Friday, February 19, 2016

Auto Neurotic

"Second gear, now?

"No. Far too early."

"Now?!"

"No! Wait till you approach the markings... Okay, now! Brake. Clutch. Second gear. Look right. Is it clear? Keep going."

As we proceeded through the roundabout on our bicycles, mine possessing no gears what so ever, the humour of the situation was not lost on me.

I had wanted a lesson in slowing. In the car, which I’d only driven on the open road a total of 3 times at that point, under heavy supervision, I was downshifting far too early, anxious that if I left it late I'd “forget” how to operate the manual transmission under pressure, plow straight through an intersection. Now every bike ride turned into a driving lesson.

“What speed would you be doing on that horrible wee bend coming up?”

“30, maybe 35?”

“Ok. So you’re going to prepare for it by…”

“Braking …now. Third  gear…now?”

“Right. I think you'll have better control next time.”

We roll on in the cold morning air.

You should never, ever attempt to teach - or learn from - your spouse how to drive, we are told. Generally speaking this is probably true. But it's always been a pastime of sorts for us to share skill sets. We fall into the roles of teacher/pupil willingly and reverse them with ease. Now it was me who wished to acquire a skill, in which he happened to excel.

Oh to drive a car with manual transmission!

Okay, but… why?! Well, firstly - because outside of North America, it is a useful skill to have. The majority of cars are “stick.” Over the past two years in rural Ireland I’ve been in situations that had made me feel helpless and useless, unable to be self-reliant or to help others in need, unable to take charge in emergency situations - all because I could not drive a manual motor vehicle. It did not sit well with me. If I elected not to drive, I wanted it to be out of choice and not lack of ability.

And also...  What the heck, I am just going to say it: Manual transmission is a lot of fun.

I discovered this two years ago, when I first gave it a try on the beach. There was something about changing the gears, feeling the engine… I had never enjoyed driving until that moment. But this, I had to admit, was intoxicating. Of course it was also the car owner's company.

But shortly after that day, his lovely old Saab conked. And he replaced it  - "for my sake!”  - with an automatic one he managed to find in the local used car ads. I would borrow it on occasion, but never experienced the same enthusiasm as I did that day on the beach. And so two years passed and I never learned the skill of manual driving.

Luckily, the man's approach to purchasing cars is to buy them well-used, then drive them into the ground. So recently it was time again for a replacement. Or, actually two replacements: for he now had a work vehicle and a second car, the latter of which I was welcome to use… as soon as I learned how to drive manual. I would need to for the driver's test I would soon have to take anyway (you must take the test in a manual car for a full operator's license). This would be good motivation.

The learning curve was steeper than I had expected. It had been one thing to drive on an empty beach. Taking the car out on the road was another matter. The problem for most learners is that they stall the engine when starting and stopping. This part I never had trouble with. Even uphill starts (which is to say, most starts around here) proved surprisingly intuitive once the process was explained to me. But the problem I did have was more dangerous, in that once I would get up to speed I could panic and "forget" how to change gears or use the clutch, reverting to my automatic-driving reflexes. Have you ever experienced going from 5th gear straight into 2nd (instead of 4th) while doing around 40mph? It's a displeasure I recommend avoiding, if at all possible!

Naturally, when something is scary we do not want to keep doing it. But it's only through repetition that the nervousness can be driven out of us. And so we repeated the maneuvers that made me anxious until they simply lost that effect.

I am making it seem like this took ages. But it all came together in the course of several intense lessons. In about 2 weeks I was pronounced road-safe. And was welcomed to borrow The Car if I needed it.

And I have to admit, I loved The Car... an older Alfa Romeo, far too sporty for me and in a horrid shade of electric blue that somehow only contributed to its charm. The door handles stuck and the low leather seats managed to smell of the '70s, though the car was considerably younger. But it ran well. Too well. In fact, "well" is not even the right word. It ran beautifully. It handled beautifully. It was an instrument of precision and the sounds it made were music. It was not a car for the neurotic and so, to do it justice, I could not be neurotic in it, half-reclined and holding the stick with a loose, gentle grip. I could drive it. I could truly, calmly, safely drive a manual vehicle.

