Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Corn Cob

On a recent ride with my bike club, I got some ribbing about this blog from my friend Marty. (Marty can give me all the flak he wants, because the first words I ever spoke to him, back in’88, were “I have no respect for you,” in a heated moment after he beat me in a bike race.) Apparently referring to my tendency to blog at great length on trivial topics, Marty suggested I write a blog about corn cobs. Corn cob, in this context, refers to a rather small bicycle gear cluster in which each cog is just one tooth bigger than the next. This gives a racer great precision--but no range--in choosing a gear to pedal in.

"You could write an essay about each cog," Marty teased, "or better yet, you could write a sonnet, an ode to the corn cob!" So, here it is.

Ode to the Corn Cob

When I was nine I had a ten-speed bike.
I loved it, though it suffered from the curse ooooooooooo2
Of tires not as thin as I'd have liked,
And of a spoke protector, even worse.

We didn't call them spoke protectors though,
As "pie plate" better mocked how big they were. ooooooio6
They caused the largest cog to seem to grow--
A mean illusion, awful to endure.

A bigger cog meant lower gearing, see;
The stuff of weaker boys, embarrassing. ooooooooooooo10
We longed for smaller clusters, finally free
Of pie plates. Lack of metal was our bling.

At age eighteen I realized my dream:
I ran a straight-block corn cob, plate-less, clean. oooooo14

Footnotes & Commentary

Line 1: Bike

I got the bike when I was nine. It was a Fuji Junior, bright red, and it’s still on the road today, now piloted by my nephew Jake. That’s him (with his mom), on the very Fuji of my childhood, in the photo above. This was my first bike: my brothers and I were unique in a) being pretty late in getting our first bikes, and b) getting ten-speeds long before any other kids. What a glorious day that was when I had my very own bike to ride and no longer had to run alongside my brothers and their friends as they rode up and down our neighborhood streets.

I really did love that Fuji, and defended its honor passionately when my brothers called it the “Fudgie” and told me that it was made by “Fuji Heavy Industries.” My brothers also loved to tease me about my bike being called “Junior,” as opposed to their coolly-named Motobecane Nomades. It’s hard to imagine why I was so ashamed of “Junior,” but clearly I was, because at some point I actually painted over the decals with red touch-up paint. (As for Fuji Heavy Industries, they don’t make bikes. They make Subarus.)

The bike had Suntour shifters and derailleurs, which I noticed when with great delectation I examined every last feature of the bike. Suntour seemed like a really cool word. I didn’t grasp at the time that it was brand of component; I thought Suntour was a sub-brand of the bike, as though Fuji was the make and Junior was the model and Suntour was the sub-model, like they do with cars now (e.g., Honda Acura Integra Basilica XLS, Sport Series). I remember riding up and down the block joyously singing “Sun-TOO-or BYE-sick-UL!”

Missing from the Fuji now are the toe-clips. I know I had them because—like everyone—when I first got them I kept forgetting to loosen the straps, tipping over again and again.

Line 2: Cursed

The bike was not cursed—I was. I wasn’t alone, of course; also cursed was every other kid who was painfully aware of the uncoolness of his bike based on its not resembling a pro racing bike in every detail. Kids—heck, humans—make a lot of trouble for themselves scrutinizing everything and placing it within a rigorous, heartless hierarchy like this.

Line 3: Tires

The original tires were 24 x 1¼ inch. (The small wheel diameter made it possible for the frame to be a reasonable 18 inches while still allowing me to straddle the bike.) I dreamed of tires that were only 1 1/8 inch wide, which is what my brothers had by then. Oh, how they lorded that eighth of an inch over me. I became fairly obsessed about it. Eventually my brother Geoff crashed his bike (I believe he was riding at night and hit a brick) and totaled his front wheel. Unable to find a replacement 24-inch wheel, my dad bought a 600C, which had an aluminum alloy rim instead of steel and was thus much better. Not wishing to reward Geoff for his foolishness, my dad put the 600C wheel on my bike and Geoff got my old wheel. This was all well and good until the mandatory bike shop safety inspection a couple weeks before my first bike race, the Red Zinger Mini Classic, in 1981. My bike failed the inspection due to worn-out tires, and the shop only carried the 600C tire in the 1 3/8 inch width! Man, that is really fat. The mechanic lectured me at length about how tire width really doesn’t matter and skinny tires won’t make you go faster. His unspoken assumption was that aesthetics shouldn’t matter to a kid—but why not? I guarantee his tires were nice and skinny! To my great relief, my dad found a 600C x 1¼ inch tire in Denver for me.

