Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Giving Space

Cyclists Over the Striped Bridge
After a 7 year absence from the driver's seat, I found myself in one again as I practiced my rusty motoring skills on the narrow winding roads of Northern Ireland. I still have no plans to buy a car here. But I want to be able to operate one when called upon. Skills, after all, are useful things, and I never intended to let my ability to drive atrophy. But alas, time passed and atrophy it did - so that this time around it felt as if I were learning to drive from scratch.

Some of the novelty had to do with the left-handed traffic flow here. I did not expect for this to be problematic, as I have no trouble at all switching into left-hand mode when riding my bicycle. What I didn't anticipate was the difference in the visuo-spatial experience of operating a right-hand drive car. It seems that over the years I drove in the past, my brain must have grown accustomed to relying on certain markers on the road in relation to the contours of the car's front end in determining my road position. Of course these markers had been viewed from the vantage point of the American driver's seat, located on the left side of the car. In cars in Ireland and the UK, the driver's seat is located on the right, which results in a very different vantage point. So now that I drove from the opposite side of the car, my brain's reliance on those old cues was dangerously inaccurate - making me feel as if I were too far out to the right and about to smash into oncoming traffic, whereas in reality I'd be too far to the left, about to drive into a ditch or smash into a stone wall. It took me weeks of regular, supervised driving - during which I  kept my road position as instructed, ignoring every fibre of my being screaming "you're too close to the right! swerve left or else you'll hit that truck coming toward you!!" - before my brain re-callibrated to the correct vantage point. But gradually I stopped flinching when passing cars on the opposite side of the road, and the proper road position began to feel more and more natural until at last, I was pronounced safe to drive on my own. "Here," said my beloved/ instructor, handing me his car keys with alarming nonchalance, "I won't need it today, so why don't you take it and practice."

A car to myself!... oh what exciting places would I drive to? I decided to visit the supermarket and stock up on all the bulkiest items that were a pain to transport by bike. The route into town, while only 8 miles in distance, had it all: twisty narrow roads, a dangerous bridge, hairpin bends, blind crests, a crazily-cambered roundabout, and exquisitely subtle "Yield" markings painted in unexpected places. It was also, on that particular Saturday morning, positively teeming with cyclists - this despite the vigorous rain that grew gleefully torrential as I pulled out of my lane and onto the main road.

As I drove, surprisingly calm, passing one cyclist after another while watching for oncoming traffic through the flow of water and the manic sweep of the windshield wipers, I thought about the notion of giving space. Linguistically, this phrase fosters a sense that we have this space, our space (in this case the entire travel lane?), and then we give it. If we're feeling good, we give it generously, magnanimously. If we're out of sorts or in a hurry, we give it irritably, begrudgingly. Either way, it portrays the driver in the role of some grand benefactor. Only the thing is, I thought, navigating the bendy, slippery road that demanded my full attention, we do not "give" it at all. It's more accurate to think of ourselves as taking space - whilst continuously adjusting our position, speed and trajectory based on road conditions and other road users. When I pass a cyclist, I am not giving them space. I am partaking of a common space in a way that must not interfere with their ability to do the same.

It's not that this realisation was profound. If anything it had an ordinary, organic feel to it. But it made me feel comfortable in my role as vehicle operator, while also renewing my appreciation for the skill of driving. To manipulate ourselves through space in a vehicle, we must have excellent control of that vehicle. And I'm not sure at all that most drivers do - myself in my younger years included. And this feeling of the lane we happen to be in being "our" lane, like a dedicated track on which we can switch into mental auto-pilot mode, is one symptom of that. There is no space on the road that is ours, ever. We must at all times carve it out, at once confidently and cautiously, and, most importantly, while being fully switched on.

It's been a couple of months now since I've been able to drive solo again. And I believe that, this time around, I am actually a good driver - a realisation that makes me prouder than I'd anticipated. But moreover, driving feels different to me now than it did 7 years ago. In large part it's because my past hatred of driving has been replaced with curiosity and enthusiasm - ironically, as a result of cycling. I find myself fascinated by the car's handling, by why it does what it does under different circumstances, speeds and road conditions. And all this makes me a lot more involved in the process of driving, a more deliberate, aware and engaged vehicle operator. I don't give space. But I feel like I understand how to take it, safely - whether on a bike or inside a car.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

If Bicycles Grew on Trees...

