27 October 2011

Mid-Life Cycling Mysteries

I've been cycling for a long time.  Well, at least, I've been riding for longer than most people, though the current shape of my body might belie that. Still, even after more than three decades of riding even when I had no logical reason for doing so, there are still some things I can't explain.

Here's one of them:  In spite of my advancing age and declining strength, my past few rides--whether commutes or pleasure rides--have been faster and smoother than I expected them to be.  Now, what I am saying is completely unscientific: I am saying them mainly on the basis of having finished the rides I took in less time than I anticipated, or than I would normally take to do them.  And this has happened without any effort on my part to make to make "better" (i.e., faster) time.

What's more, I have noticed this on riding three of my four bikes:  Arielle, Tosca and Vera.  I guess if I want to make a really valid claim, I have to take Helene out, too. (It's been a month or so since I've ridden her.  I can rationalize it this way:  For the rides on which I would have taken Helene, I rode Vera in order to fine-tune her.)  But if I were to ride her with the intention of testing this hypothesis, it would sort of invalidate what I'm saying, wouldn't  it?

On the other hand, there have been times in my life when I was in much better shape than I'm in now, yet the rides were slower and more arduous than the past few have been.  

Have you, dear readers, experienced anything like what I've described?  If so, can you account for it in some way?

24 October 2011

The Tour I Missed

All right. I'm going to show you some photos I took during my ride yesterday, and I'll let you guess where I rode.

My first stop brought me here:

Here is another shot from that same stop:

A few miles later, I was struck by the lines of the tree in the foreground:

A bunch of miles later, I took a detour.  Actually, I think Tosca detoured me, for she felt right at home here:

Some more miles later, I stopped to visit some friends:

They weren't far from this:

or this:

And thus did my journey end:

All right...So you want to know where I rode?  Well, I'll tellya:  What I just said ought to be a clue.  I was in da Bronx.  My detour, during which Tosca posed in front of the floral shop window, took me through the Westchester County communities of Mount Vernon and Pelham Manor.

I had planned to join Lakythia and Mildred for the Tour de Bronx, one of the few organized bike rides that's still free.  I've always known that there were a surprising number of good places to ride and interesting sights in what may be New York City's most maligned borough.  And, I'll admit, I wanted the opportunity to show them to Lakythia and Mildred.  However, teaching evening classes has thrown off my body rythms, and I don't get up as early as I did when I was teaching day classes.  So I got to the Bronx after registration had ended and the riders left.  I thought I might catch up to them, but I might've made a wrong turn or two. Plus, I realized that in a large organized ride, I might not find them.  So I gave up and gave into a ride that basically happened.  When I'm riding alone on as beautiful a day as we had yesterday, I don't mind that.

I must say, though, that today I noticed changes in tree coloration for the first time this year.  I'm not the only one who think it's happening late this year.  Although trees and plants have their own internal "clocks", at least one person who's knowledgeable about such things has suggested that that the relatively warm and very wet season we've had might've wreaked havoc with the trees' timing.

In any event, it was a fine ride, but it would have been better with Lakythia and Millie.  Does this mean I should return to teaching day classes?

17 October 2011

A Preliminary Ride Report: Vera's Verities

Vera, the 1994 Miss Mercian I bought in July, has become my commuter.  So, I have ridden her for a pretty fair amount of time which, I believe, gives me a basis for making some preliminary observations and comparisons.

As I expected, Vera offers a very nimble but comfortable ride.  Still, I was surprised (pleasantly) to find that she cuts as much as twenty minutes off my previous time for the ten-mile (each way) commute I do three times a week.  That, when carrying a full load of books and papers, a strong lock and sometimes a change of shoes.

What I really wasn't expecting, though, is that the rear triangle is not as stiff, or as stable, as that of Helene, my other Miss Mercian.  Vera's twin lateral top tubes extend all the way back to the rear stays, near the points where they're brazed to the drop-outs. In theory, this is supposed to make for a stiffer rear end than that of a more traditional women's or mixte bike like Helene, on which there's a traditional top tube that ends at the seat tube.

It occcured to me even though Helene and Vera are about the same size and are similar kinds of bikes, their geometries might vary, however slightly.  Measurements I took the other day confirmed this hypothesis:  Vera's chainstay is seven millimeters longer (434 vs. 427) and its overall wheelbase spans 19 more millimeters (1031 vs. 1012).  For comparison, the chainstay and wheelbase measurements are 987 and 415 on Arielle, my Mercian Audax road bike, and 980 and 412 on Tosca, my Mercian fixed-gear bike.

Now, of course, some of the componentry is different on each bike.  Though I'm running 700x32 tires on both Helene and Vera, the tires on the latter bike are about 170 grams heavier.  Plus, the components are a bit heavier on Vera, which makes her a somewhat heavier bike overall.  But those factors should not account for the difference in ride that I noticed, while the differences in geometry should.

What I've noted about Vera should not be taken as a complaint.  She is an extremely pleasant bike to ride; even though my commutes are faster, I feel less beat up after pedaling  over streets that, in some places, resemble the Ho Chi Minh trail.  For that reason, I could see taking her on longer rides; however, on multi-day rides, I would probably want a dropped road-style bar like the Nitto Noodle.  And, just for fun, I might try riding Vera with the lighter tires I use on my other bikes to see just how fast she can be.  I don't envision her as my "speed" bike, but I am curious to see what she can do.

