29 November 2010

Temptation Under My Feet

White Industries Urban Platform pedals

I succumbed to temptation and it arrived today with the guys in brown shirts.

No, I'm not making Nazi porn.  (Ironically, it was popular in Israel during the 1960's and is enjoying a resurgence.)  What I mean is that amid all those boxes from LL Bean and Macy's, the UPS guys (Yes, they were men.) delivered something I swore I wouldn't buy.

It's a pair of pedals that, even at the lowest online price and with a coupon from the retailer, still cost me more than the first ten or so bikes I owned.  But I have a rationale, if not a justification (I believe that, ultimately, humans cannot justify anything.) for my purchase.

On all of my Mercians, I've been riding MKS GR-9 pedals.  They're platform pedals, which can be ridden comfortably with any shoes heavier than ballet slippers, at least for a few hours. They're the closest thing I could find to my favorite pedal before I went clipless:  the Lyotard No. 23, a.k.a. the Marcel Berthet.

Lyotard No.23 "Marcel Berthet" Pedal

I did my first three European tours on those pedals.  They enabled me to ride in sneakers or trainers I could wear off the bike.  The only other shoes I brought with me were a pair of black cotton Chinese "coolie" shoes.  I could wear them with the dark pants  and polo shirt I brought with me and get into just about anyplace.  

The Berthets were a great design in all sorts of ways.  Even though they were made entirely of steel, they were lighter than the alloy Campagnolo pedals and their clones.  The bearings weren't as high quality as the ones on the Campy pedals, but they were rebuildable and spun freely.  And, did I say they were the most comfortable pedals I've ever ridden?

But today's package didn't contain a pair of them.  They can be found on eBay, but the prices for new ones are nearly as high as the lightest carbon and titanium clipless models.  That's no surprise, really:  Many other longtime cyclists would echo what I said about them, and they've been out of production for about 25 years.  Plus, Japanese collectors prize vintage French bikes and parts above all others. 

Of course, I could have bought used ones. But a "vintage" with a "patina" might mean that someone crashed it thirty years ago and nobody remembers because it's been sitting in a barn or basement ever since.  And that magnifies the one flaw that Berthets had:  They weren't the sturdiest of pedals.  I broke a few axles on them.  Then again, I was riding with, to put it euphemistically, youthful exuberance.  And, in a way, it wasn't so terrible to break them, even on my student's budget:  They cost about a fifth, if that, of what Campys cost.

When I decided to stop riding clipless, the nearest pedals I could find to the Berthets were the GR-9s.  MKS has always made good products at reasonable prices, so I was confident of their performance.  However, the platform is narrower, even at its widest point, than the one on the Berthet.  And, although they're comfortable, after more than a few hours--especially on a hot day--they're not quite as nice as the Berthets.  That's because of the way the toeclip attaches to the pedal:

The main part of the clip attaches slightly below the platform.  You can feel it if you're wearing a thin-soled shoe; even with thicker ones, it can create a "hot spot" (though not as severe as the ones on some caged or even clipless pedals).  

On the other hand, clips on the Berthet were level with the platform.  That is one of the details the White Industries Urban Platform pedal captures:

OK.  Now you know the temptation I was describing. I had the chance to try them on someone else's bike and immediately felt the difference.  Not only is the platform wider, it seems to be, if not more ergonomic, at least more suited to the foot.  

The body looks a lot like the Berthet, except that it's made of a high-strength alumunum alloy.  And it has a flip tab that, like the Berthet's, makes entry into toeclips amazingly easy.  

But, aside from the superior metallurgy, the WI pedals have another advantage over the Berthets:  high-strength stainless steel axles and sealed bearings that spin on them. The latter is another rationale for buying them:  On all of my Mercians, the other bearings are sealed.  And I've always thought that pedals were the best place on the bike to use sealed bearings.   

They're going on Arielle, as it's the bike on which I do my longest rides.  But, as finances allow, I'm going to equip my other Mercians with them.

