Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fog Lights

Have you ever cycled in a dense fog?

For the past couple of days, we have been surrounded by this stunning, surreal landscape. There is no distinction between sky and ocean. The dunes, grasses and rosehip bushes are wrapped in a milky whiteness. There is a tornado warning in effect, but for now everything is eerily calm.

To watch someone approaching through the fog from a distance has always fascinated me.  It looks as if the person is coming from nowhere, or from the sky.

I took the opportunity to see how Graham's lights would perform in these conditions, and they were fairly well visible - even at slow speeds.

The lights on my Rivendell Sam Hillborne are powered by a Shimano Alfine hub.

The headlight is a Busch & Müller Lumotec IQ LED Cyo Senso Plus, and its performance is stunning. The beam is not just powerful, but surprisingly large - so that cycling in the dark feels as if there is always a street light on. There is a standlight feature (the light remains on for a few minutes after the bicycle stops), as well as a "senso" feature, whereby the light turns itself on and off depending on how dark it is.

The tail light is a Busch & Müller 4D-lite Plus, which has classic looks, 4 LEDs, and the same standlight feature as the headlight (though the Co-Habitant thinks the standlight on this one is not sufficiently bright).

An additional feature of this tail light is that it is surrounded by a metal cage, which prevents the light from being damaged when it is bumped. This is very useful when the bicycle is dragged through doors and left at bike racks.

I am confident that others can see me in the fog with the light set-up I have on this bicycle. Seeing the road, however, is another matter. What do randonneurs do in these situations? I cannot imagine that any bicycle light can really be strong enough to act as a true fog light in the daytime.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Lovely Dress Guards Give-Away

To brighten up your Fall, I am giving away these fantastic, colourful Dutch dress guards, which I reviewed here earlier.

To receive the dress guards, please ask your bicycle - yes, your bicycle - to post a comment here explaining why he or she would like them. A link to pictures of the bicycle is a plus (but please no nudity). My Dutch bike, Linda, will then decide which she likes best and will announce the recipient on Friday.

Comments by humans will be disregarded; bicycles only please. Multiple bicycles belonging to the same owner are eligible. Have fun, and thank you for reading Lovely Bicycle!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Do You Cycle When You're Sick?

Just to make sure that nobody would be envious of my stay on Cape Cod, I went and got sick last week. While normal people catch cold, get over it, and go on with their lives, for me illness tends to be "epic". So lately my world has consisted of watching the ocean wistfully while bundled up on the porch, drinking endless hot fluids and medications, working on my laptop, and very minimal cycling to town and back. My bicycle looks at me with scorn, as if to say "How could you!" Which brings me to the question: Do you cycle when you are sick?

Previously I would have answered "yes", but staying here makes me realise that it partly depends on the bike as well. I have a relatively easy time riding an upright bicycle slowly while feeling unwell, but am finding it almost impossible to ride a roadbike in that state. Not only is the speed more than my lungs can handle, but I also have trouble with balance and coordination. On my upright bikes this is not an issue, since their position is almost identical to sitting in a chair and the loop frame is easy to mount and dismount. I am starting to really miss my Gazelle - imagining her, in my hallucinatory state, as a Dutch nurse feeding me spoonfuls of medicine and wrapping me in folksy-patterned quilts.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Car Talk... Recollections of a Wilted Romance

Here is a confession: I feel guilty about my car - or rather, what used to be my car. My poor car, once so beloved! I received it as a gift from my family six years ago, after I earned my doctorate and was about to start a new job in a mountainous region of Northern New England. It was the most lavish gift I have received in my life by far, either before or since, and I was filled with gratitude and disbelief. The car was beautiful and impeccably tasteful and rugged, and my excitement knew no bounds. The exterior was a lovely shade of dark gray and the interior was beige suede (I still remember the texture and smell of the seats when the car was new). The 4WD, the optional manual mode, and the myriad of safety features would keep me protected on the treacherous terrain of the place I was to live (and commute for over 20 miles to work). I named the car, and loved it as if it were a puppy. And I delighted in my long commutes - through the valleys past idyllic farm scenes and along dangerous mountain cliffs through the clouds of thick fog that would rise in the mornings. 

Everybody was relieved at my reaction to the car, because I had never been an enthusiastic driver in my previous attempts at car ownership. By my early twenties I had dispensed with cars altogether, living in urban areas where they weren't necessary. Interestingly, this was viewed by many as a lack of self-sufficiency on my part: By living in cities, not practicing driving, and allowing my already questionable motoring skills to deteriorate, I was making myself dependent on urban comforts and public transportation. This new job in a rural area demanded a re-adjustment.

