much the cycling community misses him.

I suspect that my new reader from Kryptonite (hi again, Karen! tired of me yet?) is an indication of the lessons that company learned in the whole Bic pen thing. After all, it was the speed of the internet that created the monster, so it's in their best interest (or any company's best interest, really) to be aware of what's going on our here in the series of tubes. I imagine that's only become more true with all this Web 2.0/user-generated content stuff that's all the rage with the youngsters these days. (Why, back in my day, we only had Web 0.3! We banged messages in Morse code on rocks... and we LIKED it!)

Still, it's equal parts spooky and empowering to think that the companies (and people) I talk about here might actually be listening. I'm not naive enough to think that I can just flap my jaws without being noticed, but it's a big Web out there, and when someone actually wanders into my tiny corner of it, I'm kind of surprised -- pleasantly surprised, but surprised just the same.
When one of those companies sends me a product to review, by golly, I'll know I've hit the big time in this wacky bike-blogger business. Until then, I'll just keep reviewing stuff I've paid for myself, which I suppose makes the reviews a little more trustworthy for my rapt audience of six.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I Am A Clip-ocrite

Oh, the shame of it.

See, I converted my whole darn fleet to platform pedals last year,
smugly snugged my regular old no-cleat Keen sandals, invoked the Luddite spirit of Grant Petersen (by girding my loins in wool and chanting, "beeswax! beeswax! shellac and twine!") and pretended to cast out the clipless devil from my parts boxes.

But it was a lie. Those SPDs were still in there, taunting me.

So, in a moment of weakness, I ignored the Voice of the Inner Retrogrouch and put them back on a bike this weekend.

And (heretic! sinner! witch!) I liked 'em. Felt faster. Racier. More "connected", to use the requisite Bicycling magazine ad-review buzzword and/or enraptured fixed-gear convert cliche. Less Fred-like. My bum leg actually made circles for a change, even when it didn't want to. Inexplicably, my wonky knee got less wonky. And, despite a temperature and humidity combination that made it feel like riding through a moist hairdryer (thank you, Iowa corn-growing climate), I snapped off a quicker-than-usual 35 miles last night and felt good enough to do more. Sure, that's 99.8% placebo effect, but when you're as fat and slow as I am, you take what you can get.

Sigh. I guess I'm doomed to be a pedal polygamist, forever following my whims from platform to toeclip to clipless and back again. Be it decreed that no matter what miracle pedal I claim to discover today or at any point in the future, I am hereby forbidden to ever sell a pair of pedals, because I'm just going to want them back again in a few months.

(The next sound you hear will be my wife's voice as she finishes reading this post: "Great, how much is this week's divine revelation from the cycling gods going to cost us?")

I love you, honey. But did I mention that my old clipless shoes are pretty much shot? [grin]

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Memories Of My Dad On A Bike

Father's Day can be a tough holiday when you have no intention of being a father and your own father passed away years ago. I lost my dad in 2000 to a major heart attack when he was only 55 and I was only 28. He never got to see my sister get married (in a Jimmy Buffet-esque ceremony he would have loved, to a guy he would have loved even more) or meet his two grandsons (who would have been his whole world).

Still, thanks to the intervening nine years, I can look back at our lives together with equal parts happiness and sadness... and much of that happiness was shared around bikes. My first memories of cycling were facing backwards, riding in an old Cannondale "Bugger" trailer behind Dad's brown Free Spirit ten-speed, Mom alongside on her brown Schwinn Suburban. Okay, so I didn't know the brands at the time, but those bikes hung around long enough that I remember them. His favorite trick was to squeeze the trailer into ridiculously narrow spaces, making my sister and I squeal in mock-fear. We always rode in the summer evenings when the cicadas were out -- a sound that will always take me back and always mean "biking" to me.

Dad left the bike behind in the 80s for a brief dalliance with that wacky "sport" called jogging, but he returned to the fold by the time I reached high school Our evenings were spent on wheels, still to the sounds of cicadas, but this time, I had to turn my own pedals instead of being towed. I remember one particular "Pie Ride" from my hometown of Sterling, IL out to Tampico for a piece of pie at their local diner. On the way back, I suffered a flat, and turned to Dad for help.

