Rocket7: Prelude

This is the story of a new pair of bike shoes, but it starts with the old shoes.

A few years ago, I was killing time in a local, family-owned bike shop (as one does), and I found myself in the corner where the closeout items were piled. I had been thinking about upgrading from my toe clips to shoes that click into the pedals, and there was a pair of Shimano’s at deep discount, in Euro size 42, which is as close to “my size” as you’re going to find. So I bought them.

It was a while later when I actually bought the pedals to match. I had done absolutely no research on the types of pedals and the shoes that match them, and purely by chance I had bought shoes that work with the SPD pedal system. SPD was developed for mountain bikers, and had two key features: muck tolerance and a sole built up around the cleat on the shoe, which makes walking around easier.

You’ve probably heard the clack-clack of a bicyclist walking in their bike shoes. That clack-clack is not only uncomfortable for the walker, it also contributes significant wear to the cleats on the bottom of the shoes.

So it turns out that although designed for mountain bikers, the SPD system is also ideal for commuters, where there is often an amount of walking around to do once the destination is reached, but before a good shoe-change opportunity.

A fine pair of shoes, looking good after thousands of miles

I have put thousands of miles on those shoes. (It’s not as impressive as it sounds; unless you are impressed by consistency – which is actually pretty impressive.) By the looks of them, with new laces and eventually new straps, they have a few thousand more miles on them easy.

I have come to dislike those shoes. However, as has been said in many a break-up, it’s not the shoes, it’s my feet.

When I ride too many hours in a month, my right foot starts to hurt. When I ride too many hours in a day, my left foot becomes very unhappy. With my fancy bike, longer rides are becoming more common and Lefty has had a few things to say about that.

My feet are different sizes, you see, and while the longer one is very wide, the smaller one is ridiculously wide. I didn’t take the above shoe picture with this in mind, but if you look at the left shoe above you can see that it is pushed out wider just past the strap. That’s where the ball of my foot lands in that shoe, way up on the meager arch support. That also means that the pad of my foot is behind the pedal, and I’m actually pushing the pedal with my toes. It is my toes that get pissed off after 40 miles.

My feet

You know how after you break up you can look back and remember the good times and still be glad that you’ve broken up? Today the new shoes arrived. After less than 15 miles it’s all over. The new shoes are sexy and comfy and made just for me. The next episode will be that story, but I wanted to create the setting first, and pay a little respect for a pair of shoes that have been with me through good times and bad.

2

Progress Report on My Mountain

I had a good ride yesterday, 41 miles after I remembered to start the tracking software. It was a good ride through some awesome territory, but that is not the ride I want to tell you about right now. (Except to drop the official tease that 40 miles is about all my left foot is willing to do in my current shoes.)

No, today I want to tell you about a ride I took a couple of weeks ago. It was my most recent assault on Mt. Hamilton, or, as I call it, My Mountain.

My Mountain is a long, steady climb up a twisty-turny road, with an observatory at the top. After the first six miles of climbing (about one-third of the ride), there is a brief respite. My goal that day was to get farther than I had before; my stretch goal for the ride was to get to that 6-mile mini-summit. And I did it! 1500 feet of elevation gain (not counting the climb to reach the official start of the climb), just crunching along. After that point there is a small descent. I didn’t go down there, because I wasn’t sure I’d get back up.

It took me almost an hour to cover those six miles. That’s… not fast. In fact, one of the reasons I made it that far is that I have gotten better at riding very slowly. After the descent and the ride back through town to get home, I was demolished.

When I related the speed of my climb to my buddy John, he said (more or less) “Your goal is to get up there before you’re sixty? You should probably start now.”

Strava, the app I use to track my rides, happily compares my efforts to others who have ridden the same route. Out of curiosity, I checked how I compared to others who have made the same climb. My effort, compared to the best efforts of 14767 other riders is… pretty close to the bottom. I’m a little confused because looking at the numbers tonight I am no longer as close to the bottom as I was (by a long shot), but I’m still way, way, down in the basement.

But Strava compares each person’s fastest times. So of the 14767 other people who have ridden that segment, almost all have better bests than I do. But that doesn’t mean all their efforts were faster than mine.

And you know what? I take a certain perverse pride in crawling up the mountain at 6 mph and not quitting before I got to that point. It was not a sexy ride, but it was a testament to sheer bloody-mindedness. As an athlete, that more than anything else defines me. I am not stronger, or faster, or more graceful, but I am a stubborn SOB.

