Friday, January 22, 2016

sometimes, a bicycle is just a bicycle. and that's okay.

This week over at, we were treated to a series of videos that a guy shot while testing a department store mountain bike. The video can be seen here:

I watched that video, and the two that went along with it, over at the guy's Youtube channel. His videos were well done and made many excellent points about the pros and cons -- and the limits -- of a department store Mongoose. Then, I went back to Bikeportland, and checked out the comments. Nearly all of them were quite disdainful of department store bikes.
Then I remembered that Bikeportland's regular readership consists mostly of Bikey People. You know, people who ride all the time and have what Grant Peterson used to call "a job and bicycle priorities". (He was speaking of folks who he felt ought to be able to justify buying, say, and hand-built Atlantis frame, but I digress.) And I have been one of those people for a long time.
Because after twenty years in the bicycle industry, I was spoiled rotten by discount pricing on bikes and parts and a trained mechanic's eye and hand that knew the difference between a real bicycle and, well, a turd. That's what we called department store bikes back then (out of the customer's earshot, of course). I'd come home from a ten-hour shift and tell Sweetie I'd spent the afternoon polishing turds, and she'd know what I meant.

Twenty years of wrenching turned me into a serious bicycle snob.

Then, the summer after my career change, I got a month-long teaching residency that required me to commute back and forth on a borrowed bike, towing my guitar and teaching supplies in a borrowed kiddie trailer, every day. The bike was a little small for me, and the trailer was a really cheap steel model. I had brought a small tool bag with me so I could make adjustments. I went to a bike shop and bought a taller seatpost and decent brake pads and installed them; lubed the chain and adjusted the hubs and headset (I could do nothing for the bottom bracket but it worked well enough). I trued the wheels, adjusted the brakes and gears, and it was fine. Really. It worked just fine for the five-mile round trip I would make each day. The raincover was falling apart on the trailer so my guitar case would get a little wet; but my hosts wouldn't let me ride in the rain during my summer residency because Midwestern rain is usually accompanied by thunder and lightning.

Everything worked out fine. And the school was so happy with me -- AND with the bicycle arrangement -- that after four more visits on a different borrowed bike each time, and with loaner bikes in my size getting harder to come by, they offered to pay for me to ship a bicycle in my size to live there for return trips. So I fixed up an abandoned mountain bike, a department store Diamondback. I straightened the derailleur hanger (probably why it was abandoned), adjusted the hubs, trued the wheels, upgraded a few things like the handlebars, shifters and saddle, and tossed some old street tires on it. I packed it in a bike box and hauled down to UPS in my Burley trailer and shipped it east. When I arrived a couple of weeks later, the boxed bike was waiting there for me. I built it back up, recycled the box and rode the bike to my homestay. That bike has now served me on three subsequent trips, and will serve me again this summer — along with the trailer, which the family’s youngest outgrew. The parents left it folded up and leaning in a corner of a classroom “on permanent loan for Beth’s visits.” When the kids come in and see that the trailer's gone, they know I've arrived. I've become, in addition to my regular role as the music specialist, the "Bicycle lady." It's very sweet.

Here's the bike that now lives in Kansas, along with the trailer. When I'm not there, the bike lives in my hosts's garage; he sometimes lets house guests ride it to nearby shops or a park, but mostly it just hangs out at the back of his garage. It still works fine. This summer if I have some time I may overhaul the bottom bracket and headset while I'm there. Or at least drip a bunch of Phil's oil into the bearings and adjust them so they'll run a little longer.

I will NEVER diss a department store bike again, at least not for commuting purposes. People with little means get around on them all day long and they’re fine. And my crummy little bike is allowing me to show by example how fun bicycle commuting can be, in a town where most people drive everywhere.

Past the glitz and glamour, if you’re riding for basic transportation, a bicycle is just a bicycle. If it's been assembled properly, works and stops safely, and you take care of it, well, it’s fine for that.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

city of bridges, part I: steel bridge

Riding a bicycle in Portland gives me all sorts of different vantage points. And at least a dozen of them come from the many bridges that span the Willamette River. Over the next feww weeks, I'll share a little about riding over my favorites.

The Steel Bridge, built in 1912, offers a lower deck for bicyclists and pedestrians. I LOVE riding over this bridge when I make a loop going along the Esplanade on the east bank, and the seawall along Waterfront Park on the west side. I will often arrange it so I end up downtown and can grab a cup of coffee before going home. I get lovely views of the river all along this loop. A nice set of switchbacked ramps can get me down to the bridge from the Rose Quarter Transit Center.