My romance with the new car lasted into winter... until I got into a horrifying accident involving darkness, black ice, fresh snow, a cliff and a railing - into which I crashed head-on after losing control on a turn. Miraculously, I emerged unscathed. And though the front end of the car was totaled, my insurance company came through wonderfully and soon the car was good as new. According to the policemen on the scene, that stretch of the road was so bad that night, that "there was nothing anyone could have done different, except not be out on the road". Not an option of course, when commuting home from a long workday.

I cannot say that I began to dislike or fear cars after this event; it was nothing so dramatic or definite. And I continued to drive throughout that winter and the next, in the same dangerous snow and ice, with no further mishaps. But I no longer thought of my car anthropomorphically, no longer considered it cute. It had become just a thing - a necessary thing, but a dangerous one, too, as well as a stuffy and oppressive one at times. Somehow I no longer saw the charm in the beige suede interior or the beauty of the tasteful gray exterior. It was just a car - something that made sense to use only when the necessity outweighed the danger and the feeling of stuffiness, but not otherwise. It was an excellent car, to be sure - useful especially in rural areas, and great for hauling things in its roomy interior. But just a car.

Several years after I got married, we moved to Boston. Within a week, we decided that the Co-Habitant would sell his car and mine would be shared. This was in no way driven by "ideology" on our part; it was simply absurdly inconvenient to have two cars in Boston, and since his was larger than mine, it was the one to go.

When the decision was made to share my car, I hardly suspected that I would never drive it again, but that is exactly what happened. I have not been behind the wheel of it or any other motor vehicle since sometime in 2007, over three years ago now. I have no idea why, and it was never my intention to categorically stop driving. But soon I found that I would rather walk to my destination for an hour than drive there (which was exactly what I did before I started cycling). What used to be my car now pretty much belongs to the Co-Habitant; I experience no feelings of possession when I look at it or sit in the passenger's seat while traveling together.

Will I drive again? Realistically speaking, I probably will, though I don't know when that might be. I am not "anti-car" and consider cars to be useful and necessary in many circumstances. But I cannot imagine wanting to drive just for the sake of it, or loving a car in the same way as I do my bicycles.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Making an Ordinary Vintage Roadbike Extraordinary (a Review of Sorts)

The Co-Habitant's roadbike, Myles, is a 1976 Motobecane Super Mirage, which he acquired in Spring 2009 and has been gradually updating with modern components and personal touches. It is his only roadbike, and he has cycled somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 miles on it through its various iterations. I wanted to write a review of it (from my perspective), because I think it poignantly illustrates some aspects of owning and customising a vintage roadbike.

It is always interesting to observe people's reaction to Myles, for he is a real head turner - even more so than my Rivendell. The silver frame, the hammered fenders, the wealth of brown tones in the leather and twine, the frame pump looking almost like a double top tube, and the classic Carradice bag, somehow combine to create a whole that is more magnificent and eye-catching than the sum of its parts.

On closer inspection, those who know bicycles typically exhibit one of two reactions. Some are delighted to see a good, ordinary vintage bicycle salvaged and turned into a thing of beauty. Others are bewildered that we bothered to so elaborately refurbish something so commonplace, rather than searching for a frame with a more impressive pedigree. While the Motobecane Super Mirage was a good, solid bicycle in its time, it was decidedly middle-tier and for that reason unremarkable. The frame is hi-ten steel, the lugs are fairly basic, and the original components (Suntour, Weinmann) are pretty good, but not excellent.

We do not disagree with the point of view that a better frame would have been more deserving of all the DIY lavished on Myles. But sometimes a bicycle just evolves organically, and such was the case here.

When the Co-Habitant found the bike, used and somewhat abused, the plan was simply to ride it after a few minor changes. He first replaced the tires, after the original ones blew up on his very first ride.  He has ridden these Continental Gatorskins (27" x 32mm) the entire time without incident.

He then replaced the original vinyl saddle with a Brooks Flyer. Early on, he was caught in the rain and the Flyer got wet - which hastened its breaking-in process nicely.

The brakes on the bicycle worked fine after some adjustment, but he did replace the pads with the salmon Kool-Stops.

