Monday, September 16, 2013

grass-roots bicycling, the new-old bikelovejones style

This is a photo of a bicycle I had several years ago.

This was a Peugeot Orient Express from the mid-1980's. I got the frame at Citybikes when I worked there, on a healthy workers' discount. The frame was heavy, with a fork crown that I can only describe as medieval in appearance. And with a 21" measurement from bottom bracket to top tube, it was at the edge of being too big for me. Finally, the frame had been black but someone had tried to paint part of it a dark blue -- the blue paint was all over the seat stays and fading down the seat tube -- and it was sort of ugly. But I had a milk crate filled with parts and I wanted a rough-stuff city and touring bike that I could ride anywhere, in any weather. So I bought the frame and built it up.

It never fit me right. It was too big by a mile; I could manage the standover height but the reach to the stem was always a bit much. I stubbornly rode the thing for three seasons and then tried to build up an Xtracycle kit around it, which proved to be its undoing. Finally, I sold it back to the shop and put the parts on another, smaller frame.

That smaller frame was a Rivendell All-Rounder, which came to me from the original owner. He had ordered it custom in 1998, took delivery on it in 1999, built it up, rode it for a year or so -- and realized that it wasn't going to fit him. However, it fit me just fine, especially in the shorter top tube length. So when I acruired it from him, I swapped over many parts from the Peugeot, built up a new, nicer set of wheels, and called it good.

The thing is, it doesn't ride like the Peugeot. It's lighter, and feels different. Somehow it doesn't feel quite as rock-solid sturdy, though I know it probably is plenty strong for the riding I do. And while it is very pretty, with beautiful lugs and delicious green paint, it sometimes feel too pretty. I'm not tempted to over over the decals with paint or ugly stickers, but sometimes I still feel slightly sheepish riding it around town.

Rivendell began as a sort of grass-roots company, a mail-order house with a goal of offering practical bicycles and gear that, in the mid-1990's simply wasn't being sold anywhere else. Since then, the company has evolved into something more than just a mail-order house. It has become, in some ways, an enterprise with a cult following. How much of the cult remains, now that so many of the things Rivendell brought to the fore in bicycling are available in various forms and sizes from other retailers like Wallingford and Velo Orange? I'm not sure. I admit that once upon a time I, too, was caught up in the excitement; but these days not so much. Why? Well, because bicycles stopped being toys and became simply practical, affordable transportation for me; and because Rivendell has seldom gone out of its way to appeal to female customers. Rivendell has offered some clothing items in womens-specific sizing; but they've never sold as well and frankly, the whole enterprise vibes like A Guy Thing, what with all the cool knives, large swiss wristwatches and hatchets and other Guy Stuff they sell. Not that women don't dig Rivendell's vibe, but really, more women would rather buy from Specialized than from Rivendell.

Another thing seems to have happened along the way. Because Rivendell now has competition from other retailers who are offering similar bicycling products and philosophies, Rivendell has had to focus more tightly on the higher-end niche of the bike market -- Older Guys With Disposable Income, who are far more likely to be able to afford a three-hundred-dollar, American-made waxed canvas saddlebag or an eighty-dollar, American-made chambray shirt. What Rivendell has become, at least in some aspects of their product line, is the Fred version of Rapha. In this, I think they and other companies (like Velo Orange) aren't really representing a grass-roots approach to bicycling anymore.

Last year I bought an old mountain bike on craigslist for $25. It needed a fair amount of work and several parts had to be replaced. Newly "retired" from the bike industry, I was sitting on a veritable mountain of bicycle parts, including a couple of wheelsets; so I set about rebuilding the bike and turning it into a drop-bar rough-stuff touring and Rando bike -- even though I don't tour and I will probably not attempt another populaire (I think five is enough, thanks). I wanted a drop-bar bike that would feel different than my Rivendell -- and that's what I got. It's heavy, but comfortable; and if time and energy permitted I could see myself taking long day rides on it. It feels heavy and sort of funky -- not like the Peugeot, but in its own wa that I find satisfying. It's a grass-roots bike that I overhauled and rebuilt into something useful.

In 1994, when I began working as a bike mechanic, there were a few shops in Portland that offered used parts and were willing to repair older bikes. Citybikes was chief among them at the time. Today, while many smaller shops have since opened and are willing to repair older bikes, none has the supply of used parts that Citybikes once did -- and Citybikes' supply of used parts has dwindled over the years, thanks in large part to the ride of eBay and other online auction sites, and to craigslist, and other palces on the internet where used parts fetch a much higher price today. Fewer quality used parts are making their way to shops like Citybikes in Portland and Recycled Cycles in Seattle. People know more about what they have and what it's worth.Now you can even buy vintage touring shorts on eBay for about the same amount of money in 2013 dollars as they cost new in 1983. A pity.

So now it's up to me to create my own grass-roots approaches to bicycles and bicycling. Today, I have all the bikes I need, and probably could stand to let at least one of them -- my racing bike -- go in the next year or so. Racing again feels fairly unlikely, unless I have another mid-life crisis and somehow find the energy, time and money to train seriously again. (Racing without training is sort of pointless, and in my case, even painful.) I have a good supply of parts to see me out -- freewheels, chains and brake pads aplenty for me and for Sweetie's bike, the only bikes that I really have to take care of anymore. And I'm moving away from the whole lycra thing so I'm paring down my collection of jerseys and padded shorts to a minimal number, the number I'd need should I ever get the itch to go on a long, long ride. But mostly I wear street clothes when I ride anymore, shorts or pants or knickers, sneakers and regular shirts or sweaters, and a rain jacket when I need it.

At some point my transformation to Fred-ness will be complete. And at its heart, my interpretation of grass-roots bicycling will be some kind of de-escalating of the gear and the fanciness I used to be into, and it will just be about getting on my bicycle and riding places. Period.

I can feel myself heading there now.

That's no to say there aren't moments of regret or looking backward; my touring bike still has a cyclometer on it, and I suppose I will still wonder about recording miles until I remove this last cyclometer from this last bike. I still wear padded shorts and jerseys when I go for really long rides, but the truth is that my longest rides today are no more than ten to fifteen miles -- and who needs padded shorts for that? I still use panniers for the bigger loads, the loads that don't require a cargo bike but that exceed the capacity of my Carradice saddlebags, now ten and fifteen years old, respectively. Most of the time, everything I need to carry fits in a saddlebag.

I would like to be able to find the right balance in my new working life to make time for day-long rides again. It's been a crazy summer and early fall, and I haven't ridden as much or as far as I did last year. I'd really like to make some time for those long, meandering day-long rides with a sack lunch and no deadlines. And hopefully I will make time for those once I get my schedule set for the fall.

But for now, I've gone back to being the bicyclist I started out as -- a commuter, someone who rides to get from place to place simply because it's the most pleasant and convenient way to go. And on most days, it still is.

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