"Give me your pump."

"Um, I left it at home because you had your CO2 cartridges."

"Well, I left my CO2 cartridges because you had your pump."

This was in the Age Before Cell Phones, so Dad had to ride one-handed, carrying my wheel to the next farmhouse, explain our predicament to the owner, borrow a rusty old pump that barely got my tire to a rideable pressure, and bring the semi-repaired wheel back to where I was lounging under a tree. We were late for dinner that night.

Another "typical Dad ride" was the year we did Kewanee, IL's "Tour of Hog Heaven" with my friend (and first bike-shop boss) Mike. At the decision point that separated the metric century men from the 30-mile boys, the sun was shining, so we made the ill-advised turn toward the metric route. Not ten miles later, the skies opened up, hammering us with a relentless rain for the rest of the ride. That trip was a punchline for years, whenever a storm would open up on us mid-ride: "Weather looks good... let's do the metric!"

Shoot, this post was supposed to go up two days ago. It was harder to think about than I expected. I have plenty more "Dad stories" left, but I think for now, it's time to turn the blog to other things. Here's hoping that everyone who could ride with their dads (or dads who could ride with their kids) did on Sunday, and if you couldn't, I hope you had the comfort of good memories.

Me? I got rained on tonight. But all I could think was, "Let's do the metric!"

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Public Relations Failure Modes

I hope everyone who rides seriously has read the VeloNews report of a failed Mavic R-SYS front wheel by now. It's getting some blogosphere traction, and with good reason -- an exploding front wheel that allows your fork to drop on your front tire at full speed isn't exactly confidence-inspiring. To paraphrase an engineer-biker pal, you don't mess around with the parts that keep your teeth off the pavement.

Now I have a hard time slamming Mavic with all the blame here. The rider in question was a self-professed 190-pounder. Sure, Mavic didn't put a rider weight limit on the wheel in question, and 190 isn't exactly tubby by normal American guy standards, but dude, c'mon. If I took some reading material into the bathroom, we'd be able to wrestle in the same weight class when I came out. We're the guys that rim manufacturers are thinking of when they Swiss-cheese their hoops with 32 (or even -- dare I say it? -- 36) holes. Are you
really getting that much of an edge pushing into a corner on a glued-together pile of carbon splinters most likely designed for somebody who weighs as much as my right leg (which is the one with the titanium upgrade)? Find a good wheelbuilder, buy some nice Ultegra hubs, have them laced to a couple Mavic Open Pros with a thick handful of shiny steel butted spokes, and go ride. If you get dropped, pedal faster.

Where I do blame Mavic is in the cleanup. For a company with so many marketers, their public relations are imploding like... well, an R-SYS wheel under my fat arse. Let's review: The wheels were released to the public once. They started failing. Mavic did a recall and redesigned the wheels. Then this issue popped up. And, instead of saying, "Oops, we did it again," Mavic is backpedaling like a brakeless fixie rider in traffic. The response seems to be, "Wait, you put these wheels on a bicycle and rode it? Well, there's your problem right there."

For a case study in how to do this right, think back to the Kryptonite Lock Debacle of a few years ago. Don't remember the Kryptonite Lock Debacle?
That's why it's an example of PR done well. Here's a review: Someone figured out that you could jimmy the cylindrical lock core of a Kryptonite by jamming the end of a Bic pen into it and wiggling. That somebody took a video of himself doing just that, dropped the video into the magic tubes of the Interwebs, and it went absolutely viral among bike nerds. People were freaking out. I immediately went to the hardware store, bought a chunk of the heaviest chain they had, dropped that into a piece of old innertube, added a flat-keyed disc padlock, and consigned my Krypto to paperweight status.

So what did Kryptonite do? Add some fine print to the packaging that said, "Not for use around writing utensils"? Nope. They said, "Our brand identity is unbreakable locks. We either fix this or we die." And they immediately issued a recall of
all the affected locks -- basically everything they'd sold since the dawn of time. My paperweight U was a good ten years old at that point, its receipt long gone, and when I sent it in, they sent me a brand-spankin' new one with an un-Bic-pickable flat key in a matter of days. I'm still using that lock today, I'll keep using it, and when I stop using it, I'll probably replace it with another Kryptonite. Brand identity saved, customer loyalty preserved. It probably cost a LOT, but what's a reputation worth?

