Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Comfort Zones, or What Happens When You Assume

As a cyclist, I have some sacred cows. I admit it. I ride overbuilt steel forks because, well, using a wisp of gram-shaved carbon as the only line of defense between my face and the pavement isn't worth whatever miniscule weight/ride feel benefit it might confer. All my bikes have fenders because, well, I don't like having a wet butt.

And, until last week, all my bikes had the bars cranked WAY up high. The main steed sports a stem that looks like it escaped from a box-store comfort bike. The tandem has a serious up-jutter mounted on top of a stem riser for good measure. And when I ordered my Swift Folder, I bought the biggest "size" (they're all the same size, but hang with me) just so I could get the crazy-tall stem extension. On top of that extension, I put a stem with some rise just because, well, I thought I should.

This all goes back (gulp -- am I this old?) 14 years, to my days as an angst-ridden graduate student in a creative writing program. Spent my days poring over student essays on "What I Think I Need To Write In Order To Make This Weirdo Pass Me" and my nights pounding away at "What I Think I Need To Write To Impress Professors And/Or Get A Book Deal" -- leaving precious little time for riding. I got chubby, and thus could no longer tolerate the riding position on my go-fast that had been honed over years of doing nothing but working in shops and riding when I wasn't working in shops.

Then I discovered (fanfare) the Nitto Technomic. Fetish object of Grant Petersen, gateway drug to recumbents, and savior of fat men with bad backs the world over:

So much quill, it's probably illegal in five states and indecent in seven more. But that quasi-phallic aluminum monstrosity let me get back on my racerboy bike with some modicum of comfort (the frame still only took 23mm tires at best, so there was a limit) and even got my corpulent arse through the Tour of the Scioto River Valley in '97 (clocking a personal best century time on the first day thanks to a friendly tailwind and an even friendlier tandem that let me sit in). I was sold, and my bars have stayed in the stratosphere ever since.

Until last week, that is. For reasons that escape me entirely, I got a weird itch to see just what it might feel like to get those bars a little lower. I started by moving the Swift's stem down on its extension -- which has maybe a half inch of range. Big whoop. So I got extra-crazy and flipped the stem over. Stepped back, braced myself, waited for lightning to strike... nothing.

But the ride? Transformed! A little weight on that little front wheel, and all traces of twitchiness went away (not that it was a twitchy bike to begin with). My hands weren't entirely pleased with having to support a bit more of my girth, but my lower back (where I fully expected punishment) sang hallelujah. The wonky disc (that likes to bulge out from time to time and send me into spasm just to remind me that I'm a geezer) found its happy place right away. And -- knock wood -- it appears to be staying there.

Obligatory disclaimer: I'm not a doctor, I don't play one on TV, and medical advice gleaned from a random blog is worth just about what you pay for it. I can't say that lowering (or raising) your bars or changing your saddle or trying different pedals or riding a recumbent or doing your favorite loop backwards is going to be some amazing revelation that will cure male pattern baldness, get you the big promotion, and make you the life of the party. I can say, however, that if you get too deep in your own rut (as I'm often wont to do), you close yourself off to the possibility that something better (or, heck, just something different and/or fun) might be out there. Give it a shot. You might like it.