What I Know

In high school, early Merckxian era, as I was really beginning to enjoy riding my bike and the freedom it gave me, I had the typical group of really good friends. One day a buddy’s father sat down with us and told us he was going to let us in on a couple of life secrets. Being teenagers we already knew pretty much everything we needed to know in life but this guy was pretty cool, didn’t talk much, was a government agent and carried a gun, so for sure someone who might just possibly know a secret or two we hadn’t already figured out. “Boys, I’m going to tell you a couple of things that will ring true for you as life goes on—the first one is: Speak freely and people will think you know what you are talking about.” I won’t go into the second piece of advice here, not really appropriate, but this little nugget of wisdom bestowed upon me gave me a pretty good ability to realize that a lot of people spun a lot of BS as expertise. When I first got the racing “bug” I learned very rapidly that opinions do not equal fact, something people then and now would do well to learn. As a result of that little tip I managed a rather rapid ascension into the sport which culminated with a dope-free professional cycling career, quit on my terms, move on, and still loved every aspect of bikes and cycling I’ve been involved in. As the Internet has now made it clear to us, the number of idiots posing as experts far outweighed people who actually had a clue.

Now there is a lot of of stuff I don’t know shit about in cycling. For example, I don’t know how to build a bike frame. I may know how it all happens, and I’ve watched them be built, but really making a bike frame that works—designing the frame, building it, not my bailiwick. Telling an experienced builder what tubing to use or length of any tube would be as dumb as a politician telling an expert in epidemiology what to do in a pandemic. Stay within one’s wheelhouse as they say. I do know how to ride them and I know if one I’m riding is doing what it is supposed to be designed to do. It took a lot of miles to get to that point, but even that knowledge is very limited. A bike is a tool just like a hammer. A hammer, but that’s such a simple tool one might say. Not really, like a bike, there are many types of hammers for many uses. I know how to use my hammer to pound nails, but I am no expert at using a hammer to make jewelry. No matter how many bikes I’ve assembled and ridden, there are a lot more ways to outfit a bike up for its job than anyone can ever experience.  

I started learning about fixing bikes as a kid, initially with coaster brake bikes and 3-speeds. Do it yourself or it doesn’t get done. Burning patches with fire to fuse them to the tubes. My Grandpa taught me to put condensed milk in the tubes to deal with thorn punctures (should have patented that idea). I started really learning about (and breaking) nuts and bolts on my $98 Gitane 10-speed I bought with my paper route money. We had to learn to work on our own bikes because, well, money; plus, the only way to get to a shop was on the bike, and then what? I broke a lot on that bike. Learned hard about #@^&*$# cotter pins and how stripping out your front QR might just lead to a hi-speed crash on a descent. By the time I got to my first race bike I had an inkling of how to not screw things up too badly. Later, living in Berkeley, working in a shop and riding the latest race stuff, I had an old Schwinn 1-speed coaster brake bike with a basket to hold beer and groceries. I welded the seat to the post which I then welded to the frame to defeat the evil Bike Seat Manufacturers’ Seat Stealing Syndicate running amok at the time. Sometimes we rode those old bikes on dirt trails in the hills above town and I hear some dudes from Marin saw us bombing down through campus one day—oh, but that’s another story. Turned out riding those old bikes were as fun as it gets!

Over the years, stints at bike shops helped my education, though for personal use my focus was on top-of-the-line bikes. I could disassemble every part down to the pivot pins on a derailleur and reassemble the whole thing almost in my sleep. I could build a wheel and race on it later that day with glued-on tubulars, but was also able to disassemble and fix a 3-speed hub.  

Friends did the touring thing but I kept to my personal, impossible racer-boy dream world. I never had the pleasure of riding with a not-so-rock-solid Pletscher rack loaded with 50 pounds of camping gear. One of the few accessories I played with were the pathetic lights required for riding in the dark. Anyone who remembers those products knows that despite the fact we cannot travel at the speed of light, somehow we could outrun the beam of light coming from those old lamps.

Since shedding the confines of the race scene I’ve discovered all those other pieces of a large cycling puzzle. I’ve built up a lot of what my friends think of as franken-bikes, not using the top of the line stuff or using parts others had upgraded from because it wasn’t the latest stuff. And imagine that, when maintained, it all works really well. It started with using lower end race type frames to build up fixed gear bikes for training. As simple as that seems, it actually requires some thought to get such a bike running perfectly. Trust me, pushing a 63 inch gear downhill at close to 200rpm will test the chain alignment as well as your seat position more than one can imagine.

My move into new territories started innocently enough. I upgraded from the shop Moulton, to a Bike Friday for travel, built to mimic my regular race-bike. What’s this, a 20-inch-wheel bike that at speed rides about the same as my custom race bike? How is this even possible? And it goes down hills faster? This bike has become a fun palette to experiment with new and different parts and gearing. The bonus was going up hills and people trying to keep up with me even as they thought a folding bike was a toy.

