Saturday, November 7, 2015

fixation: a short history of bicycle preferences

Home today, nursing the remants of a chest cold that will not die.

My thoughts turn to possibly the best bicycle I ever had, a 1980s Peugeot Orient Express.
The Orient Express was that oddball, a Peugeot bicycle designed in France and built in Japan.
It had standard (non-French threading throughout, a very decent selection of Suntour parts, and a fork crown that was so overbuilt it bordered on medieval. The thing weighed a ton and with its slung-back geometry was not a speedster by any means; but it just looked so cool that I dreamed of owning one. When a frameset came my way via Citybikes, I built it up into what became the perfect 26"-wheeled city bike.

I outfitted it with a rear rack, a Carradice bag and a front basket, fenders and lights, and a Brooks saddle. For the next five years or so, I rode it to death, riding it even more than the 700c-wheeled Rivendell LongLow I had at the time.

I had to sell the Peugeot, sadly, when I decided to rebuild it with an Xtracycle kit and discovered that an already-too-big frame was impossibly big when I added the kit on the back. I couldn't reach the ground while seated unless I lowered the saddle to an uncomfortably low riding position. And so, after agonizing over my options, I stripped the frameset and sold it back to the shop, and chose a smaller mountain frame for my Xtracycle project.

I've kicked myself ever since.

Subsequent bikes and over a decade later, I've built up these bikes, and discovered that they are all basically in the image of that Peugeot city bike:

1. Rivendell All-Rounder, ca. 1999: This bike came to me after I'd sold the Peugeot frameset, and then built and test-rode a prototype Kogswell Pourteur. I first rode this bike with drops, but eventually, I sold the blue Rivendell (which, though made "custom" for me in the 1990's, had never fit me quite right) and refashioned the All-Rounder as an upright city bike. This remains the go-to bike today.

2. A few years ago, The Kansas Bike came to me. An old Diamondback mountain bike from the first generation of the department store downfall for the brand, probably around ten years old. The fork was flat-out hideous, clunky and fat and ugly; and there wasn't much to recommend the rest of the bike, either. But it was free, abandoned at the synagogue where I used to work. My boss couldn't locate the owner, most likely one of the homeless guys who camped out behind the temple regularly, and asked me to make the bike go away. I took it home, straightened the bent derailleur hanger (something my boss hadn't noticed, and likely the reason the bike was abandoned), and found it was perfectly rideable.

When it became clear that my summer teaching residency in Kansas was to become an annual thing, I swapped in some street tires, better handlebars and friction shifters, and shipped the bike east. It now lives in the senior rabbi's house, ready for me to ride whenever I visit. I left an old Carradice "Overland" Pannier with it, stuffed with a spare helmet, mini-pump, some tools and an old Burley rain jacket. At some point on a future visit, I will need to overhaul the bottom bracket, but there's no big rush. Maybe next June when I return for my teaching residency, I'll take a couple bottom bracket tools with me and just get it done on one of my days off or something...
Even though the bike is basically a POS, I've grown rather fond of it and its backstory.

3. My most recent city bike buildup is this 1989 Bridgestone MB-4, which I got in trade a few years back for a Thomson seatpost that never made it onto a bicycle. (The seatpost had been a gift from a dealer rep when I was still racing, so I didn't pay for that, either; making the bicycle basically free.)
I retro-fitted with with modern racing bits, and raced it for most of a season before deciding it was time to hang up the lycra for good. (I enjoyed racing, but my gut did not.)
It sat for over a year while I focused on other projects, Then, last year, when I decided to overhaul the Rivendell, I re-built the B'stone as a replacement city bike.  By now, you'll note that a strong pattern has emerged...
I no longer own or ride bikes with anything other than 26" (ERD 559) wheels. This does two things for me: first, it simplifies -- and reduces -- the number of spare wheels, tires and tubes I need to keep on hand; and secondly, it reduces the need -- or, frankly, the desire -- for more than two or three bikes in my stable.

This pattern has even made itself apparent elsewhere, a common thread running through my life.
I made this quilt (all by hand) in 2000, and used pieces of old curtains, shirts, and other things.
 (Close-up, at left: Note the crank arms. They're from an old Campy cap I wore during my brief stint as a bike messenger in the 80s.)

And the handlebars? Look closely.
Upright, with a nice tall stem -- not unlike the stem used on the Peugeot and the Bridgestone (that's the same stem, by the way, used on both builds).

I do have one bike left with drop bars, but as times goes by I have to admit that it is less and less satisfying to ride. In the end, I may strip it down and sell off the parts I don't need, and transfer the nicer bits to existing bikes. There is something about braking from the hoods that, even with shorter-reach levers, is no longer so comfortable for my hands. So I am riding upright bikes basically all the time anymore, and enjoying it.

What patterns have emerged in your bicycle preferences over the years? It's good to check in now and then, I think, and see what's no longer needed.

Food for thought.
Happy riding!

(Left: Slug Velo Fall Colors Ride, October 2003, on the Peugeot. Twelve years later I still have that green Carradice bag, those wool tights and the cotton sweater-vest.)

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