I just have to find the legs to triple that effort by the time I turn sixty in 31 months. Piece of cake, right?

1

A Brief Encounter with the Underground Economy

Where to start, where to start. My longest ride ever? The things I saw? The nearly-endless interval sitting on the concrete, my legs stretching out into the sun, in emotional and medical shock, staring at my water bottle lying in the middle of the sidewalk as I reconciled myself with never seeing my bike again? The stunned disbelief as two strangers brought my bike back to me?

I’ll start with water. I drink a lot of water, even when siting in an air-conditioned office. I have convinced myself that my second-biggest obstacle to climbing my mountain (It’s not “Mt. Hamilton” anymore, it’s My Mountain) is water. Unless I pull a trailer with one of those big ol’ coolers behind me, I’m going to have to find ways to replenish on the climb.

So, I’ve started to be more conscious of the places water is available, even on my more modest routes. Trying to get it into my rather thick skull that’s it’s ok to load up at any opportunity. (I do not know if there will be opportunities on my mountain.)

Eight days ago I set out on a ride, not sure exactly where I would go, but confident there would be a lot of miles. I knew when I was done that Strava would congratulate me on my longest ride ever, and I was looking forward to that pat on the back. Machines are notoriously free with their validation, but some machines are more worth impressing than others.

So a long ride north exploring what is intended to be a bicycle artery, which is really well done except for two stretches that are terrible. I was on roads I didn’t know, and the sun was straight overhead, but I knew I was going the right direction by the headwind. If you’re riding into the teeth of the wind, you’re traveling roughly parallel to the runway at SJC. I hate headwinds, but this one at least I know will pay me back when I was heading home on weary legs.

But… all this riding around isn’t what I teased above. I was a good ride. I found some cool things I will have to explore again. I made my way over to Alviso and began my tailwind ride home south on Guadalupe River Trail.

The trail includes a stretch of roughly ten miles with no interruptions — no traffic signals, no cross streets — that you just cruise and enjoy. But when I got to the south end of that, thirty miles into my ride, I had consumed all the water in my big bottle and the Gatorade I put in the second holder as well.

By now, I was not far from home. I could have made it without too much discomfort. But I told myself that I needed to start to get used to finding water on the trail if I planned to do longer rides. So, just for practice, I stopped at a little park to fill up my water bottle. This may seem like a strange thing to practice, but for me “stop pedaling for two minutes so you don’t die later” is not as simple as all that.

So I stopped for water. It was at a little park with public restroom made out of the same brown faux-stone that all public restrooms are made of in all city parks west of the Mississippi. There were people outside as I rode past, so I guessed that the covid water shutdowns had been canceled. I would fill my bottle. I doubled back.

The park is separated from the street and the sidewalk by a low metal fence – not a barrier In any real sense, but a symbolic demarcation. As I rolled through the gate into the park and turned back toward the water, I decided I didn’t trust the people hanging out there so much, so rather than leave my bike near them, I leaned it against the fence, a few feet away.

That was a very bad decision.

I said hello to the couple standing in the shade of the restroom blok. He was, let there be no doubt, a fan of the Oakland A’s; he was garbed in yellow and green from neck to toe, with plenty of logos. She was dressed for the summer heat, a light top but still blue jeans.

This next bit is hard to tell, because of how stupid I was. The drinking fountains on the outside of the building didn’t work. “The taps work inside,” the A’s fan said.

It would only take a moment. Pop in, fill the bottle, back out. Just a few seconds. I went in, and for five seconds of increasing anxiety I tried to make water come from the spigot, alll the while thinking “my bike is out there” and finally dashing back out, in time to see a stranger reach over and hoist my bike over the fence.

“NO!” I shouted. “No! No! No!” And I started to run after him.

An aside here, and an important one. Many times I have told myself that in a situation like this, I would do my best to be a witness, not a hero. Be smart. Really look at the person, so that in court I can be confident. Get the details. Consolidate them before lawyer questions can shake them. I failed at this. Absolutely flunked the course. I chased, vaulting the little fence and still shouting. Maybe a shitty mustache? When talking to the police I was also able to offer that he was wearing long pants, which seriously narrows the suspect list.

