My Secret Advantage

I know you’re probably getting tired of my writing about bicycling by now. But it is summer, the best time to indulge in the sport, and the Tour de France is still running. It’s on my mind for the time being.

So there.

The other day while I was out riding, my back wheel did not feel quite right. There seemed to be a periodic thump that I felt more than I heard. Sometimes this means a tire is losing air and becoming flat; sometimes it means the tire is not seated on the rim properly, and therefore has a low spot. I stopped briefly and checked the air pressure, which turned out to be fine. I spun the wheel, but did not immediately notice anything out-of-the-ordinary. I convinced myself that I was imagining the whole thing.

[Incidentally, this habit is probably left over from my early adult years, the ones during and right after college, when I  would not have had the money to fix whatever went wrong anyway. In terms of effects on me, this produced some rather intriguing knowledge: I now know it’s theoretically possible to put 211,000 miles on a set of rear car tires, as long as the car is front-wheel-drive, and I know what it sounds like when my car’s brake shoes no longer exist and the attachment bolts are creating the friction to stop the car.]

Anyway, when I got home, I investigated more thoroughly and observed this:

Wheel1

Hmm…that’s not good. Take a closer look:

Wheel2

Over time, the friction from the brake pads had almost worn through the aluminum. It didn’t look any better from another angle:

Wheel3

So, with the sidewall broken through, the tension from the spoke was cracking the inner part of the wheel. [I know Leonard Zinn must have a more exact name for it.]

I probably should not have felt a thrill at this point, but the wheel had not collapsed on the ride home, what with 35 other spokes holding it together. I had read in maintenance guides that rim wear was potentially dangerous, and now I had seen firsthand how the situation played out and how long it had taken.

But, wait a minute. Exactly how long had it taken? Knowledgeable riders will gain some insight from the label:

Components1

That’s right. Until yesterday I was riding on an MA 40. I know I had this wheel built before I graduated from college, and that was 1992. So that’s at least 23 years, and I rode it anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 miles each year, depending on whether my interest in training was at a low or high point. I guess I really have not changed since my starving student days. I mean that rim owed me absolutely nothing. It gave me everything it had to give. Greater love hath no component that to give its life for the rider.

This got me to thinking: that’s value. I know that there is no modern carbon fiber rim that will last anywhere near that long. And those things cost thousands of dollars. “SO WHAT?” you’re saying. “My carbon wheels make me go fast. And next year I’ll buy new ones that will make me go even faster!”

Are you sure? Let’s examine that a bit more deeply. To do so, I’ll take you on a tour of the bike that I ride the most.

Components2

A friend gave me this bike when his parents were cleaning out their garage. It has no brand name anywhere on it, but, based on some similarities to another frame I own, I believe it to be a St. Etienne. According to guru Sheldon Brown, this was a middle-of-the-road brand imported into the United States during the “bicycle boom” of the 1970s. It was built in 1973, and I guarantee that “TYPE TOUR DE FRANCE,” on the top tube decal, had nothing to do with racing. This is a lugged steel frame, with 72 degree head and seat tube angles. As you may know, this means a super-comfortable ride, because the shallow angles and steel tubing absorb much more road shock than anything made today. I have changed some of the components to give even more comfort.

Components3

Of course a bike like this deserves a real leather saddle, which has slowly molded to fit me perfectly, just like a favorite baseball glove. (By the way, the seatpost and rails are steel, too.)

Components4

Those are moustache-shaped handlebars which put your hands and arms in the best possible position for climbing. And, in case you haven’t guessed already, they’re made of steel! Why bother with a suspension fork or stem?

[Some of you may have noticed that I made my own bar-end shifter out of a clamp-on set:

Components5

Yes, I am the world’s cheapest human being, a topic I ‘ll explore much more in future posts.]

When I received it, this bike had cottered cranks, which I find cool, but the bottom bracket shell threads were damaged. I replaced the bottom bracket with a threadless one and put on- wait for it-

Components7

steel cranks! [In case you’re wondering about my abnormal obsession with all things ferrous, bike manufacturers these days boast about how they design carbon fiber frames to be “vertically compliant,” meaning somewhat flexible, for the comfort of the rider. Steel has been used for bicycles for at least 150 years, and it already had that quality.]

To top it all off, I attached

Components9                           Components8

full fenders, because it rains and snows a lot where I live.

Finally, I always carry a

Components11

full-size frame pump, because nothing else works as well.

So I have every possible component made of steel [except for the wheels, of course, because they don’t stop the bike well if they are at all wet], and I have the luxury of a leather saddle, 28mm tires, fenders, and a full-size pump. Imagine how comfortable I stay on long training rides! That means more miles under my belt. And think about how much stronger I become while pedaling this 25.5 lb. (without water bottles) machine up the hilly terrain around here. [As an added advantage, it’s so ugly and beaten-up that I never worry about riding it in bad weather or locking it in a city.]

Meanwhile, you’re training on your ultralight, harshly-riding racing setup. Your speed might be maxed out. If I ever feel motivated to race again, I’ll use

Gios - 1

my 19 lb. bike with 74 degree angles and tubular wheels. It’s probably still a lot heavier that what you’re riding, but to me it will feel insubstantial.

Whenever other cyclists see me on my purple monstrosity, they feel the need to comment on my “commuter” bike, and show off their race-worthy machines. They should remember, though, it’s the engine that matters. I might just be faster after all.

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