Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Kenda Kwest: Tires Of The Zombie Apocalypse

I have owned four pairs of Kenda Kwests in my lifetime: 20-inchers on an old Bike Friday tandem, 26ers as replacements for the stock knobbies on our current tandem, a 700c set that tricked me with a crazy-low clearance table price (folding tires for $10 each?!?), and the 20-inchers (again) that came stock on my Xootr Swift.

And, without fail, I have loathed them all.

See, the thing about Kenda Kwests is that they are INSANELY durable. Four sets of 'em, thousands of miles, single bikes, tandems, every surface you can imagine, and I have NEVER flatted one. Not once. I haven't even been able to wear one down to the point where the carcass is thin enough to be vulnerable. I suspect Kenda keeps a zombie locked in a basement somewhere whose only job is to bite every pair made. It's the only thing that would explain how hard they are to kill.

You're thinking that sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Super durable tires? Tires that refuse to flat? Sign me up, right? But here's the catch. Are any of my readers old enough to remember the joke about Campy Nuovo Record? Namely, was so reliable that it would shift like crap forever. Well, have I got the tires for your Nuovo Record bike. Inflate Kwests to a vaguely reasonable pressure and they have all the compliance of oak planks. Release a couple psi, and they wallow around like pigs in slop. Either way, they have the dull, plodding responsiveness that again reveals their zombie DNA. But, lucky you, they'll provide this awe-inspiring performance for years... and years... and years...

I got to inspect the set on my Swift this weekend since the mild winter inspired me to pull the studded tires off. Happily, the sidewalls on my Kwests are starting to feel just a little dry (thanks to a lot of UV and winter salt), so I might have an excuse to dumpster these things when Spring finally arrives. You can bet that when I do, I'll follow Rule #2:

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Wheels Of Fortune

In case the vast dry spell between posts (and the even vaster spell between posts containing actual new content) didn't tip you off, the old brain case isn't chockablock with ideas these days (in truth, I've been distracted by the making of musical-ish noise via bass, but you don't care about that).

To break the mental logjam, I picked up a copy of Buy-cycling magazine at the local Mega-Corp-Bookapalooza store yesterday (just to peruse, not -- shudder -- to purchase). Lest you get the wrong idea, I don't find Buy-cycling all that inspirational, but it does generally provoke a low-level buzz of rage that can inspire at least a few days' worth of ranting drivel. And the latest issue was no different.

The article that tweaked me this time had to do with upgrade road wheelsets. "Huh," I thought. "I have a semi-normal road bike in the fleet for the first time in years, so maybe this will interest me." The wheels in question, the article assured me, were not the high-zoot, mortgage-the-McMansion stuff reserved for race day. Nope, these were just workhorse wheels designed to provide a step up from the dreck one finds on most production bikes. "Okay, so they're cheap too, like me," my inner monologue continued.

Not so fast, frugal inner voice. The cheapest wheelset in the shootout was still about $600 worthless U.S. dollars... or 66% of the cost of my whole freakin' bike, wheels included. And almost every one featured some kind of wacked-out proprietary hub design, funky spoke/nipple interface, or acid-trip lacing pattern. In short, you blow out a piece of one of these "cheap" wonders, you're beholden to the original manufacturer to provide you with (no doubt reasonably priced, he said with much sarcasm) replacement parts... assuming said parts still exist, since that manufacturer's probably found some other proprietary design to chase down next year's rabbit hole.

The dirty little secret that Buy-cycling did NOT want you to know (as it would no doubt tweak their advertisers) is that any reasonably skilled wheelbuilder can make something that would CRUSH the field of $600-and-up stupor-wheels on weight, price, reliability, and long-term repairability. You want the best-kept secret in high-zoot wheels? Ultegra hubs, double-butted spokes (Wheelsmith or DT, take your pick), Mavic Open Pro rims, and someone who knows how to handle a spoke wrench. If you want to get nuts (and really trust that person with the spoke wrench), go with aluminum nipples. I'd wager a goodly chunk that you could put that combination up against any of the $600 machine-built "cheap boutique" wheels and come out ahead in both price and performance. Sure, they wouldn't impress your buddies (which seems to be a key selling point for the Buy-cycling demographic) and they won't rake in the Benjamins for Buy-cycling's advertisers, but you can't have everything.