Line 6: Mockery

Not all the mockery was in the direction of pie plates in general. Much of it was directed at my pie plate in particular, which my brothers convinced me was even larger than theirs. That my bike was different from theirs singled it out for all kinds of contempt. It didn’t matter that their French bikes had those awful plastic Simplex shifters and derailleurs. To this very day, despite having spent his teen years as a bike mechanic wailing about the awfulness of French bikes, my brother Bryan won’t concede that my Fuji was better. “Are you kidding? Never!” he says. “The Motobecanes were elusive, romantic French bicycles, with light-weight derailleurs and wedge-shaped tires! I remember loving that Nomade like it was a girl. Your bike was made by a Heavy Industries factory in Japan, mine by French people, who made racing bicycles, and knew about love and stuff.” My dad had bought the Motobecanes at Basque Sports in Boulder, and every time we drove by the store in the car, we’d all chant its name, both in homage and because it was such a hard name to pronounce. The “–sque” butting up against the “S” in “Sports” created a hissing effect that, since we couldn’t avoid it, we ultimately accentuated: “Basques-ssk-ssk sports-ssk-ssk.” (Nobody ever knew or cared where my Fuji came from.)

Line 8: Awful to endure

It wasn’t just the size of the pie plates that rankled us. I couldn’t find room within the sonnet to address the issue of pie plate rattling, so I’ll mention it here. Mine didn’t give me much trouble, but my brothers’ pie plates rattled like crazy. Finally Geoff couldn’t take it anymore and figured out a solution: he took a length of surgical tubing, maybe half a centimeter in diameter, sliced it lengthwise down the middle, and ran it along the edge of the pie plate, so it was held in place by the spokes. This worked for awhile, though the tubing tended to peel off eventually. He solved this by sewing it on there with kite string or dental floss or something. Eventually the tubing turned yellow and brittle in the sun, making the pie plate look more ghastly than ever. As you can see from the photo above, the pie plate on my old Fuji is going strong. I doubt it has ever occurred to Jake to despise it.

Line 9: Gearing

It seems intuitively obvious to me, as it did when I was a kid, that a larger cog indicates personal weakness. When I really think about this, I see that math is involved, and it wasn’t until I read my sonnet to my wife, Erin, that I realized how much I take for granted when it comes to the proportions of bike components. Imagine: she can look at a large freewheel and not pity the bike owner at all! But then, she didn’t have, as a pre-teen, a gear chart taped to her stem, showing which front/rear gear combination represented the next highest or lowest gear. Bryan, at fourteen or so, actually wrote a computer program to plot the gear inches on a logarithmic scale. Gear inches refers to the number of teeth on the chainwheel up front, multiplied by the wheel diameter in inches, divided by the number of teeth on the rear cog. Any teenager I rode with then knew by heart not only that, say, 52 x 13 was a 108-inch gear, but exactly how fast that gear would propel him at top cadence. Bikers were nerdier then, I think.

When I started racing, my brothers helped me strip down my bike, ditching the reflectors, replacing the stem-mounted shifters with down-tube ones, and removing the so-called “chicken” or “suicide” levers, those brake-lever extensions that made it possible to brake while riding on the tops of the handlebars. I distinctly remember Geoff, at age thirteen or so, sawing off the chicken-lever stubs with a hacksaw so the bolts would sit flush. We/they also removed the chain-guard on the crankset, which now strikes me as a step down aesthetically (it was a giant, pretty, chrome thing, and I remember well how often I had a grease print of the chainring on my pant leg after the chain-guard was gone). The rear mech is a Suntour V-GT Luxe, which my dad installed along with a larger freewheel to give me—you guessed it—lower gearing, which of course was a bit humiliating. Why me? Was I such the runt that I alone needed lower gearing? Oddly enough, the larger freewheel actually made the pie plate look smaller—but just try telling my brothers that. The bike never did shift very well after that “upgrade,” which is why in races I’d often get dropped in either the highest gear or the lowest. This doesn’t mean I didn’t get dropped when using other gears—I mostly used those two gears, and always got dropped.

