It's curious that Chicago is nationally ranked as "Bike Friendly". I'm conflicted about this because any day of the year, one can easily be swallowed by a giant hole in the pavement, and disappear. If you ride a lot, you know what I mean when I say that your brain holds a topo map of nearly every well-travelled route whether it is on or off-road, and that muscle memory often takes over where senses fail, to assure you traverse two points without going down. It is also eerily true that we adjust this map as the pavement changes shape, and shoulders a lump, broadens a hole, or sinks. This year Illinois thought they'd flex their "Prog Muscle", (which i'm rather sure is located somewhere near my ass), to make recreational marijuana legal in 2020. So it is now that we are finding ourselves to be more progressive... And so, pot is legal, ...And lines quickly formed to buy some weed on a chilly New Years Day, 2020.
Me, I slept in.
The supply and demand being not quite worked out, meant that in mid-winter people camped outside their local Cannabis temple, like millennial lemmings seeking sacred Jordan's. If you are not from Chicago, nor Illinois for that matter then you will easily know it's borders, as you approach to buy your weed. We are delineated from Wisconsin to the North, or Iowa to the west, by the sudden change in our topography, that is we are the place with shitty roads.
As we migrate through: Toll Plazas, (a tax upon any visitor to maintain roads), a gas station (where gas costs a dollar more per gallon to maintain roads), you will eventually find that the topographical map of our landscape changes drastically to brittle bits, as we fail to maintain our roads. For a driver or rider this means that you may wish to broaden your following distance, so that you can see the lovely sights ahead. Illinois is where most midwesterners learn to swerve. In Chicago, we have no mountains, no real hills to speak of, just a lot of rusty bridges, crumbling train trestles, and the pavements, well -- They are a mess.
Like many places in America's rust belt, we also slowly dimmed from a bright epoch of industrial exuberance, where everyone pulling a lever at the factory netted a boat, a summer cottage, and a pension. The latter being our undoing, as Illinois struggles to pay creditors for lost revenue, and for juicy pensions. When we run out of pocket money, the first thing we kick to the curb, is infrastructure. So consider this a warning when you pass through Illinois and NW Indiana by bike; You will perhaps need some new ninja skills such as:
1. Learn to swerve without rolling under a truck.
2. Learn to bunny-hop in case you need to levitate over a roadway abyss.
3. Perfect your zen when an auto dodging similar pot-holes swipes you toward the curb.
4. Expand your field of view. ETA to obstacles which swallow you like sunken sewer covers.
5. Hold your lane, and if needed, drive your bike like a car to stay relevant to Auto Traffic.
6. Check the Amtrak time tables for travel with your bike, you may want to sit for this one.
I was planning to ride up to Michigan's Manistee National Forest, and then ferry across from Luddington to Manitowoc WI, but had a tough time reconciling routes to levitate over the whole of Chicago's south side, and Northern Indiana's Industrial gem called "Gary". Last year I lacked enough fingers and toes to count in one trip to MI, the near-death obstacles. As a City person for my whole life, I cannot reconcile why it is not better to build a road once every 20 years with Concrete, than to pave and patch it every month using Asphalt. I have ideas of course as to how contracts are awarded, and how lucrative jobs seem to pad the pockets for teams of Pot-hole crews. When I was 6, my Grandfather and I took the CTA Bus from Riis Park on Chicago's far west side down to the "El Train" en route to downtown. He walked fast, and when I would pause to lament, I would use something I'd notice to distract both of us from my tired legs. "Hey Papa", I'd ask, "What's with that big truck full of black stuff"? ...He would tell me that they were 'Pot-hole Crews' and that they have the best job security in town. "Now watch", he said -- "They are going to drizzle a bucket of tar into that hole, and then scoop some Ashphalt into there". (he pronounced it "ash-fault", an affect of his Chicago upbringing). I watched as they opened the trucks tail-gate a slit, and shoveled down some black glop.
Then one man began to smack the mound into the hole until it sat just proud of the road-way. It was mid summer, and I'd also noticed large wave-like berms of road where heavy traffic and our bus creased the pavement into ridges like mohawks on a bald Mr. T. I saw a cadillac drive over one near the bus-stop, and grind and spark as the undercarriage scraped the ridge of 'Ashfault'.
My Grandpa then said "Now look there, they have a person for each job..." "That one drives the truck and reads the paper". "That one opens the tail-gate lever", "That one shovels out the Goop". "And that one drizzles the hot tar to make it stick, like glue". ...And then, I said "They are done!", finishing his primer on potholes. He said "No, not quite.., that person there has to clean the shovels". "Ok" I replied, "What do they use for that?" He said, "They usually use Kerosene or Gasoline". We both watched, with acrid tar stifling our senses; Standing in the hot sun waiting for the Next bus.
"There!, he said, "they have a jug, and a bucket, and they will use the Kerosene to wash the tar off-the shovel", "...And that's Job security!", He exclaimed with authority.
The bus arrived, and we stepped up and into it. A dwarve drove the bus and he wore huge blocks on his shoes to reach the pedals, and I tried not to stare. We moved back, and found our place, and as my Grandpa stood, I kneeled against the window, to watch the 'Pot-Hole crew' pour kerosene onto sticky shovels as they shrank into the distance. My Grandpa said, "You see the kerosene will clean the tools, and it will also soak into the Ashfault and break up the glue holding it together, and then in a few months, there will be another pot-hole to fix." "That's Job Security!" he said indictingly.