Here's where I have to give props to Cycling Plus, a bike magazine from over the pond (which I don't get to read until I get a shipment of back issues from loyal reader Steve K, since the local Mega-Corp-Bookapalooza wraps it in plastic like it's some kind of bike-geek porn). Most of their wheel shootouts will include a handbuilt set of wheels crafted by a respected U.K. builder... and those humble handbuilts often whup the knickers off their mega-brand cohorts. Jolly good, old chaps.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Phantoms (Part 9 - The Final Chapter)

Congratulations! You made it to the end! Or if you just stumbled in, here's some background.

Thanks to some sort of large-scale meteorological confusion -- El Nino?  La Nina?  Global warming? -- December has switched places with October this year, temperatures hovering near sixty degrees for a solid two weeks after Thanksgiving.  Daylight or not, I cannot resist the lure of a shirtsleeves ride in the twelfth month, borrowing a high-powered halogen lighting system from work and unbolting the Paramount from its prematurely-imposed sentence.  At 8:00 on a Monday night, in the blue glow of an almost-new moon, I set out for home, completing just one more commute. 

No delusions of grandeur tonight.  While it was easy to play Greg Lemond on the glacier-graded plains of Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio, western Pennsylvania offers one punishing climb after another.  What local riders call “flat” (like my commute) matches the geography of a “hilly” ride back home, with multiple climbs that match or exceed Moonlight Bay.  The wide yellow beam of my headlight rocks as I shift down, stand, and struggle.  I learn quickly that a night ride offers no perspective, no view of the world beyond my headlight; I toil like Sisyphus in a small yellow oval, trying to reach a point somewhere out there in the dark. 

The bike shifts under my body, rolling over the unseen crest, picking up speed as I drop back into the saddle.  My hands on the brake levers fill the periphery of the headlight, fingers casting terrifying shadows on the edges of the road, poking into my line of sight with each shift.  Speed increases.  I hurry through the gears, snapping the shifters to keep up with the terrain.  My oval of light proves worthless at this speed; obstacles pass through it before I can respond.  I know, having taken this route daily through the fall, that the road breaks sharply to my left at the bottom of the hill, but I can only guess where that bottom may be. 

A white mailbox zips past, flashing briefly along the edge of the road.  My body remembers it as the breaking point of the curve, although my mind has never consciously mapped this landmark.  Too late for brakes, I press the bike down, leaning, hoping the tires will stick.  Physical memories play: the slide of a rear wheel, the splintering crack of helmet on pavement, the metallic warmth of blood in my mouth.  My mind illuminates the blackness along the outside edge of the curve, the deep ditch which would catch the bike, the dense weave of trees my body would come to rest against.  On this isolated road, I could lay bloody, broken, and unconscious for hours.  For an instant, I see myself.  I am not Greg Lemond.  I am not an exuberant child, leaping into my grandfather’s garden.  I am not sixteen, laughing at a broken helmet.  I am here, terrified, feeling nothing but the blood rushing through my fragile body.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Phantoms (Part 8)

If you don't know the story by now, here it is.

On one of my last rides on my old Trek 830, hurrying across the University of Iowa campus for an exam, I misjudged a curb-hop, too intent on the history of American labor movements to focus on the maneuver.  Instead of lifting over the curb, my front wheel struck it at full speed.  The bike stopped immediately, launching me over the handlebars, inertia breaking the connection between rider and bicycle.  I tried to turn in midair and land on my shoulder, protecting the delicate bones of my hands and wrists -- a textbook mountain bike crash technique -- but I didn’t quite make the rotation.  My right elbow struck the sidewalk, driving the ball of my upper arm deep into the socket of my shoulder.  Seven years later, my doctor jokingly says, “You’ll never throw a good fastball again,” as if I ever could.  On impact, the bones in my shoulder scraped together, causing permanent and possibly degenerative arthritis.  Despite weeks in a sling, months of physical therapy, years of weight training, I will never be as good as new.  The ligaments are stretched beyond repair.  I aced the test, but my body is damaged goods. 

Two years ago, during an unseasonably warm Ohio January, I took my road bike out for a trip up and down the Olentangy Bikeway in Columbus.  While leaning the bike over in a curve (going too fast, playing Greg LeMond again, I’ll admit) my rear wheel hit a pile of wet leaves and slid out.  My helmet struck the ground before I could react.  After a moment of silent, stunned recovery, I stood, spit, and assessed the damage.  Taking off my sunglasses, I surveyed my face in the curved reflection of the lens.  Blood dripped from deep asphalt gashes on my nose, upper lip, and chin.  When I ran my tongue around the inside of my mouth, I realized that I had just spit two of my teeth into the woods.  A bloody gap marked where my incisors had been just seconds earlier.