"Perhaps you can truly, calmly, safely drive it to the mechanic tomorrow then? It needs a dust cover for one of the hubcaps and the man has spares."

"Ok no problem. I'll get it tomorrow."

And that I did, traveling to the mechanic's place 12 miles in the rain, then back over the misty mountain, feeling free and capable.

"Hey, I stopped at home mid-day and saw the car in the driveway. Did you not go out to get the dust cap?"

"I did," I said, and handed it over.

Shiny and colorful with its ludicrous mystical symbols, the dust cover glistened with raindrops. Naturally, I had cycled over to get it.





38 comments:

  1. I think I'd have bought an extra cap or two so I could keep one on my seatbag forever since it looks so cool. Even if Alfa's(especially old ones) weren't such entertaining cars I'd like em' just cuz' the badge is so neat...Way better than say, that on BMWs

    Spindizzy

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    1. I know right. Snake beats horse.

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    2. No horse on BMWs, it's an aircraft propeller. Horses are Ferrari.

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    3. Oh?

      http://www.logodesignlove.com/bmw-logo-evolution

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    4. I watched that video about the purported BMW logo history, but I didn't find it convincing.

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    5. What's your take on the history?
      I remember reading a "scholarly work" on the brand (in print, not online) and vaguely recall thatchy too argued against the propeller thing.

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  2. The Alpha badge is nice, but with the Carridace bag and Brooks saddle you need something British like a Morgan winged badge.

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    1. A shame there is not a good selection of Italian bike luggage out there.
      But I do have an Italian bicycle.

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  3. As much as I love cycling I am also "a car guy" I bought my first car with a Manual not even being comfortable driving one, because although I learned to drive one previously it was an old '65 Ford Falcon that was a bit of a death trap because the right front brake would grab and try to pull the whole car off the road and it was a column shift! (shifter on the steering column) So here I was driving a "stick" off the lot having just signed on the dotted line! Happily I took to it straight away as I am sure you will! You will be surprised at how quickly it becomes intuitive . . . . Like friction shifting! - Mas

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  4. The symbols are those of Milan. Lovely badge!

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    1. The original of that "Snake" on the Milanese City crest or Coat of Arms or whatever,is actually a Dragon, an apparently huge and aggressive Dragon since it has half a human sticking out of it's maw. It was that way on the badges of Alfa Romeo's for years until it wasn't anymore.

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  5. I bet that Alfa Romeo badge adds a couple mph of speed on that bike, in addition to making it look stylish. Somebody told me that the pedals on British cars are arranged the same as in American cars: (from left to right) clutch, brake, gas. Correct?

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    1. though we think of them as ABC (CBA) accelerator, brake, clutch

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    2. Oh god, imagine if on top of everything else the pedals were arranged differently!

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  6. Italian cycling luggage:http://www.bikepretty.com/blog/2012/09/an-italian-company-that-actually-makes-beautiful-leather-bags-for-your-bicycle

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    1. There are a few brands like this, but their offerings are limited and usually both very tiny and very heavy. I have seen some larger, lighter-weight things at Interbike, but it must have never made it to mainstream production.

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  7. Yes- in Britain and Ireland, the pedals are arranged in the same order, but the driver is sitting on the right. Manual stick shift is to the left of the driver, so shifting is with the left hand. Having learned to drive late (in my twenties) in the US, and driven thousands of miles since, intermittently, in Ireland, England and Scotland, I try to remember that in all countries, the driver is always on the center-of-road side, and the shifter is always in the center of the car. I learned to drive in my twenties, ( from my boyfriend - now spouse) in the US, on an automatic, and drove a manual for the first time (with coaching) on my wedding night, driving said spouse to the emergency room (everyone survived). I prefer (and drive) a manual car now, (and have friction shifters on my bikes). The engagement with the feel of the terrain, and having the choice of gears, makes driving a lot more fun.

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  8. What confuses me is why some of those bags have the metal badge and others don't? Or, why some are missing the leather patches around the mounting strap holes?