27 November 2010

WWRKD (What Would Ralph Kramden Do?)

Today I had to take the bus to the Jersey Shore.  Now, you're probably looking at my last name and wondering whether I did myself up like Snooki.  As if I could, or would want to...

Anyway, on the way out of , and back into, New York, I passed through the Port Authority Bus Terminal.  I committed, shall we say, a few of my youthful indiscretions there.  So did more than a few other people.  In recent years, the place has been cleaned up and made much safer, along with neighboring Times Square.  (Once, when I was drunk, I stopped a would-be mugger by laughing in his face.)  But the ticket counters are just as understaffed, and the staff in other parts of the terminal are just as rude and surly, as they were.

But I digress.  On my way out, I noticed a monument to a character and TV show that, as far as I can tell, are acquired tastes that I never acquired.  

Ralph Kramden was always threatening to send his wife Alice "to the moon."  I can only imagine how he'd talk to cyclists.  

To be fair, when cycling, I don't have many encounters with long-distance bus drivers, as we tend not to be on the same roads.  However, some of my more harrowing experiences in city cycling have been with bus drivers.  They're not as reckless as some cab drivers, but they are angrier.  I guess having to maneuver a bus into the same tight spaces afforded taxis would make anyone surly, if not psychotic.

How would Ralph Kramden have reacted to a lycra-clad messenger on a hipster fixie?

26 November 2010

The Cycles of Black Friday

No, I didn't go to any of the "Black Friday" sales today.  To me, they're like New Year's Eve in Times Square:  something to be done once, to say that you've done it.   Yes, I've done both.  No, I don't intend to do either again.

The simple explanation is that I don't like being among the BF or NYETS crowds.  Actually, I don't like being among crowds generally.  So what am I doing living in New York, you ask.  Well, I live in the Big Apple precisely because I don't like great masses of people, just as I became a writer and teacher because I was, and in some ways still am, shy.  No, I'm not being cute, contrarian or Zen.  Actually, I never have been any of those things, and Zen is the only one of them I have even the remotest chance of becoming.  But I digress.

It goes something like this:  the more I like people--well, some individual people, anyway--the more I dislike being among masses of them.   And the more I live with and by my shyness, the more I find to say and the more I have the need to say it.  Likewise, the more I enjoy shopping, the less I like to be part of the throngs who are hunting bargains.

All of this has to do with what led me to a lifelong passion for cycling.  When I first started to take long rides and realized that I would benefit from a bike with gears, pedaling while astride two wheels when you were old enough to step on a gas pedal and accelerate four wheels was still something of an act of rebellion, at least in the US.  Also, counterculturism and consumerism were still seen as antithetical to each other:  Birkenstocks weren't yet a brand, or at least a consumer tag.  I still believe that good consumer choices might save you money, but they're not going to save the planet.  I also realize what a position of privilege it is to be able to make choices according to a company's "carbon footprint" or to be a locivore.  Maybe that's the reason I never was a liberal and never will be a hipster.

Anyway, I have my own bragging rights.  I once moved myself from one apartment to another entirely on my bicycle.   Black Friday shoppers, including the one in the photo, had nothing on me(!):

25 November 2010

Giving Thanks on a Quick Morning Ride

I heard it was going to rain today.  So I tried to sneak in an early ride:  just a few miles on Tosca.  It felt about ten degrees colder than it was when I pedaled home last night after teaching in the technical institute.  And yesterday was at least that much colder than the day before.  At least, it seemed that way, for the wind blew hard enough to strip nearly all of the remaining leaves from wizening branches. 

One of the things that amazes me about cycling is that, even after all of these years, I can ride down some street I've pedaled dozens of times before and a moment, an image, will imprint itself in my mind.  Just south of LaGuardia Airport, in East Elmhurst, an elderly black woman stepped, with dignity if not grace, from behind a door on which dark green paint bubbled and the wood splintered and cracked into ashen hues like the ones on her coat, which she expects, or at least hopes, wil get her through another winter.