(Steel Bridge in background)                           

One of my favorite parts of this loop is that I can stop anywhere along the route and capture great views of the downtown skyline (from the east bank), or other bridges as I cross over the river.
(On the Esplanade, a nice place to bring lunch)

The Steel Bridge is best crossed on the lower deck, which is much wider and roomier. There is a narrow sidewalk along the upper deck; but it is so narrow that if you find yourself behind a pedestrian there is almost no room to pass and you will have to coast slowly and patiently.

(On the lower deck, heading home)

Looking to the south from this bridge you can see the Burnside and Morrison Bridges quite easily. Looking to the North, you can see the Broadway and Fremont Bridges easily; you'll have to look really hard to see the St. Johns Bridge beyond that.

A treat (for me, anyway) is crossing along the lower deck while a train comes through. The rumbling and the noise are terrific! The Light Rail crosses over the upper deck, and the noise, while quite present, isn't as thunderous.

To begin the loop from the other end of this long, skinny passage, enter the Esplanade from the Hawthorne Bridge (signs and ramps will point your way; watch for walkers and mind your speed).
There are coffee shops within easy biking distance of each end of both these bridges, and if you're patient you'll easily spot geese, ducks and other waterfowl making themselves at home along the east bank of the river. Go and enjoy!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

the story of bike stuff, and a shift in focus

This week, a new email went out to the Rivendell mailing list.

In it, there was news that the Rivendell Reader, which had not seen an issue printed in four years, would be coming out soon. This would be Reader Number 44. It's a fun publication. In addition to talking about All Things Rivendell, the Reader also features articles about things that you might not find anywhere else, and generally speaking they're on topics that tickle Grant Peterson's fancy (since he does a lot of the writing and all of the editing).

In the past, copies of the Reader came free with a Rivendell membership. Then, somewhere down the line, Rivendell stopped selling memberships. Not cost-effective, I suppose.
Shortly after the cessation of memberships, Rivendell Readers were published less often (maybe twice a year if we were lucky), and sold for $5 a copy mailed bulk rate. Or you could download a PDF for free from the web site.

I'm old-fashioned. I like getting stuff in the mail. So I paid for print copies.

And then, the Reader stopped happening completely. No announcement, it just stopped being published. For four years.
I chalked it up to the ongoing evolution in Rivendell's business plan and a lack of time on Grant's part to edit and publish the thing. I shrugged and figured maybe it would come back, perhaps once every three years or so, for as long as Grant had the time and energy to devote to it.

So this week's announcement was a little odd.

Yes, the Reader is coming back, Grant's BLUG post said, but maybe this will be the last one because I'm tired and it costs too much time and money to make it happen. And because it's such a time-suck now, this issue of the Reader will cost you $7 in print, and we'd really prefer that you add it to an order for other stuff. Otherwise, there will be another $3 postage, bringing the total to $10 for what may well be the last Rivendell Reader printed.

So I weighed my options.

There was a time when I was hugely behind what Rivendell was all about. The Rivendell of the late 1990's was a company that was all about making bicycle riding fun and accessible to anyone who was willing to actually spend a little money. Sure, they offered custom frames that were expensive; but they also offered other items that were more affordable and which made it easier to enjoy the ride. I still have a few of those things today, including Carradice saddlebags, some wool underwear and a couple pairs of wool socks. By and large they've worn well and have served their purpose beautifully.

Then, in the last decade or so, things began to change. Rivendell was beginning to reach out to a more particular demographic that consisted almost entirely of middle-aged men with disposable income. To capture the money of this target demographic, Rivendell added things to its line like more expensive shirts and wool midweight layers, camping gear and axes.
(Yes, axes. For chopping wood, ostensibly out in the woods. I dunno, maybe they were trying to latch onto the Manly-Man demographic as well, even if it's mostly populated by guys who dream like heroes and live like Walter Mitty. I'm guilty of the very same thing, I admit it; but no one seems to be targeting me as a demographic.)
And that was when I began, very slowly but surely, to lose interest in being such a loyal follower of Rivendell Bicycle Works.