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    1. Since Carradice don't use a streamlined assemblyline process (each bag is made start to finish by one person, whose name is written on a tag inside), my guess it it's just individual variation/ human error. I don't mind it, unless ordering online - you never quite know what yours is going to be like. Some years ago my ex and I ordered 2 identical Carradice Brompton bag models, at the same time and from the same dealer, and even they had noticeable differences.

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  9. We'll have to get you in a heavy truck (oops, sorry-- lorry) one of these days so that you can try your hand at 18 speeds. For some downshifts while approaching stoplights, the driver is flipping on the jake (exhaust) brake with a toggle switch, while at the same time moving the shift lever from one slot to another, while at the same time flipping one or both hi-lo switches on the shifter knob to different positions, while at the same time left-foot braking, while at the same time right-foot pressing the throttle pedal to match RPM's to the gear she's selected, while at the same time steering and watching traffic. Oh, and all without using the clutch to change gears!

    Though there are a goodly number of idiots who drive big trucks and bedevil cyclists in countries large and small around the world, to their credit they are for the most part very well coordinated idiots.

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    1. 18 speeds! That's like approaching modern bicycle drivetrains.

      Does this mean that "big rig" type trucks in the US are manual transmission?

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    2. Alas, not anymore. There is less and less driving and more and more "Operating" in big trucks these days. I suppose it's not a bad thing but once you've managed to get on to a 10spd Roadranger with a 2spd axle and an engine brake you want to think you're a better person for it, and that, Dammitt, everybody else oughta' have to learn it too...

      Spindizzy

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  10. Strange to say that while the manual transmission is older than the automatic, most youngsters these days don't know how to drive one. Hence we've found the "stick" is the best "auto theft deterrent" in the sketchiest of neighborhoods. And yes most big rigs are manual to give the driver more control over torq and speed.
    Rehearse from Richmond

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  11. I imagine that it could be difficult learning to drive a manual transmission if you have first learnt with an automatic. In the days when I did drive - over 20 years ago I always favoured manual, my first car was an MG sports and I loved the connectedness that manual driving provides - the three cars I owned were manual and on the occasion when I drove an automatic belonging to a family member, I did not enjoy it and actually felt less secure.

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    1. I have been in the passenger's seat with people driving automatic for the first time, confident that it's easy to go the other way around, then jamming their left foot on the brake forgetting there is no clutch. Talk about feeling less secure!

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    2. I can attest. Learned to drive stick on a '64 Dodge -- a boat, already ancient by the time I got to it. A friend had a much smaller automatic that I borrowed to take my driver's test. Everyone knows automatics are much easier, so I didn't feel the need to do more practicing in it than a few laps round the block. I was fine. Walk in the park.

      Only under the pressure of testing, I did exacting as you mentioned. Approaching the light, I put my little foot firmly on the clutch. Which was the brake. Driving-tester man tapped his forehead against the windshield. And flunked me. Not impressed.

      I'm less cocky now, though no less a creature of habit. Current car is a Prius. There's no key, just a fob, and a button to push on and off. (Great fun, I must say.) Now if I have to drive someone else's car or a rental, I sometimes catch myself w the key in my hand wondering what it's for. Or more often, with the key in my purse searching for the button.

      Lovely post, as always.
      Best,
      Lil Bruin

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  12. Well I don't think it is 'easy to go the other around'- our responses become habitual over time, I felt less secure driving an automatic because I felt less 'connected' to the car, not because I was in danger of mistaking the brake for the clutch - I learnt to drive both manual and automatic. I actually dislike being a passenger in any car as my trust factor re drivers is rather low.

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  13. I love my car, have always loved driving ( less keen on being driven, I will admit ). My , as with many others,, first experience of the open road was on two wheels. The sheer freedom of cycling (biking) to new places and further afield than ever before was what appealed to me. I then bought a motorbike and loved that too. My career as a sales rep meant that for almost 40 years ,the road was my place of work and the car my office. I now have more time for my bikes and still cycle for pleasure and to avoid the car as much as possible. I love my car still , I love it even more with a bike on the rear and new adventures planned !!!!!!