She is probably thankful for even that.  You might say that I am, too, for being able to ride by and see that, and to be able to ride home, then to Millie's house for Thanksgiving dinner.

I hope yours was at least as good as mine.

23 November 2010

Riding Into The Sunrise...All Right, It's My Morning Commute!

OK.  So yesterday I embellished things just a bit when I said I rode off into the sunset.

Well, this morning, my commute took me into the sunrise.

I always thought it was kind of strange that when the guy got the girl, he rode off into the sunset with her.  I mean, if they're starting a relationship, wouldn't a sunrise be more appropriate?

And what about when the girl gets the guy?  Or when the girl gets the girl?

For any of those scenarios:  Should the guy-who-gets-girl, girl-who-gets-guy or whomever-gets-whomever ride tandems?  Or should they ride solo bikes abreast of each other?  Or single file--and who should lead?

If these questions are academic, well, I guess that's appropriate.  After all, I am riding off to teach in a college.

Into the sunrise.  In Queens, yet!

22 November 2010

Old Bikes Never Die, They Just...

Sometimes I'll see the same bikes parked in the same place for what seem to be aeons.  

These golden oldies have been parked on Broadway at 11th Street (by the post office) for as long as I can remember.   The nearest one is a Ross "compact" bike from, I think, the 1970's.  But those other two bikes are much older. 

I've been known to "rescue" books from unsavory surroundings.  As an example, during a ride I used to take regularly when I was a Rutgers student, I stopped at a truck stop in the foothills of the Watchungs.  On my way out, I saw, from the corner of my eye, a little paperback volume of "Silver" poets.  Even if I hadn't been interested in some of the poems that were in it, I would have felt sorry for that book, stuck among the 57 varieties of porn on the racks.

I brought it to the man at the counter, who looked as if he could have been one of the truck drivers who patronized the place.  He squinted.  "Give me 75 cents for it." 

I rolled it up, tucked it into the rails of my saddle and pedalled off into the sunset.  Well, maybe I'm exaggerating, er, taking poetic license, about the sunset.

Sometimes I have a similar impulse when I see old bikes, unless they're absolutely awful.  The problem is that it takes a lot more space and money to rescue old bikes than old books, or even cats.  I know about the latter:  Charlie and Max were both rescued from the street and the pleasure they give me makes what I spend on them one of the great bargains of my life.

Anyway, I often wonder how Charlie and Max ended up on the street.  Or how a volume of Silver Poets ends up in a rack full of porn at a New Jersey truck stop.  Or how bikes end up locked forlornly to various sign posts, parking meters and other immovable objects for geological ages.

Did those bikes' owners suddenly have to leave town?  At least books can be left with the Strand Bookstore, which is only a block from where I saw the bikes in the photos.  And cats, dogs and other animals can be left with the ASPCA, though I will do my damndest never to leave Charlie, Max or any other animal I may adopt (or, more accurately, who adopts me) to such a fate.  But where is there a Strand Bookstore or ASPCA for bikes?  I know, you can leave them with the thrift stores--when they have the room.  Otherwise, those bikes end up on the same streets as those benighted animals.

21 November 2010

When A Favorite Ride Changes

I, of all people, should not be fazed by change.

But how do you react when one of your favorite bike rides is about to be altered, possibly beyond recognition?:

I guess I shouldn't be so worried about what's going to happen to Rockaway Beach.  This guy looks like he might not survive the changes.

Just for  the heck of it, I decided to see how close I could ride to him.  How close I got to him surprised me.  What disturbed me was the reason why I could:

Not only is his wing broken; he was even more sickly than he looked from a hundred feet away.  

I may not be much of a naturalist, much less an orinthologist.  But I think it's a pretty safe to say he won't be there come next spring's cycling season.  I wonder who else won't--and will--be.

Much of the boardwalk--like many of its counterparts up and down the East Coast--hasn't borne the brunt of this year's storms very well.  So it's being rebuilt:

I always wondered what a boardwalk would look like if it were built in the Brutalist style.  Well, all right, I never did.  But now I know.  