I may not have my fastball, but I can still play a decent-to-mean game of racquetball if I’m careful on the overhead shots.  With color-matched resins, my dentist has created two artificial teeth that can barely be distinguished from their natural counterparts, as long as I don’t try to bite a carrot with them.  I am superficially whole, Humpty Dumpty pieced back together thanks to modern medicine, yet when I wake in the morning and feel the click of rough-edged bone between ball and socket, I feel my father’s bewilderment, his fear, wondering, “When did I get so old?” 

Yet, as a mechanic, I see my bikes still refusing to age.  I have yet to crash a bicycle in a way that causes permanent damage to the machine.  On the Olentangy Bikeway, where I lost two teeth, my bicycle lost a rear derailleur.  The replacement part cost fifty dollars, considerably less than two artificial teeth.  That plus thirty minutes of labor and my bicycle rolled on as if it had never touched the ground, immortal.  Properly maintained, bearings greased, chain oiled, tires inflated, my bicycles will outlast the aging, collapsing body that provides their momentum.  My Paramount -- the favorite child, I’ll admit -- was built in 1985, and its steel tubes react with the same liveliness they did just after the paint dried over a decade ago.  In twenty years, as the bike reaches its mid-thirties and its rider heads into his late forties, one of us will be just like new, begging to get out on the road for a ride.  What fantasy will I use then?  Who will I be?  Greg Lemond will be old and gray.  Will I remember the dirty, bloody leaps into grandpa’s garden?  The chatter of mountain bike tires over rocky trails?  Or will it be enough to recall a time when my creaking, twenty-six-year-old body could finish a slow, ten-mile commute?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Phantoms (Part 7)

If you don't know the story by now, here it is.

Schwinn first reissued the Black Phantom in 1995 to celebrate both their centennial and their return from the ashes of bankruptcy.  The company had gradually cashed in on the growing rush for “retro” bikes with some less-expensive replica cruisers, but the ‘95 Phantom aspired to much more than these cookie-cutter novelties could ever hope for.  It was to be an exact copy of the original, top to bottom.  The project was to create pure anachronism, bicycles designed from crumbling original blueprints, constructed with tools that had not been used in almost half a century.  Where original tools could not be found, they were built, created from history and memory to fabricate one small production run at an astronomical cost.  The 1995 Phantoms were born of human touch in an industry dominated by computer-controlled robot welders.  The project cost a fortune, well beyond what the company could recoup from the sale of the bikes, even at almost three-thousand dollars each.  It made no sense.  It was beyond business.  It was irrational.  And it was beautiful, all the way down to the tiny ridge across the bottom bracket replicating a flaw in the original casting process.  I imagine the idea taking root not in conference rooms, but during a ride.  A group of true bicycle nuts pause after a long, hard climb to catch their breath, and in the dizziness of oxygen debt, someone jokingly says, “why don’t we build a Phantom?”  After the ride, over coffee and donuts, someone else starts drawing on a napkin, tracing the chromed curve of a springer fork, a design Schwinn hasn’t built in decades, and something in that curve sticks in the imagination.

However the concept was planted, it slowly grew from silly idea to fully-realized rubber and steel, history rendered in metal.  The company had faced death, become an industry joke, and come screaming back to legitimacy.  What better way to announce its return than with a piece of the past, a bike that, like its parent, would surprise the industry simply by existing, enduring?  So Schwinn created the 1995 Black Phantom reissue, a small pocket of 1950s America, a testament to durability, to timelessness.  At work, when I walk past the reissue, I cannot help but pause, awestruck.  The bike is 1955 made tangible, a blend of deco design and car culture lifted into another era.  It is graceful.  It is brash.  Ridable examples of the original Phantoms still exist today, and I don’t doubt that this reissue will still beg to be pedaled forty years from now.  The bike laughs at time, dares aging to touch it. 