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    1. For me the experience was revered in that I was a (bad, disinterested) driver before I was a cyclist. The bicycle, compared to the car, seemed like freedom!

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  14. ... and now picture yourself in a pre war car with non-synchromesh gearbox that requires double de-clutching and exactly the right engine speed to shift gears like this 1927 Bugatti Type 35 (with an old (pre 1962) irish registration plate) that Tony Haycock took for a test drive near Christchurch, New Zealand, and briefly discussed the type and its history: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYc_kvvxLCc .

    As far as I can say from my limited experience with a friends 1930 Ford A (manual three speed gear box), Haycocks remarks on the topic of shifting is very much spot on: "… the gearbox when you're driving it is burning your calf on your left leg whilst the right one is jammed up against the bulkhead, and you really don't worry about that whatsoever because it is such a wonderful thing to drive – the noise they make is absolutely magnificent, the clutch and the gearbox are absolutely brilliant if you get it right and very horrible if you get it wrong, but that's up to the driver, not the car …"

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  15. All these comments, and nothing about the sly puns in the title.

    Learning to double-clutch a manual transmission during shifts was mandatory for kids my age. Most of the late-60s/early 70s floor shift cars we had in the early 80s had worn-out synchro rings and wouldn't mesh, anyway. The folks with US cars using 3-or-4 speed column shifts were in even worse luck. Those things were grumpy beasts even when new.

    Cool that you've got an Alfa! I have lost sight of all their models since they stopped importing to the US; seems like there are a big spread of UK models over the last 25 years.

    The hubcap looks right at home on your bag.

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    1. Madam, I think you are hearing things not said. Ahem.

      (looks up, whistles tunelessly)

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  16. Stick shift has become very rare in the US, since automatic transmissions are so much easier, especially for the elderly, and are now very efficient. I was glad I knew how to use one when I rescued a young woman and her son who I spotted stuck on an uphill highway off-ramp in her boyfriend's Porsche . She had managed to get it onto the highway, but stalled trying to get off. I threw my bike in the back and drove them to a gas station. Turned out the boyfriend had been arrested that day (gee, I wonder where a young guy gets Porsche money). I solved her little problem, but not her big one.

    Jon

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  17. As a footnote, there’s also the ‘other’ Alfa Romeo badge, the Quadrifoglio Verde – the green four-leafed clover – although it’s nothing to do with Ireland, just (stereo)typically Italian superstition, romanticism and tradition. Here’s the story, rather elegantly told, from Alfa Romeo UK: www.alfaromeo.co.uk/models/quadrifoglio-verde/history
    I’ve always known racing Alfas (and in more recent times, sports versions of their road cars) carried the four-leafed clover, but never thought to find out why until now.

    You explained in a recent post how you were brought up a secularist, all riddled with superstition (kindred spirits, you and I...), and you have a distinctly romantic disposition, so I expect the story will also strike a chord with you. You can buy the badge for a tenner on ebay if you look beyond the ridiculous ‘OEM’ prices, and/or buy stickers for a few quid. That way, next time you don’t fall off or don’t get hit, you can thank the Quadrifoglio Verde! :)

    I wondered if there might be a connection with Colnago’s clover leaf motif – the Asso di Fiore (‘asso’ is ace, but ‘fiore’ translates as either club or flower in Italian) – but that’s another story (although, as with Alfa Romeo, there is a connection with Milan, but also with San Remo – the city of flowers)...
    www.italiancyclingjournal.blogspot.co.uk/2008/11/unraveling-mystery-of-colnago-clubs.html

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  18. I am a bike shop owner and deal mostly with experienced road riders. When the odd occasion comes up that I have to explain to someone how to shift derailleur gears, I almost always find out--regardless of the rider's gender--that they can drive a car with a manual transmission. I'm a 60 year old American man who didn't learn how to drive until my late 20's and found driving with a stick fun, yes, but more difficult than any derailleur I've ever encountered including primitive vintage stuff. It blows me away that folks who drive stick-shift cars are intimidated by derailleurs.

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