So it happens that Our new Mayor, and Our New Governor, are heavily vested in the Pot and the Pot-hole Biz. They are also hoping like a bake-sale to solve climate issues, that Pot sales may help to pay for road repairs. This is of course in part because, My state, (being a strong-hold of democrats and a "sanctuary city"), will not get Federal infrastructure funding as has been lavished upon the three 'Red-States" which border us.
When you count on Pot to fix Pot-holes, you'd better also hope that there are lines out the door in January. If you are a realist, it's best to learn some strategies to avoid them, even if it means taking the train around the City of Chicago in search for your next adventure.
[Evil]ution of the Gravel Bike has been more grass-roots, than science. Creation, even of a monster like Frankenstein was more grunge than grace. I'm not sure what your last set of stitches looked like, But I'm sure if I'd re-attached a limb, it would be crude; (stitched-together body-parts, some glue perhaps, and then an epic flashy moment of lightening!) Both beings and bikes are evolutive appendages of what preceded them. In fact this may have been your mom's 1997 'Trek Hybrid'. We used to call them all 'Cross bikes', which is in part true. Whether called 'Hybrid' or 'Cross', they were merely stepping stones to where we have now arrived. Soon the world will be subsumed with more "Gravel Bikes", and there will be one for everybody at many price points. Today, most Gravel Bikes are yet elitist early forays. Like first-gen full suspensions from 1993; These are sometimes lovely, while also awkward, and perhaps unrefined Franken-bikes. Some are unusual & exciting, even threatening... but not so new, are they ?
This week I wandered down one of those long Forum rabbit-holes which like any politic today seem to digress as a square to their post count; bringing out the worst in some or all of the contributors. The initial "article" was an advertorial (of sorts) for a new gravel-esque bike design from the growing Evil brand. At first blush the bike looked new and, well... Interesting. Sloped top tube, slack angles, mountain short stem, arched stays, decent stand-over, dual dropped chain-stays, and nary enough room in the front triangle for three bottles, let alone touted frame packs. It comes with seven promised Bottle mounts. It is a bike, which it's reviewer admitted to enjoy, as well as to own, and hence the bike was well reviewed. The photos were impeccably lit as shadows caressed the forms. These mad-scientist embers ignite the un-initiated with a real desire to check it out... But it also evokes the "which came first question". Is this just a Mountain Bike with a drop bar? I'm not really sure. Just the same, if that reviewer owned the bike then they could certainly speak from experience. What followed the review, was first gentle cajoling, and then things slid like a melting popsicle down a hot asphalt driveway. Some comments were disparagement for a "Me-too" category of franken-bikes, which were taunted to be nothing more than Mountain Hard-tails with a Drop bar. So, let's address this part first... Is this a Me-too Mountain bike with a drop bar? Is this a fledgeling sojourn out of the nest for first flight? Will it take off, or crash and burn? Man! who knows?
Bastardization (evolution) is Natural:
Since the 1920's people have been hybriding bikes in more cross pollinated permutations than Dutch Tulips. To invent a new category requires experimentation, which without a torch, means dropping a different Bar, Stem, Fork or wheel on a bike, until it does what you like. Ill prepared to accept the elective surgery, some ideas just fizzle toward the waste-bin. When we were kids we used to saw fork blades from a bent up ten-speed, and hammer them onto an existing fork to lengthen and hence create a "Chopper". Some always broke a drop-out or cracked a head-tube weld jumping a creek, and needed to find a welder to tack it back together. Once chummy with the welder, requests which should have remained tucked away in the brain, would unfurl into a new design, giving rise to some of the Burning Man shite we see in a parade route Critical Mass today. Tall Seussian bikes with many gears, more than one chain, and perhaps proportions which risked significant injury to tame are progressive failures, perhaps enroute toward something special. Is the New evil Special? It does however, take progressive experimentation to create something new, such as the Salsa Warbird, and it's demon seed, the Cutthroat.
The New "Gravel" category has seen this new renaissance, and while some trendy brands will "me-too" right away, Instantly filling out a few catalog pages. Some may giants may wait, watch, and later mimic, established trends. When someone throws another GMO abomination into the velo gene pool, the resultant comments from an opera-box of muppets with nothing better to do, come as hard and fast as mickey d's to our "president's" cherubic mouth.
I'm glad that before Trek leaped into the Gravel, they simply sat out the category for years. Tooling is costly, and to market at scale, requires a level of surety which can even cause a giant to drag their feet. When Specialized high-fived this category, they decided (as they always seem to do) to have a cooler gimmick, Future Shock. When I first saw that, I thought of Steve Jobs revealing the iPod, or the iPad for that Matter, and saw thousands of hangers-on, cringe when they recited that odd name in their heads, conjuring menstruation, and Just what the Fuck does the "i" stand for anyway?.. So now that all the big brands have caught up to Salsa, and Open, where is this steam-punk ship headed?, and Why?
First where is it headed? It could be easily defended that the Gravel Bike is not a new category, nor life-style, but just a market correction of the 80's Hybrid bike, (albeit more spendy) inviting more folks to buy something that they perceive as more versatile. Each Bona fide rider, will know at least a dozen people who saw them riding,, and half mockingly looked down at their lycra, and then passed the same ritual comments... How do you ride those skinny tires? How do you balance on that", doesn't that seat hurt?, and lastly?, What if you hit a pot-hole?...