I still dig the notion that they've preached all along, about UNracing. I LOVE UNracing and do it every single ride nowadays. UNracing means my rides are shorter, slower and mellower -- and I enjoy them all.
Racing, though, is very expensive (I know, I did it for awhile and even on my shoestring budget it cost me a small fortune in race fees alone), so why should UNracing be that way?

I decided that it didn't have to be so costly.

I began looking online for cheapskate equivalents to the stuff that Riv sold: basic pants comfortable on the bike; seersucker shirts; cycling caps (cotton for summer and wool for winter); and wool underwear for the coldest days. And I found all of that stuff for far less than Riv was selling it for. Seersucker shirts that cost $85 at Riv, I could find at Goodwill or on eBay for less than $10. Comfortable lightweight cotton-blend pants that were comfy to ride in, selling for $60 or more at Riv, I found at Goodwill for $12-15 a pair.

And here's the thing: Once I had enough of these things to see me through a couple years worth of daily riding, I was set. Today, I have everything I need for riding my bicycle every day -- clothes, rain gear, even shoe covers, and gloves and hats that fit under my helmet. I don't expect I'll need to replace anything anytime soon.

So mostly, I've stopped shopping for new stuff, especially clothing, bicycle parts and other durable small goods like tools and curtains and things. I can find them all used for cheap or for free.

Rivendell cannot afford for folks to stop shopping. They're a cool company because of what they have to say about the joy of riding a bicycle, but they remain, at heart, a retail business. They are in the business of getting people to buy their stuff. When your business depends on more people buying more NEW stuff in order to keep the wheel of commerce turning around, well, that's where I find myself feeling more and more uncomfortable.

I spent twenty years selling bikes for a living. Four of those years I worked as the lead purchaser, in charge of managing inventory for two retail locations and their service departments. I look back and I'm amazed I lasted four years in that role, because in truth my relationship with retail grew more uncomfortable as time went on.
In 2011, I watched the animated short film The Story of Stuff and it really cemented some of what I was thinking and feeling. A year later, I left the bike industry to pursue work in music and education. And though I'm poorer now I know that I could never go back to working in a retail setting.

At the end of the day, Rivendell is selling more new stuff. My local bike shop is selling new stuff. Nordstrom's is selling new stuff. K-Mart is selling new stuff. And I don't need much that's new anymore, including that last issue of the Rivendell Reader.

Instead, I'll go picking at rummage sales for things to fix up and share or barter, and I'll ride my bike to lovely places and enjoy my rides. And this spring, I expect I'll be paring down from three bikes to two, and I'll be perfectly fine and happy doing it.

And I'll just ride. And ride some more.

I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that many of my future posts at this blog will try to incorporate something about bicycling, though it will have far less to do with stuff and more to do with cool places to ride and maybe a recipe or two for tasty things to bring along. I may also touch upon other issues like income equality, sustainable transportation and how to cheat the increasingly expensive universe out of some of their revenue stream by living a little more simply. (I promise that last bit won't get too preachy.)
I still love bikes, and always will.

Happy riding.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

How many bikes does anyone need?

This is NOT a rhetorical question.

There was a time when I owned one bicycle at a time, and it only got replaced when it was outgrown or stolen. For many years, I was content to ride my one bike into the ground, tune it up every spring, and ride it into the ground some more. During this time, the longest I kept a bike was probably around five years -- before it got stolen.

Then I went to work in the bicycle industry. And as I learned more about repairing bicycles, I began to want different kinds of bikes so I could enjoy the technology I was learning to repair. In my first five years at Citybikes, I built up, rode and sold a succession of bicycles, including a 26"-wheeled BMX whose wheel I rebuilt with a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub; a Mondia road bike that was covered with rust and corrosion, and which I painstakingly brought back from the dead; and a Gitane road bike that I converted to upright bars and used as my primary transportation while I waited for my Rivendell to be delivered.

For a little while, perhaps three years or so, I owned two Rivendells -- the one I'd had built custom and a second one that came my way when its original owner decided it didn't fit him. Rivendell #2, an All-Rounder, actually fit me far better than the custom bike I'd ordered in 1998, so eventually I sold Rivendell # 1 and rebuilt # 2 as an all-purpose city bike.

A few years ago, I found a smaller mountain bike with short enough reach to work with drop bars, so I bought it for the grand price of $25, stripped it and rebuilt it as a rough-stuff day tourer.

