Monday, September 22, 2014

New England Builders Ball - October 3rd!

New England Builders Ball
Two years ago, I stopped by the first New England Builder's Ball and had a fantastic time. It was especially exciting to be there, as not only did I live nearby as a teenager, but I am pretty sure one of my high school dances was held in the very venue. 

Now an annual event, this year's Builder's Ball will take place in the Roger Williams Park Botanical Center, from 7 to 11pm on Friday, October 3rd. 

If you're in the area, stop by to visit local framebuilders and makers - including Richard Sachs, Royal H., ANT, Geekhouse, Circle A, Honey, Firefly, Dill Pickle, and more! Oh, and I will be there too. This year I am "official" photographer for the event, and you will know it's me, because no doubt I will be doing something like this. Feel free to poke me in the shoulder and say hello!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Unboxing an Oscar Egg

1950s Oscar Egg City Bike
For one accustomed to currently-made, constructeur-inspired machines, seeing one of the originals can be a surreal experience. All the imitated elements - from the intricate lugwork, to the fat 650B tires, to the artful chaincase and elegant rack, even to the colour of the paint - are there. And yet the bicycle looks and feels different from the modern remakes. In some ways it feels like a book illustration come to life, more than a real bike. 

1950s Oscar Egg City Bike
In the darkened hallway stands a box, torn open at the top. When I see the words "Oscar Egg" on a powder-blue tube, I feel such lightheaded excitement that I need to walk away. 

I am not certain why the name of this particular builder engages my imagination. A Swiss bicycle racer who later settled in Paris to sell and manufacture bike parts, he is perhaps best known for his lugs, which were used by a variety of European builders. Complete Oscar Egg bicycles are less common, and there seems to be some debate as to whether he actually built them himself. Aside from this, little is known of him or his work. The man himself appears in photos as a broadly smiling, amicable fellow, with a round face and perky ears. The name Oscar Egg suits him. The name somehow also suits itself - the O in Oscar resembling an egg, and the font in which it is inscribed reminding me of an old children's book cover.

1950s Oscar Egg City Bike
I step outside to photograph some bikes of Nick's - the collector whose warehouse I'm in. When I return the Oscar Egg is unboxed and propped against the wall - unassembled, the parts just resting on top of one another. The machine is teeny-tiny, a 50cm frame perhaps, and a perfect, powdery shade of robin's egg blue. And it's a city bike, with upright handlebars and relaxed angles.  

1950s Oscar Egg City Bike
The unassembled bike cannot be easily moved, and the patchily lit hallway makes for a film-noiresque viewing.

1950s Oscar Egg City Bike
The dramatic flick of the Alu-Dur chainguard.

1950s Oscar Egg City Bike
The rounded forms of the rear rack. 

1950s Oscar Egg City Bike
The plump 650B wheels, the indentations on the fenders, the jewel-like lights, the wingnuts, the delicate-looking pulleys…

1950s Oscar Egg City Bike
My eyes dart from one detail to another, and so perfectly like itself each part is that it hardly seems real. The bike is from the 1950s, and not a particularly high-end model, judging by the simpler style of lugwork. Not that these things are particularly well documented, when it comes to Oscar Egg. 

1950s Oscar Egg City Bike
The details of this bicycle's construction may never be known. I lament this, while in my head plays a black and white silent film in which Humpty Dumpy, clad in an old work apron, sits bent over a pile of lugwork with a file and polishing cloth, his elbows moving jerkily as music builds to a crescendo. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Machine Memory

Rawland Rolling: Battle Road Trail
In the corner of the dusty storage room the bike slumped against the wall, front wheel and fender beside it. As I knelt to attach them, I tried to remember where it was that I'd taken the bicycle last time I rode it. Whose car was it? Where did we go? I was drawing a blank. As if searching for clues, I rummaged in the handlebar bag, but it had been cleaned out with an unusual, for me, meticulousness. Empty. Then I stuck my hand in the one pocket where I hadn't yet looked and fished out four neatly folded bills: a ten, a five, and two ones. Was this discovery a surprise, or did I know the cash was there all along, looking for it without realising it? I was about to pocket the money, when a strange feeling of guilt crept over me… as if I was stealing from the bike. I placed it back in the bag and then, mentally rolling my eyes at myself, dragged the bike outside into the morning sunlight. In that dark room, I had allowed myself to feel haunted by its presence. But after all, it is only a bicycle. A machine. 

Rawland Rolling: Walden Pond
In the dry leaf-scented, early Autumn heat I rode and rode through once-familiar roads, up and down once-familiar hills. There were times when the bike seemed to know the way better than I did. I would approach an intersection, uncertain of how to continue, when the bike would, ever so subtly, pull to the right, or the left, and this would always be the correct way. My own route memory lagged slightly behind, synchronising with the bike's only after we'd make the turn. 

