Friday, September 30, 2005

Biking While Drowning

The first rain of the fall, and where was I at 7 in the morning? Biking to my secret hideout five miles from my house. And was it a soft drizzle to remind us gently to drag out our rain wear? No it was not. It was an unremitting deluge. But at least it had the kindness to be a warm deluge. The untimely balminess of our overcast yesterday lingered overnight, warming the rain so that it felt like the wet season downpours of the tropics, and riding through it felt more like going for a swim. More accurately, given the amount of equipment involved, it reminded me of scuba diving.

As I was crossing the Broadway Bridge I came upon a cluster of bicyclists loitering under the support beams against the guardrail between the bike lane and the cars. While the task-oriented lobe of my brain told me to keep going and not get all distracted and start dithering around, the fun, serendipidous lobe of my brain disagreed completely. In response to their friendly greetings I stopped, and was offered coffee and donuts. They were decked out in bike clothing, and had a couple of those Burly bike carts with which they’d transported a narrow little table, several boxes of donuts, thermoses of coffee, paper cups, and a couple of toddlers.

My fist thought was, “Uh-oh. These people are way too friendly. If I take one of these donuts, I’m signing up for an earload of Jesus.” But no, they only talked bicycles. One of these happy donut-dolers was named Timo. I told him this was my first water ride as a commuter. He strongly recommended rain booties, a little spendy but they make all the difference. “Our feet are the part of us closest to the ground,” he reasoned. My curiosity overcame me and I asked who they were representing. A group called Shift, he said, they do this donut thing once a month. He squirreled around in a pouch and handed me a slip of paper, limp with moisture, which I tucked into a random fold.

I continued on my merry way, rivers streaming into the airholes of my helmet, fat raindrops pelting my face, and several times I had to wipe the lenses of my glasses with my finger to clear my vision. I arrived with many body parts soaked to the bone. Had I not had the foresight to store an extra few items of clothing at my hideout, I’d be spending a damp day indeed. Timo is probably right about the booties. My biking shoes of thick suede offered no protection at all -- I had to wring out my socks! It was a tenacious rain, determined to find its way into any crevice or fold not sealed up in plastic.

The Salomon snow pants my friend Dana passed on to me a few years ago kept my thighs dry, but strangely, not my underwear. The only real surprise, though, was the failure of my new jacket to keep me dry. I purchased it recently as a combination visual aid and rain shield. It’s that fluorescent lime green that cities are starting to use for caution signs like at school crossings -- a color that only a truly blind person could miss. A sales clerk in a shop complained it was giving her a headache. “No one’s gonna hit you in that,” she conceded. I’ve been wearing it for about a month, and drivers appreciate it. I can tell because they’re extra polite, signaling me to go ahead and not getting as close to me as cars usually do.

But I was hoping it would serve for rain protection as well. The label says water resistant, and I did try it out once during that one flukey rain we had three weeks ago and it worked then. True, it didn’t rain for as long or as hard that time, and I wore a fleece jacket under it which may have absorbed some of the moisture. This time I wore it over only a thin knit shirt. I love that it doesn’t make me all hot and sweaty from the inside; but if I get just as wet from the outside? Hmm. I’ll have to think about this. I invite readers to post any fabulous product findings on this blog site.

Once inside my hideout, after unloading my bike and then peeling off my wet clothes I found the soggy slip of paper. “Official Breakfast on the Bridges Tardy Slip,” it said. “Dear [blank: ‘name of authority’], Please excuse [blank: ‘name of hungry biker’] for being late to [check one]: Work; School; Band Practice; Court Appointment;. ..”
I plan to view their website momentaritly:

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Selling a Friend Down the River

The undeniable truth is that I bond with inanimate objects.

Before you laugh at me, know that I am not alone. I am in the company of all the others like me, the ones not laughing as they read this because they know exactly what I’m talking about. One of my best friends is a set of bureau drawers – a dresser -- which, by the way, would never think of laughing at me. But it doesn’t stop with the dresser. So many friends do I have that if wealth were measured, as it should be, in numbers of friends, you should envy me.

Much as I’d like to tell you more about my dresser – its character, its style, its soft oil finish, its absolute reliability and undying loyalty – and about any number of other prized possessions, given that this is a bike blog I’m going to limit myself to a certain bicycle.

There have been several, of course, and it’s difficult to hold myself back from a flood of reminiscence about each. Each one I shaped and formed, making it into something better – not all at once, in haste, to suit my own whims; but slowly, thoughtfully, one change at a time as I discerned a need, recognized an untapped talent, spotted a potential, and found a means --- an accessory, an adjustment, a substitution – to nudge the bike another increment towards perfection.

But one of my bikes required no nudging, as it came into this world a perfect being. Even the contemplation of a change felt like borderline sacrilege. Motobecane Grand Touring was its name, born in 1975, in a period where every serious piece of sports equipment was designed for men. The darn thing never quite fit me. Its wheelbase extended about two inches beyond my comfortable reach.

So how then, was it perfect? Let me count the ways.