Roger Williams Park Botanical Center
Imagine for a moment that, after drooling over images of beautiful bikes of an evening, as is your custom, you fall into a deep slumber and begin to dream. And in this dream, you are walking though a lush, beautiful forest. Exotic in its flora, this is not any forest you are familiar with. All manner of palms and giant ferns thrive in its humid depths, as flowering vines curl and twist overhead, their blossoms releasing bittersweet musks. 

Roger Williams Park Botanical Center
Filled with curiosity and wonder, you gently sweep aside the flopping oversized leaves in your path and walk toward the hushed gurgling sounds of a distant waterfall. 

New England Builders Ball 2014
And just then, you not as much notice as become gradually aware of something most unusual… Beside every fern, beneath every palm, beyond every curling mossy garland in your path, stands a dazzling bicycle - its jewel-tone finish to rival the tropical blossoms, its polished components to outshine the gleam of the waterfall's spray. 

New England Builders Ball 2014
It is then that you understand you are dreaming. You are dreaming of a paradise, an enchanted, impossible place where bicycles glitter like fireflies and grow on trees like oversized tropical fruit...

New England Builders Ball 2014
As if to confirm this, a gray-eyed figure emerges from the shadows, bathed in a golden light, and you see it is Richard Sachs. Having already determined you are dreaming, you are not surprised. "Richard Sachs," you say, pointing to a cluster of bikes that has, in the meantime, materialised in front of a spiky evergreen hedge, "Your bikes are not their usual red!" And you watch Richard Sachs as his eyes turn serious and, with a finger pressed to his lips, he whispers: "No more red bikes..." then vanishes into thin air. 

New England Builders Ball 2014
Spinning around in surprise, you find yourself facing a locked box mounted to a rear bicycle rack. "What can be in it?" you wonder to yourself. And just as this thought floats across your mind, a pair of pale hands emerges, turns the key in the lock, and slides open its panels - removing a stunning array of objects from within. Out come bottles of sherry and stacks of paperwork, winter coats and ballroom dancing shoes, bread rolls and bags of coal, model boats and balls of twine… Made dizzy and confused by this demonstration, you cover your face and turn away to run. 

New England Builders Ball 2014
But you stop in your tracks at the sight of none other than Michelle Pfeiffer! Clad head to toe in cycling clothes, she is sipping a beer while texting on her phone with slender dainty fingers, you can hardly believe it. "Michele Pfeiffer!" you say, awed yet emboldened by this dream reality, "How pretty you are! But I really must get out of here…" Smiling serenely, she puts her hand on your shoulder. "Don't go," she says,  pointing to something right beside you, "This is one phat party…"

New England Builders Ball 2014
And as the words echo in your ears, Michelle Pfeiffer herself disappears, and you find yourself astride a monstrous bike, navigating a viscous path you first take to be mud, before realising it is thick with tropical honey. You pedal through it, marveling at the width of the tires and glad to finally have a vehicle on which to navigate this strangest of places. Although on a path like this, honestly you might be better off on a horse.

New England Builders Ball 2014
"A Horse?" a voice booms behind your shoulder, "of course!" And, as hollow laughter follows, you realise just how treacherous this place is. It's as if the vegetation can read your mind, transforming your very thoughts into half-sensical velocipedian apparitions. 

New England Builders Ball 2014
Galloping about, it's not long before you sense that you've been going in a circle. And at that very moment you pass a neon sign declaring this very thing. 

New England Builders Ball 2014
"Just how long have I been doing this?" you start to wonder, as you pass another sign, now with the number 44. "Forty-four hours? Forty-four miles?" you ask, hoping for an explanation of this mysterious number's significance. "That is for you to decide," says the enigmatic smile of the man standing beside it. 

New England Builders Ball 2014
Now feeling somewhat depleted and ravenous with hunger,  you pause to rest beside a Dill Pickle stand, which, naturally, appears in your path. Here handlebar and saddlebags sit bursting with pickles, prepared in accordance with the finest Eastern European recipes. Yet no matter how many you take, the bags remain perfectly full. 

New England Builders Ball 2014
But while the pickles you gorge on are delicious, they alone do not fill you, and you find yourself next to a finely carved sculpture of a bicycle, made of pure custard. You give it a stealthy lick and know at once that you face a terrible dilemma, as the custard bicycle is as stunning as it is delicious, and to eat even a morsel would destroy its perfect form. With difficulty, you tear yourself away from it and seek sustenance elsewhere.