My dislike of this boardwalk is not only from an aesthetic point of view.  The lines between the slabs are even sharper than the ones between the weathered wooden boards of the old boardwalk.  Those slabs are not always perfectly level with each other, and even if they were, the edge of a tire could skid against the edge of one of those slabs and cause a nasty spill.

As much as I dislike them, I can understand why they're being built that way. For one thing, it probably fits in with the row houses that are being built on the streets leading to it.  But more important--at least to the builders--it's probably cheaper than rebuilding with wooden boards.  It also won't weather and splinter the way wooden boards do, though concrete doesn't always age well in damp places, either.  

The latter, by the way, is the reason why builders have gotten away from the Brutalist style.  That, and the fact that raw concrete slabs can be unbelievably depressing, especially under the gray skies that one sees about 250 days a year in much of Northern Europe and northeastern North America, where so many of those buidings went up.

My question is:  If it's made of concrete, can it still be called a boardwalk?

Anyway, I have to wonder what next spring's--or even this winter's--rides will look like.  I hope that some of the old bungalows will remain:

Well, whatever happens, I guess I should be happy if the concrete replacement for the boardwalk remains open to cyclists.  I can tolerate almost anything that's by the ocean, so I guess whatever they're building will work, in some way or another, for me.

Still, I can't say I am happy about the prospect of a ride I've done for about 25 years being changed irrevocably.  All  I can hope is that at least something about it will be for the better for us.

20 November 2010

At Journeys' End

Today seemed chillier than it actually was because of the wind--and a cold and one of those headaches that makes it seem as if a vise was clamping and squeezing at my temples. So I didn't ride.  I hope to feel better tomorrow.

Janine's death hasn't helped my mood much.  Although she wasn't a cyclist herself, she did a nice series (Click onto "Serie des Cyclistes")  of engravings with cyclists as her theme. 

One of the wonderful things about cycling in France is eating at the end of a day's ride.  If you've ever done a long or hard ride, you know that nothing tastes better than that roast chicken, pasta, ear of corn, salad, wine, pastry, fruit or anything you might consume afterward.  That's true even if you're eating in some truck stop off a highway in the middle of some place God seems to have forgotten.  So, imagine how good the bird, the grain, the soup are when your day's ride ends next to a chateau by the Loire--or in Paris.

It was even better when  that meal in Paris at the end of a day of riding was made by Janine.  I've spent enough time in France and eaten enough French cooking not to be impressed by all of it.  But I'll rave about Janine's culinary work.  So do her French friends, with whom I've shared some meals and other good times.

In recalling her, two words came up repeatedly: genereuse and vitale.  As creative and independent as she was, I never had the sense that she was, or felt, alienated from the world in which she lived.  Over time, I slowly came to realize how much the "cowboy" notion of creativity as the product of isolated, alienated individuals had crippled me as well as countless other people, particularly in America. 

For a long time, I rode because I was, or thought I had no choice but to be, that "cowboy."  I don't think Janine ever tried to teach or convince me of anything different.  She simply was a light at the end of those journeys--including the one that brought me from Nick to Justine.

18 November 2010

Agoraphobia Opening, or Opening Agoraphobia

Marianela's ready for another commute:

She might be showing her age.  But, like girls of any age, she likes new accessories--especially a new bag:

And she especially likes it if the bag is retro:  real retro, like the OYB bag I described in an earlier post.

Down my street to start another day:

You can tell there's not much left of autumn.  Every day, the wind sweeps more leaves off the branches.  It leaves the trees more barren, and sometimes even a bit forlorn-looking.  And it exposes them to the expanse of sky:  a gray sky:

It's a bit like my morning commute:  the road and the world open before me, if only for moments. But some days what unfolds is a Mercator Projection of concrete lines and angles puncuated by windows filled with the ashen sky.  

