Tuesday, May 26, 2015

New thoughts on old habits

I was reading some comments on another blog the other day, people were offering their thoughts on a list of the 10 most important innovations in cycling as compiled by someone who is as close to an authority as you can be. I thought it was interesting how much discussion there was about some things that you would think people would have settled long ago, or at least grown so tired of arguing about that there wouldn't be a battle to be fought any longer. Things like indexed shifting and clipless pedals. Things that, like them or not, have changed cycling in ways that make them as permanent as anything can be these days. But the Pneumatic Tire was on the list as well and more than one person seemed to have reservations about it's place on the list. Seriously? You don't think air-filled tires qualify?
I cannot for the life of me imagine cycling becoming what it is, practically, commercially or, I dunno', spiritually(?) without them. Or conceive of what they would suggest as an acceptable substitute. It wasn't a list of the 10 BEST innovations remember, just the authors choice of the most important, so you would think people would use that little loophole as cover for not getting their bibs in a twist defending whatever bit of tackle they've invested their emotions in. Not so, the battle shows signs of flaring up again so maybe some of these things aren't so settled as I thought. Perhaps someone out there really wants nothing more than to find a brand-new carbon fiber Specialized or Giant under the tree this Christmas, one with 7 speed friction shifters, and shiny chrome and leather toe-clips and straps.

And solid rubber tires.

As a middle aged guy who started forming opinions back when clipless pedals and indexed shifting were fringe ideas that never caught on, in spite of appearing then disappearing every decade or so, I learned on the prevailing technology of the day and just got on with it. Never spending much time predicting what would come along next, but believing that my beloved bicycle had reached some point of perfection only incrementally short of complete.  But things change, and now my newest, most expensive bikes have clipless pedals and integrated indexed brake/shift levers and threadless stems and more cogs than you can count without bending down and running down the cassette with an increasingly greasy finger. And I like them fine and don't really miss the romantic connections with some earlier time whenever I'm out spinning along or grunting up a hill.

But you know what? I still like friction shift and clips and straps and some of that stuff.

What comes next is like a hundred paragraphs of boring old man ranting and lecturing. I apologize but, really, I can't help myself. There's a couple of better bits in the last paragraph or two so you might just skip over there now. Again, sorry.

 I have some nice old bikes so equipped and have even included a bit of that old tech on some my modern(ish) bikes that would have been simpler to build with the new standard parts(Are you now wondering how many bikes I actually have? Well, so am I. We'll talk about that another time. Promise). Two bikes in particular have become favorites, a late 70s Austrian Puch "Ultra-Somethingorother", a typical mid level Racer from the time of Disco and leather "helmets". Super stable, not too stiff, but I can still sprint it without the rear tire or the chain ring rubbing the frame like cheaper, more willowy bikes sometimes did under the onslaught of my grotesquely over-developed quadriceps. The other is a 73' Raleigh International with a mish-mash of Italian and French components from that time and big fat Cyclo-Cross tires. I enjoy riding this bike on dirt and gravel back roads so much I've started to think of it as some sort of Proto-Mountainbike. It's more nimble and a steadier climber when standing and slowly turning the cranks like big wooden Grist Mill machinery. Both fit me well and are comfortable places to spend long days so are most of the way to being perfect regardless of how you push the chain from cog to cog or clamp your feet to the crankarms.

 "Up-Grading" either of these old bikes to more closely resemble the current fashion would be like putting skinny jeans and a lip ring on a 50 year old guy with thinning hair and a bit of a belly(not that I have EVER done that, the bike thing or the lip ring...) and you would lose so much of the charm and satisfaction they have to offer.
 Things like instant shifting. "Wait!" you say, "instant shifting? That's what indexed systems ARE ALL ABOUT! You canna' be serious you chucklehead!" But I say, there is instant shifting that takes place, reliably and almost silently, when you ease the power a tiny fraction, push the shifter that well practiced increment, taking the chain by the elbow and giving it a good push where you want it to go. As soon as the chain climbs off the tooth it's on, it's going to get picked up right away by the adjacent tooth. Every time. Lubrication, proper adjustment and a little skill provided of course. But on an indexed system, nothing happens until the chain rolls off a tooth configured to kick it up or down to the next cog configured to catch it. Granted, that's never more than a few teeth but if you spend a bit of time getting all heavy and intimate with a properly sorted friction system, you will start to sense it and you might find it satisfying in a way the "skip a half-beat then BANG" system you've been riding, never will be. I think the "BANG" might be engineered into some of these systems, perhaps the brittle report of the modern $300 hair-trigger 11spd. derailleur helps one not to notice the ever so slight hesitation to shift. It's sort of like the over paid guy sitting at his desk day-dreaming, the boss steps through the door and the first thing I, uh, he, does is bang a couple of keys, smartish and loudly, if a little belatedly. The friction derailleur on the other hand is the Poindexter at the next terminal who had his nose to the digital grindstone the whole time and is now looking down that exquisitely sharpened nose at you as if you had just been caught with your finger in your own. I took a lot of pride in learning to shift quickly and neatly way back then, and it's still satisfying to be able to do it well and intuitively even if I must take a hand off the bars and reach down to the shifter on the down-tube. I don't think the Earth is a worse planet to live on now that we can shift and brake and answer our phones without ever moving our hands more than a few inches, in fact I really dig the way I can brake and downshift simultaneously on my Ergo-power bikes. Even if I never needed to be able to do that before discovering I could. But now it's a skill I take some satisfaction from and would sort of miss doing if it stopped being an option. Cut's both ways.