New England Builders Ball 2014
At last, you find yourself in front of a pumpkin patch, presided over by a sly-eyed bearded man who snaps his fingers to make the orange orbs grow and swell before your very eyes until they burst to pieces, revealing freshly hatched bicycles. Impressed with his tricks, but starving, you scramble to pick up and eat the pumpkins' pulpy remains, which - just as you had suspected - are baked and deliciously seasoned by the time they reach your mouth.

New England Builders Ball 2014
Well fed now, you stroll beneath some ferns and watch as a tropical ant you happen to notice stretches and grows to amazing proportions, until it transforms into a work bike, inviting you to hop on and continue meandering along the forest path. Indeed, this is a fabulous dream and all is well, you think ...if only you weren't so thirsty. 

New England Builders Ball 2014
Steering your steed toward the sounds of the waterfall you'd glimpsed earlier, you reach out to it with an empty water bottle, only to find that it too turns into a bike, its droplets flowing along the tubes with a glittering sleekness, with only a sprinkle escaping here and there. And as you wish for more water, you hear a terrific sound of thunder and suddenly, the technicolour drops are all around you - falling in buckets through the leafy canopy of jungle trees and drenching you head to toe.

New England Builders Ball 2014
No longer thirsty, but wet and dejected, you wander about dazed - until you fall into the arms of a golden-haired fairy, who envelopes you in voluminous, luminous garments until you are warm and dry. 

It's in this comforted, satiated state, you curl up and drift off, to the sweet sound of violins. And when you wake up, the forest and the whole bizarre fantasy are gone.

Roger Williams Park Botanical Center
You rise and stretch your limbs and, with a shake of your head, marvel at the dream you've just had. You then look around and find yourself not at home. Rather, you are on a bench, at the entrance of a grand transparent structure that you soon understand to be a greenhouse. 

New England Builders Ball 2014
Gingerly, almost on tiptoe, you walk in, and you are overcome by an eerie, yet not unpleasant sense of deja-vu, as a kindly-eyed bearded man in a dark suit welcomes you. "Where am I?" you ask. "At the New England Builder's Ball," he replies. And as you walk past him, toward the lush vegetation and waterfalls and handmade bikes you already know await you, you realise, with a start, that you have just spoken with none other than Albert A. Pope, the father of US bicycle manufacturing. You shrug, and smile, and keep on walking. Whether it is another dream or not, you are not quite sure. But it's a dark October night in New England, and magical things are not unheard of in these parts - not least when it comes to handmade bicycles. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Turning Heads (and Headtubes!) On a 19th Century Rudge

1892 Rudge
In the realm of collecting old things, a distinction is generally made between the vintage and the antique - the latter typically defined as being over 100 years old. When it comes to bicycles, my interest in this category has been limited to detached historical curiosity at best. It’s not that I don’t appreciate early two-wheeled machines. But oftentimes they are just too far removed from the bicycle as we know it today, for them to register in my brain as bikes and excite me on the same tactile, visceral level.

And that is pretty much how I felt during one of my visits to the Three Speed Hub, when proprietor Nick pointed conspiringly to a shadowy corner of his warehouse space and waited for my reaction. The enormous object that stood there resembled a bicycle in form, but at the same time deviated from a bicycle in subtle, yet significant and somewhat disconcerting ways.

1892 Rudge
“It’s a 19th Century Rudge!” Nick explained.

Ah, 19th century. I had guessed as much. I regarded the thing politely and asked some questions about its history, all the while longing to resume fondling the 1950s Oscar Egg that was more in keeping with my interests.

 “And just wait till you see how it rides!” Nick continued.

I snapped out of my daze. “Oh, is it ridable?” I said, as casually as possible, while uttering a silent prayer that he wouldn’t attempt to convince me to try it out.

“It’s ridable all right, you’ve never seen anything like it! Here, let's take it outside and you can give it a go…”

“Why don’t you ride it and I’ll photograph you,” I offered instead, following apprehensively. Nick is of the breed of collectors who believe that all bikes - no matter how old, precious, or rare - ought to be ridden. In the past he had tried to coax me onto all sorts of machines, regardless of their size, decrepitude and trickiness to handle, with varying degrees of success. But I would rather forego this century-and-a-quarter old beast that was clearly several sizes too large for me.