I acquired a '94 Bridgestone mountain bike in trade for a very expensive seatpost I'd gotten on my shop discount and wound up not needing. I rebuilt it as a short-track racer and enjoyed the handful of races I entered it in. But that was at the end of my racing career, and so after a few races I hung it up on a hook, and there it sat for over two years.

Over the last year, I did two things: I rebuilt the Bridgestone as another upright bike with front and rear racks, and rode it while I took apart the All-Rounder for a full overhaul. Both bikes work quite well now. I still mostly ride the All-rounder, but some days I like to switch things up and ride the Bridgestone. It has a different, heavier feel and a slightly different handlebar position.

Last summer, I had to recognize that, for whatever reason, drop bars were no longer working for me. The braking was hard on my hands, even with brake levers specifically designed for a shorter reach; and I did not enjoy leaning over so far the way I once had. There's more belly in the way, the result of some less-then-stellar eating choices, plus metabolic changes and scar tissue related to Crohn's. The Sekai has hung on a hook for several months and I don't know if I will keep it or not.

There was a time I owned as many as six, which is a somewhat lower number for someone in the industry. Many of my co-workers at the time owned nine or more bikes each. In an extreme case, one co-worker owned over seventy bikes in various stages of ride readiness. I saw no need to own more than six, and by the time I'd left the industry in 2012 I was down to four bikes.

If I decide to sell the Sekai -- I don't need a third bike with upright bars so I won't convert it -- I'd be down to just two bikes. Which seems, at this point in my life, like quite enough.

One upside of owning fewer bikes is that I don't need as many portable tool sets (it's customary for many bike enthusiasts to own a patch kit, tire levers, mini-tool and pump for each bike so they don't have to swap around every time they want to ride a different bike. I have been no exception). I also don't need to keep as many spare parts on hand, meaning there's more room in that space for yard tools and other things without me tripping every time I turn around.

Another upside of owning fewer bikes is that I realize I don't need to work on them nearly as often, and am more inclined to let things go a little longer. So far this approach hasn't caused any harm to the bikes, or to me.

Finally, by owning fewer bikes, I find that, for some reason, I end up shopping less often for bicycle-related clothing or accessories. After all, I already have panniers, racks and a basket, enough capacity for each bike that I don't really need anything else.

Sure, bicycles are a great hobby. They have been a hobby and a passion of mine for a long time.
But I'm getting older, and I find that I'm more interested in riding my bicycle than puttering on it. I still enjoy puttering, though nowadays I'm more likely to fix up an old cheap bike I find in a free box, and then give it away or sell it cheaply to someone who's short on funds. It's satisfying to bring a dead bike, even a cheap one, back to life; and if it ends up under someone then I'm happy.

Lately the cold weather has combined with serious fatigue from Crohn's, to keep me off the bike more than in winters past. I've been able to make some efforts and enjoy them, but many times I opt to go multi-modal now, hopping the light rail train and riding only half the distance to get into town.
I hope I'll want to ride more when the rain gets warmer in the spring.

So -- how many bikes do YOU own? How many do you think you need? What kinds, and why?
And which ones would you miss the most if they went away? It's worth pondering.
Happy riding!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Coffeeneuring Challenge: the patch

My 2015 Coffeeneuring patch arrived in today's mail.

For more about Coffeeneuring, check out Mary G's blog.

For more about Coffeeneuring in Portland check out the PDX Coffeeneuring FB group.

And  although the Coffeeneuring Challenge is over until next fall, there's no reason to stop riding and enjoying coffee. Grab some friends and make a morning of it! Stop at a coffee shop, or bring a little stove and make your own on the trail. Go somewhere pretty, take pictures and write up a ride report.
Since my riding is less ambitious for now, I've made it a point to go out for a ride -- even a very short one -- whenever the weather and my energy permit.
Today was a COLD but gorgeous day to ride around the neighborhood. An east wind kept things brisk, and hot coffee in my thermal cup made it nicer.

(Below: my Klean Kanteen coffee cup. Fits in a water bottle cage, keeps coffee hot for quite awhile (usually 2-3 hours) and keeps paper cups outta the landfill. I found this one on the Broadway Bridge several years ago, banged up but still functional. It's lost some more paint since then but works great.
If you're short on cash, eBay sometimes has these used for less than half of new. They basically last kind of forever and are worth every penny.)

A very happy 2016 to you all. Go ride your bike!