Those original Schwinns would eventually become the first mountain bikes.  In the early 1970s (while I was busy navigating sidewalk cracks on a green tricycle) a group of men were resurrecting big Schwinn cruisers from California junk piles, driving them to the top of mountain roads, and riding down at top speed.  Each run burned most of the grease out of their antique coaster brakes, forcing the riders to repack their hubs with fresh lubrication.  To most of the 1970s cycling world, this new kind of riding made no sense.  In a bike culture enamored with slender European road racing machines, the very idea of riding down mountains was laughable.  Yet, each weekend, a group of accomplished road racers donned jeans and flannel shirts and did just that, sliding through switchback corners on their sixty pound relics.  They fell.  They drew blood. They broke bikes.  They broke bodies.  Then, they laughed, went back to the top, rode again, fell again, bled again, laughed again.  And those bikes, those abandoned, rusted relics raised from the dead refused to act their age, taking flight just as they had under exuberant ten-year-olds in 1955.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Phantoms (Part 6)

Here's the reasoning behind my delusions of grandeur.

By the time I started mountain biking, Dad couldn’t follow.  He could remember his old Schwinn, but the feeling of that heavy bike under a ten-year-old boy was lost.  He could only recall the shame of dragging it home, axle snapped, to face a mother’s “wait-till-your-father-gets-home” and the long, punishing wait until that father got off his late shift at the power plant.  What he didn’t remember was the instant of silence when sixty pounds of Schwinn steel lifted off from the curb.  Who could blame him?  On that much bike, time in the air didn’t last.  Landings were what stuck in the mind, the splay of the front fork, the crunch, the consequences. 

But I remembered.  I grew up mountain biking before I knew such a thing existed, cruising my parents’ farm.  A downhill chute, four feet wide, ran between the east cornfield and the machine shed, opening in the gap between the shed and the barn, closing down to a green tunnel between barn and field which would spit me out near grandpa’s garden at top speed.  I’d veer out of the chute at the corner of the barn, cross the broken concrete of the empty cattle lot, pedal frantically to the two-foot drop at lot’s edge, and lift off, a frenzy of sound meeting the anticipatory silence of flight.  Landings in the garden meant flat tires, bloodied elbows, a mouth full of dirt, ringing ears, but who cared about consequences when you were in the air?  Were the astronauts, my childhood heroes, worrying about the landing when they saw sky give way to space? 

My father doesn’t mountain bike because it’s marketed as an “extreme” sport.  He doesn’t understand or want to understand all this “extreme” nonsense.  As if on schedule, exactly thirty years after leaving Kent State as an idealistic liberal, he has become a grumpy old bastard.  “What’s this Mountain Dew commercial about?  All these mountain bikers screaming at me... what’s the point of that?  Stop screaming.  Go get another piercing.”  He puts on a good show, but I can see the fear and bewilderment.  In a span of time that must seem sudden to him, the counterculture has gone from peace signs and pot to nose rings and heroin.  The new teachers he hires at his school are younger than his own children.  A stomach which once tolerated morning pizza heated over a dorm desk lamp has become delicate.  On his forehead, the hair has gradually crept away at the corners leaving only a narrow peninsula in the center.  After fifty-three years and two heart attacks, he is just starting to accept the possibility that he might be getting old.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Phantoms (Part 5)

This thing is still dragging on? Here's a lame stand-in for an apology.

In the bike shop where I work, I hear it almost every day: “Oh, I had one just like that.”  The customer is usually male, mid-fifties, responding to the Schwinn Black Phantom reissue cruiser that hangs from our ceiling.  I would guess that eighty percent of these glassy-eyed nostalgia sufferers never owned a Phantom.  Most probably owned another model in the Schwinn line, or perhaps a bicycle built by Schwinn to be rebadged as a department-store model.  After all, in 1950s America, the Schwinn Black Phantom was, without question, the best -- and most expensive -- bike a kid could have.  Granted, from a strictly utilitarian perspective, the original Phantom was nothing new, borrowing from balloon-tire technologies Schwinn perfected two decades earlier.  However, unlike its prewar ancestors -- the Motorbike, the Autocycle, the DX, the Excelsior -- Phantoms had all the toys.  Deep black and red enamel, blinding chrome on just about everything, tubing junctures smooth as poured liquid, flowing curves, long antique white pinstripes, real leather saddle, drum brakes, fenders, built-in wheel lock, rear rack with working taillight, working headlight growing organically from the line of the front fender, and a small button on the side of the imitation gas tank controlling the battery-powered horn inside.  Everything about the bike was big and overbuilt, from the wide balloon tires on rolled steel rims to the long cowhorn handlebars.  In one bicycle, Schwinn blended all the fantasies of postwar Americans, adult and child alike.  Style, polish, power, and features -- if they sell cars, Schwinn reasoned, why not bikes?  The Phantom brought ten-year-old boys to tears of desire, a machine-as-identity lust that would eventually be transferred to four-wheeled vehicles like Mustangs, Corvettes, and Camaros.  In its time, it was simply the ultimate bicycle.  Even fifty years later, the Phantom still stands as a defining moment in bicycle history, pursued by collectors like a two-wheeled Holy Grail.  So I can’t blame these glassy-eyed men in my shop for the blur in their memories, the hardening of want into remembered ownership.  My own father, now fifty-four, suffers the same illness. 