So, Mavic: Your reputation is dependable wheels, and most of your hoops live up to that. You stepped out too far on the bleeding edge with the R-SYS, and the crunch of carbon spokes was the sound of that edge giving way. Take a couple steps back, stop blaming your customers, fix this the right way, and save yourselves. You don't want to be the Lambert/Viscount Death Fork of the 21st century.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

I Am Not A Twitter Fan

My review, in less than 140 characters:

Twitter is a blog for illiterate thumb-typists.

Am I wrong? Convince me in a comment. Keep it under 140 characters, please. You "twits" are supposed to be good at that, right?

I look forward to reading what thou hast twote.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Overheard At A Bike Shop

Small kid who's discovered the horns and bells section: "Mom! (beep) Mom! (beep) Mom! (beep) Mom! (beep)"

Mom pays no attention.

"Mom! (beep) Mom! (beep) Mom! (beep) Mom! (beep)"

Mom still has no clue.

"MOM! (beep) MOM! (beep) MOM! (beep) MOM! (beep)"

It's finally starting to register with Mom that her spawn is trying to get her attention.

"MOM! (beep) MOM! (beep) MOM! (beep) MOM! (beep)"

Mom (exasperated): "What?!"

Kid: "I found a horn."

100% true. I just about choked trying not to laugh.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Stupid Is As Stupid Does

If you're bored with my bottom bracket incompetence, surf away before it's too late!

If, however, you take great joy in the misfortunes of others, have I got a post for you.

So I'd had issues with a cross-threaded BB cup (that I now know I can blame on Former Neighbor Steve for polluting my garage with his bad cross-threading juju), but I'd stolen a cup from another bike that (I thought) was compatible and (I thought) fixed the problem. Did a few rides on the bike, including a fast (for me) out-and-back 26-miler to Cumming, IA Thursday night. No creaks, no rattles, smooth spinning.

Then I saddled up for my commute home yesterday. Got about five blocks from work when things started feeling wrong. Pedals were wobbly underfoot, and each turn of the cranks made this awful grinding sound. Oh crap.

Stopped, assessed the situation, and realized that either a) the cup I
thought was compatible actually wasn't, or b) I was too timid after the cross-threading adventure and didn't torque the cup down hard enough. Said cup had backed its way out of the frame far enough to let the cartridge BB rattle around (causing the wobbly feeling) and grind the chainring into the shiny, formerly-pristine metallic brown repaint on my right chainstay (thus the awful sound).

No way I can fix that by the side of the road, and no way I can ride it home. And my cell phone barely has enough juice to make one call.

In the words of the poet Homer, "DOH!"

I managed to get a quick "myphoneisdyingpleasecomepickmeupatthecornerofsecondandMLK" call to my wife and get rescued, but it was NOT how I'd hoped my day would end.

Today, I put in a different cup and torqued that sucker to "gorilla." We'll see if that does the trick.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Milwaukee's Best

As of last Friday, I had never set foot in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We drove by on the way to our honeymoon in Door County, but never graced MKE with our presence. Friends who've visited and/or lived there said we would like it, and we'd talked about taking a weekend, but the stars just hadn't aligned.

Until last weekend, that is. We were looking for someplace to go to celebrate Carla's second graduation from Drake University (a school so nice, she went there twice) when we realized that The Decemberists (the latest band for whom I've developed a cult-like devotion) were playing up there. Stars? Aligned.

So, now that I'm safely back in my Des Moines nest, here are some of the hits (and a few tiny misses) from a long weekend in the land of the cheeseheads:

Thanks to the random blessing of those name-your-price websites, we ended up in a pretty classy joint. The Milwaukee Hilton is clearly an OLD building that's been kept up over the years. It made for a pretty stylish and comfy home base as we worked our way around the town. How can you not feel important when you're greeted by a guy in a top hat every time you come to the door? I felt like an extra in a film adaptation of The Great Gatsby every time I went through the lobby. Downside? Internet access was $10 a day, which is why The Cycle didn't post live reports from the scene (my thumbs are too fat to use Carla's smartphone). Upside? Walking distance from two of our major attractions, the aforementioned Decemberists concert and the art museum.