1892 Rudge
Outside I had a closer look at the Rudge's construction. The dramatic, almost Pedersen-like slope of the top tube gives the bicycle an intimidating, oversized appearance. However, the saddle's position suggests it can be ridden by considerably smaller persons than it may at first appear. Another oddity I soon noticed is that the front wheel appeared to be smaller than the rear. I asked Nick about this. Initially he had assumed the front rim was a modern replacement, smaller than the rear because the previous owner could not get ahold of the period-appropriate size. However, he soon learned that the mismatched wheels are most likely correct and an original feature of this model - which is a rare 1892 Rudge Model D, nearly identical to the bicycle pictured here.

1892 Rudge
Another remarkable feature I soon observed was the monstrously thick chain.

1892 Rudge
Here it is next to an (already oversized by current standards) early 20th century roadster chain.

1892 Rudge
And notice the flat teeth on the chainring, to accommodate it!

1892 Rudge
The reverse-setback seatpost beneath the sprung A. E. Wilby saddle is also interesting. 

1892 Rudge
As is, of course, the front spoon brake. 

1892 Rudge
There are foot pegs at the rear axel help mount the bike on the fly - 

1892 Rudge
like so!

1892 Rudge
While foot rests on the fork blades facilitate the fixed geared "hipster coast."

1892 Rudge
But, all of this pales in comparison to what is by far the coolest feature of the 1892 Rudge: the headtube! Or, rather, the steerer! Or really both, since they are one and the same. 

1892 Rudge
As you can see in the pictures, the stem, headtube and fork are all one unit, connected to the top and downtube with hinges, so that when the rider turns the handlebars the entire front end pivots. 

1892 Rudge
In motion, this looks something like this. To the observer, it does look as if there is something different about the front end, even if you can't put into words what that is until someone points out the funky construction. 

1892 Rudge
However, from the rider's perspective (yes, I was soon riding the bike myself!) the front end handling feels strangely normal - in an early roadsterish sort of way, which is to say, rather deliberate and delayed. It is only the visual aspect of things that takes getting used to - that is, seeing the headtube turn when the handlebars turn. 

As far as sizing, I am still not sure what stature of rider this bicycle was meant to fit. Lowering the saddle nearly as far down as it would go allowed me to pedal comfortably. However, I could not clear even the lowest part of the top tube (which towered above saddle height, due to the slope), and had to lean the bike over considerably when standing over it. 

1892 Rudge
In motion, the (surprisingly reasonably geared) fixed drivetrain picked up momentum with a steady eagerness, so that soon I was circling the industrial parking lot at speed - which the spoon brake actually helped shave off when it was time to stop (my feet did the rest). All in all, riding the 1892 Rudge with its pivoting front end, odd fit, differently sized wheels and monster chain, did not feel all that different from riding an early vintage roadster. I would not choose it for a personal commuter bike, but that is mostly due to the awkward top tube. Did the Rudge Model D exist in a drop frame version? I have a feeling it did. And if so, I might reconsider my disposition toward antique bicycles.

If you are in the Boston area and interested in trying the 1892 Rudge Model D for yourself, get in touch with Nick through the Three Speed Hub. The bicycle is not for sale, but available for historically informative joy rides!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Unexpected Autumn

Aghanloo Church of Ireland Graveyard
Last year I was away from Northern Ireland for most of October. And as far as Autumn scenery, I'd assumed I wasn't missing much. From having lived in England in my 20s, I remember this time of the year being rather bland. As summer came to an end, at some point the leaves would start to change from green to a sad yellowish brown, promptly shriveling in the process and disappearing altogether soon after. I assumed it'd be more or less the same over here and did not harbour expectations of remarkable foliage. But oh how wrong I was! 

Autumn in Ballycarton
These days I have difficulty riding my bike without craning my neck to gawk at the magnificent colourbursts that pepper the landscape. The Autumn foliage is not as pervasive as it is in Northeastern US. Rather than a blanket of colour, here it comes in patches. But if anything, this only makes it more striking. An impossibly luminous golden tree stands in a clearing of a drab green forest. And on this crisp, chilly day, passers-bye can't help but orient themselves toward it, as if it were a giant hearth emitting not only light but warmth. 

Autumn in Ballycarton
The tree's sprinkling of fallen leaves covers a mossy embankment, lighting up the dark, pine-shaded corner with a brassy glow. The leaves smell forest-spiced and sun-toasted, without a hint of rot, suggesting - falsely - a climate of crisp sunny afternoons rather than days upon days of overcast dampness.