On March 3, 1954, for his ninth birthday, my father received what he remembers as a Schwinn Black Phantom.  That morning, my grandparents probably gave him something small, pretending that the gift-giving was over.  Then, just as disappointment set in, they handed him a small note: “Look in the hall closet.”  In the hall closet, another note: “Look under your pillow.”  I see my grandparents exchanging smiles over coffee as their son scurries around the house.  Under the pillow: “Look on Mom’s dresser.”  On the dresser: “Look in the garage.”  Since it was March in Illinois, I’m certain my grandmother stopped him on his way out the door, insisting on a coat and hat, adding one more delay just as the suspense reached its zenith. 

Finally, a warm coat wrapped over his pajamas, he burst into the garage, and there it was: his Schwinn.  Black, with cream trim.  Black-painted fenders with matching cream pinstripes.  A rear rack.  Chrome springer fork.  Big.  Gleaming.  Most birthday presents would require a bow, but the Schwinn had enough style simply propped on its kickstand.  They rolled it outside into the bitter Illinois winter, stood boy and bike in front of the garage door, and snapped a picture in the snow. 

In the next four years, my father would shear off the coaster brake fixing strap (as well as several of grandpa’s replacement straps) and shatter the front axle jumping the bike off what he calls “a small wall.”  The social mores of preteens would shift, decreeing that bikes were no longer “cool,” and the bike would be abandoned in the garage, then sold.  But forty-four years later, if I could just find that photograph, my father would still be a pudgy, grinning nine-year-old in his winter coat and hat, the piles of snow would never melt, and his Schwinn would remain unridden, unbroken, and unquestionably cool.  Would I have the heart to tell him his bike was the less-expensive, less-coveted Panther, not the Phantom it has become in his mind?  Would it matter?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Phantoms (Part 4)

Some wannabe writer appears to have hijacked this blog. The culprit explains himself here.

That grey 830 went from first love to rusted beater in the span of four years: accessorized, stripped, cared for, neglected, covered in stickers, abandoned in Dad’s garage, abused, left in the rain, and taken to college because it was finally too ugly to steal.  In 1991, when my affections were finally stolen away by a big, tennis-ball yellow Trek 6000 with its three extra gears, ultralight aluminum tubing, stop-right-now brakes, and (finally) quick-release wheels, I stripped my first love bare, painted it black, swapped out the teal stem because it didn’t match the new paint, reassembled it with some help from Roland, and sold it to my then-girlfriend’s father.  He rode it a few times and hung it in his garage, too polite to admit it didn’t connect for him like his old Schwinn three-speed.  I don’t doubt it’s still there, hanging from the rafters.  I’ve considered calling, perhaps offering to buy back his piece of my cycling past, but I can’t figure out a polite way to say, “This is your former future-son-in-law... I know I’m no longer in love with your daughter, but that bike...”

A true bike nut remembers them all fondly.  Each bike sticks in the mind like an old friendship I’ve grudgingly outgrown. The orange-and-red banana-seat Murray.  The chrome Huffy BMX bike.  The royal blue Murray mountain bike knockoff.  Dad’s brown Free Spirit ten speed.  The sky-blue hand-me-down Schwinn Continental from Dale.  My blue Schwinn World Sport.  The grey 830.  The yellow 6000.  Schwinn 974 racing bike.  Cannondale M400 mountain bike.  Cannondale T700 touring bike.  Specialized Epic racing bike.  Schwinn DeLuxe Twinn Tandem.  Nishiki Citysport cruiser.  GT Slipstream hybrid cruiser.  And finally, my current friends, the Specialized Rockhopper mountain bike and Schwinn Paramount road bike.  I learned to ride a bike twenty years ago.  Seventeen bikes in twenty years.  And I remember them all, because every one helped me live out a fantasy of who I wanted to be.  At seven, I carried the absolute conviction that my banana-seat Murray looked just like a California Highway Patrol motorcycle.  As I cruised the long gravel driveway of my parents’ farm, twisting the plastic grip like a throttle, I was Jon from my favorite TV show, “CHiPs.”  I chased down the car thieves, rescued children from burning buses, wrote out speeding tickets.  On my bike, I was the hero.  It sounds funny to me now, but even today, when I shift into the big chainring on my road bike, somewhere in my mind I see Greg LeMond tucked low, methodically making time on Laurent Fignon to take the 1989 Tour de France.  Different bike, different fantasy, but I’m still trying on identities, wanting to be more than simply me.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Phantoms (Part 3)