Never mind, first of all, that I was routinely overtaken by every other cyclist on the road (including the ones with training wheels). While a lesser person might blame that on the size-wrongness of the bike, in truth my speed in all aspects of life has rarely exceeded that of the rest of the human race. Compounding the innate lack of velocity is an unwillingness to press my body into unnecessary service.

Ever since I got away from the nuns and discovered that self-flagellation in all its various forms could be entirely abandoned, I’ve wantonly shirked any activity with even a chance of becoming an ordeal. Dooming even further any hope of casting myself as an athlete of any measure, I’ve found myself unendowed with the palest molecule of competitiveness. I stand ready to bow out of the way of anyone trying to get anywhere before I do, with a swoosh of my arm and a friendly “after you!”

Just how does one determine the quality of a sports machine if one is neither an athlete nor a machinist? What are the signs of excellence?

The proof of that bike was that, left to its own devices, unencumbered by reliance on a flawed human power source, it never failed to outrun everyone else on the road. On the flats I endured being passed by slugs on tricycles. But I sought full compensation on the downhills.

With determined turtleness, my unathletic self made it to the top of the McKenzie River Pass on this bike, a series of tortuous hairpins with the reputation of being the most difficult climb of the entire bi-centennial cross-country bike route -- and I beat every living being in my path down the straight East side of it, screaming all the way to Sisters. And as I passed bike after bike and even the occasional car, I made the final mental adjustment that propelled me to athletic stardom and a place on the Olympic pedestal in my head: I pretended that the ground was flat.

If you want to know what the word “infinity” means, hold this bike up off the ground and spin the wheels -- your arm will snap before they ever stop. In case anybody’s still out there looking for the perpetual motion machine, this is it, right here.

Another test: If, after you dissect the entire bike piece by piece and you clean every element thoroughly and fill the hubs with perfect shiny orbs of steel and pack new grease where grease belongs, it all clicks precisely back together like a Swiss watch, that would be a sign.

I’ve ridden the rim of Crater Lake on this bike, several times, drinking in every single view and shrieking in gratitude down every single hill as it propelled me halfway up the next. I traveled from Eugene to Seattle on this bike, alone and foolish, with a map that didn’t match up with reality, but happy.

Once, in a phase of frustration, having repositioned the seat as far forward as possible, I investigated substituting the handlebar stem for a shorter one that would bring the bars closer to my torso. The selection of French-threaded stems was limited to two or three, none of which suited me. Several mechanics tried to persuade me that the only way to accommodate a longer stem would be to change the forks. But I would have none of it. Change these gorgeous forks? Are you MAD?? Look at them! Look at their curve, their shape, the way the tubes butt into each other with flourishes outlined in gold; see the proud red capital M drawn in raised gold and riding on spread wings against a curved black medallion circled by a double oval framing the gold embossed full name of the bike and riveted to the fork front.

And I was right to refuse. I was as right as Eve would have been had she said “No, Adam, you may not have a bite of my apple. Get your own.”

Find me a set of forks today that doesn't look like twin slugs stretched out over a wilted banana leaf.

And so my bike remains unravaged, as well as unsullied by exposure to dampness, having been stored exclusively indoors. Never ridden for city commuting but reserved for long-distance travel, it was spared a life of clanking proximity to the crooked leaning riff-raff populating the public bike racks.

I still own Motobecane Grand Touring, but it waits lonesome in the garage. My current commuting needs demand a meaner, tougher bike that’ll let me plow through road debris, bounce over potholes and pavement irregularities, leap on and off of surprise curbs, shift without loosening my death grip on the handlebars, stop on a dime, turn on a hairpin, and sit up tall so that I and the demonic drivers can see each other.

Occasionally I transport Moto by my car for a spin or two around Sauvey Island where I can ride continuously for miles without interruption. Other than that, my days of long distance touring on a bike that doesn’t quite fit me are over.

Only an intention to take up some serious long-distance biking again would justify my spending the kind of money it would take to attain the equivanlent quality today. But for the present, I wish to pass my friend on to someone who can be a better friend than me.

On Saturday, I stopped and talked this over with Hugh at Northwest Bicycles. The appeal of this shop to me is that every time I go in there, I see the same three people working. As opposed to other bike shops where I never see the same worker twice. Yes, they are co-ops and are willing to train people in mechanics, and feature all kinds of cool attributes like that. I bought my current commuter bike from one of them, on consignment, used. But the truth is that when I want real advice and service from experienced veteran bike mechanics, I don’t want the shop to be owned by 40 people. And I don’t want my bike to be practiced on by a resident medical student. These guys at Northwest Bicycles are grownups who’ve obviously inhaled biking for much of their lives.

By way of introduction I didn’t have to say a word. Hugh overflowed with admiration for Moto the minute I rolled it in the door. After conversing through all the options, Hugh agrees that I should sell it. Instead of thinking of himself and his own business, he referred me to a friend of his named Steve at Sellwood Cycles. Steve has connections with collectors, he said. Steve is set up for these kinds of deals. And so that will be my next step, to pay a visit to Steve and hear what he has to say. I will post sequels to this tale as it evolves into the near future.

