Under the Weather

The last twelve months have been really strange ones for me in terms of general health. Most years, I have one severe bout of allergies in March or April when plants start to bloom and pollen fills the air. But, when I say severe, I mean feels-like-the-flu-with-bodyaches-and-chills severe. There is usually a period of two or three days when I simply do not leave the couch. I’ll put on an entire series such as Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and sleep through most of the episodes.

The following week, I generally sound awful because I lose my voice, but I feel so much better overall that getting up and facing the day actually becomes a pleasure.This provides my answer to the age-old philosophical question of whether a thing can exist in the absence of its opposite. For example, can we really appreciate capitalism if communism has died a lingering death throughout the world? In this case, I would argue in the negative, because since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union, U.S. voters have lurched decidedly to the left, expecting the national government to take care of more and more of what they need.

But back to illness. I know that I tend to take my academic and athletic abilities for granted, and this carries over into my expectations for the state of my health. [Notice I didn’t say “wellness?” That word irks me almost as much as “blog.”] I am extremely fortunate in that I have no long-term health concerns of any kind. Because of that, I have come to believe it’s important to feel lousy once in a while so that you appreciate how good it feels not to be sick.

This past fall, you’ll remember, I had a lingering multi-week sinus infection that made it painful to turn my eyes to the side or be in any kind of bright light. It was unpleasant, but I figured I was done being sick for a good, long time. Then, two weeks ago, my wife came down with a draining, plugging, sniffling, coughing head cold. Because it happened in the week between leaving her old job and starting her new one, we both figured it came from a long-needed relaxation and drop in the adrenaline on which she had operated constantly. It took her almost exactly a week to start feeling better. By that time, guess who was feeling sick.

Correct. Twice in nine months is just too much. I refused to be stopped by a tiny little virus. And by this time, I had additional motivation to carry on. The weather was beautiful. (See how that makes the title a double entendre?) It was the second week of March at a temperate latitude, and the daily high temperatures reached the 70s. I put away the cyclocross bike and went out for daily road rides!

To my surprise, I felt almost as if I had attained mid-season form. My average speeds were surprisingly high. My pedaling felt smooth. My shoulders and neck did not complain about spending multiple hours in a riding position. Best of all, I could breathe. My nasal passages and lungs felt better than any over-the -counter decongestant could have made them.

So, what was going on? It occurred to me that I may have unwittingly experienced performance-enhancing drugs. Decongestants are on the banned stimulant list for UCI bicycle races. But I think that if I experienced congestion, then the ephedrine would just have put me back to normal. My fitness level would have been just whatever it already was, right? If that were the case, something had made me stronger than is normal in March. For the first time since the Carter administration, I did not go cross-country skiing a single time over the winter. It just never snowed enough here. That would mean cyclocross got me strong and fit in just a handful of rides. I’d call that plausible, since a cyclocross rider has to work hard just to maintain any speed at all in snow, mud, and grass. Plus, jumping off and running up hills while carrying a heavy steel bike can’t hurt.

I prefer, though, to believe that I was embodying what Nietzsche believed his Super Man would do: put himself through physical challenges in order to prove his strength and superiority to others. Why climb Mount Everest? Because it’s there. Why go out and put yourself into oxygen debt when you’re feeling sick? To show those germs who’s boss. I do know that when I relaxed in the evenings after my rides, the pressure, congestion, and post-nasal drip returned.

I think from now on, I’ll just ride the microorganisms off my wheel.

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I Spoke Too Soon

I’d like to apologize sincerely to all those inconvenienced by the weather Friday and today. After all, I caused it. All it took was one mention of how warm and dry the winter has been and how I’m looking forward to getting an early start on cycling and this happens:

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Yeah, that was all me.

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And that’s where the bikes live.

I know what you’re thinking: “But you love cross-country skiing as much as cycling, if not more. Wax up your skis and get out there.” [Of course my cross-country skis use wax for grip instead of those fish-scale patterns on the bottom. If you’re surprised by that, you’ve learned nothing from these essays.] Well, it’s not that simple.  Right now, there are four inches of dry powder outside with nothing but dead grass (and rocks and tree roots) underneath. Without a base of older snow, the skis go right down to Mother Earth, and there is a reason you don’t see this sport in the summertime. So, yes, there is snow, but it would ruin my day to try and ski on it.

But that’s all right, because I have embraced the precipitation and the mud that will result from its eventual thaw. I have a new project in my life, and it came from a most unlikely source: sporting scandal. It seems that…someone just got caught cheating in a bike race. [Try to contain your surprise.] This time, the performance enhancement came from a motor inside the frame instead of from drugs inside the athlete.

Now, permit me a small digression here. I’m shocked by the shock so many people in the cycling world are expressing. They are so angry that there is a call for a mandatory lifetime ban from the sport for any rider and mechanic involved in using a motor. Riders who have had their victories stripped away because they tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs routinely claim to be clean and re-join the peloton. When they win again, broadcasters praise them for [allegedly] realizing their errors and setting a better example by reforming their ways. But Femke Van den Driessche might as well be projected on a telescreen for the next Two Minutes Hate.

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And drugs are better than motors?

