28 August 2011

A First And Last Ride

I'm going to commit an act of defiance:  I'm not going to tell you how I braved driving horizontal rain and vertical tides dropping from the New York Bay into my apartment.  That won't be too hard to do, for those things didn't happen.  In fact, I, like everyone else in my neighborhood, got off rather easily from what was supposed to be The End of Civilization As We Know It, a.k.a. Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene.

Of course, I didn't go outside in the wind-whipped torrents. Only a fool (me in my youth, perhaps) would have done such a thing.  

Ironically enough, the other day, Friday, was about as beautiful as a day could be.  I took my first commute of the new academic year--and my first commute on the Miss Mercian I bought last month.

And, yes, I got to ride off into the sunset.  I guess it was somehow appropriate for the evening before what was supposed to be The Storm Of The Millenium.

25 August 2011

A Bohemian Magpie Rides From Coney Island To Celetna

You know you've just been to Prague when...

you can look at the lights on the Parachute Jump and think "garnets!"

Surely, that structure won't be mistaken for anything Bohemian kings ever wore, any more than any of my helmets would.  And none of the streets I pedaled to Coney Island will never be confused with Celetna, the route of the coronation processions.

And no one I saw today will be confused with Mikhail, who guided my first ride in Prague:

A bit of a Bohemian prince, wouldn't you say?

Guys remember the pretty girls.  Me, I remember the pretty stuff.  Or the eye-catching, stuff, anyway.

I took that photo inside St. Nicholas Church on the Old Town Square in Prague.  Maybe I am, deep down, a magpie if I like to photograph things like that...or this:

23 August 2011

A Czech Guest's Column

In a sort of response to a suggestion Steve A (of DFW Point to Point fame), today I am turning this blog over to a "guest," Milena Svoboda.  She has just recently arrived in New York from Prague, and offers some of her observations about cycling and other things in New York.

I simply cannot comprehend such bright sunshine.  We sometimes have days when there is barely a single cloud in the sky and you can see blue spread out above you, even brighter than the inside of the Hall of Mirrors.  But even with my darkest sunglasses, which I bought just before I left Praha, I still had to ride with my eyes almost closed.

Naturally, the sun can never be as bright in Praha.  We are exactly on the 50th parallel of latitude, as every Czech knows.  On Google, it says that the 50th passes just below Winnipeg, Canada.  For the contrast, New York just north of the 40th, which passes through Minorca, Sardinia and near Ankara.  Justine didn't know that; it is probable that most other people in America don't know that, either.  

Now I understand why Justine got so lost in Praha.  When all of your streets are straight lines, like they are in this city, it's so much easier to find out where you have to go.  Back home, the streets wind round castles and churches; Justine says that when they build a new road here, they knock down people's houses.  

How many Americans pedal on streets like this?  That is the reason why they and Justine are always getting lost.  No wonder they had the need to invent the GPS!  Justine says that is the logical result of being in a country that was "discovered" by someone who got lost.

Anyway (Since I meet Justine, I begin many of my sentences with that word .) I felt like I was riding on a magic carpet.  Where did they find all of this asphalt?  Justine let me borrow the bike she just bought.  It rides so fast and so smooth.  It would much like to ride it in Praha:

It's a pretty bike.  All of Justine's bikes are pretty.  Everyone on this blog says so, too.  I felt like I was floating above the castle when we rode along the river.

After seeing the river and the Hudson, I understand why American streets are so wide and straight.  When I saw Justine, I knew she is from Angliecky or Americky because she carried a book called "Lonely Planet."  In that book, it says that the Vlatva River winds through the heart of Praha like a question mark.  I like that; it makes me realize that the Hudson and East Rivers rush, straight as these streets, through New York like two exclamation marks!

Soon I must return to Praha.  I hope to return to New York some time soon; I was just starting to learn how to ride here.  Justine said she was just starting to understand how to ride in Praha before she had to go home, too.  She wants to come back; I hope she does.

19 August 2011

Why Can't We Have Thai Massage And Bowling In Queens?

So...Back in the good ol' USA, my Internet connection has been out for three out of five days.  It's nice to be back in the technological leader of the world, isn't it?