On the subject of handlebars: Vera now has a pair of flipped-over North Road-style bars.   I believe that it, rather than the design of the frame itself, is the reason why--perhaps paradoxically, given its longer wheelbase and (seemingly) longer fork rake--the front seemed twitchier at first.  I flipped the bars back to the position for which they were designed, and the steering more stable, though still more responsive than that of other bikes I've ridden with upright bars.  That is to say, it felt a bit more like Helene.

So far, I am very happy that I gave in to my impulse to buy Vera.  She is both the fastest and most elegant commuter I've had:  Nearly any time I ride her, she gets compliments.

I will probably write more about her ride qualities, and those of my other Mercians, in later posts.

13 October 2011

A Fisherman's Vessel

If you've been following this blog, you know that I cycle to and around Rockaway Beach fairly frequently.  In the summer, of course, it's crowded with swimmers, bathers and families.  However, at this time of year, one sees the more eccentric--and, to my mind, interesting characters.

One of them rides this bike:

Notice the hooks attached to it.  On them, he hangs the buckets he uses to haul his fishing poles--and, on his way home (wherever that is), whatever he catches that day.

I have seen him for about as long as I've been riding to Rockaway Beach--about two decades, give or take.  As you probably figured, this is not his first bike.  However, those hooks have been attached to every bike I've seen him ride.

In all of that time, I have not talked to him--or, for that matter, gotten much closer to him than I did the other day, when I took those photos.  Any time I've seen him, he's been fishing at the point where the surf meets the beach.

He would be interesting to talk to--at least to me, anyway.  But somehow I think he'd prefer to be left to his fishing.  Also, I imagine that he would find my style of, and reasons for, cycling to be utterly preposterous.  

Chacun a son gout.  Still, I'm always glad to see him.  Somehow I think the communities of Rockaway Beach--and cycling--would be poorer without him.

08 October 2011

Feeding Stops

Today was the sort of day of which almost every cyclist dreams.  It was warm, but not uncomfortably so, and not humid.  And the sky, like the ocean, was almost perfectly blue, with just a touch of autumnal haze.

So, naturally, I took Arielle for a spin to and from Point Lookout.  Along the way, we rolled and clacked along the boardwalks of the Rockaways and Atlantic Beach.  Actually, I was surprised at how few people were out, or strolling or pedaling the boardwalks, at any rate.  Of them, a few actually took a dip or a swim in the ocean, which is still fairly warm at this time of the year.

The Atlantic coast of the Rockaways and Long Island is directly in the migratory path of the Monarch Butterfly.  They reach this shore, where I rode today, at this time of every year en route to South America.  (Perhaps I should play "South American Getaway" for them. ;-) )

Anyway, as I was enjoying a "parfait" of yougurt, strawberries and granola, I caught this lovely creature enjoying a feeding stop:

Now tell me:  When have you seen another living being that looked so lovely while eating?

07 October 2011

Doing An Involuntary Track Stand

Eight blocks from my apartment....Up to that point, it had been a routine ride home.  But, suddenly, my rear wheel stopped dead.  My feet locked in an involuntary track stand:  I couldn't push the pedals forward or backward.   

Fortunately, I skidded only a few feet and teetered only slightly to one side.  Pulling my left foot out of my pedal, I set it down on the pavement and kept myself from falling.  I had just passed through an industrial area of Long Island City where, at that hour, there was no traffic.  So, I lifted the rear and looked at the rear wheel in the middle of the street, where the lights were bright enough that you could have read the instructions in a Rema patch kit. 

What I saw puzzled me at first:  It looked like a four-or five-centimeter gap behind the locknut on the right side of my rear wheel.  I pulled the bike over to the truck bay in back of one of the buildings.  Even though the trucks were gone, the loading docks and driveway were lit by large kleig lights, which allowed me to see my problem clearly:  The locknut on the drive side had unscrewed from the bearing cone, which tightned against the bearings so that the wheel could not spin.  

Of course, I didn't have the tools I needed to remedy the problem.  (Do you carry cone wrenches on your daily commute?)  So, I had to lift the rear wheel and roll the bike on its front wheel for a bit less than a kilometer to my apartment.

When I got home, of course, I hoisted the bike onto my repair stand and took the wheel off.  The latter task proved difficult, as the wheel had wedged itself even more firmly between the dropouts, which made it difficult to unscrew the quick release skewer.

But once I got the wheel off, I discovered the problem:  The cassette shook from side to side as I moved the wheel.  Once I took off the cassette, I saw that the cassette carrier was very loose on the hub.  

On most Shimano rear hubs, like the one I was riding (It came with the bike), the cassette carrier (what you slide the cogs onto and screw the lockring into) is held onto the hub body with an allen-head bolt that takes a 10 mm key.  