Jeez, this looks different from the standard snark. Here's why.

My tires crunch on the gravel, spitting out rocky shrapnel when I stand and accelerate.  The path follows the Hennepin Feeder Canal out of Rock Falls, Illinois, a tiny waterway originally designed for barge traffic.  The track, once worn bare by mules pulling loaded barges, has been turned over to the park district as a recreational area and buried in white sandstone to create a trail.  It is the only off-road riding within range for a kid still working on a driver’s license, my first opportunity to take my new mountain bike into its element.  The canal is on my left.  On my right, a thin strip of trees separates my ride from the strip malls, hotels, and restaurants of Rock Falls.  The illusion works; under the canopy of overhanging branches, I can convince myself that I am alone, that I no longer follow Dad’s wheel. 

After a quarter mile of flat gravel riding, the real trail begins.  A worn dirt path breaks away from the canal into the woods, cut by renegade motorcycles, kept open by kids on BMX bikes.  I veer into the trees and climb the ridge that separates canal from city.  The riding is frantic silence, rubber tires on dry earth, trees passing like telephone poles along the highway.  The branches close in, no wider than my handlebars, leaves brushing my knuckles.  My pulse presses out on the foam shell of my helmet.  Lines of dusty sweat creep down my cheeks.  The trail begins to roll, its rise and fall like slow breathing under my tires.  Each downhill slope loads my momentum, carrying me over the next rise, picking up speed with each trip across the trail’s wavelength. 

My front wheel strikes the knob of a half-buried root, knocking the handlebars from my hands.  For an exhilarating instant, I lose control.  The wheel chatters out of its line.  I grab for the bars, but the distraction is too much on such a narrow trail.  A branch snags the bar and rips it from my hands.  The front wheel turns sharply off the trail into the brush.  I have no choice but to follow, slapped by branches.  The bike finally strikes a tree, tossing me over the handlebars head first. 

When I reach up to wipe the grit from my forehead, half my helmet is missing.  On impact against the tree, the foam has split in a jagged arc across the top of my head.  The rear stays in place, held by nylon straps, but the front swings open like a door.  The helmet comes apart in my hands when I release the straps and take it off.  I sit in the dirt -- dizzy, aching, with a hemisphere of helmet in each hand -- and laugh, because I am sixteen and don’t know any better.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Phantoms (Part 2)

Not sure what happened to your regularly-scheduled babble? Here's the answer.

1988.  My father and I pause outside the door of Mr. K’s Bicycles and Billiards, our first stop in the search for my first mountain bike.  Dozens of “Authorized Dealer” decals radiate out in a confetti blast from their point of origin near the Business Hours sign: Cannondale clothing, Finish Line Authorized Service Center, Oakley eyewear, Brunswick pool tables, Trek bicycles, Park tools, Specialized bicycles, GT BMX...  I can hardly find enough glass in the door to see inside.  When my father pushes it open, there is no bell or buzzer to announce our entrance.  A strip of rubber-backed red carpet runs from the door to the counter at the back of the store.  On the left stand two new pool tables, fields of untouched green felt broken only by cardboard pyramids touting “Marble Base” and “Financing Available.”  Locked glass cases of cues line the left wall like weapons on display.  On the right, three rows of new bicycles sit in formation, a fourth rank hanging from hooks in the ceiling.  The front windows on both sides are lined with bikes.  Nylon saddle bags, plastic water bottles, and shining Lycra shorts fill the gaps in the pegboard walls.

“Here’s what Dale got.”  Dad leads me over to a pearl-white Trek 830 mountain bike with teal decals, the exact same bike my cousin bought just two weeks ago.  “I love the paint.  Not just white.  See how it catches light, like a shell?”