As he began riding the bicycle more and more, he added fenders and a saddle bag. Although I am normally not a fan of hammered Honjos, I think they do look good on silver bikes - providing textural variation where the colour is similar.  Hammered fenders are also a good investment in terms of hiding dents or scratches.

The Carradice Barley bag has been sufficient for carrying anything he needed on this bike, up to our current trip. For the future, he will consider getting a larger bag that can fit laptops, and a rack to support it. Having a saddlebag is also handy for installing a battery-operated tail light, such as his CatEye.

His headlight is mounted on the fork, using a Minoura light mount. While he prefers generator lighting, as far as battery-operated lights go, he likes this system very much.

Some months later, he decided to replace the handlebar set-up, as the original one caused discomfort and difficulty operating the brake levers.  He replaced them with 42cm Nitto Noodle bars, which he loves, and the stem with a Nitto Technomic. 

The original non-aero brake levers were replaced with modern Shimano aero brake levers. Personally, I am not a fan of these brake levers, as the hoods have a rather harsh surface and there is a plastic insert that is very easy to damage. The Co-Habitant has dropped and crashed this bike several times, and you can see that the levers look battered.

Almost a year later, a few more changes were made. After complaining that his feet always slipped on the touring pedals at high speeds and that toe clips were a bother, he installed these SPD clipless pedals - much to my shock at the time.  He loves them and now says that he would not go back to non-clipless on a roadbike, vintage or not.

Around the same time, he also installed a CatEye computer to keep track of his speed and mileage,

a Topeak frame pump,

and two bottle cages, bolted onto the frame - into which he places his twined and shellacked Klean Kanteen bottles.

And the final update - completed just a couple of weeks ago in our yard  - was the replacement of the original stem shifters with these Shimano bar-ends. Since the bike is a 10-speed, it isn't possible to get indexed shifting, but these work just as well in friction mode. After having used a shifting method that sounded like a tractor for over a year, the Co-Habitant is absolutely delighted with these - they are fast and quiet, and he is convinced that they are superior even to my Silver shifters (although I disagree).

And so that is the story of Myles's slow but steady transformation from a plain '70s French 10-speed to a glorious and shamelessly eccentric dandy. Was it worth it? It certainly helped the Co-Habitant learn about classic roadbikes - both riding them and working on them. It is difficult to get a straight answer from him about how comfortable the bike is, especially as he is more tolerant of discomfort and pain than I am and to some degree even thinks these are "normal" to experience on a roadbike. But from what I can surmise, the bike is more or less comfortable in its current state, except that it places a bit too much weight on the hands and is over-responsive to the point of being "squirrely". Also, the frame size would ideally be larger, and he could do with better gearing.

All of these comments, however, are made only in response to my direct questioning; he never complains about the bike on his own accord. On the contrary, he is extremely fond of Myles, smiling and shaking his head quietly at any suggestion that such components ought to be placed on a new frame instead.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

His and Hers Bicycles: Matching Looks vs Matching Performance

I love the idea of "His and Hers" bicycles: an elegant pair of lady's and gentleman's bikes from the same manufacturer. When we first decided to ride bicycles, the Co-Habitant and I envisioned ourselves exclusively on such matched pairs. We acquired a Pashley Princess and Roadster as our transport bikes. We acquired a Motobecane Super Mirage and Mirage Mixte as our roadbikes. And we acquired a Raleigh DL-1 Tourist and Lady Tourist as our vintage 3-speeds.

It was all so perfect!... except that it wasn't.  I could never keep up when we were both on the Pashleys, which was a constant source of discontent (I am now convinced that the female model is just inherently different from the male one). With the Motobecanes things were even worse, as my semi-upright mixte was no match for his racy Super Mirage roadbike. Despite being perfectly matched in looks, our beautiful velo couples were plagued by a disparity in performance. 

Having finally decided that the illusion of perfection was not the same as perfection itself, I shattered the symmetry - first by replacing my Pashley Princess with a vintage Gazelle, and then by selling my Motobecane mixte.  Interestingly, the Gazelle is a better match for the Pashley Roadster performance-wise, and we no longer experience the same problem with discrepancies in speed when cycling together on our commuter bikes.

As for roadbikes, it is difficult to keep up with somebody on drop bars, while yourself riding with upright bars - especially if you are a weaker cyclist to begin with. My Rivendell and Trek roadbikes may not look as sexy next to the Co-Habitant's Motobecane as my vintage mixte did, but they are a better match when it comes to actually cycling together.