And so it happens that a face only a mother could love would still be loved by someone. We should never shame someone for their choices, nor for their experiments. Clearly unless you actually buy the kool aid, you cannot complain of the taste. But in so many interweb dialog digressions, polarizing points of view seem to be the demon seed of the WWW. As markets typically predict the products that feed them, Jumping the Shark with an oddly masculine Gravel bike, or as appears, a hard-tail Mountain Bike in sheep's clothing, it makes sense to predict that if the public doesn't want it, the mold will rust on the shelf next year, and Evil will have to come up with their next Gremlin. When Hybrid bikes granted the public's wish for a more upright ten-speed, with seemingly more capable rubber, the over thirty public devoured them. Everyone below the bar bought a mountain bike, because they were cooler. So it would follow that thousands of Hybrid bikes made many more smile as they passed along from family companion, to deflated garage relic, to craigslist, to the scrap heap. A bike is a symbol of freedom, and 'they' were on to something when the venerable ten-speed shape-shifted into the above hybrid 720 contraption, (sans the bar-ends of course) -- But then, alas fast on it's heels came the mountain bike craze, and that basically blew out the walls of the Barn. Literally Trek and others who built bikes in barns could no longer keep up with demand, and would need to move all production off-shore, to meet the demand for cheap, fat tire bikes, which were decidedly not your mother's ten-speed. Stop-gap allowed them to buy up Fisher and Klein just to get their hands on good tech. I would humbly state that of the 40,000+ bikes I wrenched, the majority would be Hybrids, and "Mountain Bikes". While occasionally in my youth I felt the temptation to mock the accessorized monster-fat saddle, every single "gel accessory", and of course tall stems, and reversed bar-ends. I soon learned to be less fearful, and (like Dr. Strangelove), I learned to love the bike whatever it's whimsical perturbation. We use "Quotes" around "mountain bike" here... because stylistically that was the delivered product, but practically speaking most were not destined nor designed to see the 'mountains'. Surely some were advanced; Tomacs, Klein Rascals, and even Y-Bikes, but the majority were hedged like bond traders to (oh please god!!!) never venture beyond the Asphalt Ribbon, because we didn't test for that. Your "Mountain Bike" looked the part, but "parts" is what they'd soon become as they hit single-track, and zinc spokes collapsed under well fed mid-westerners. So it happened, that just like your Rav4, nobody was ever 'supposed' to ride that thang off-road... It "said so" right there in the manual, right after the section showing 'proper use of a Quick release'. And so it now makes sense that following the Mountain Bike Boom of the nineties, what would follow is the High-end trend ticking upward the "Status-Bike" Craze. What better to drop $5-10 large on, than a new Road Bike? Post Boom, when Mountain Bike markets were absolutely fully saturated, like a choking goose with with fat-tires, and shocks, and wacky suspension designs, crammed down it's gullet, a Post-feast bulimia would need to follow. 'Light weight' was the next craze, (as predicted). And with the new economic bubble, people were struggling to find things to spend their tax refund on. Too little for a Car, but not too much that a New Road Bike could not sate the craving for something flashy. Status could now be purchased in the form of Road Bike Jewelry. Once again the Bike industry reacted, retooling for the New Road Bike boom. The average Top Tier bike price accelerated like fake mortgage backed securities, and just as Lehman, and Goldman got rich shorting the system, Prices nearly quadrupled for the Top-tier road bike overnight. In 1996 a Full Record Klein sold for around $3k, and by 2006, you could get that price up to $8 or 9K. By 2016 $11-12. Same Diamond Frame, lust-worthy parts, and magically shrinking gross vehicle weight. If you had to blame someone, you could blame Lance, and LeMond for bringing French trophies home to the US. But as with all messy historic nuance, this was not any one's fault, rather a perfect storm of available exotic materials, rocket science, and the cross-pollination of defense industry technology bleeding into all sorts of sporting goods.
The same is true for Skis, boards, boats, cars, motorcycles, and every region that could be chemically augmented. Carbon my friend coursed through the bloodline first infecting bikes with aluminum lugs, then forks, then frames, then parts like stems, posts, rims, and cetera.
Now for the Why part of the gravel trove. Some part is a "me-too" movement, whereby new entrants make what other's make because shop owners selling brand "X" get tired of saying, "no we don't have one of those". But that's a demand economy right? So the full story is that the Gravel bike is the new Hardtail (period). During our current bubble of cheap goods from China, and unsustainable economic prosperity, 1 in five cars on my street seem to be a Benz, Range, or Tesla. Never have we seen so many people living out their dreams with cheap money, and communal tastes. If your internet influences eats vanilla or does steam treatments down-under, then you need to do that as well... If you don't have one of these you simply wont fit in. If everyone is wearing ripped jeans again, then get some... So go out and get yourself a new bike, before the bubble pops.
My brother refuses to grow-up, and much like myself, lord knows he could afford to... But if he wants to continue to log miles on his 28 year old Klein Attitude, 'on' and 'off' road, then he may be the truest allegiant to the sport. For me, I have to get new shit all the time, to fuel this maniacal machine. The Machine needs me to buy more, and get the latest as soon as it's pressed. Early adopters move the bar. So it follows that Evil will make a bold strike at a new die of Plus-sized Gravel bikes, which will either cement their ingenuity as cutting edge, or their jumping this shark, will cost them dearly. Why are "Gravel" and "Gravel Plus" bikes everywhere? Because, when we run out of Vanilla, it's time to change flavors. While you are at it, add some nutz.