Roland, the owner (Mr. K himself) comes out of the workshop, wiping the grease from his hands onto his denim apron.  “Afternoon, Gordy. What can I do for you fellas?”

“My son is looking at mountain bikes.”  So true.  I am looking at them all, awed by the thick rubber tires and shining frames in symmetrical rows.  The bikes form an impenetrable line of toughness, of attitude.  If internal combustion engines had never been invented, this is what the outside of a biker bar would look like.

“Thinking about that 830?”

I nod, thinking about it a lot, even though the paycheck burning out of my pocket -- the first of my working life -- won’t cover half of the $350 asking price.

“Did you see the one in the window?  The grey one?”  He leads me back across the border to the front of the store.  At the end of a gleaming row of identical Specialized Rockhoppers sits a lone Trek 830, dark grey, with the same teal decals and a painted-to-match teal stem.  “This is last year’s model.  Brand new, never ridden.  A leftover.  It’s on sale, fifty bucks cheaper than the ‘88 for just about the same bike.  Looks to be your size, even.”

“We have a trade in,” Dad announces, calling Roland back and giving me time and space to think.  My father’s haggling is a warm murmur on the periphery.  I’m too busy falling in love to notice.  This grey leftover is different, the last of its breed.  I decide, without hesitation, that I don’t want Dale’s bike.  I want Jason’s bike.

Like any good salesperson, Roland wasn’t telling me the whole truth.  After five years of on-again, off-again work in bicycle sales and repair, I now know the differences between 1987 and 1988 beyond paint jobs.  The frames were the same, but the ‘87 had lousy brakes, fewer speeds, and oval chainrings designed (in theory) to increase the rider’s power, a theory which has since gone the way of the flat-earth hypothesis.  The wheels bolted on instead of using the more convenient quick-release levers, a difference I came to appreciate with each knuckle-skinning slipped wrench.  Color-matched stems were a cycling fashion trend that came and went in the span of two model years, right before neon paint jobs took over.  Side-by-side, despite sharing a model number, they were two completely different bikes.  Roland was dumping, getting rid of old stock with a customer who didn’t know any better.  Having done the same thing, I’m in no position to question the ethics of the sale.

What Roland saw, and what any good bicycle salesperson comes to recognize, is the connection.  That’s why I still respect him, despite what my after-the-fact mechanical knowledge tells me.  When someone makes a real, visceral link between their identity and a bike, you can talk quick releases and skinned knuckles all day, but it won’t matter.  They may not understand the link consciously -- I can only verbalize mine with a decade of hindsight -- but when they feel it, the sale closes.  Something about one specific bike meshes with the person they want to be in a way that the other bikes simply cannot.  Try to convince a ten-year-old to ride a blue bike when she has her mind set on a red one and you’ll see just what I mean.  Kids just haven’t learned how to justify their paint-job instincts with technical specifications yet.

With my decade of hindsight, I know what connection I made at sixteen, what I needed.  My old ten-speed was slender, perched on delicate tires, designed for long, meditative journeys down empty county roads.  It didn’t fit under an overweight, insecure teenager looking to test his limits, his identity.  I was tired of those long, boring rolls through the country watching my father’s back wheel.  When a territorial farm dog made its sprint for the property line, teeth bared, aiming for our spinning calves, Dad reached for his Dazer -- an electronic dog repellent which looked like a garage door opener but emitted an ultrasonic squeal dogs couldn’t tolerate.  I sprinted, daring the beast to give chase, standing on my pedals, laughing as teeth snapped shut inches from my leg.  Dad lagged behind, giving the tired animal a half-hearted Daze once it gave up on me.  When we challenged Moonlight Bay Hill, a quarter mile stretch that shot defiantly out of the Illinois plain, Dad shifted to his lowest gear and fought his way up, one painful pedal stroke at a time.  I raced past him to the crest, turned back, rode down to where he labored, and raced up again.  My young legs could do three laps before he made it to the top.  He probably hated me, but he always graciously bought two Cokes at the McDonald’s up the road to celebrate our defeat of the worst hill in the county.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Phantoms (Part 1)

Wondering what this is all about? See this attempt at an explanation.