Rawland Rolling: Battle Road Trail
On the dirt road, I relaxed on a descent through loose sand. I rolled blithely along the narrow zig-zagging boardwalks that cross the swamps. I had all but forgotten how to do this kind of riding. But my view from the saddle - the view of the dirty handlebars, sun-faded bag, and bit of fat cream tire peaking out - brought it all back. Riding here, the bike clicked into place, and the boardwalk and sand clicked into place, as if they were meant to go together - pieces in a visuo-tactile jigsaw puzzle.   

Rawland Rolling: Walden Pond
When I stopped for food, I reached again for the money. It felt right this time, as if the bicycle was treating me to lunch on this ride. That was what that money was meant for, and only that. But now, crumpled underneath the folded bills, I felt something else jammed at the bottom of the pocket, and pulled it out. It was a half-discinegrated piece of paper with faded text. On closer inspection I saw it was a piece of an old route sheet. And, studying it closer still, I saw it was the route of the 300K brevet I'd abandoned. Strangely, this made me smile. And then, for reasons unknown, instead of throwing it in the waste bin I was standing next to, I crumpled it back up and pressed it into the bottom of the pocket where I'd found it. 

Rawland Rolling: Walden Pond
Bicycles are only things. But what kind of things are they? They are inanimate objects that we, humans, animate and keep synchronised with our own rhythms and motions. Bicycles do not have experiences. But experiences are imprinted upon them through use. With every mile of rough road they roll through and with every drop of corrosive sweat that falls upon them, the machines come to reflect their environments and their owners. They store and activate memories.

I had bought this bike with intent to resell it once it had served its purpose. But when the time came, I ran into a mental and emotional barrier. I stalled and changed my mind half a dozen times. The bike felt too personal, and that made it unsellable. It was only after this ride that I finally felt it was time. It was time to gently, but swiftly, kill it - to give the frame I'd built for myself a chance to live, just as I had planned to in the first place, by moving over the components. And this bike? Stripped of its holistic bikeyness, it will lose its identity - and hopefully find another, replete with new machine memories.

Friday, September 12, 2014

On Pedaling to the Doctor: a Rural Cyclist's Predicament

A couple of years ago I was chatting to a cyclist who lived car free in an out of the way suburb, and I asked what he found challenging about getting around by bike. Interestingly, it was not his daily 20 mile commute to work. This he happily combined with training, cycling in lycra and changing at his office building's gym and shower facilities. Neither was it his 12 mile grocery/ hardware store run. To accomplish that, he hitched a trailer to his roadbike every Saturday morning and stocked up for the week. What he did find tricky, he said, was visiting the doctor. "How do you mean?" I asked. "Oh you know," he chuckled, now slightly embarrassed, "I hate to arrive for a check-up with that not so fresh feeling..."

At the time I had not given his words much consideration. But they came back to me on the day of my first doctor's appointment since having moved to a rural area. Faced with an 11 mile ride to the hospital along exposed country roads in windy conditions, I found myself uneasy about the state I'd be in upon arrival.

While not everyone will admit this openly, the truth is that we tend to "primp" before a doctor's appointment. In fact, a casual survey of my friends revealed that most have elaborate pre-doctor visit rituals that can rival any romantic date prep. At the very least, we want to be clean - ideally, freshly showered and wearing recently laundered clothing. We make sure to put on our "good" underwear and socks, not the stretched-out, hole-ridden rags we might normally wear when we think no one will see. For women, it is not uncommon to shave or wax before a doctor's appointment, at times more thoroughly than for a holiday in Ipanema. To make liberal use of scented lotions is considered by some de rigueur.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that we want to appeal to our doctors. It's more that we don't want to disgust them. At no other time does our personal hygiene seem under greater scrutiny than when our bodies are prodded and examined under glaring lights by a member of the medical profession (or more likely, by entire groups of them, with crowds of eager medical students gathered around as the doctor cheerfully points to some private part of our anatomy and we lie there, rendered docile and mute by the shock of the intrusion). And sure, they've probably seen it all. But somehow we still feel that our bodies have the power to revolt them, unless scrubbed clean and presentably packaged.

As the wind howled outside at 25mph, I considered my transportation options. I could make it easier on myself and ride my roadbike. But then I'd have to wear the shoes and the padded shorts. I'd arrive looking and smelling like a sweaty cyclist, presenting with CCS (Crumpled Crotch Syndrome). The alternative was to ride an upright bike in my everyday clothes. But that would take longer and feel tedious, and I'd probably still arrive sweaty. In a moment of desperation, I considered the bus. But there is no direct route to the hospital from my house, and the thought of spending half a day on bus transfers filled me with horror - which proved a rather effective means of resolving my indecision. For heaven's sake, it's only 11 miles. I put on clean clothes, grabbed a packet of tea tree oil wipes, got on my folding bike and took my time pedaling into the wind. Upon arrival, I darted for the bathroom and gave myself a zealous wipe-down before plopping into a chair in the waiting room.

