Thursday, May 13, 2010

Big Red - Letter to a Young Gearhead

NOTE: this post is rated R for mild strong language and thematic elements.


Awhile back, I sent a photo around to the guys on my bike team. The photo was of a very cool bike, with incredibly large wheels, that my brother Max recently acquired. Here's the very photo of the very bike and the very brother:

Just recently a pal on my bike team e-mailed me about it:

This was such a loaded subject that I wasn’t surprised when my response ended up being rather long-winded. I suppose the popularity of Twitter, with its ultra-short, off-the-cuff, breezy messages, should dissuade me from assuming anybody has the patience anymore for a lengthy discussion of bike parts, bike lore, shop talk, personal history, and such, but just in case I’ve lucked out and you’re a bike nut or at least an aficionado of machines and/or blue collar matters, I’ve decided to post my letter here, with some more or less appropriate photos.

In the photo below, Jan is on the left. In the middle is our friend and EBVC teammate, Mark. As may be evident from the photo, Mark and I are old enough to be Jan’s dad. That said, Mark and I are still idealistic enough to cling to youth, fight off age and the aura of responsibility, and generally try to pretend we’re still Jan’s age. The limitations of that approach are represented throughout this post.

My response


Sorry for the delay in answering your question about the bike with huge wheels. It’s impossible to broach such a loaded topic briefly, and if I tried to keep this brief it’d take me even longer. But you’re a young, unfettered guy, looking to take on a hearty mechanical project, so you won’t mind a long-winded response, I’m sure. (Myself, I dare not take on any bike projects, lest I end up out on the curb with the Floor-Mate and the old armchair and whatever else Erin decides is cluttering up the garage. It’s stuff like this that reminds me that I’m a lot older than you, whatever my self-delusions try to tell me.)

The photo I sent around is of my brother Max’s bike, which he calls “Big Red.” I haven’t ridden it yet—I haven’t been back to Boulder to visit Max since I got the photo. A very cool bike it is, and perhaps all the cooler for being kind of pointless. The wheels are indeed a stunning 36 inches in diameter. Max says 36 inches is a standard size for rickshaw wheels so it’s easy to get tires for Big Red. He says the ride is smooth as silk—“You can just roll over a curb and not really feel it.” He said it’s a great bike for getting noticed, too.

That’s the good news. I asked Max if the bike is hard to steer; he admitted that it really is—“Like the Exxon Valdez.” There’s also the issue of gearing; you really want gears on a bike like that but good luck finding such a thing. The previous owner (more on this later) retrofitted the bike with a Shimano Nexus 7-speed internal hub, which wasn’t at all easy to do.

I suppose I should say a few words on the subject of internal gearing. I’ve encountered enough youngsters like yourself, who have never ridden a bike with friction shifters or toe clips, to know there’s a good chance you’ve never dealt with internal gears. There’s nothing like a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub for a proper commuting bike. So much more dignified than a “kicky, fun” “commuter bike” with “grip shift!” Of course, the Sturmey will turn on you, time and time again. I’ll be riding along on my old Triumph 3-speed, a black beast I call the Arseless, a proper English bike with an upscale bike license from Connecticut that expired in the ‘50s or ‘60s (the decal is no longer very legible), with my heavy work bag and u-lock in the basket, humping it up some 2% grade that feels like Alpe d’Huez, and suddenly the drivetrain will just give, no longer engaging the rear hub, and my body will heave forward, my knees crashing into the bars and stem, and I’ll almost go down. There’s no way to adjust the Sturmey well enough to prevent this; there are little gears and pawls and whatnot in there whose corners get rounded off over time. Second gear is the scariest. My brothers Geoff and Bryan could take a Sturmey apart and overhaul it but I never learned; those hubs are like clocks inside. Geoff had a 5-speed that was a nightmare; he got so fast at field-stripping it, he’d give it a complete overhaul every few days, as naturally and fluidly as a chain-smoker lighting up.