Another thing about friction shifting and then I promise to move on... R.P.M.

On modern integrated shifting systems where the next gear is a flick of the wrist and a fraction of a second away, we shift a lot. Even the local pro's seem to be shifting quite a bit as they swerve around me out on the road. I find myself and the people I ride with tend to stay within about 15 or 20 r.p.m.except when climbing the big grades where we run out of gear and have to grunt. That really isn't a problem but when you have to disrupt things a bit to change gears, you naturally tend to do it less, encouraging yourself to develop a much broader R.P.M. range. I have a comfortable range of about 50 or 60 r.p.m., from about 65 to about 115/120. I can spin faster if there's a reason but let's not pretend I'm particularly smooth or graceful. On my friction bikes I use it all, spending most of the time in my sweet spot of approx 95/100 where I'm still smooth and my best power is available right on up to my comfortable max. On my indexed bikes I tend to find myself pedaling 10r.p.m. slower and shifting so often that I stay in a narrow band of about 25R.P.M. from about 75 to 100. That means I have to have more gears, shift more often and relinquish the strongest part of my ability. I have to make myself resist that inefficient tendency on my "modern" bikes but it's the natural rhythm of a friction bike. I know that one of the selling points of the new electronic systems is the promise of staying at your "Ideal" R.P.M., which is likely anything but.

Oh my word. I"m still gassing about all this even now? And did you notice how often I resorted to the "Personal Pronoun"? Pitiful. It might not be so bad from here though...

I like clips and straps too, but again, I use the current default, clipless pedals, on the roadbikes I ride the most. I sometimes even put them on those old bikes I was talking about earlier, especially if my clickety soled clown shoes seem like the comfortable choice that day. But if I want to go for a spin in my smelly Adidas trainers or my old Bata cleats, then classic quill pedals with chrome steel clips and the raggedy de-laminated Alfredo Binda leather straps let me, which makes me happy. Happy to be able to tap the tab on the pedal with the tip of my shoe, just so, then tilt my foot so the clip slips right over it as it comes over the top, a quick squirm and the cleat pops over the cage and a little tug on the strap and I'm imagining myself to be Federico Bahamontes, "the Eagle of Toledo", or Joop Zoetemelk or one of my other teenage heroes. It's just old habits and romantic notions, but also, old skills, hard won and satisfying to do well even now when there's no time to be gained or respect to be earned.  If you can become one of "The Greats" for a moment, simply by showing a toe-clip who's boss, then your world get's a little bigger, you know?

The other day I was about to leave the house for work and on an impulse grabbed the Raleigh instead of the Mercian with the modern gruppo. It was a nice spring morning and no one had called to say the shop was engulfed in flames, so I took the long way. At some point I found that perfect position and cadence where you feel smooth and electric, able to fly almost, I dropped one hand to the shifters and did a nice rapid double shift, first one then the other to drop into the little ring and up 2 in the rear at just the right time as the road tilted up the hill. At the top, the free end of my right toe strap was brushing the grass along the edge of the road making a sound I instantly remembered but hadn't heard in a decade or two, then I rolled over the crest and tucked for the dive towards the Quarry Road and marveled at how comparatively serene and quiet it was, no cassette hub whining away to disturb the rumble of the wind in my ears and announce to the world at large"He's COASTING, the lazy bum is coasting again!"

I don't know, maybe there's not much of great value to be gained from all this old kit, but it makes it more fun sometimes. I never had any success racing and no one comes to me for advice or guidance but my past is as much part of why I still cycle as the promise of tomorrows ride. You might not get it, but if you see me out on some 40 year old bike, a long afternoons ride from home, looking a bit distracted and muttering to myself in bad Spanish or Dutch, at least you'll know why.


  1. I get it.
    You know the bike I ride. Also the other bike I ride. And the bike that is currently "Out For Delivery"
    that, while new and shiny (haven't bought a new bike since 1986!) is sure to disappoint in some small but significant ways. I suppose it is telling of my worldview that the first planned mod for said new bike is a Brooks Professional saddle from 1976 that has more than 20k miles on it.

    I dropped the hammer on a guy riding something carbon a few days back. he eventually caught up, but was probably wondering how I dropped four gears "all at once" to leave him behind.
    One click! Practice, mister, practice.
    The owner of a local race-centric shop can scare seasoned racers while riding a Cambio Corsa-equipped Legnano that could easily have been Bartali's. The motor makes the race.

    1. It's funny, I still get in these little "races" with other people myself even though I know it means little and proves even less, but some of us still seem to need the little jolt of competition we get from it. And when we're waving the flag of whatever moment of time we most want to identify with it becomes about BIKE PARTS as well. Kind of dumb but it beats mowing the grass and sometimes WE WIN!!!

      I would LOVE to try out a 'Cambio sometime, even though I know it would make me crazy wanting one and that ultimately I would decide it fell a bit short of Nuevo/Super Record(which is the best of all time...(Duh.)).


    2. Just being older and in mostly street clothes and passing a young buck, thus making him work for it, was sweet victory. The fact that I was riding a steel bike older than he was, bearing fenders and a water bottle cage on the handlebars while pulling him uphill was pure cake.

      Here's a pic of the Legnano: https://www.flickr.com/photos/77617662@N00/15333883876/in/dateposted-public/