OK, I'll end the gratuitous sarcasm.  I guess I'm suffering from a kind of post-partum depression about my trip.  I really want to be back in Prague--with at least one of my bikes, of course.

The weather has been a bit warmer than what I experienced in Prague, and it's been raining on and off, it seems, all of this week.  Astoria's not a bad place to be, but when the skies are gray, I want a Gothic skyline. At least, that's how I feel now that I've seen Prague.

I must confess:  I haven't been on my bike since I got back.  I'm doing now what I did after each bike tour I took abroad, I guess.  After cycling among scenery you wouldn't see in Brooklyn or Queens, and ending each ride with food they don't have here, it's kind of difficult to get used to the mundane--or, at least, what's mundane in your own life--again. I guess, though, once I start riding again, I'll appreciate seeing street signs I can read, not to mention asphalt instead of cobblestones and tram tracks.

Now, here's something you won't find in Queens:

16 August 2011

Rainbows And A Full Moon

This has nothing to do with cycling.  Well, I guess it does, because it's about Prague and I did ride in Prague.  

All right, you're not convinced that there's a connection.  Do you care?  You really are looking at this post to see this:

I mean, how can you beat a trip to Prague that includes two rainbows and a full moon on the final night?  No wonder I enjoyed cycling there so much, even if I was riding a bike nothing like any I own over cobblestones and tram tracks, up and down hills.

After all of that, how could I not want to go back?  

15 August 2011

Primary Post-Prague

I'm baaack!

Oh, wait:  That was an Austrian accent. Well, it's the country next door, anyway.  Just like an American talking with a Canadian accent, eh? ;-)

All right...Now that I've offended Americans, Canadians, Czechs and Austrians, what's next?  I guess I'll indulge in a cliche and say that I can't believe I'm back already.  I felt like I was just starting to get the hang of cycling on cobblestoned streets on which half of the width was taken by tram tracks.  And I was just starting to feel right on the bike I rode.  It's really not a bad bike, for its intended ridership, anyway.  

I haven't gotten on a bike since getting home last night in a veritable deluge.  Today it's been raining on and off, and there's no place in particular to which I must, or want to, go.   Riding in my usual settings will be a bit of a comedown--sort of like the sensation I felt after eating a really bad takeout meal the day after arriving home from a bike tour from France into Spain and back.

Yes, I miss cycling in Prague, even though it seems like less of a cyclist's city than New York now feels.  But there is definitely a cycling scene developing; it's more or less where New York's cycling community was about twenty years ago.  That is to say, for one thing, that most of the cyclists--at least the ones I saw--are young, though not children.  And, like most Big Apple cyclists of yore (i.e., my youth), those Prague cyclists are riding either mountain bikes or road bikes that have been adapted in one way or another to city commuting.  Back in the day, messengers and a few other "fringe" riders pedaled the sorts of bikes we now call "hipster fixies" (although we didn't have V-shaped rims available in colors to match our team kit!); I saw the same sorts of bikes in Prague.  

Actually, those bikes are strangely appropriate for a city and country that are  still in the process of creating and re-creating themselves from the detritus of its past and things that could scarcely have been imagined during that past.  In other words, they're exactly the sort of bike one would, and should, ride to a music club adorned with psychedelic posters inside a Soviet-era nuclear bunker.  (Yes, I saw such a place!).  And, of course, said bike would be parked in a place like this:

12 August 2011

Bicycles And Cycling In Prague

Seeing the photos in my previous two posts, I think you can understand why I haven't been posting much.  I'm taking in as much of this city as I can.  And, now that I've been navigating it on bike, I'm coming home really tired.  It seems that in order to get anywhere in this city, you have to climb a hill.  Of course, that's one of the things that makes it so beautiful.  

I've entertained thoughts of moving here.  Talking to Spencer at City Cycles has made me think even more about it.  I've also talked to three other Americans who live here, and all are happy,  In fact, there's something about people generally that seems happier, or at least less stressed-out, than people in any American city I've seen.  The Czechs themselves are reserved, but invariably helpful and polite.  Plus, they almost seem to expect that you don't speak Czech, and if they know any English, they want to use it.  Of course, if I were to move here, I would learn Czech, and possibly German.  (I knew some of the latter at one time, but have lost it through non-use.)