Bike season just ended.  Although I dutifully commute to and from work on two wheels well into the fall, when daylight savings time runs out I give up.  “Too dangerous,” I justify to myself.  “Pitch black when I get off at 6:00, isolated country roads, weather getting colder, asthma kicking in.”  My road bike now serves a six-month sentence indoors, bolted to a trainer in front of the TV for winter workouts.  I can’t stand to look at it.  A classic Schwinn Paramount, Italian steel lugs and tubes hand-brazed into long, traditional road racing lines, painted in thick coats of pearl white, hung with Campagnolo parts.  Decades of racing tradition, rendered in steel, aluminum, and rubber.  The bike wants to be on a road, diving through corners, attacking hills, rolling for long hours on endless pavement.  It seems offended, immobilized on living-room carpet, propped up and secured like nothing more than a hamster’s exercise wheel.

“At least I’m using you,” I want to say, trying to appease my guilt.  “And you get to stay in the apartment.”  In the garage, my mountain bike isn’t so lucky.  It hangs from an angular black storage stand, abandoned until the spring thaw, waiting impatiently.  It is big, loud, modern, ignoring the history of its older, more refined cousin in the living room.  Its brash blue paint bears the scars of past crashes, caked with the dirt of the just-ended season.  Even on the hooks, five feet off the concrete floor, the bike wants to run things over, deep knobbed tires longing to bite fresh soil.  I built it from the ground up, matching each part to my own preferences, choosing everything from the extra-durable wheels to my favorite saddle.  A small plastic Chuckie Finster (the redheaded toddler of “Rugrats” fame) dangles from the handlebars for luck, features frozen in his trademark apprehension, splattered with months of mud.  The bike’s shifters and brakes are now three seasons out of vogue, but I prefer these designs to their more cutting-edge equivalents, resisting the siren song of “new and improved.” In another two seasons, these parts will be old enough to be called “retro,” and both my bikes will have slid into cycling history, relics of another time.  In cycling, obsolescence can be quick and cruel. 

When I throw my leg over these bicycles, cleats on my shoes click into retention mechanisms on the pedals.  The handlebars rest naturally where my arms fall.  The grips show wear in the spots where my gloves rest.  After years of bearing my weight, the saddles have shaped themselves to my contours.  These three parts -- pedals, handlebars, and saddle -- are called contact points, the three places where the rider’s body touches the bike.  After years of connection -- the sound of my cleats snapping in, the shape of my palms pressed into the grips, the relief outline of my pelvic bones on the saddle -- these bikes can no longer be entirely separated from their rider.  Without their reassuring familiarity under my body, a part my identity seems absent.  They are part of their owner, my attempt to define and redefine myself.  When I hunker down on my road bike into a low aerodynamic crouch, hammering along an empty country road, I can momentarily forget that even in peak condition, I am thirty pounds heavier and ten miles per hour slower than the professional racing legends I pretend to be.  And when I crest a hill on my mountain bike, slicing between trees, my tires sliding through corners and banging over logs, sometimes I forget that I am afraid of crashing.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Grand Experiment

When I started this drivel (lo, those many years ago), I had every intention of classing up the joint by slipping in a bit of my "serious" writing from time to time... with the obvious ulterior motive that I fully expected some publisher to stumble in here, snatch me from obscurity, and pay a massive advance for the first of many books. In short, this was supposed to be a  springboard to spending every day in my jammies putting together mildly interesting sentences.

Fast-forward five years, and you have no doubt noticed that my penchant for drivel has pretty much driven away any and all hope of seriousness and a life spent in jammies. That stops today, though... er, tomorrow. I'm going to knock the dust off a piece from my long-lost attempt at becoming a "real" writer (back in the olden days of the 20th century), break it into chunks, and spew out those chunks here one by one until I reach the end of either the piece or your patience, whichever comes first.

Before you run screaming, this IS a piece about bicycles. In fact, it's the first time I ever sat down and tried to write about bikes. Depending on your perspective, it either a) showed me my "true passion" as a writer, or b) ruined me for good. Some perspective: This baby wrapped in the halcyon days of 1999, when I was (much) younger, I worked for a bike shop in Latrobe, Pennsylvania while finishing up a Masters' thesis, my fleet of bikes looked much different than it does today, and -- most importantly -- my dad was living the life of the (grumpy) old man you'll meet here. I would lose him to a sudden, massive heart attack about a year after I finished this piece.

Okay, enough circling the airport. High noon tomorrow (Central time), the first chunk of "Phantoms" drops right here, and the rest will spin out one slab at a time, every day at noon. If you like it, tell your friends. If you can't stand it, hang in there -- you only have to wait for nine days for my artistic self-indulgence to run out and my usual self-indulgence to resume.