Anyway, I was less interested in the cheating than in the event in which it occurred- cyclocross. I know this is the hot new trendy thing among people looking to buy still another bike, but I remembered reading about cyclocross decades ago in Greg LeMond’s Complete Book of Cycling.

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[Why did nobody think aerodynamic handlebars were “mechanical doping” in 1989?]

Cyclocross began as a way for European riders to keep fit in the winter months. They would put tires with a little more traction on their regular bikes and ride through cow pastures or along wooded trails. When they came to unrideable sections like rivers or steep muddy hills, they had no choice but to dismount and carry their bikes across or over. Doesn’t that sound perfect for a curmudgeon? “Son, when I was your age, we didn’t have these fancy mountain bikes with all their granny gears. We ran up the hills. And we were thankful!”

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[Real men.]

 Because riders could not go anywhere near as fast as they could on the road, and because they had to run for significant stretches, it was much easier to keep warm and stay happy.

Now, as my hero Bike Snob NYC recommends, I have a metal bike whose configuration I can change around any time I like and try out new stuff. Remember it?

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Because I built light, strong, tubular wheels for it, I can simply put knobby, slightly-wider cyclocross tires on it and give a new (to me) sport a try. The fenders will need to come off so the knobs don’t rub, but they will find their way onto whatever I ride on the road in the rain.

Tell me this doesn’t look like a blast.

Not a doper or a piece of carbon fiber in sight.

 

Hobbies and Such

Last Sunday,  the weather forecast indicated the temperature would reach the mid-to-upper 50s. AND IT DID. I could not pass up the opportunity, so on the last day of January I went for my first bike ride of the year. I know what some of you are saying. It has been such a mild winter that you never stopped riding. Plus you have your “smart” blue-tooth toe heaters in your new graphite shoes, so you’ve leveraged the performance parameters by uploading your blood flow numbers from the monitor in your crank to the heads-up display in your sunglasses, which indicated it was all right to keep pedaling.

But, seriously, there have been plenty of opportunities for all sorts of outdoor recreation this winter. It’s just that they are not the usual ones. It has made me observe the way I engage in my hobbies, and I can describe it best as “streaky.” I seem to concentrate on one particular pastime for a while, and as long as I get to do that thing, I don’t get cranky or impatient with life. Then, suddenly, I feel like doing something else for a while, and I concentrate just as hard on that. While I’m doing it, I think to myself, “Hey, I’d forgotten how much I enjoy this.” I suppose it keeps me fresh.

You may remember that I was a competitive cyclist when I was younger, but for about the last five years, I was all about tennis. I decided to make practice time count, and actually teamed up with some hitting partners who would work on skills with me rather than want to play for points all the time. I learned to string my own racquets so that I could experiment with different types, gauges, and tensions of string. I even joined a club so that I would face different levels of competition. It was thoroughly satisfying, and I hardly thought about cycling.

Then, my wife’s youngest daughter graduated from high school. Being an avowed Anglophile, she wanted a three-speed bicycle with a basket to ride to class. While there were some new, retro-type models out there, we knew she wanted an actual vintage machine, so we searched classifieds and ordered her one. When it arrived, I started putting it together, and began again to smell the unique bouquet of road grit, leather, old rubber, and 3-in-1 oil that is peculiar to vintage bicycles. I felt the grunge under my fingernails, and it felt good. I realized how much I missed riding, and I have not picked up a tennis racquet since.

Last summer, I rode nearly every day. For the first time since I was in college, cycling became the activity I needed to feel as though my day was complete. My wife began to notice that, no matter what we were doing, I was checking my watch to calculate if we could make it home in time for a ride. We incorporated bicycles into lots of activities, like touring historic homes and visiting our favorite tea importer, but more often than not I wound up handing her the keys to my truck and riding the extra thirty miles home.

Then one day, I was done. I wasn’t burned out or injured, but I’d had enough. As fall progressed and the nights began earlier, all I could think about was setting up my telescope and searching for galaxies I had never seen before. In the same way that I had looked forward to a bike ride every day in the summer, now I planned my time to avoid the moon and made sure I had time for naps in the afternoon if my targets were going to keep me up until all hours. I did not even crave the exercise I was no longer getting, because my mind was completely wrapped up in astronomy.

I wrote in a previous post about following the Mets through the playoffs, but to get an accurate view of how that happened, picture someone sitting in pitch darkness in the yard with the radio tuned to a ball game in the background, staring through a telescope at tiny, faint patches of light whose photons began their journey toward me before human beings even existed on the Earth. For me, that’s a perfect evening.

On one hand, the mildness of this past winter made stargazing more comfortable than in most winters. Lots of my archived sketchbooks and log pages are smeared from the tears the wind has forced from my eyes. On the other hand, mild winters tend to be cloudy, and lately there have not been many opportunities to see stars. I was just beginning to feel cabin fever coming on when I received word of an estate sale arranged by the antiques dealer down the street. So last Saturday, as I browsed through the re-homing of someone’s worldly possessions, I came across a work stand that holds bicycles while you work on them. I purchased it for a song, brought it home, tinkered with my brakes, swapped some pedals between bikes, and suddenly I wanted to take a ride. And that’s what began on Sunday.

I wonder how long this streak will last.

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:

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

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

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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:

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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-

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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

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

Finally, I always carry a

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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

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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.