As for my relationship with the bike… and the dresser ….. and all the other items.……
Sure, it’s probably a disorder -- with a long hyphenated name in a textbook somewhere, but I don’t care. I have my friends all around me. And when I must part with one, I will go to any lengths to ensure that it has a good home.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Lions in Winter

Fall is starting to push in around the edges of the night and the day. The question that lingers over me is “Will I poop out this winter like I did last winter?” I had 101 good reasons to switch back to my car from about the end of November until May. Gradually, as the weather begins to turn, I am remembering what they were. One was the ordeal of getting the bike in and out of the garage.

Our house was built in the twenties when the garages were set behind the houses where garages belong, at the end of a little lane -- unlike today, when builders will often situate a two or three-car garage right out on the street so that it upstages the whole rest of the house including the front entrance. Obviously they do that because to the typical builder-developer, convenience takes precedence over aesthetics. People inhabiting this contemporary ugliness can reach their garage through a door inside their house, can insert themselves into their dry, room- temperature cocoon of a car, can open the garage door by pushing a button, and drive to work where they enter another garage in the bottom of their work building, park, and ride the elevator to their office. All without touching the weather.

Which, in the depths of winter, is a truly splendid thing.

In Oregon the cold is so damp that the temperature doesn’t have to sink very low to make you miserable to the bone. Much as I despise those garage-centered houses, I love the idea of transporting a bubble of indoorness with oneself all the way to work. That is, I love it in the cold. In the good weather I am acutely aware of the full deprivation of these garage-house people, and I look down on them with pity in my heart. They know not what they miss.

The portable indoor bubble situation is not available to me at this time. Our garage is our tool shed and we park our cars outside. Running through weather from warm house to cold car is ugly enough. Running from warm house to cold garage only to plunge back out into drizzly darkness and pedal through damp frigid air is considerably less appealing.

Let me just dissect the whole experience limb by limb so that I can identify each obstacle as I go and make a little checklist of unpleasantries that need to be removed – for these are the kinds of mini-miseries that when strung together in succession discourage one from even venturing forth from the blankets.

Let’s pretend first that it’s raining – since it will be, soon, for about six months in a row. I leave through the front door and battle my way, machete-less, through encroaching foliage as I squeeze between car and house, stepping in moist bark-o-mulch and dirtying my shoes as much as the unruly foliage is drenching the rest of me. Some days I opt for the alternative route and squish along the edge of the neighbor’s wet lawn on the other side of the car.

Once having overtaken the parked car and gained access to the pavement, I advance down the lane back to the garage where I prepare for the next exercise, namely Opening the Garage Door – a feat requiring the implementation of my entire body, especially my arms which are usually wrapped around various items I’ll be needing that day. In summer conditions, I unload my cargo onto the tarmac. Obviously this won’t work once the ground is wetted by the heavens, so I’ll have to come up with some solution to that before long.

The original door was probably one of solid wood that opened in the middle and swung out on hinges; but some well-meaning previous inhabitants replaced those with this aluminum one that slides up out of the way on tracks. The replacement is perhaps not of the highest quality and therefore probably more difficult to operate than was the original system.

After locating the appropriate miniature on my prisonesque clump of keys and unlocking the central knob, I crouch down to grip the knob in both hands and twist it to the left while pushing into the door with my shoulder until I hear a certain popping sound. Then, still leaning heavily into the door while pulling upward on the knob, I slowly stand up, causing the door to rise with me. As the bottom of the door approaches elbow level, I heave a little extra momentum into it and reposition my hands under its mud-encrusted bottom edge so I can push it the rest of the way up and over, along its tracks.

Once inside, I fumble around for another key and unlock my bike, which is hooked with a large Kryptonite U-shape to another bike. (Lindi’s bike was stolen out of the locked garage last summer, so now we take extra precautions.) Now all I have to do is disentangle them, an easier procedure than locking them together which entails mashing the two bikes close enough to each other for the padlock to reach around them both without getting their pedals caught up in each other’s chains. The longer darkness of winter doesn’t facilitate any of these maneuvers in our electricity-free unit.

All that, before I’m even off the runway. Now I’m ready for a shower and a change of clothes, but it’s time to go. I extract the bike, close and lock the garage door behind me, and I’m finally off. The whole process is repeated in the reverse when I get home in the evening.

After riding through said weather to my destination, I unbend my hands from their death-grip shape, clump to my office on the two ice floes attached to the ends of my legs, and launch my work day with thighs that feel like arctic whale blubber wrapped in a wet tarpaulin, hoping my butt will thaw by noon.

Clearly I haven’t got the proper equipment. Once I explore the myriad ways around all this misery that are available to the modern cyclist, surely I’ll be able to re-create some semblance of the coveted indoor bubble right here on my body. My whole attitude will change, and I’ll spring out of bed in the pitch of winter with the same alacrity and mirth as in the summer, when the bike ride to work is an amusement I can anticipate instead of an ordeal I can only dread. Otherwise, saving a little gas could start to seem a costly trade-off, and warming a little globe (especially my own) begins to seem like an appealing idea.