If I displayed any signs of uncleanliness, the doctor did not let on. But he did scrutinise my face with mild concern. "And how long have you been troubled by that patchy redness?" For a moment, I panicked, imagining myself stricken with some terrible skin disease. Then I remembered: I'd been riding my bicycle.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

These Boots Weren't Made for Cycling… But with Some DIY, They Could Be!

When we think of "cycling shoes" most likely the image that comes to mind is that of cleated athletic footwear. But increasingly, manufacturers are also producing shoes designed for plain-clothed cycling on flat pedals. Chrome Industries and DZR Shoes have been doing this for some time. Occasionally even designers outside the bicycle industry join in. I remember the Fluevog Westerly making a splash some years ago. And, more recently, English designer Tracey Neuls introduced a line of cycling-friendly footwear. So what exactly makes all of these shoes "cycling shoes?" And is there really a need for such a thing, when it comes to everyday cycling?

While the extreme view among plain-clothes transportation cyclists is that there is no need for cycling-specific footwear, personally I wouldn't go that far. After all, those who do a lot of walking as part of their daily routine (as opposed to driving everywhere) will look for walking-friendly features in their footwear - be that footwear work boots or high heels. Similarly, it makes sense that those of us who pedal around for transportation will gravitate toward shoes that are bicycle-friendly. Typically such shoes will be constructed with non-slip, reasonably stiff soles. For commuting in the rain, waterproof uppers are also essential. And some riders find reflective elements desirable. We can find these features in shoes marketed as cycling-specific. We can also look for ordinary shoes that happen to offer these same features. Finally, we can take matters into our own hands and add the features ourselves!

DIY "Cycling Boots"
Let's say, for instance, that you own these ordinary 2" heel ankle boots. They are durable and versatile, they can be worn with trousers and skirts, they can be funkified or frumpified as the situation requires - In short, you love them. But now you've started riding a bike for transportation, and oh no! You find that the soles slip on the pedals.

DIY "Cycling Boots"
But don't despair. Because you can resole your favourite boots with non-slip soles. Most cobblers offer this as a same-day service, and last time I checked, the cost in the US was between $10 and $30 per pair, depending on cobbler and the type of sole you choose. When getting this done, make sure to communicate to the cobbler that you need the shoes to be grippy and stiff, for cycling; they usually have lots of options and will be able to offer suggestions. Getting your shoes resoled can turn any slippery shoe into a cycling shoe. So now there you are, pedaling happily in your resoled-boots until is tarts to rain and oh no! Your feet are completely soaked by the time you get to work.

DIY "Cycling Boots"
But take heart! Because if your shoes or boots are not already waterproof, you can waterproof them yourself. A variety of fairly inexpensive sprays and rub-on waxes now exist that are suitable for fabric, leather and suede. This one costs around $4 and will last for some time.

So there you are, having waterproofed your favourite boots, rolling along in the sunshine and in the rain, perfectly content ...Until you spot another cyclist in front of you. And you notice that this other cyclist has reflective thingamajigs on their shoes! No doubt these are some fancy cycling-specific shoes that cost a fortune. How else would you get super-cool reflective thingamajigs like that?

DIY "Cycling Boots"
Oh how indeed! If you are not acquainted already, allow me to introduce you to 3M reflective tape. It costs about $1 per small roll and comes in different colours. Red seems like a good choice for reflective bits on the backs of shoes.

DIY "Cycling Boots"
Depending on how permanently and securely you want to attach it, you can get reflective tape that is sticky (shown here), or reflective ribbon that needs to be sewn on (a local cobbler quoted me  £10 for the work). How much of it you want to attach and where is of course up to you. You can tape it around the heel. You can add a tab to the top of the shaft. Or you can run it along the rear seam as shown here, for dramatic effect.

DIY "Cycling Boots"
And though I did this just to illustrate a point (readers sometimes ask where to buy shoes with reflective bits at the back, to which I reply suggesting they could add those themselves, but they seem skeptical), I actually quite like the Prada-like result. Even in daylight they are noticeable.

DIY "Cycling Boots"
And in the dark?

DIY "Cycling Boots"
Well, you can see for yourself. 

DIY "Cycling Boots"
I think it's great that footwear manufacturers, both within the bicycle industry and outside of it, are addressing the needs of utility cyclists who prefer to ride in ordinary shoes, but would like those shoes to have bicycle-friendly features. And it's equally great that, with just a little creativity and spare cash, we can turn almost any existing pair of shoes into shoes that feel great on the bike, if they don't already. Whatever your your choice of footwear, happy pedaling!