What I'd have to do, of course, is get my bikes and cats over here.  From what I've heard, the former would be easier than the latter.  Then again, I guess that would be true if I moved to almost any other country.  (When I lived in Paris, I didn't have cats, or any other pets.)  But if people here could live under Hapsburgs (I've heard that people have been denied PhDs in European history because they and their professors couldn't agree on whether it should be spelled "Hapsburg," "Habsburg" or "Habsbourg.") and Nazis and Communists, I could do those things.

As far as work goes:  I hope to do more writing for pay.  And, of course, I could teach English: It seems that there's an almost insatiable demand for it here.  Also, I'm told that people--particularly business people and students--want to learn other languages as well.  

And, to top everything off, although the cycling community is still small compared to, say, German cities or New York, it's growing. 

And how can you not love a city where you see bikes like these?

This one belongs to a young male concession-stand worker near the Lapidarium.  He told me that the bike belonged to his grandmother, and he painted the fenders, brake rods and bottom bracket cups.  

This Dutch Batavus tandem was parked near the Astronomical Clock.  I don't know whether it belonged to a local resident, to some Dutch couple on vacation, or someone else.  It looked interesting:  It was lugged, and the rich brown paint looked new, as did the Sturmey Archer internally-geared hub in the rear and dynamo hub on the front.

I saw this one in a shop in Vinohrady, one of the city's loveliest residential neighborhoods.  In the same shop, I saw a bike that confirms something I've long suspected:

Tell me it isn't a Dahon for the Czech market, whatever the label says.  Down to the smallest details I could see, it sure looks like the Dahon I had.  This confirms my suspicion that there are about a half-dozen, maybe ten, factories in Taiwan and China that are making about 99 percent of the bikes in this world.  They just get sold under different names in different countries.  As an example, I could see little difference between bikes from "Author", a common brand here, and ones sold in the US and other countries under Giant's name.  

And then there was this gem in a fashion display in Stare Mesto:

It's a Czech-made Favorit.  I think it's been repainted, as I don't recall any Favorits from back in the day in that color or paint scheme.  Also,the brown Brooks saddle and bar tape are give-aways:  Favorit bicycles came with their own brand of tensioned leather saddle (which was actually quite good) and all saddles--save for "banana" seats on "Sting-Ray"-type bikes--in those days were black.

Also from Favorit is this bike:

Yes, it's the one that's taken me over cobbletones, pebbles, dirt and pavement, and beside tram tracks as well as the Vlata River!

09 August 2011

Girl On Bike Rides To Rainbow In Prague

Summer...In the US, it's a time when frazzled parents with squalling kids go to amusement parks, professional couples go and fry themselves on beaches that, they believe, only they know about.  And guys go to the movies to see pikshas of girls with guns.  Said girls, of course, are usually not wearing much more than their ammo belts.

So, for all of you guys, I'm going to offer the next best thing--a girl in Prague, on a bike:

OK, so I'm not wearing a bikini and my accessories don't run to bandoliers.  And maybe I'm more of a babushka than a girl.  (All of the tacky souvenir shops are full of row after row of Russian dolls.  I thought Vaclav Havel and Alexander Dubcek ended such things!)  So, just for having to endure the indignity of seeing an overweight middle-aged American woman on a rented bike, I'll offer you this:

Really, I didn't intentionally make her blurrier.  I mean, just because she's younger and more attractive than I'll ever be, and is wearing an outfit I can only hope to pull of in my next life,  it doesn't mean I sub- (or not-so-sub-) consciously took a bad photo.  My real purpose...ahem...was to show the wonderful shop from which I rented the bike I rode. It's the same one from which I took a guided tour the other day:  City Bike, on Namesti Republiky (Republic Square).  It's a tiny place, entered thorough one of those wonderful covered passageways one often sees between public buildings in this city.  

City Bike is literally steps from this architectural marvel.  Municipal Hall out-Art Nouveaus any Art Nouveau building you've ever seen.  

Just how you envisioned your next renovation, right?  Just go down to your local Home Depot and pick up all of those materials.