Gravel is intent to bring more people back into their Nostalgic romance with the outdoors. The new hybrid is a hybrid of a Mountain Bike Craze, The Super Lux Road bike Craze, and elegiac feelings of fording rivers, and summiting mountains under human power. What we all missed, except for an astute few, is that while Evil dabs a toe in the me-too gravel plus camp, and others sharpen their designs, Specialized is putting a motor in that shit, and making it light enough to not resent.
Gravel is so last year. The next Gravel-travel is Lithium-Ion Gravel. Not Gravel Plus, but as a nod to the DC voltage it is Gravel+/-
Embrace the Change because you cant stop progress. Don't shame earnest innovation, and above all Enjoy the ride.
For all the bikes I've loved, most seem tough to part with, but who could imagine I'd long for a set of wheels I gave away. I’ve built about 40 sets of wheels, which is not impressive. This is a story about why that doesn't really matter. This happened, (of course), well prior to the commoditization of any real aftermarket wheel industry.
In the mid 80’s before Lycra layered deerskin upon ones crotch; Music was generally upbeat, rap was charming, and smiling musicians (not "recording artists") courted listeners through music videos, with bad hair & giant fake gold necklaces. In that era of leather saddles, and Benotto Celo-cinta, one could either ask their local bike shop to build something for the track, or they got whatever came with the bike. Today, if you want to get yet another shrug from a tattoo'd millennial -- Ask at your local shop for something custom. Because there generally are no adults in the room, you will most certainly see them go fetch someone older who also shrugs and says, "let me show you these wheels over here".
Thirty-odd years back, bikes had wheels, and riders were quite fast upon them, but Mavic & Campy just began to make inroads into the yet undefined "wheel" category, by making one off discs, and trial specific alloy wheels. Mere Mortals could actually buy a pair of plastic covers for spoked steel wheels to achieve "Aero". The plastic was the same stuff as the sled you own today, cheap, hard, and colorful. For Uni (image Below), fabric wheel covers were available, the cost was reasonable, but the benefit was not so scientific, per se. For Campy and Mavic discs, the cost of entry was stratospheric, (basically one-offs) To make this tech trickle down, we first needed to retire Reagan’s fantasy-land Star-Wars missile defense systems, and put more 'contractors' out of biz, so that a rusting war machine could shit out all sorts of defunct Carbon, Kevlar, & Metal-Matrix into the crochet gloved hands of an eager bike trade. We could now build magical 'Terminator' beings such as carbon shrouded discs, bouncy Spinergy's, Armored M2 frames, and henceforth an eruption of sticky resin, and metalurgy flowed into eager hands to bind it all together. ...But, we are getting ahead of ourselves.
With little more than tires on offer, Specialized, (still the little "s") hadn’t yet made a Tri-spoke nor anything else for that matter.
Life was simple. I was a simpleton waxing glamorous upon an early Aluminum Track Frame.
I eventually owned two track bikes, and a custom Paramount from my friends in Waterford. Why a track bike?, mostly because I thought they were cool. Why a Paramount?, because they were certainly cool, and my friends built them. When cold, I would ride indoors on my polymer Rollers. Messengers still rode Ten-Speeds, and almost nobody talked about weight; yours or the bike's. Speaking of Cool... The cult of the Campy High-flange surely caught fire, and sustains by that elusive accolade. They are Cool.
Before electric resistance trainers, Blackburn sold a ton of fan, and later “Mag Trainers” — which felt a bit like riding a Schwinn Airodyne, (possibly the only piece of exercise equipment in the general marketplace. Treadmills and Nordic Trac were a few years from their heydey). With a slipping clutch thing and no whirring turbo-prop sound, each crank rotation, felt the slip where the revolution exceeded the magnetic grab. Like the feeling of a skipping chain, or free-hub one felt at times they may "Let Go" and sail over the bars. Many who had the analogous real world launch experience, will share that a skipped cog spelled injury. These too wold come later, because in this period drama, only rollers, and bad fan trainers existed.
It wasn’t a dark age, but it may have been a bit less sophisticated than the sophisticated pseudo-cycling dungeons of today.
I dismantled a then Vintage set of high flange Super Record hubs from a pair of sticky Wolber sew-up hoops. Setting the old rims aside, I set about to polishing the hubs back to their factory shimmer. Two better Campy Record models existed; Nuovo had a small aircraft blued spring clip at the hub’s center sheltering an injection port. Super had only a fancy polished band where the clip had once been, boasting the Campy winged logo. Both were magical. This is a eulogy of sorts. Cathartic, Nostalgic, and reverent.
There was no need to open the cone nuts on these hubs, nor to clean the bearings, but I took them apart anyway. I rolled tiny silver spheres through a rag in my hand, feeling each tiny ball until they also shined. If required, one could remove the inner races from most great hubs and press in a new set, but these hubs were perfect!...just the right amount of wear to glint a perfect polished silver track against a black velodrome upon which these balls rolled like mercury.
Repacked with green Phil Wood grease, (I had no magic Campy lithium about the shop), I cinched the cones snug again, and spun the axle to gauge it’s freedom of movement. Truth be told the Phil wood grease was rather crappy both thermally, and for lubricity, which may explain why I have the same tube I bought in the late 80's. These newly shined-up hubs were perfect. I cleaned the rest of the Mother’s polishing paste from the spoke holes and counted out my new butted spokes. If you never held a Campy High Flange Hub, then buy a set and just set them upon your coffee table. They are magical unicorns, and even friends who don't own a bike will admit to their magnetism.