Instead I was a hero. I chased the guy, vaulting the fence in what might have ben an impressive maneuver. But I was in bike shoes (SPD so better for sprinting after bike thieves than others) and after about five strides past the vault I knew my left leg was blown. Still I was not being a good witness. My eyes were on my bike, the rear safety light still blinking. A folding knife dropped out of the thief’s pocket as he rode away. He headed South and took the first turn to the east and he was gone.

I staggered forward far enough to collect the knife (carefully – fingerprints, after all) then limped back to where my witnesses were standing. They asked If I was OK, and told them that actually I was not. “Do you know that guy? I asked.

“I know him, but I haven’t seen him around for a while,” the guy answered.

I will not reproduce the entire conversation, but as they assessed the damage I had taken, and my long white beard, the woman said, “do you want us to go after him?”

I heard that as “can we sound helpful and leave?” but I answered “If you really think you can find him, then yeah, sure.” And they left.

I’ll fast-wind ahead through remembering my watch is also a phone and calling The Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas and calling the police and sitting, staring at my water bottle which I had carried at least long enough that it was on the street side of the fence, the lid a few feet farther along, in the shade of a tree that was small enough to only be a promise of a future idyllic neighborhood. My head started to spin, and I laboriously stood only to cling to the damn brown brick so I wouldn’t fall over again. I was not in a good way.

And then there they were. With my bike. With my fucking bike.

“I’m so glad you’re still here!” she said, huffing and flushed with the effort of a quick ride. “I was worried if you were gone we’d never find you.”

There were some moments of joy and simple gratitude that followed, snd she (and he, to a lesser extent) seemed of a mind to chat. “He was heading for the labyrinth,” she said. “It’s a place they sell stolen bikes. But he took a wrong turn.” The labyrinth is well-named. “When we found him, he was looking at the back gears and having a hard time.”

“This bike shifts differently,” I said, and she laughed. We talked about the bike for a bit, about how this outfit in Utah was making great bikes. I opened the pouch on my bike that also held my wallet, and was happy to find some cash inside, that I keep in reserve for waitstaff. I offered it to her.

“You don’t have to,” she said. Twice, before taking the money. It was fifty dollars. In this city, that’s not much.

In our conversation, she proudly proclaimed that they had paid for their bicycles. But I haven’t mentioned that the two of them had three bikes, and both were skilled at “ghost riding”: pedaling one bike while pulling along another. It’s an important skill for bike thieves. She also said “I offered him this bike in exchange, but he just gave me yours back.” For her, bicycles are generally fungible. My bike was unique, which made it more dangerous, but also I was a graybeard with a blown leg who clearly didn’t know how to deal, and I think it was that more than anything else that led to my happy reunion.

I mentioned to them that I had managed to call the police, and he said with a laugh. “I’m no interested in talking to them.” and she laughed too and they rode away with their three bicycles.

I am not angry, not even at the asshole who snatched my bike and rode away. There is a world of necessity that festers in our cities, a world invisible to the Uber class. On my favorite ride I pass a camp filled with chickens and stolen bicycles. This is not big-time organized crime, it’s people struggling to survive. They’re living in tents for crying out loud. The underground economy of stolen bicycles is not the disease, it is a symptom of a deeper ill.

So, I lied, actually. I am angry. I am angry at a nation where people eating too much is a major health crisis while we also have kids gong hungry. I am angry at a nation where the homeless problem is solved by making them go somewhere else. We have enough. We have enough to put a roof over every head. We have enough to put food in every belly. But we don’t. Honestly, we don’t even try.

I rode home, slowly, on my own bike, pedaling with a very unhappy leg — a person of privilege who had somehow found sympathy from people who have far less than I do. I will pay that back.

8

Bicycling’s Ultimate Wingman

It was a hell of a day on the bike today, but I’m not ready yet to tell that story. So let’s talk about the Tour de France instead.

Today, a rider named Mark Cavendish tied the record for most stages ever won in the Tour. The Manx Missile once seemed to be on track to shatter the old record, then injury and misfortune almost ended his career. After a brutal few years, he got his last chance on a major team, and likely because of internal politics he was selected to ride for that team in the Tour.

There are a lot of different ways to win at a stage race like the Tour de France. The most-remembered winner is the rider who completes all the stages in the smallest aggregate time. But there are also awards for the best in the mountains, and the fastest in the sprints, and each day is a mini-race; winning a stage is a great accomplishment. winning lots of stages, over many years, makes you a legend.