The building and City Bike are also within two kilometers of many of this city's attractions:  the Old Town Square (with the Astronomical Clock), among other things, the Old Jewish Quarter (where I went into the Starenovo, a.k.a. Old-New, Synagogue, the supposed home of the Golem), Wenceslas Square, the Charles Bridge and, of course, the Castle.

Today, on my first solo ride, I went by all of those places.  Then, from the Castle, I took a left (I'm not talking about my politics) and went straight (No comment on that.) through some parts of the city I hadn't seen.  

This building, in the Smichov shopping center, seems to be an inverse mirror reflection of Frank Gehry's "Dancing Building" on the other side of the Vlata River.  (You can't see one building from the other, so I don't think this symmetry was intentional.)  Smichov has been described as Prague's most "schizophrenic" neighborhood: the area around the shopping center and Andel station contain some of the city's swankiest villas.  Yet, less than two kilometers down the road I cycled, near the Schmikovske Nadrazi rail station, is one of the most impoverished areas of the city.  From that station, I found myself riding through an old industrial area, some of which seemed to be abandoned, until I came to an old residential area and, finally, a trestle that was just wide enough for the trams that passed over it.

Although I seemed to be cycling in even tighter spaces than I do in New York or have in Paris, riding these streets didn't seem quite as frentic.  To be sure, I didn't have to be any place in particular at any given time.   But, even when I rode down ancient cobblestoned streets not much wider than my (I'll let you choose the part of my body.  Ha, ha.) and drivers approached from behind, they didn't honk their horns or pull as close as they could to my rear wheel.  Admittedly, those streets aren't very long, so they didn't have to spend very much time waiting.  But I could not imagine a New York or Parisian driver being so patient.

After I got back to my hotel and walked in search of a meal, this sight greeted me:

That, after this:

That was one of two rainbows I've seen since I've been here. A sign, perhaps?  I hope!

07 August 2011

First Ride In Prague

All right, I admit it.  I didn't end up with a guy named Vaclav. Instead, I spent  part of yesterday afternoon with a cute Czech cyclist named Michael:

He's a law student at Charles University in this town.  He speaks beautiful English and, surprisingly, pretty good Spanish.  And, as you may have guessed by now, yesterday he guided me on my very first bike ride in Prague.  

So, here's the answer to a question you may (or may not) have asked:

Yes, it's the bike I rode.  The alternatives were a single-speed cruiser and a mountain bike of a brand I didn't recognize.  I didn't mind the lack of a name brand nearly as much as the poor fit the mountain bike was for me.  

I don't know who made the bike I rode.  I doubt it was made in the Czech Republic; I'm not sure that any bicycles are still being made here.  For the kind of bike it is, it felt pretty good.  

The traffic didn't scare me too much. But the trolley tracks did.  It's so easy to get a tire, even a wide one, caught in the grooves or to scrape the sides of the knobs against the tracks, and to tumble over.  

Nothing like that happened on our ride through the central part of the city.   At least I know now about the tracks, and other hazards.  But more important, I started to see this beautiful city from one of the best possible angles.

04 August 2011

A Prague Leg-acy

Well, I'm back...on this blog, I mean.  I am in Prague and so far this place is delightful.  I can see why people told me I'd love it here.  I mean, I got into the car that took me from the airport to my hotel, and the first thing I heard on the radio was a Dvorak symphony.  I mean, how can you beat that for an entrance into a city.  

As I listened, I "conducted" with my hands, as I often do.  The driver, a man about ten years my senior who spoke about five words of English, just gave me a smile.  "You like Dvorak," he said.  I nodded and smiled.

The hotel is in a quiet residential neighborhood a few minutes from the center of the city.  I compare the neighborhood to the 20th Arrondisment of Paris, where I once stayed, or what the 14th used to be like, except that this neighborhood is even closer to the action than either the 14th or the 20th of Paris.  The similarity lies in its apartment complexes and small houses full of working- and middle-class people, and the fact that it's so quiet in spite of the number of pubs and bars around here.

I also marvel at how clean and litter-free the streets are, even in comparison to other European towns I've seen. Plus, the mode of dress, among Prague natives as well as tourists, seems to be neat-casual with some style,  but not the self-consciousness one sees in Paris.  