I have noticed other instances of this magical crispness that preserves plants from summer wholly, like pressed flowers in the pages of a book, rather than letting them rot away slowly in the season's demise. The meadows are strewn with blanched, bone-dry stalks of Queen Anne's Lace and the gardens are lined with perfectly dried Hydrangeas. 

Red Ivy, Aghanloo
Blackberries hang on to their edible plumpness for as long as they can, until one day they turn into sundried candied kernels, with no wilting process having taken place in between. 

Red Ivy, Aghanloo
It's as if someone waves a magic wand and the berry gives up its juices on the spot to the crisp Autumn air, its remains now exuding a subtle, jammy perfume.

Tiny Yellow Apples
Elsewhere, fruit at once familiar and strange ripens heavily on twig-like, moss covered branches, glowing in vibrant shades of gold, red and plum. 

Red Ivy, Aghanloo
But the most amazing sight of all is the ivy. Flame red, it covers the white exteriors of cottages, the gray stone walls of church yards. 

Aghanloo Church of Ireland Graveyard
The ivy leaves are supple and waxy, showing not a single sign of dryness. From last year I try to remember what becomes of them as the season goes on. What happens to ivy in winter, and how will it get to that state from its current rich, oily, crimson splendor? 

Red Ivy, Aghanloo
For a moment, thinking of this evokes an image of human red hair, year by year losing its lustre, thinning and turning gray. Autumn's inevitable waning does bring to mind aging, hence its sad and sentimental connotations. I, however, am, more than anything, curious. And this curiosity makes me feel awake, not sad. It makes me want to get out on my bike and ride past all the ivy-covered stonework I can find and take it all in.

Aghanloo Church of Ireland Graveyard
We think of Autumn as a transitional, transformative season. It is a shapeshifter - with the light, the landscape and the weather changing rapidly on an almost daily basis, until it all settles down into the more solid and stable state that is winter. In that sense, Autumn can be conceived as a journey of sorts. And in Northern Ireland this year, it is an exceptionally beautiful one.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Is Uneven Pannier Load Problematic?

Untitled
When I ride a pannier-laden commuter bike, it is not uncommon for one side to be bulging while the other sits nearly empty. This is not because I can't be bothered to distribute the weight evenly, but because one of the panniers houses my enormous photo/laptop bag and I don't always have anything to put on the other side to compensate. I've cycled with this type of uneven rear load pretty much the entire time I've owned bicycles with rear racks. In the past, I've usually had a briefcase-type pannier clipped to one side of the rack, with nothing on the other, which is really no different from having unevenly loaded double panniers. But it's when I switched to the latter system that observers really began to notice. Over the past month in particular, I've received quite a few questions and concerned comments about the issue! These tend to fall into one of two categories: (1) Does the weight not pull to the side and cause handling issues? and (2) Isn't the uneven load bad for the bicycle frame?

Speaking from personal experience, my answer to the first question is "Usually, no." When riding an upright commuter bike - even a fairly lightweight one like my 25lb mixte - I simply do not feel the asymmetrical pannier load (typically 10-15lb on the lefthand side - though on other bikes I've tried as much as 40lb) once the bike is in motion. I do feel it when walking the bike. And it makes keeping the bicycle upright on a kickstand tricky. But once I put foot to pedal, the weight more or less disappears and I think nothing of it. Even when cornering, I've never felt it to be a problem on this type of bicycle. That said, I have not tried riding a roadbike, at roadbike cornering speeds, with the same setup. I can see how in that context the weight disparity could be problematic, and I'd be curious to hear from cyclists who have experienced this for themselves.

As far as an uneven load being bad for the bike… I imagine that would depend on lots of factors, including what sort of weight the bicycle was built to accommodate in the rear, and how chronically, as well as for what distance and duration, the owner rides it unevenly loaded (assuming the weight is always on the same side). I have seen a few twisted vintage frames, where it had been suggested they got that way through chronic uneven load carry. But without knowing the owner, it is impossible to tell for sure. My own commuter bikes have all been fairly stiff laterally, and I've never feel any twist in the frames as a result of uneven weight at the rear. But these things are not always perceivable, and it hasn't been long enough to gauge long term effects. Just in case, I try to alternate the side of the load and never make it ridiculously heavy.

In general, I would say that the average utility bike can certainly handle uneven rear load distribution, and as long as you feel comfortable with the bicycle's handling there is no need to worry. As always, YMMV, and I welcome others to share their experiences.