The Shimano Nexus 7, though, truly represents the impending ascension of the Eastern world. (After decades of prominence, Sturmey-Archer almost went out of business before being bought up by a Taiwanese company.) True, the Nexus has a grip-shift thing, not nearly as cool as the lousy Sturmey Speed-Switch shifters, and true, Shimano makes fishing reels, and true, Shimano has disgraced itself and its customers with electronic shifting for road bikes, and true, “Nexus” sounds like the model of a cheesy Nissan, totally lacking the coolness of “Sturmey-Archer,” but man, the Nexus shifts beautifully. I had one on Erin’s Bianchi Milano, rest its soul. When Alexa was in day care, Erin would go to work really early, riding the Bianchi to North Berkeley Bart and leaving it in the locker. I’d get Alexa fed and dressed and drive her to El Cerrito to day care, then get on Bart at Del Norte. Erin would get off work early, Bart to Del Norte and find the car, and I’d get off work late and ride the Bianchi home from North Berkeley Bart. Except one day the bike wasn’t there: the locker door would sometimes spring open spontaneously if you didn’t test it after locking up by kicking the daylights out of it like you were trying to kill it. Erin just didn’t kick hard enough, I guess, and some douchebag stole the Milano. Here’s an old photo of the bike, with my brother striking a pose:

Back to Big Red: its previous owner wanted it to have a Nexus 7 hub, which of course doesn’t have the same flange diameter as whatever the bike came with, so he had to have spokes custom made for it. I can’t imagine how hard he had to look for a shop with the special tool that cuts and threads spokes. It’s hard enough to find a shop with a decent wheel builder, what with the popularity of these new-fangled pre-built wheels.

(Now, lest you think I’m going to go into some impassioned sky-is-falling defense of old-school hand-built wheels, think again. The modern wheels are lighter, stiffer, and more aero, and anybody who denies their superiority should be ignored, just as you should ignore anybody who denies that there is sex after marriage, like this guy I used to work with who assured me of this marital sex myth the moment I got engaged—it was one of his pat lectures, he’d just blather on and on, wasting my time, and when he finally stopped talking and I’d start to say something curt like, “Noted,” he’d check his watch as though I’d buttonholed him, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him there probably just wasn’t sex after marriage for him because he was so annoying. But I will say I miss the days of expert wheel builders, like my brother Geoff who, without fail, could reach into a box of spokes and grab exactly 16 of them, without looking.)

Even with stock spokes, getting the right length is always, and has always been, a difficult process. At the greatest bike shop ever, the High Wheeler (or Thigh Feeler as we called it) in Boulder, there was a homemade card catalog where you could look up different combinations of hub, rim, number of spokes, and number of crosses. Whenever you built a combination that wasn’t in the card catalog, you had to make a new card. There would be comments, like “Worked OK, just a tad short, one thread showing.” Years later, working at a lesser shop, I’d often throw my hands up at their techniques—a chart you’d hold the rim up to, a Casio calculator program—and call my old Thigh Feeler boss, JB, and just ask him. Half the time he’d know the length off the top of his head.

Anyhow, the problem with spoke cutter/threader tools is that they attract the wrong element to a shop. You get these total gearhead types who show up, drool over the spoke machine, describe in great detail the project they’re working on, and proceed to chat up the mechanic for the rest of the day. My brother Geoff worked at a place in San Luis Obispo and I hung out there a lot, and they had the spoke cutting machine, a really fancy thing with a leather cover and all, and it was just a time sink. That was a shame, too, because the whole time my brother worked there, the place was slowly going under. The head mechanic was this big fat bearded guy, and though his weight wasn’t in and of itself a big problem, he had these amazingly spindly stork-like legs that barely held him up—he’d have to lock each knee while walking before it could support his weight—so he couldn’t test-ride any bikes, and obviously was useless on the sales floor. What’s more, he was really lazy, just sat around on his stool chewing the fat all day on just about any topic. He had this friend who was supposedly a porn star, “The Tripod” they called him, who would come by and they’d just shoot the shit all day. One day I watched for about ten minutes as this head mechanic used the vice to pop a whole mess of bubble wrap, patiently feeding it through bit by bit.