This particular discrepancy in "his and hers" bikes is something I wonder about when I see a man and a woman cycling together, where he is on an aggressive roadbike and she is on an upright hybrid from the same manufacturer (usually Trek, Cannondale or Specialized). While I understand that the idea is for the woman (who is presumably less skilled) to ride an "easier bike," surely it must make the difference in their skill levels all the more acutely felt?

Of the three "His and Hers" pairs we started with, only our vintage Raleigh DL-1s remain. These are actually matched pretty nicely in terms of performance, so apparently "back in the day" Raleigh got it right whereas today's Pashley did not. Although we do not ride these as often as we ride our main transport bikes, it is nice to have at least one pair of bicycles that matches both in looks and performance. Who knows, maybe in the future there will be more - but the performance aspect is a must. After all, a couple's chemistry is about more than just looks.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hard Core Bicycle DIY: Is It Worth It?

Over his year and a half of adult bicycle ownership, the Co-Habitant has progressed from not knowing much about bicycles at all, to completing two full bicycle builds from scratch. In the course of that time, knowledge was gradually gained, tools were purchased one by one, and increasingly complicated procedures were mastered. I helped when I could, but mainly the mechanics are his thing. I will stick to writing about it, thank you.

It certainly would be nice to write an inspiring post about what a rewarding and empowering experience it is to do one's own bicycle builds and overhauls. But the truth is, that I do not necessarily believe that to be so - which is why I do not do it myself. Assuming that we are speaking of serious DIY here, beyond simple maintenance, these projects require the investment of considerable amounts of time, energy and money. At the risk of coming across as discouraging, here is how I see it:
It is worth doing your own bicycle mechanics if...

...You truly enjoy it and look upon it as a hobby to fill your spare time with. That is the #1 reason in my view. If you do not enjoy it, the process can be extremely frustrating. Also, keep in mind that like any hobby, this one will require spending money on supplies - some of which will be wasted on trial and error. You will surely ruin cables and cable housing, possibly even components. You will order the wrong parts and will need to return them. Sometimes you will only realise that they are the wrong parts after you try to install them and scratch them up - making returns or exchanges impossible. You will have to make multiple, unexpected trips to bicycle shops and hardware stores for things you will suddenly realise you need. All this better be enjoyable, or it makes no sense.   

...You own multiple bicycles, plan to build up multiple bicycles, and/or foresee yourself frequently changing components on your bicycle(s). Only then does it make financial sense to invest in the many tools you will need to do your own overhauls and builds - and to go through the learning process before you actually get good at it. Things like a proper bike stand and a standard tool kit will already cost more than most bicycle shops charge for a bike build. And then there are the less common, but often necessary tools, such as headset presses, cotter presses, bottom bracket tools, dremels, and so on, that raise the cost of DIY even higher, if you properly account for it all. 

...You are good at bicycle mechanics. If not, then it is just plain dangerous to work on your own bicycle. While some mistakes make for good learning experiences, others - especially when it comes to brakes, steering and the drivetrain - can have disastrous consequences. 

...You are, at least to some degree, a control freak and like everything about your bicycle to be "just so". Sure, a bike shop may do an all right job. But you would just feel better if you trued those wheels or tensioned that chain or installed that bottom bracket yourself. 

If all of the above apply, then by all means - full speed ahead with the DIY. You will enjoy it, and it will be rewarding. However, if your primary goal is to save money, I would suggest you think twice. It is not just about buying all the necessary tools that you may seldom have occasion to use again, but also about time. While on the surface it may seem that I would save money by doing a bicycle build myself, in economic terms this is actually untrue. In the time it would take me to build up a bicycle, I could instead take on an extra freelance project in my own line of work - and the income from it would be greater than the money I'd save by building the bike myself. Financially speaking, the wise thing to do would be to allocate that work to an experienced mechanic while using the time saved to earn money in my own field of expertise.