At least, at the end of the days like that, I can ride away from it.  That was always the second attraction of cycling for me.  The first is to pedal into the open waves, whether they are in front of or within me.

16 November 2010

For Two

The other day, I saw a tandem propped against someone's hedges

It's a Motobecane tandem from, as best as I can tell, some time in the late 1970's or early 1980's.  I am always surprised to see a tandem, much less anyone riding one.  But it was even more unusual to see one after the cycling season has passed its peak.

Anyone who drives in New York will tell you that parking is one of the most difficult things about life in this city.  I think it's just as true for tandems as it is for cars.  Actually, parking a bicycle built for two may actually be even more difficult than parking a car built for four.  After all, tandems don't fit very well in spaces where people park regular bikes.  And the spaces in which most New Yorkers live don't leave much room for a tandem.

I've ridden a tandem twice in my life.  The first time was, in fact, around this time of year.  I rode with a group that took rides to various ethnic neighborhoods in this city to sample foods and restaurants.  A young blind woman wanted to ride with them, but she needed someone to ride the front of a tandem the Light House supplied.  Enter me.

The bike was a single speed Schwinn:  heavy, but not a bad bike.  As I recall, it's what the bike rental places in Central Park offered.  So, while it wasn't the most responsive thing in the world, at least it didn't "fishtail" in the rear, as some tandems are prone to do.

I think my story-telling skills were more important than my bike-riding prowess for that woman.  I gave her a running narrative of the neighborhoods through which we rode and explained why we were riding them.  

After a while, I found myself sad and frustrated because I had to explain all sorts of things most of us take for granted.  For example, when we rode by the brownstones of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, I realized she had no idea of what they looked like.  She didn't even know about red, brown or any other color.  

Unfortunately for that young woman, I didn't do quite as well as the narrator did at the end of Raymond Carver's Cathedral.

Then again, that narrator wasn't pedaling and balancing the front of a tandem! 

15 November 2010

Commuting on the Fifteenth of November

If you looked at my other blog around this time two years ago (Now why would you have done that?) , you'd know that one of my favorite descriptions one person has ever given of another was what Gertrude Stein said about T.S.Eliot:  "He looked like the fifteenth of November."

Today looked, well, like the fifteenth of November:

As gray and overcast as that sky was, it posed absolutely no threat of precipitation.  And it won't until late tomorrow afternoon.  The weather was cool-to-chilly, also typical of this date. I don't mind riding in these conditions at all.   To me, a day like this one is as much a reason to commute by bike as a sun-drenched morning in late spring is.

The street on which I live dead-ends onto the one from which I took the photo.  I was a mile or so from my apartment and had about an hour of daylight remaining.  That gave me enough time to notice the particular (and sometimes peculiar) geometry of that area of Long Island City, Queens:

The funny thing is that I don't like either of those buildings.  The one on the left is owned by Citicorp; it's across the street from the company's main tower, which is the tallest building in Queens:

"Citicorp" as in "Citibank":  When I had an account with the latter, I used to refer to them as "Shittybank."  And I wasn't the only one who did!

Anyway, I re-shot the second photo from another angle.  Did I unwittingly create a commentary on the government bailout?

It makes the fifteenth of November seem downright balmy.

14 November 2010

Just What This Girl Needs: Another Bag!

Back in the day, I carried a boxy gray canvas shoulder bag.  I bought it from the sort of store that seems not to exist, at least in Manhattan, anymore:  Its merchandise was too disparate even to qualify the place as a "variety store" or flea market.  In fact, just in sheer size, or lack thereof, the place could hardly even qualify as a store of any kind:  It was just a few feet by a few feet of space that contained bins and a counter. And there didn't seem to be more than one of any particular item.

The shop or store or whatever you want to call it was on or near Canal Street.  The bag, if I remember correctly, cost 75 cents.  On its flap a serial number and a cross of the kind found on a few countries' flags were stenciled.  It had no stiffeners, so, when empty, it could be folded small enough to fit into a small pocket of a backpack or pannier.