Plus, I've been surprised at how easy it's been to find people who speak at least some English.  I tried giving myself a crash-course in some basic Czech phrases, but I haven't gotten much past "Prosim" and " Ano."  At least those words have vowels in them!  

Some of the older people speak German, of which I don't know much more than I know of Czech.  I know they had to learn Russian in school back in the days of Communist rule, but either they've forgotten it or don't want to speak it.  I can understand, and I can't speak Russian, anyway.

All right...enough of a travelogue.  Since this is a bike blog, I  am coming back to that subject.  More precisely, I'm going to show you a bike that was parked down the hill from my hotel:

It's a Favorit bicycle, which looks to be from the '70's or the late '60's.  The first shop in which I worked actually sold a few of these bikes; not many came into that shop, or the United States.  Their basic models, like this one, were actually pretty good bikes that compared favorably with, and cost less than, bikes like the Raleigh Grand Prix and Peugeot UO-8.  The paint jobs were not very inspiring, but the lug work was clean, if not fancy.  And Favorit made some higher-end bikes with some truly nice lugwork and elegant seat clusters.  It was rumored that their higher-end bikes were made of Reynolds 531 tubing; I would not have a hard time believing it because I rode one of those bikes and it had a very similar feel to some other bikes I've ridden that were made from the same tubing.  Also, Favorit were using Campagnolo Record (and, later, Nuovo Record and Super Record) components on their top racing model, and offered a  model that was equipped with Stronglight cranks and other mid-to-upper-range French components.  The components on the company's mid- and lower-level were their own brand but mimicked Campagnolo, Stronglight, Mafac and other western makers' equipment of the time.

They even made (or had made for them) their own brand of saddles which, like others of the time, mimicked Brooks and Ideale design and actually had leather that was a bit thicker.  

I must say, though, it's been a long time since I've seen a saddle mounted so far forward on a bike!

Enough about the bike for now.  And now to the legacy of racing in this country:

01 August 2011

Miss Mercian II Gets Ready For Me To Leave

Just so you know this blog didn't go to the dogs the other day, I'm posting this photo:

Charlie just happened to be there when I was setting up my new camera, which I bought because my old one is dying and I wanted a camera with a wider-angle lens for my upcoming trip.

Believe it or not, he was rescued.  With a face like that, how in the world did he end up on the streets?

All right...Enough rhetorical questions that question the state of the human race.  You're not reading this blog for that, right?

So I'll answer a burning question.  Yes, Miss Mercian II is just about done.  I only took her for a couple of quick test rides: not enough to offer a detailed ride report.  That, I'm afraid, will have to wait until I return from my trip.

I've kept most of the equipment that was on the bike when I bought it.  However, I changed the fenders (from black plastic ones), brake and shift levers, and chainrings (from a triple to a single with a guard).  However, the most interesting--to some of you--change might be this:

I flipped over a pair of Northroad-style bars to give a position that's somewhat similar to what Helene, my other Miss Mercian, has with the Porteur-style bars.  The bike originally came with dropped bars, which necessitated changing the levers. 

I had originally planned to use the bars in the upright position.  But then I found it more upright than I really wanted, so, as per Velouria's idea, I flipped the bars.  That made yet another change necessary:

I had originally planned to use the Gyes Parkside I took off Marianela. However, I found it was too wide after I flipped the bars.  So I went to Old Reliable:  a Brooks B 17, the same saddle I have on Helene.  (Arielle and Tosca, my road and fixed-gear Mercians, have B-17 narrow saddles.)  And we all know that you have to put a honey or brown saddle on a green bike, right? Of course--especially when the grips match!

And I decided this bike simply had to have gumwall tires.  There aren't as many good-quality ones (that is to say, real gumwalls as opposed to ones that are merely yellowish) as there were in the '70's or '80's, and even fewer in 700C.  The ones on this bike are made by Schwalbe.

I might make another change or two once I get some miles on the bike.  But most of what you see is what will remain on this bike, I think.

Note:  My posts during the next two weeks will probably be more sporadic.  If you don't hear from me, I've joined some group that's riding to Moscow or someplace.  Or, I've gotten a job teaching English or met a guy named Vaclav!