Owing to a Herculean effort by Wheelsmith, one could reference a chart of spoke lengths against a known batch of available hubs and hoops to find a mas-o-menos proper spoke length for most 3-cross lacing patterns. 2 cross, and radial was a trial-and-error frontier, unless someone else had already built and shared their intel. Later "Spoke Calc" became THE database for every wheel-builder. So it makes sense as a bookend that the god father of Wheelsmith made his last big splash with a Carbon wheel design so radical became his undoing. That 'wonder wheel' was Mad Fiber.
The thing was..., and I know it will sound impossible — but without the internet (which was not yet invented) ones’ ability to share trade secrets, and calculations with other Techs, was (well) limited. ipso facto, there was not that many hubs and rims to choose from in the early to mid 80's.
Various custom frame builders, As well as DT, and WheelSmith lorded this technical intellect like ancient Illuminati, and the data was coveted -- if finite.
Dropping each spoke through the drive side of my rear hub, I brought them one by one up to the rim staggering holes like hopscotch until one side held the hub to center.
Lacing a wheel was, and remains a beautiful zen affair, like trimming a Bonsai, or spinning wet clay on a wheel.
To lace a wheel is (at first) a bit like Japanese calligraphy, and as a right of passage I suppose, it delineated a matriculation of wrench craft. Or so it seemed to me. Any mechanic could bolt a pair or orange Mathauser pads to a Modolo caliper, and bend them to a perfect chatter-free gram, but few graduated to deftly making wheels, which endured.
As with any specialty skill-set, burning a hole saw through some 531 tubes and brazing it to a Hank James Lug-set, was a more elite affair. Building some shelves vs. building a house...
My first pair of custom wheels came to life from these High Flange beauties, and twin polished Araya deep rims. These magnificent, and coveted hubs were not born of style, but rather the perfect combination of form and function. If you search for them now, chances are good that they will cost you Five-X what they were new.
I know the next criticism will be something about Sew-ups v. Clinchers, so I’ll just say that in general, clinchers were less available, and I got these deep Arayas for a song. ...And who doesn’t like the smell of Tubasti fumes in the morning? Gluing tires to rims was the adolescent graduation after the formative childhood of huffing Testors model glue, and Super Elastic Bubble Plastic.
Beginning the second side I crossed each new spoke twice before it spun into its nipple.
Some wheels we tinned and soldered, some we wrapped with epoxied fiberglass cord. All were tensioned and found their true by hand, one turn at a time.
I’ve taught mechanics' classes and basic bicycle triage to many, but I never thought someone may want to obtain the secret skill-set of master wheel-builder.
For every spoke wrench I sold, I knew that with or without tutorial, I would soon see the wheel it was plied to, and charge the same person to loosen, mend, and to true what they "Fixed".
Truing a mangled wheel, much like fly-tying, is a Zen of sorts. Fine motor movement and nuanced pressure, amidst the CSI of hunting-down what the amateur wantonly ruined in a few minutes turning spokes. For anyone who rapidly fixed a wheel which someone hastily ruined twisting spokes, it becomes painfully clear that not everyone has the 'om' to hold a spoke key.
On the road, or at a race, a quick truing leaves no time for contemplation. Rapidly loosening a few nipples, bending a broken spoke like a crazy straw around another, and pulling a few more tight will allow one to limp along. This mid-race triage is like performing a tracheotomy, brutal, and effective!
(e.g. Stick the Bic-pen through a slit in the trachea, above the adam's-apple, and get them breathing again... gasp)!
There is nothing magic about the operation, but most will walk the race, or worse, stop moving entirely without expert intervention. It's like seeing an optometrist, and leaving with clear vision... This deed warrants heavy gratitude.
My new wheels would be special, not because they were technically compelling, but because I made them, they were shiny, and they would not easily fail. As with a new car, initially a force-field surrounds you, and you baby it, but after dinging the bumper once, you are no longer a petulant child when the next pothole consumes you.
Today, when you get a new set of Rovals, DT Swiss, or Enve’s, you are giving a nostalgic nod to our forebear struggles. Hand-built in a factory, today most toss the proverbial spoke keys (and hence their paycheck) to the high tech factories where a skilled team re-checks what the machine began.
Back when a discerning few would otherwise have had to seek out a guru for something special to roll upon, the options were finite, time-tables were longer, and the best testament to a great pair of wheels, was never thinking about them at all. Some come with a scribbled note saying "help help i'm slave in asian sweat-shop", while other's come with American Pedigree. All are generally awesome.
Today, if we can afford them, we can simply pay for something extraordinary. Are they "Hand-Built" sure, and so is a Ford F150. Someone touches some part, and viola!!, "Hand built". In fairness, I have some Tune's (hand-built), Roval's, (hand-built), some Enve's (hand-built), and some Bontrager's (hand-built) and they all are wonderfully solid. In the "olden-days" however, wheels of quality which were 'hand-built' were rare -- More couture, than H&M. Today, wheels may be perhaps more Chipotle, than Michelin-starred; But they are way better than most which dropped between 1985 and 1995.