I went 3-for-4 on coffee over the weekend (the lone miss was a desperation run to the Starbucks in the Hilton), drinking local brew so good that it made my toes curl. Most notable was Alterra, a Milwaukee chain. The location I visited was right next to a yarn shop, which kept Carla occupied while I downed refill after refill of astonishingly good joe. The monstrous dual roasters looked like something out of science fiction, and it was only the "no customers past this point" chains that kept me from worshiping on the massive steel steps of their twin metallic altars.

Sorry, Des Moines, but you aren't a real city until I can pick up a paper copy of The Onion within your borders. Get on that, please.

MKE-hip pals on the iBOB mailing list told me that Ben's/MBC was the shop to see, and they did not lie. I started at Ben's (on one side of the street) and was kind of let down. Seemed like a pretty ordinary bike shop to me, other than a little more emphasis on hipster fixie stuff than I'm used to down here in RAGBRAI Central. Then, I crossed the street to MBC. Have you ever fallen in love with a bicycle at first sight? I'm talking totally smitten, "oh, you will be mine" cycle-lust? The orange MBC fixie in the window did that to me. In my defense, it was built around the massive tire/fender clearances of Tektro R556 brake calipers, so it would have been a sensible relationship, not just one based on physical beauty. I was able to leave the shop with my love unrequited, but not before we'd shared a few gentle caresses.

Take one cool old theater (The Riverside -- a refurb'ed match to our classy old Hilton), throw my current cult favorite band on stage, and it's a sure-fire winner. Mix in a good opening act and great seats? We were so money, we didn't even know how money we were. The first set was the band's current concept/folk-rock-opera album The Hazards of Love (not nearly as pretentious as it sounds, really) in its entirety. Beginning to end. No breaks. One song relentlessly piling on to the next. From vocalist Shara Worden loosening the theater's plaster on "The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid" to the entire band taking up drums to accompany "The Rake's Song" in a blasting percussion chorus... absolutely stunning. And just when I thought, "Well, okay, but I can listen to that album at home," the band kicked off a very loose, fun second set, pulling a few gems out of the rest of the discography. In a bizarrely rocking twist, bandleader Colin Meloy started the acoustic guitar intro to Heart's "Crazy on You" -- I thought he was joking until the rest of the band kicked in and Worden and vocalist Becky Stark appeared on stage to again risk the building's structural integrity with an explosive take on the old gem. Perhaps one of the best concerts I've ever attended. Seriously.

MILWAUKEE ART MUSEUM: I am not the art geek of the family. That's Carla. But when a museum walks my feet off and still leaves me wanting more, that's saying something. We showed up right when it opened and got to see the sail-like roof unfurl with Lake Michigan in the background. Then it was off to gallery after gallery after gallery after gallery of one of the most diverse collections I've ever seen. Yummy lunch break in the museum restaurant, then MORE galleries... and galleries... and galleries. If there's a specific type of art you're really interested in, go there first. Carla saved the massive folk/outsider art collection for late in the day, and we almost didn't have the energy to finish it. I knew we were in the presence of greatness when my wife -- who devours lesser museums like dainty finger-sandwich appetizers -- turned to me after we'd seen about 75% of the place and said, "We have to stop now. My brain is full."

Didn't eat a bad meal the whole weekend, saw a bike culture of everything from fixie hipsters to everyday commuters wheeling around town that put Des Moines to shame, and -- save for one incident with a mystery missing exit -- didn't get lost once, nor did I ever have to pull a driving maneuver that caused someone else to curse Iowans. Honestly, it felt like I expect the Midwest to feel, only in city form -- kinda Minneapolis/St. Paulish, very comfortable despite its novelty. I'm not normally one for wanderlust, but within a couple days, I thought to myself, "I could see living here." And that's high praise.

(The side trip through Madison on the way home was fun too, but that's another story for another day...)