I am fortunate to live with someone who enjoys working on bicycles (see his description of his travel tool kit!) and is quite good at it. I am also fortunate that he had some time off this summer and actually wanted to spend it working on bikes. Now that he has accumulated all the tools he needs and sufficient experience, we can do pretty much anything bicycle-related at home - and I appreciate that very much. But I by no means think that it is every "real cyclist's" duty to be able to do these things on their own, just like I do not think it is every "real home owner's" duty to be able to do their own plumbing and electrical work. If you are passionate about bicycle mechanics and are good at it, then certainly it can be fun and rewarding. Otherwise, it is best left to the experts - for the sake of your nerves and your wallet. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mobile Home

It can be said that one reason people enjoy commuting or traveling in a car, is that the car functions as an extension of their home while they are away at work or on the road. They keep a myriad of personal belongings in the car - from food and drinks, to changes of clothing and footwear, to reading material and selections from their music collection. Those who have children or pets often have toys and other objects associated with them scattered in the back. And then of course there are the familiar smells: Whether good or bad, the interior of a car takes on a distinct scent associated with its owners' activities and lifestyle. In essence, the car really does attain aspects of the driver's home over time, and this undoubtedly contributes to the emotional attachment many feel toward their vehicles. The Co-Habitant's dayjob involves extremely long shifts (12 hours is typical), and his colleagues routinely nip out to the car during breaks to retrieve various items and drop other items off. To do so is comforting when away from home for so long. This is also why the Co-Habitant equipped his Pashley with both a saddlebag and handlebar bag, despite a relatively short commute: It was important to create a similar "homey" environment for his bicycle.

In my earlier post about handlebar bags, I mentioned the appeal of the idea that the bicycle can be turned into a mobile home - ready to go anywhere while still allowing the cyclist to feel as if their life is coming with them, rather than being abandoned. Now that I have installed a handlebar bag on my own bicycle and have found myself in a situation where turning said bicycle into a mobile home is necessary, I truly understand what this feeling is like. While on Cape Cod, we are typically away from home from morning till late evening - during which time we work, go on rides, and do various things in town. All of those activities require different items to be taken along, including clothing, equipment and food. At this time of the year, there are also significant fluctuations in temperature in the course of the day (mid 40s- upper 80s) which must be taken into consideration. To my delight, the combination of a roomy handlebar bag and saddlebag can accommodate all of these concerns.

Typical contents of my handlebar bag: sweater, down vest, 2 extra hats, waterproof jacket, costume for photo shoot, props for photo shoot, make-up, shawl to use in leu of beach blanket, swim suit, flip-flops, extra pair of socks, 2 books, notebook, pen case with 2 pens, bar of chocolate, gloves, sunscreen, deodorant, DZNuts, saddle cover, money and ID. Notice that the bag is not even full.

Typical contents of my saddle bag (now converted into a camera bag) are our photo equipment: This time, a digital SLR, a Medium Format film camera, 10 rolls of film, and, just for fun, a toy camera.  We have a second Medium Format film camera that could also fit instead of the toy one.

The Co-Habitant carries his own clothing, our tool kit and medical kit, and both of our laptops. He only has a single saddlebag on his roadbike, so the laptops he transports in a messenger-style bag on his person - which is the one glaring imperfection in our set-up. Next time we take a trip like this, he will have some sort of handlebar + saddlebag set-up as well, where the handlebar bag is smaller than mine, but the saddlebag is larger - the type that can fit laptops and will require a rear rack. I think that both the larger Rivendell and the Ostrich saddlebags will fit this purpose, but any other suggestions for future are welcome.

Of course, turning my otherwise light Rivendell into a "mobile home" has made it nearly as heavy as a typical Roadster - but the bike seems to handle no differently as a result. The longer I own this bicycle, the more I love it - which brings a new shade of meaning to "home is where the heart is".

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Salvaging Style with Hats, Scarves and Argyle

Spending what seems like all day trekking back and forth over hills, then dragging our loaded bikes to photoshoot locations across dunes and marshes... frankly I have abandoned all hope of appearing fresh or presentable.  Cycling-condusive clothing and tangled, sweaty hair hidden under caps are the new me for the time being.

Well, at least the hats themselves can be nice. I have many, and am often asked where I get them. The sources are usually a mix of unidentifiable small shops, and uninspired places like Target and Urban Outfitters. This one is actually from the Army-Navy store in Provincetown, bought a few years back. It is a heavy wool "newspaper boy" type hat that, surprisingly, can be worn even in hot weather.

I have also finally mastered the art of tying a scarf around my disobedient hair, thanks to this post on Knitting Lemonade.  

This is the first scarf-tying method that has worked for me so far - staying put all day, rather than sliding back off my head when I least expect it.

Thanks to the headscarf, my gaunt exhaustion is semi-disguised as glamorous fatigue. The blue fabric also matches the bruises on my legs rather nicely.

As for the Co-Habitant, he chooses to express himself with socks. 

Here is another pair. Yes, argyle socks and SPD cycling shoes. Sure, things can get silly. But what better way to sweeten a long ride?