When my wheels were laced, and the hub floated in the center, I'd set about to bed each spoke's "J"-end into the hub, and to flex each spoke until it seated well. Then, i'd individually tighten spokes as the wheel stiffened into shape. Rotated one-by-one, I enjoyed the process, but admit to seeming to have far more free-time then -- than I do now.
If you've built a bird house, a table, or crafted an IPA from scratch, then you know the satisfaction of seeing something useful through from raw materials, to final product, (even if it was not as good as you'd pretended). In earnest, I think every cyclist should build a wheel-set, if only to experience & revere what a wonder it is that a few dozen pairs of razor-thin spokes can support a human and endure it's punishment. The bicycle wheel has gone though several fashionable changes, mostly for the heck of it, and of course to entice marketing tech and sexiness, but the principles remain the same. Two opposing sides pulling a rim upright like a suspension bridge. Giving it's due the larger miracle in The London Eye, which is basically what I'm talking about. The high flange hub shrank both the steep spoke angle and the length, but it really lives as an archetypal icon because of it's DaVinci-like Vitruvian proportions.
Any vendor today who has the fortitude to offer replacement or even crash-replacement for their wheel buyers -- backing what they make; Is telling of their craft. Some brands make wheels of such praiseworthy quality here in the US as to deserve legend status. We take all factory sets the good & the bad, with skepticism; and so some factory wheels arrive with a wobble, while others never waiver under a Clydesdale. It's amazing in contrast that a simple build mistake, such as a single loose or unseated spoke, can rob us of a grand day out. From 1998 onward, good manufactures made such huge improvements to their process that we stopped needing to mind them much. We simply assembled the bike tweaked the brakes and shifters, but never touched a spoke. In 1989 the highest end bike one could buy (adjusted for inflation) was still half the cost of most nice wheel-sets today. The sky is the literal limit for brands such as Lightweight -- Which brings me to the payoff... Does a great wheel really make the bike? The short answer is yes... well kind of.
Can a basic bike benefit from some sexy hoops? absolutely!! Can you ride better upon a climbing wheel? Ascend faster on a carbon rim? Ride Longer upon butted spokes?, Further with aerodynamics? ….yep.
So what's more important the 'frame' or the 'wheel'? You of course know the answer. In all the sexy ooze of cycle marketing, our honest answer gets diluted in a messy mix of paint, carbon, status, and of course bullshit. Nearly nobody drives their SUV or Pick-up off road, Nor do they drive their sports car like they stole it. This doesn't stop us buying them. We are swooned by terrain ads showing an archetypal male (like you), smiling confidently fording a stream. These nostalgic sentiments are a strong magnetism. Most great bikes are exactly that fantasy. If you ride a lot are you doing so to prove to your spouse that you deserve six bikes? Or, do you have six bikes because N+1 is a quixotic bitch of an equation; and remember we don't even know the metric system. Have we weeded out the B.S.? nah... The mid-nineties Mountain-Bike boom was the SUV everyone could afford. Nothing more. We sold tens of thousands to people who would never see so much as a patch of grass. When we look at the epic road bike museum relics, which brought victory to Mercxx, LeMonde, or Hinault we should be in awe of their motor not (necessarily) their machine. If their iron diamond was good enough for their victories', then... well you could probably save a few thousand bucks and excel on anything built in 1990. Lets imagine the same athlete upon the same bike, but with a full two pounds removed from their wheel-set., and a few more from their frame... They used to say in F1 motorsport, that an ounce saved in the wheel equaled a pound from the body, and that is not so far from fact. When it comes to a hill, the advantage can be much greater. Mercxx used to pouch his bidon, or go without because he felt the frame weight slowed him down. Put another way, he said a fraction of his secret sauce was to remove every ounce from the bike..., and so it began.
I always laugh at the guy at the gym with a tennis bag the size of a carry-on, I wonder if his game theory is to intimidate or impress the opponent with his massive bag -- or if he is compensating for something else. If I swing the racket poorly or fail to watch the ball when I serve, carrying five newly strung rackets, wont matter much. If you head to the sports store for a new racket, and buy one pre-strung, you may be surprised to know that the $69. special was last years best model. Because that mold was bought and paid for, like software, the first one cost a cool mil. and surplus blanks get repainted to be sold in bulk. This applies to Skis, Surf Boards, Swim Fins, and every fare of sporting craft. Every single one after the prototype is gravy for revenues. Congrats!! you just saved a thousand bucks, and your game will be the same with either choice. As with bikes, you can only ride one at a time, you are the engine, and the bike, while sexy cannot be magic, right? Well with a well chosen quiver you may actually ascend based solely on peer pressure. Choose reasonably, ride respectfully, and revere what you own within your limits, because you are you, and you are decidedly not that guy with the racket bag. Do your own thing, your own way, and be strong with the shit you own within your means. Don't show up with a 10-K bike and stand by the side-lines. Enter the race, and fail. If you place, then you can reward yourself with a new set of wheels. If you win they may hand you a set ...But doing it with a naf set of wheels, and you may do it better.
Counting grams, I will admit (as a product of the public schools) was literally impossible for me, an ignorant 'imperialist' as the trend gained. I didn't know much about grams nor even how many 'kilos' I weighed, until cycling catalogs started showing me this data. Much like counting calories... if it works for you, so be it. It can't actually help you if you've no idea what the metric system is. Even-so, Gram fanaticism didn't matter until the mid-nineties. In fact it didn't matter whatsoever until I could afford to give a shit about it. I could ride just about any bike, and enjoy it until the great buzz-kill of gram counting grew like a boil upon cycling's back around 1995. Companies like Ringle, Control Tech, and Easton began a surgical strike to my bank account. This coincided with the invention of the ATM. This scam force funneled five dollar bills to fan flames of the "fantasy-football" of all eccentricities, gram counting... Sigh!..