The hub originally came with a seven-speed body; because seven-speed cassettes are becoming more difficult to find, I decided to swap the body for one that is compatible with 8, 9 and 10 speed cassettes.  If you ever do such a thing, remember that the bolt has to be tight!  Otherwise, you will have a mishap like the one I had.  When the body loosened, it wobbled.  And when it wobbled, one of its edges probably caught the edges of the locknut, which caused it to unscrew from the cone.

If that ever happens to you, you won't be able to pedal, even if you use the smallest chainring on your TA Cyclotouriste crank and the largest cog on one of those old SunTour freewheels!  

As I fixed the hub (I cleaned it, packed it with fresh grease and replaced the ball bearings, for good measure), I thought of the time, years ago, when I was riding home from Bear Mountain.  I was pedaling along the long flat stretch of Route 9W just south of the state line to the George Washington Bridge.  In those days before indexed shifting and cassette hubs, I rode a Regina CX freewheel on my racing bike.  It was one of the lightest freewheels available and, being Italian, it seemed like just the thing to ride on a Campagnolo hub. 

Anyway, as the day was mild and the air was calm, I had little trouble in keeping up a high rate of RPMs, even though I had already ridden close to a hundred miles.  Suddenly, I had no choice but to keep on pedaling:  The ratchet mechanism inside the freewheel broke, which meant that I couldn't coast.  And I couldn't stop because, behind me, about a hundred other cyclists were riding at high RPMs and I didn't want to start a pile-up, especially if I would end up at the bottom of it!

Well, I made it home, but not after riding about ten miles on what was, to my knowledge, the world's only bike with twelve fixed gears!

At least the problem I had last night wasn't a complicated fix and didn't require any expensive new parts.  My Regina freewheel, on the other hand, was toast.

03 October 2011

Balancing Acts

Meteorologists are saying that this is already the seventh-wettest year on record here in New York.  And we have almost three months left in the year.  So, while we may not have the wettest year ever, it seems that this year will almost certainly be among the wettest five, or even four.

Don't you just love it when TV and meteorologists talk about "going for a record," as if there's anything we can do about it? I mean, it's not like we're sprinters and this is the Olympics or the Tour de France. Or--given that this is October--it's not like we're Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera in the baseball playoffs.

It does seem, though, that anything done outdoors--whether riding a bike, playing a baseball game or holding a street fair--involves striking a balance with the risk of rain.  How much of a chance do you want to take?  How much can or will you do before the rain falls, and under what conditions do you want to continue?  

Anyway, the other day Lakythia, Mildred and I went on one of those "playing chicken with the rain" rides where we did some miles and stopped in a couple of bike shops. Mildred didn't like the bike she'd just bought, so she wanted to exchange it.  However, she also wanted to see another had to offer before going to the shop where she bought the bike.

She'd bought some absolutely hideous-looking Trek road model.  I don't know how it rode, but I could understand her wanting to exchange it because of its sheer garishness (Is that an oxymoron?) alone.  In its place, she got a much prettier (white with emerald green panels and black trim) Specialized Dolce, which I think also fit her better.  

Anyway, our ride ended when she exchanged the bike at Bicycle Habitat in Soho, where I was fitted for, and purchased, Arielle, Helene and Tosca.  I was going to ride with them to Brooklyn, then back to my place, but the Brooklyn Bridge was closed in the wake of the protests.  

And it was starting to rain.  I confessed, "I might just wimp out and take the train home."  

"I simply can't imagine you doing that!," said Lakythia.

So, even though the rain was falling harder by the minute, I rode.  The funny thing was that I somehow felt safer than I would have had the weather remained dry.  Perhaps it had to do with the fact that fewer people were out than one might normally expect when it's getting dark on a Saturday.

At least I didn't suffer what this rider experienced:  

No, I didn't ride with an umbrella the other night. However, I have done that trick before, and I've seen other cyclists--particularly in England and France--using one hand to navigate and the other to (perhaps futilely) keep dry.

Now, of course, everyone who's ever made deliveries on a bicycle has ridden one-handed while using his other hand to carry whatever he was delivering.  Plus, I'm sure many of us have stopped, bought (or picked up) something and carried it home in one hand.  

Once, I carried home a chair I picked up from a curbside.  Another time, I lugged a torchiere-style floor lamp.  I can recall a couple of times when I brought back pizzas that I balanced on one hand (once when I was drunk) as I piloted the bike with the other.  

But, perhaps my strangest (and noblest) bit of one-handed riding came when I picked up a little dog that, apparently, got lost or was abandoned and had never been outside her home before. She looked like one of those dogs that Posh Spice might carry as an accessory.  No one claimed her, and she had a collar but no tag.

I was riding home from a late class and I pedaled down one of the neighborhood's main commercial streets in the hope of finding a vet's office or animal shelter.  No such luck.  Even I'd found one, it might have been closed at that hour.  So, after ambling down that street, and another commercial area, I brought the dog--I don't know what breed she was, exactly--to the local police precinct.  I hoped that, from there, she made it home, or to a home.  At least, I figured, she was off the streets, where she could easily have been run over.  I have to admit, though, that I enjoyed bringing that dog in just to see the expressions on the police officers' faces:  There's nothing like watching macho guys get mushy.

What have you carried during a one-handed bike ride?