The owner had a soft spot for the mechanic, who it was said had a heart of gold. The owner had a soft spot for just about everybody, actually. He would have loved to hang out and eat pizza with the guys after the shop closed, but he had a wife and family at home, so he’d secretly call up and order a pizza, and leave enough cash by the register to cover it. Geoff and I would be hanging around tuning up our bikes after work and suddenly the pizza guy would be there, and we’d panic until we found the money waiting and pay the guy. Then it was good times. Nothing, I mean nothing, stoked us out like free food in those days. The pizza was always Canadian bacon and pineapple, which we kind of got tired of, but of course complaining would have been utterly ungrateful, and it was a far cry better than nothing. Now when I have that combo it’s nostalgic. I wish I had some right now.

Eventually the owner’s generosity, and myriad other factors, began to seriously erode the fiscal foundation of the shop, and paychecks started to bounce. I well remember one warm summer evening when Geoff got paid, and we jumped on our bikes to race over to Geoff’s bank. We well knew that only one or two of the payroll checks would be funded; the rest would overdraw the shop’s account. We were closing in on the bank when one of the other mechanics, our friend Garrett, came roaring by in his VW bus. He had an account at the same bank. Geoff cried out in protest—“He cheated!”—and lamented the loss of income, not to mention the fee he’d have to pay when his paycheck bounced. Later he learned to buy expensive Dura-Ace bike parts for me on the shop’s account, to be deducted from his paycheck, so that I could pay him for the parts and he’d have real money for a change. (I worked at the young upstart shop across town, Broad Street Bikes, which had been The Moped Emporium until the day I started work there. It was a good shop, and though it didn’t have a spoke length card catalog or anything, my paychecks never bounced.)

Getting back to the custom spokes on Big Red: the wheel came out fine, but the frame lacks the braze-ons that a proper bike, like the Bianchi Milano, has, so the original owner had to cut some corners. For example, he had to bolt something to the braze-on for the coaster-brake, and whatever assembly he codged together wasn’t quite working out. Max has some pals at a local machine shop, and after inheriting Big Red figured he’d have a fitting custom-made for it, but the man for the job was pretty out of it when Max went to talk to him. “He’s a diabetic,” Max explained, “and a few nights ago while he was asleep in bed he suddenly went into convulsions and basically beat the shit out of himself. His teeth are all broken up and he’s totally out of it. His roommate found him. He’s back at work but still messed up, so my custom fitting is going to have to wait.”

So here’s how Max got the bike. It’s a pretty predictable story, doubtless one that’s been told in various versions since time immemorial. He has this friend he says is “basically a gazillionaire” who painstakingly assembled a glorious fleet of bicycles, each as unique and cool as Big Red, but who subsequently got married. The guy’s wife was put off by the sheer number of bikes this guy owned, and made him liquidate most of them. It’s hard to justify the existence of so many bikes, especially in terms a non-bike-crazed woman could understand. (I had a similar challenge promoting Wells Fargo, my bank, over BofA, Erin’s, when we merged her accounts. She cited more ATMs; all I could think of was “western stagecoach motif,” so I lost.)

Imagine, finding a sweet cruiser with 36-inch wheels, then finding a Nexus 7 hub, having the spokes made, the wheel built, dealing with the braze-on problem, getting it all going, only to have to get rid of it. I feel the guy’s pain. I was minding my own business one day when Erin asked me to help put the Arseless in the back of the car. “What for?!” I asked. She announced, rather casually I must say, that she was donating it to the preschool for their yard sale. “But it’s my bike!” I protested. “You can’t do that!” She pointed out that I never rode it. “Well of course not, is has a flat!” I protested. But it’s no good explaining to a woman why a simple thing like a flat tire can sideline a 3-speed for so long. I have no problem overhauling the Dura-Ace 7701 non-cartridge bottom bracket, with its over eighty moving parts, because it’s a precisely machined mechanism. But a 3-speed?