And so, the Weight Wienie was born. (longer sigh!!.....) In-spite of all the sexy improvement to kit-and-bits -- It does all boil down to the rider, and perhaps a bad-ass set of wheels. My second set of wheels was just finished, and they shimmered, they were true, tight, and tough, and lasted me 12 years, I transferred them to a Canondale Track Frame, which I stripped and polished to mirror sheen. I rode them until I gave the bike to a guy who thought he'd need it to gain social status with the burgeoning crusty messenger-crowd circa 1994.
Hold your next wheel apart from your bike, or for scary fun set it upon it's side like Rolf Dietrich, and stand upon the rim edges, while doing the "Twist". Note how a great wheel will support you even sideways, and when abused. Marvel at the unnerving apparent frailty, and then bolt it to the bike and do your level best to be a better rider, worthy of your wheels. You may excel without a wheel upgrade, but you will need to raise your game when you buy some. You should love them more when you respect their heritage, their allure, and their elegance.
Kiss your mechanic if you've never had to think about the bike you abuse. Buy them a six-pack when they true the wheels you manage to mangle. If you never bother to consider your wheels, then maybe do that today.
May the force be with you, wherever you are.
You came here to relax this weekend, and you arrived late. You are already nervous about the race, and the gear, and the weather. You shake up a few bottles with some powdered crap, because that seems like a solid idea, and you peel off your toasty jacket in the blowing wet snow to put on something like a tutu, to dance about in the swirling white with eighty of your favorite strangers. Now, is when you realize that you may have brought a knife to a gun-fight. You quickly lob ideas about the hollows of your skull; bandying a ball of bad advice, but basically you have one ball echoing in this squash court, and hence you have one idea. This always happens with you, because you can't see that there may be other outcomes, and alternative strategies. As the frenzy of pong sounds subside, you resolve to just ride the race with these dudes regardless of what may come.
You have a bike with 2" tires which you thought were large..., and they all brought Fat bikes with more than 4" humongous tires. The automotive equal to your Civic in a sea of Monster-Trucks. But of course it did not dawn upon you the moment you drove up. What began at the parking lot?.. Each and every vehicle entering the mushy farmland parking pad was 3 ft higher than your city SUV. Everyone (else) boasted bumper stickers with jargon you don't yet know, and everyone but you brought bikes which looked like they could pull your truck out of a snowbank.
You tell yourself that you may have the advantage... a dramatic pause as the wind whips up................ You unroll the first presta-valve and begin hissing out some city air into the silent blanket of country white noise. You anxiously jettison pressure from your measly tires in hopes you'll dig into the mush. It will be an ordeal.
You reclaim your mind from it's gloomy segue toward doom scenarios, and recover with the novel idea that you do in fact have an advantage. That your drop bar gravel thing is sleeker and faster, and you will hold your own. But when the gun goes off, and you roll out to the first left, you begin rapidly to disprove your theory. How can it be that this is better than Netflix? Mud sprays Michigan sand & clay silt all over your face. Glasses coated, and hard upon the next riders sloshing knobbies, the mist rolls up from the business end of his Monster-Truck. You shift, drop a hand to signal, and mash the pedals to arrive in the front of this mangy wet peloton. Without any warm-up, you struggle to align your breathing with the thrum of the rapidly rising beat in your chest. You are now doing some of the spraying, but you are already losing your mojo. Hands are still warm, but wetter each time you raise one to swipe mud from your glasses. You dig in and grind away at the chatter, of humming treads and clacking chains. A drone of a thousand buzzing truck tires sound like the devil pulling down his zipper. You know what may come next and you choose to drop two lengths, tuck in and grab a tow, even if it means sucking in more muddy spray. The river-like road we ride atop is like the chocolate brown of a mountain stream after the monsoon. The Muck of an Indian village; The spray of a drunk at a Music fest after the downpour. Your mud sprays your neighbors, and theirs the next trailing rider... all coated and building upon your lenses, nobody seems to mind. You are enveloped in the mid pack now, and several comrades have the novel idea to press on the gas-pedal a bit harder, as dominant riders separate the wheat from the chaff. You bow your head, and keep pace. You are enwrapped in just the thing you signed up for; A winter gravel sufferfest with 80 other guys who'd rather go outside and feel something real, (if muddy) Than to watch Netflix. Shifters click, clunky Sram cogs index up. Fingers on a trigger rather than a TV remote. You are all in deep, and you are all pretending to have a blast, but you know that this pace is untenable. This rapid gain of muddy men will shake loose the spare change, splintering into separate bubbles, some popping and others rising, the elites will get to counting the real money. You are working too hard, rhythm is what you need now, thoughtful parsed breaths, elude you. This momentum which once held you like a seed in a pod won't work for you unless you gather your wits inside that invisible jet. You gasp to tame your heart rate as your lungs throw heat. Respiration, is one of those things we take for granted until the lungs falter. It will all be fine when your lungs and heart find a parity, and stop their resentment. Your legs fall under your spell, but the rest is a shambles. Two more move up, and then a few more. Could you even see and feel the slip-stream school past you like a pedestrian crossing a roundabout in Vietnam. Fish schooling around you like a still coral -- Others slipping past the sharks. Stay the course, breathe! Don't Pant!!!, IN and then OUT go the lungs, and Up and Down you mash the pedals until you gain back a bit of what you've lost, but you are still losing pace to a bunch of Cummins Diesels. You are a Porsche playing the ploughman, with your own snarky bumper sticker. You are sucking right now. Every fifth Pot-Hole grabs your wheel trying to pull you down to that prick who's infinite zipper buzzes like satan's private bee-hive. Your legs burn, while your neighbors float atop the mirth, as a combine would. Its a fast affair, but you calculate the outcome in slo-motion. Nothing is coming to mind except D.N.F, or is it D.N.C....? you'll have to learn that new lexicon, if you don't pick up the pace. Did Not Finish. you haven't failed an exam since school, and you are sure the F stands for Finish, and that's a good grade right? You wipe your lenses again, and find a wheel that throws a bit less misty brown in your face... But the wheels are moving up, and you are dropping pace. Snow builds on the arc of your abdomen, like a charm or token, just sitting there laughing as the next tire approaches. You have some catching up to do. You dig in harder paddling class 4 water, each stroke counting for less against a massive eddy who's promised to swirl you away.