One of my best bike building experiences was creating a commuter bike. I had no clue what to do, but got on the train every morning with a passel of other cyclists on everything from the DUI kid’s bike to $10k carbon bikes with every electronic device imaginable. I had to embrace lighting, racks, panniers, and fenders so I could ride to the train, head into Sillyclone valley, then ride to work and reverse the route in the evening without being runover. There can easily be a 40 degree temp swing from morning to evening and I started out thinking I can do all my riding with what fits in my pockets. Soon I had a $100 frame mated to a few hundred bucks worth of parts with a rack and panniers. I spent more money on lighting than the bike. I mounted three lights on the front and three in the rear and so much reflective tape on the frame and moving parts it was hard to see the paint. Old Campy race parts work great for some applications. I had to fabricate and modify many parts and attachments to make it all work just right. Each modification brought me great delight and more than a few cuts to my fingers. With that bike I could haul whatever I needed and still put in 25 miles on the way home at a brisk pace, thanks in great part to the newer modern racks and equipment available today. At dusk I appeared as an alien spaceship floating down the road. Now, after moving to the country, with a swap of tires that bike has morphed into the perfect tool for a dirt road to run down to the river with a fishing pole strapped on and beer in the bags.

A few years ago I built up an old Alan cyclocross bike and did some “gravel rides.” The rides were nothing special, just pedaling on unpaved roads. I did that a lot in Italy when I was racing, but I needed smaller gears for my Phat Arse. I had this bike for ‘cross racing from years back, so modifying that to do distance on dirt made sense and was fun; then some dudes from a magazine stopped me and wanted to take a picture of it as they had never seen one without a broken fork. Of course, this was right before the final, nasty descent of the day. Put that brain-worm in your head and bomb down a nasty rocky road as fast as you can. When I arrived home I took all the parts off and hung it up, but recently I rebuilt it into a townie bike with spare parts from the garage; I spent just a few bucks for some el-cheapo sweep back bars. Honestly, a seven-speed drivetrain with bar-end controls still works just fine. Now I have another good bike to ride down to the river or around town!

I still have a beach cruiser I bought for $50 on Amazon because I couldn’t believe they could sell and ship a full bike to me for that price. I use that around the property and it went to Burning Person with some friends last year. I need to either find it a new home where it will get ridden more or build a dirt track on my property to ride it on.

After the potentially disastrous Alan bike episode, I had a steel bike built to spec to take wider tires and disc brakes. I needed almost a year to figure out what I wanted and start collecting parts for it and get the frame. The goal was to build a bike I could put 25mm tire wheels on and have it ride just like my regular road bike, but then swap to 32 or 34 mm tires for dirt/gravel/pavement mix. This was when the industry was re-marking cross frames and calling them gravel bikes which is just plain wrong since the geometry for gravel is different from cross. I now ride this bike quite a bit on mixed surfaces and it performs as expected, but required a very talented builder to execute the frame design and build it correctly.

I’ve pulled a double wide trailer with two kids in it and, later, a trail-a-bike; modifying the trailer with Campy brakes and lighter tires and tubes was fun and, well, just had to be done. I’m a little envious (not really) of a friend who has a tandem trailer he tows his two kids in for 40 mile stretches these days. There is more than one way to get fit! It’s a very cool rig I’ll have to try out soon. Riding with Rivendell founder and CEO Grant Peterson on his bikes, which are strange and eminently practical, around Mt. Diablo with him is mega-fun! Ride what you have and more importantly enjoy the people you ride with!

We host bike tourists via Warmshowers.org and the bikes and their setups amaze me as much as their adventurous spirit does, but most of all I really dig their bike setups. I have no desire to ride these bikes but the creativity sometimes required to get them outfitted is a delight for me. These riders go amazing places on fantastic machines. One rider had a full-on folding chair hanging off his rack! It took two of us to get his bike into the truck when I went to rescue him but that guy had ridden up from Tierra del Fuego dammit! I insist on inspecting and—if needed—repairing most of their bikes, everything from stripped out rack bolts, crankset replacements, to complete overhauls. We hosted a couple of riders from Mexico City; one was a bike messenger there (the definition of crazy in my mind), and the other visitor was working on a PhD and had no bearings left in his pedals when they arrived. They left with new pedals, chain and a bunch of other stuff. I actually keep inexpensive replacements in the garage nowadays for just such needs. I also have a stock of things like cables I bought in bulk years ago when I ran the Leukemia Society Team in Training program in the Bay Area, which was without a doubt the most fun I’ve had coaching and training people. Much more fun than trying to coach racerboys who won’t listen anyway. I love fixing these bikes. The older they are, the more I love it. The greasier my hands get, the better.

So many types of bikes, all wonderful. All bikes are good and all bikes need to be ridden. Yes, even ones from department stores. Neighbors where my kids grew up brought theirs by for flats and fixes I’d do for them. I just wanted to see them ridden. One should not stay stuck in only one aspect of the world of cycling, it’s just too limiting. New off-road bikes with suspension intrigue me, and when it snows I dream of a big fat-tire bike (until the snow melts the next day). So many bikes, so little time. What I don’t need (not saying don’t lust after it) is the latest super-racer bike, although I do love to test ride them. Mostly what I do miles on is the state of the art from decades ago. It rode great then and rides great now. Me, not so much. When I get on any bike, especially with friends on a beautiful day, and am out riding, the bike I am on is the best bike in the world.

Join the conversation
  1. Hautacam says

    Ah, a fellow (but much faster) spirit. I will wave at you from atop my functional antique as you blow by me on yours.

  2. DaveinME says

    Great piece George!

  3. joshbeach304 says

    A dirty bike is a ridden bike, and a ridden bike is the best kind.

Leave A Reply

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More