Line 14: Straight-block

When I upgraded from the Fuji to my first Miyata, I went from a 32-tooth large cog in back to a 28, and I was thrilled at the sleeker, racier look. It still had a pie plate, but it was aluminum, and not as shiny, thus less conspicuous. A couple of years later I bought some wheels from my brother Geoff that had the same 28-tooth cog, but with no spoke protector. That was a huge step forward; I think my ego doubled that day. At age fourteen I started racing in the United States Cycling Federation races, where your smallest cog couldn’t be smaller than 17 teeth—far lower maximum gearing than I’d been riding in the Mini Zinger. (The idea was to save the youngsters’ knees.) It was practical to run a straight-block freewheel with that limitation; even with only six cogs, you could do 17-18-19-20-21-22, with 22 being a totally reasonable gear for getting up just about any hill in the Boulder area.

The next year I moved up an age group and was allowed to have a 15-tooth cog, and I went to the new Suntour 7-speed freewheels, and had an almost-straight-block of 15-16-17-18-19-20-22. Still, a 22 was the freewheel cog equivalent of sensible shoes, and I wanted something more bold. Finally, I switched to Shimano gear cassettes and for the first time could easily create custom combinations for specific races; for example, if I was racing with the adults I could use a 12-tooth cog. At last, I could build the highly impractical gearing combinations that fully satisfied my vanity: for criteriums or bike club photo-shoots I’d set up a 12-17. (Shimano wasn’t doing 7-speed yet.) What a rush that was as a teenager, to look down and see not a giant cluster with a humiliating pie plate, but this tiny little freewheel, a man’s freewheel, a svelte cluster fit for a real racing bike, and above all a highly visible manifestation of my strength. It was like the bicycle equivalent of giant muscles. It never occurred to me that to most people, perhaps even to you, it’s just a bunch of damn sprockets and whatnot that don’t really mean anything.

So did I outgrow all this macho nonsense? Of course not. I still snort at pie plates (though they’re made of plastic now). After a couple of months of dating Erin (back in ’92) I quietly removed the pie plate from her mountain bike. (She never noticed.) As for gearing, the modern-day equivalent of a giant rear cog is of course the triple front chainwheel, which accomplishes the same thing (i.e., addresses the same weakness). A triple requires a longer derailleur cage, which I equate—with a shudder—to that old V-GT Luxe on the Fuji. If a friend, new to cycling, asks me about triples, I’ll tell him they make sense given the hills around Berkeley. But a triple for my own bike? Are you kidding? Never!
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  1. What about compact cranksets...AKA the venerable 110 BCD immortalized by the Sugino Mighty Tour crankset (http://www.flickr.com/photos/25373440@N00/1510140166) -- how do these rank on your machismo scale, then vs. now?

  2. Bravo... I do believe, however, that Bikesnob has forever aptly renamed the spoke protector as a "pie plate"

  3. Marty, the Sugino Mighty Tour is a venerable old crankset, and I respected it both back in the day and at least as much now. But the problem with the compact style (whether both chainrings are small or just the inner one), which is clearly visible in the photo journal you reference, is that you need that long-cage rear mech. That just spoils the macho factor. This setup is better than a triple, of course, with its grotesque proliferation of chainrings and that ungainly front mech, but it's still not as cool as a 39, 40, or 42 front ring coupled with a corn cob. The coolness lies in the very impracticality of the tall gearing. To put it another way, we cannot both a) be badasses, and b) subscribe to "Prevention" magazine.

  4. Tim, thanks for turning me on to a funny pie-plate-related blog (http://bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com/2008/04/pie-in-sky-world-without-spoke.html is a nice link). I'm a bit confused, though: are you suggesting that this blogger has coined the term "pie plate"? That term has been around for ages (it really is the term my brothers and I used). I don't think Bikesnob claims to have "renamed" anything....

  5. Dana,
    I think I'm with your brothers on the coolness of the French vs. Japanese bikes. This is in light of the fact that my first "racing" bike was an early-1980s, low-end Peugeot. That baby had steel rims, brake levers with zero padding (I mean bare plastic), and a magic-box-style front mech. Oh, what a beauty. I remember my first ride on Morgan Territory with her--the one I almost didn't survive.

  6. Here is a picture of my Suntour New Winner Pro Ultra-7 12-18...http://martin.dare-connect.org/images/corncob.JPG

    Since you are a Pro-Wrench -- wondering if you can help me service it and get it spinning -- it is completely frozen now -- and then you can take your own pictures. I can even lend you a bike if you need on-the-bike model.

    You may also like to check out this page...http://martin.dare-connect.org/bicycles.html

  7. Marty, I love the freewheel! That is a real honey. I'm practically jealous, though I have some sweet Regina corncob somewhere that could hold its own. As for your other link, I checked it out back in June '09 and reviewing it now I'd say your fleet has grown. Good on ya!