You think that if you fall back, you will lose the course, and where is the sopping map you shoved into your jersey? The dreaded gap now forms and you have lost ground. Others have as well, but it's not OK for you? You need to catch them!! Get back to the pack and tuck back into your Invisible Jet. Breathing is restoring, and the trill of your heart finally nuances back from a shrill crescendo. You are an in-between rider, working far harder, with nobody to share in the work. Now, back in rhythm you begin the long claw back. The gap does not lessen to the peloton, but you close some ground on a few more worthy stragglers. You are moving forward by that metric, but catching them does not seem gainful.
It happens. You know that trigger moment when you consider bagging the whole thing and tossing it out the window? yep..., it happens. The mind moves from solutions to excuses. You feel defeated wasting energy upon your reason, countering the logical backdrop of doing the hard work.
Nah... you mush your sled onward, and close some more ground using the buzz-saw of the riders you pass in your doppler to calculate that you're catching up. Soon you don't hear them, their buzzing monster tires fade and now a train horn, deep and strong to your right. The tracks berm obscuring the riders ahead. Are you closing the gap? They must be just beyond the tracks. You hear the thunderous Train Horn belch again, mocking you. If only you could chug into that "I think I can - I Think I can" shush please God let's make it to the tracks in time to not be cut-off. Again indomitable will-power seems to begin warming the wet snow on your lap. The talisman on your lap who mocked you, who said you won't make it, finally melting. You will be cut off behind a 10 minute long freight Train, and then what will your excuse be?
Ah... yes! the Train. We stragglers can all gather behind the gate and blame the train. D.N.F....
The horns come again and no-one approaches from behind. The sky is thick like milk with clumpy wet flakes swirling by. You approach the tracks and feel the air and wind inhale as if the Train were upon you, but you don't see it's headlight through the pale snowy curtains. You imagine the Bahamas, somewhere in the Exumas, and you imagine that clear warm water like a lens refracting glowing sunlight glittering now as you reach gently for a starfish resting just below the shimmer. You want that same tranquility, as you gulp air, to hold your breath and hop over the tracks as the Train thunders into view, pushing it's wet blanket forward revealing a golden bright lamp shining like the tropical sun. You've cleared the tracks just in time. There they are!, as you resume breathing and the hard work to catch your comrades.
You see them in the distance, once obscured by the mound supporting the train, the final group is turning left, but not onto a road. You are all moving onto a fire-road. You grind away, and re-regulate your air. You need calories, or Potassium, or a Beer, shit anything! may help. Perhaps a stretcher at the last mile, to carry you across. You turn onto a blanket of white with two deep ruts from someones tractor or monster truck. One hundred and twelve fat tires crunching it into sloppy grey slush. A new sound breaks the cacophony, The thunking crunch as riders fall sideways onto the packy snow. One and then another heavy thunk! like a trash bag thrown into a snow-bank -- With it, one less rolling mashing monster-truck.
You slip left and right as your pedals knick the sides of the ruts occasionally hitting ice, and knocking you off-balance, you rise up from the seat leaning more weight forward to keep steerage. You grind. It's tough. A few lonesome others run beside their bikes like a Cross Course through a mud pit, pushing monster trucks beside them like a tractor pull. You wince watching another topple over. Gaining on the runners dabbing a toe here and there. Riding a line on a tight-rope, you gain.
It's a quick left off the trail and back onto the gravel road, catching the group you spy a comfortable space to shoe-horn your bike into that tight wet mid-pack. Wet wool and musty Axe-Effect fill your burning nostrils, Salt and silt wash across your wet diapers. Passing the lake covered with fresh snow, you all note the new headwind and so everyone tucks in. Down shifts crackle into the uphill climb out of the lake valley to a filthy finish.
Cheers!, you did Finish so today you got an F Instead of the Dreaded D.N.F. No TV shows, No cameras, No Fictional awards ceremony, Restless exhilarated breath, blood flowing over every wiry muscle like rusty cables contracting and pulling you tighter. Fondue is in your future. The Cabin has no TV. The snow continues to fall large as leaves.
Not bad for an old man.
Age and Treachery will overcome youth and skill.