With a bike that’s more than fifty years old, you really have to choose your battles. Every bolt you touch with a wrench could spontaneously strip out; non-metal stuff like tires and tubes can dissolve in your fingers like a dead moth. And that Sturmey-Archer … it’s just made to fail. Look at it wrong and the cable will instantly fray into oblivion, like blowing on a dandelion that’s gone to seed. The cable pulley is as old and brittle as a tooth you’d find in a dry skull. If you were trying your hand at telekinesis, you could do a lot worse than trying to bend, with only your mind, the tiny, frail chain that links the cable to the workings of the hub. But Erin would never understand; her eyes would roll at the word “wrench.” So instead of trying to explain, I just grabbed the bike from her and took it back into the garage and, on the spot, finally fixed its flat tire. We haven’t discussed it since. I think this kind of marital scenario is responsible for the existence of the strong, silent type.

When you’re married, your available wrenching time dwindles quickly almost to nothing, like the picture on a black-and-white TV when you turn it off. I can prove this objectively: when I got engaged, I was still working my bikes over all the time, for fun, and pulling the occasional shift at the bike shop just to help out the owner, so I had fairly meaty hands, the kind a man can be proud of. Ours was a short engagement, but even so, I became so neglectful of my bike-mechanic roots I had to have the wedding ring resized so it would fit my atrophied finger on our wedding day. But the terrible erosion of my manhood didn’t stop there; the decline continued, and with all this office work my fingers have become so slender and wussy—like the woman’s in the Palmolive commercial—that I have to wear my wedding ring on my right hand or it’ll fly off.

Not that I’m completely spineless and pathetic: at least I still keep my favorite bike here in the house, where it belongs. I was shocked and dismayed to learn that some of my married friends—guys on our bike team, for crying out loud!—keep all their bikes in the garage. I consider bike storage to be a good litmus test for the proper balance of power in a marriage. If all the man’s bikes are in the garage, his wife has been given too much leash. On the other hand, if all his bikes are in the living room, or the bedroom, he’s seized too much power and is headed for trouble. I think one bike in the spare bedroom or office is just about right, especially if there are kids around who need to spend as much time as possible in the presence of a fine racing machine.

It’s funny; just last night Erin said to me, “There are all these inner tubes in the garage.” I nodded. “What should I think about that?” she asked. I told her it would be better not to think about them at all. “What are they for?” she asked. Finally I broke it to her: “Those aren’t inner tubes. They’re sew-up tires, worth about $50-60 apiece, handmade of Egyptian cotton.” She asked if I would ever use them. I told her, “No.” For now, she has dropped the subject. But it’ll come up again, I’m sure.

I guess what I’m ultimately getting at is, you really need to seek out and acquire that 36-inch-wheel bike now, while you have the chance. Hell, get yourself a track bike, a cross bike, a rain bike, a 3-speed, a fast commuter, a general-purpose f*ck-all bike, just build yourself a fricking armada, so when you get married you can give in and ditch, say, half of them while still maintaining a respectable fleet. I confess, to my shame, that I have just four bikes (and one more on the way). I have tried to gain points with Erin by having her interview my biking friends about their collections, but she’s obstinately unimpressed that I lack both a track bike and a cross bike. Of course she has a point; there’s a time and a place for a real two-wheeled arsenal, and kids come with their own endless stream of accessories that clutter up your life. But for now, your living room ought to look like this (each photo is of one wall of the place I shared with my brother Geoff and a couple other guys):

So how many bikes is enough? Well, consider my friend’s blog post on the subject: you need N+1, where N is the number of bikes you have now. But be selective: any schmuck can have too many bikes, and it takes a connoisseur to assemble a tasteful collection. So don’t jump on the silly fixie trend—it’s vulgar. A monster cruiser with 36-inch wheels would be just the thing to show the world your discerning taste. I can’t wait to ride it!

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