I carried that bag through my last two years of college.  Then I took it with me on my first trip to Europe, where it served me nicely for carrying my camera and notebook when I was off the bike and wandering the back alleys of various towns and cities on foot.  When I lived in Paris, I used it to carry any number of things. And, after I returned to the States, I found that the bag served as a kind of musette.

When I first started carrying that bag, it wasn't socially acceptable for men to carry shoulder bags.  Then, a few men  would start to carry what others would refer to as "fag bags" and, later, "man purses."  And my particular bag, by the time I finally wore it through, would come to be known as a "Swiss Army bags."  When I first bought the bag, there was no benefit--at least from a marketing standpoint (What did I just say?)--to be derived from asociating it, or any product, with the Helvetian military.  Only those who actually worked in the outdoors (like rangers) and dedicated hikers and campers knew what a "Swiss Army Knife" was, much less used it.  

Fast-forward three decades.  Only stylized near-imitations of that bag are to be found now--at least, in any place where I shop.   I have, however, found something very similar, only better--and vintage, to boot.

I bought it from Out Your Backdoor (OYB).   The package in which it was shipped included, among other things, OYB's newspaper/magazine that reads like the copy on the label of the old Dr. Bronner's soap bottle if it had been written by hippies-turned-survivalists. The subjects include any and all outdoor activities from gardening and tree-planting to off-road biking, and music, literature and art from independently-produced "folk" artists.  Some of those writers, composers and performers wouldn't give themselves such labels, or may not even be aware that they exist.  It's not the sort of stuff people learn how to do in MFA programs.

Those stories, songs, drawings and such are a bit like the bag I bought:  Some might believe them to be too unrefined.  But if you like things with, or that can develop, a patina, you might like some of them.

In other words, the bag I bought from them fits perfectly into their ethos and aesthetic:  They're canvas with leather bottoms and fasteners and look used.  But they're not "treated":  The bags are military surplus, or at least look and feel the part.  

To these bags are added tabs and straps that allow them to be used as bike bags.  They're billed as "seven way" bags.  I tried three of those ways, and might try a fourth.

As a saddlebag, it would be good for a day ride.  It fits in a similar way to the Velo Orange Croissant bags and the Berthoud bag on which it is modeled, and seems to have about half again as much carrying capacity as either of those bags, but about half  as much as (or less than) a Carradice Barley.  Supposedly the OYB bag can hold three wine bottles.  But you didn't hear that from me, a non-drinker.

OYB provides three tan leather straps similar to the kind that come with the Carradice bags.  They work best on bag loops like the ones found on the Brooks B17 saddle, but can also be attached to the saddle rails.  As the bag is longer than its VO/Berthoud counterpart, its bottom may rub on the tire of a bike with a small frame, or one on which less than the traditional "fistful of seatpost" is exposed.  Of course, if you use a rack or fenders, or have a larger frame or more than a fistful of seatpost, this will not be a problem.

Also, the bag will install in somewhat of a convex shape if you mount it on saddlebag loops.  That takes away some of its capacity, but there's still enough room for almost anything you'd need for a day ride.

Without a support, the bag is surprisingly steady.  That may have to do with the structure of the bag which, while it has no stiffeners, holds some semblance of a distinct shape due to its thick canvas and leather.

The bag also makes a nice small shoulder tote in which you can hold a wallet, keys, pen, cellphone and a few other items, such as a hairbrush and compact.  I'm guessing that it would also be good as a handlebar bag  or small pannier for a small, light load, though I haven't tried using it for those purposes.  

Best of all, this bag is less expensive than just about any other saddle, handlebar or shoulder bag.  OYB will install a leather "blinky" strap for an extra five dollars.  Whether or not you choose that option, you'll get a bag that's sturdier than most others available today and has the cool "retro" vibe that looks great on vintage bikes, as well as current steel bikes.

I decided to try the bag on Tosca for the heck of it.  But ultimately it's going to Marianela, as I think its brown leather and brownish olive drab canvas will look nice on her.