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Ah Yes. The Wonders of Winter
By Dale Garrison
© 1999 Dale Garrison Editorial Services
I finally got around to overhauling a bike.
Unfortunately, since I have about 11 or 12 around my house, along with several sets of spare wheels, that's only a small dent in the mountain of work I've put off this year. But it did remind me of something important about cycling: its rituals.
The smell of kerosene, grease under my fingernails and stiff hands on Sunday night from cleaning crevices in a frame-all are a part of cycling to me just as much as flashing down a hill on a June morning. In fact, some of these rituals are what I remember most.
Winter rides are a good example. I once fell in with a particularly bad crowd of riders, a clique whose reverence for tradition led them every Saturday morning to conduct a "Donut Roll" ride from a bicycle shop. The shop is now gone, the manager now a blues musician, but I still savor the rituals that clung to those winter morning rides like ice on my mustache.
First was the clothing. I always brought a virtual clothing store "just in case" the weather changed: several extra jackets, gloves and other assorted layers. I probably could have ridden Iditarod with all I carried. Yet even then, I still occasionally confronted fewer degrees or more wind than expected. As a result, I developed habit of packing the night before after carefully studying the Weather Channel, sort of like an aborigine examining the entrails of a goat.
Even before the first layer of polypropylene, there was the smell of Icy Hot. That was our preferred brand of liniment because one of the riders peddled the stuff on the side (I think it was the blues musician; there must be a moral there). It was great for warming up cold, stiff ligaments and formed a nice greasy barrier against cold, damp air. The poor shop always had that Ben Gay smell and I've wondered if the owner ever asked what the hell was going on.
Most of all, I remember the talk as we peddled away from the shop on what were usually cloudy, abysmally cold mornings. We tried hard to look like racers, often wearing matching jerseys and jackets. We also liked to feign sprints, pack-riding techniques and other tricks that were indeed useful training for real peleton riding. But in reality, we were pretty slow. Mostly, we'd spin along, talking about who won what in the European classics, or what silly gizmo was coming out with this year (at this pace, how many speeds do you need, anyway?).
Not all my rituals are group-things, however. My favorite involves a pre-dawn meal of pancakes, usually after my second cup of coffee. This generally occurs on Saturday or Sunday morning, when I've awakened at 4 a.m. (or even 3:30!). This admittedly happens less and less these days, which is probably why I hold illusions of liking this hour. But that's another story.
Many bicycling rituals are plain work, though I still love 'em. I've always liked the artistry of building wheels. It seems a miracle to take a handful of spider-web-thin spokes, a homely hub and a flexible rim, put them all together, and come up with something that can fly down a hill at 55 mph or handle chuckholes without collapsing.
Other rituals are less user-friendly. I think most cyclists are missing the boat by riding clinchers. To me, sewups are so much better in virtually every category, there's no contest. But yes, gluing sewups on rims is a nasty mess. Especially on the first occasion. It's like other virgin experiences: awkward and not entirely satisfying.
I remember reading an "insider's secret tricks" on gluing sewups. It suggested spreading a thin bead of glue on the rim AND the inner part of the tire. Let those dry for 12 hours (!!!) then apply a second, thinner layer to both places. Let that dry 15 minutes. Place a plastic Baggy over your hands, stick your bare toes in the bottom part of the rim to hold the thing, and carefully stretch the sticky tire onto the rim.
Sounds fairly simply, not much more difficult than child birth or open heart surgery. However, within three minutes, I was reduced to a cursing, glue-coated beast. My wife and two daughters fearfully opened the basement door and were shocked to see I had apparently gone through a transformation, much like Jeff Goldbloom in "The Fly." It was a horror beyond description.
Later I figured out what I did wrong. First, they aren't kidding when they suggest stretching a new sewup tire onto a spare rim for 3-4 weeks before a glue job. These puppies are so stiff it's almost impossible to stretch one over a dry rim without some previous stretching. If the rim and tire are covered in glue, it's a virtual impossibility. Stretch first, is my motto!
Another thing is a twist on the old "right tool for the right job" concept. Though I didn't know it, my particular glue was an especially powerful version that provides a virtually permanent bond. With the two-coat technique, I ended up with enough glue to hold Bosnia and Serbia together. One coat-even one thin coat-is usually adequate. Just make sure it's even.
Most of all, whether you use one or two coats, you want to make sure it's almost dry, barely tacky, before attempting to put the tire on. In my disastrous attempt, I had not waited long enough. As a result, I was working with the tactile equivalent of road oil. I had as much fun as Briar Rabbit with the Tar Man.
Like most bike rituals, gluing sewups becomes a ritual because it does in fact get better. Like those old Brooks leather saddles, the incredible pain and discomfort does indeed become worthwhile. It's just that the process sometimes seems questionable.
There are some bike rituals I have learned to avoid regardless of practice. One is the "all-nighter." I should admit I pretty much had my fill of all-nighters in college. After leaving ALL my homework and study to the last week of the semester, I would try to cram a lifetime of learning into a few nights. Surprisingly, once or twice I even succeeded.
Biking however, rarely allows such arrogant assumption. My first lesson (and I did learn from it) occurred the night before a big local century. The weatherman had warned that this particular September Sunday would see record heat, and behind the good Boy Scout, I vowed to be prepared. I knew that an extra water bottle would be a welcome addition to my trusty steed. So late Saturday night, I decided to connect a third water bottle, slung jauntily UNDER the downtube.
The operation went well, once I located a spare bottle cage and clamps. Everything looked well as I turned off the lights, turned into bed, and dreamt of the morning's glorious ride.
In those days, this particular century drew hundreds of riders. It began with nearly a mile-long stream of cyclists pouring forth from the parking lot like a flock of brightly colored birds. I remember standing in the middle of a sea of bikes, waiting for the road to clear so I could begin my saga.
Finally I sprang forward, peddling in first gear until I had built speed. Then I made a perfect shift into second gear, but whoa! Nothing happened. I wriggled the gear shift-surely this was a fluke-but the derailleur still did not move. Then I looked down.
In my late-night haste to attach the water bottle, I had put the clamps around the downtube AND gear shift cables. The derailleur was not shifting because the cable was not moving. Soon, neither was I.
Hundreds of cyclists saw my embarrassment that day. I would like to say that they each extended their sympathy at my pathetic plight. But in truth, most laughed cruelly. One even said, "Look at that Fred, he wired his derailleur shut!" It was not one of my glorious moments.
Fortunately, I did have the prerequisite tools, a tiny little Allen wrench that only a compulsive fiddler would carry. At least there are some benefits to always tinkering.