Cavendish, with his come-back story, adds an element to this year’s Tour that would not be there otherwise. He is crafty, knows just what he can do, and especially knows how to work with his teammates.

One of those teammates is Michael Mørkøv, my new favorite rider. Yesterday he did such a good job pulling Cav through a confused and chaotic 100 meters to the end line that he nearly won the stage himself. But his job is to get the main guy to the line, and he does it well. I looked today and in his long career he has won exactly one stage in a major race. But his teammates have won many.

If you watch a stage race that ends with a sprint, you will see the star of the show about four wheels back, behind teammates who are creating a draft the star can ride it, saving energy. In the last few hundred meters those teammates will peel off, and other teams will make their moves, driving their own trains toward the line.

If you’re that sprinter, having ridden 100 miles already that day just to get to this moment, as your crew peels off one by one and the pace of the final dash to the line builds, there is no one you want in front of you more than Mørkøv for those last few meters.

I have oversimplified the role of the leadout rider; there is a lot of strategy involved to set up your teammate for the last dash. Wind, the tactics of the other teams, the strength of the rider you are pulling, of course the terrain — all of that matters.

Cavendish has a burst that no one else on the tour can match. Those same twitch muscles that put him across the line first in the sprints are actually a liability through the mountains. So let’s not forget the rest of the team that kept Mark Cavendish in the race (those too far behind the lead are mercifully eliminated). It was the effort of many that even put Mark on the road today.

It has been the effort of Michal Mørkøv that allowed him to make history. Let us not forget that.

Blogging for Dollars

I was reading an article the other day about Facebook’s brazen attempt to spend another competitor into the grave. In this case the competitor is Substack.com, which is a platform that allows writers to create “newsletters” and have their fans subscribe for actual dollars. Substack, of course, takes a slice of those dollars for themselves.

But Facebook thought that was a pretty cool idea, and decided to launch their own clone of the service, but (at first) they will not take a cut of the writers’ subscription fees. So, they’re dong it for free, but the writers creating these “newsletters” don’t have to give up a slice of their pie.

From The Washington Post article:

Asked for comment on Facebook Bulletin, Substack spokeswoman Lulu Cheng Meservey said, “The nice shiny rings from Sauron were also ‘free.’ ”

I put “newsletter” in quotes because these are blogs. Bloggedy blog blogs. These are platforms to allow bloggers to make money.

And… hang on a second… I’m a blogger!

So after reading this, and deciding instantly that I would not be participating in the Facebook thing, I was still left with the thought… maybe I could make money by blogging.

Fear not, good reader(s), Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas will not be disappearing behind a paywall. Be assured that this is not out of any altruistic impulse, but is rooted in the calm belief that MR&HBI is fundamentally unmarketable. If you don’t believe that now, just wait for the next episode.

To be one of those blogs that people read, there must be a theme. I can’t just spew whatever nonsense crosses my mind and expect people to pay for it; I have to wrap that nonsense in a central theme, and have that nonsense resonate with people who have never actually met me. There has to be a connecting point.

Like maybe an overweight greybeard trying to climb a mountain on a bicycle. That might sell, if the “newsletter” built a larger story about goals and effort and self-loathing and it was written well enough that people who read one installment would look forward to the next. There might be a formula for the episodes — some logistics, some details of ride to the base of the mountain, then getting to the grind of the climb with a juicy piece of crazy thought that went through oxygen-starved brain, then the discomfort and pathetic fear of a timid descent. Some background, here and there, about the world, about life, about whether pursuing happiness is an oxymoron.

I think I could do that.

I also think that because I am completely hopeless at marketing, that the “newsletters” will die in obscurity. But is that any reason not to do it? It’s an autobiography, and Lord knows I do like talking about me. It’s a story, but unlike serial fiction each episode is built on my latest run at the mountain. “I got this” one week turns into “I don’t got this” the next. There might be discussion of bicycle infrastructure. Or blimps.

But my two subscribers will be pushing me forward, lifting me, and when I get to the top of that damn mountain, our roar will be heard all the way to next door.

2

They are Not Like Us

Clearing out the email today and found one from Strava, the bicycle-centric performance-tracking app. It turns out that some of the riders on the Tour de France are sharing their rides with the rest of us.

Poking around today, I got the data for Ben O’Connor, the rider who won Stage 9 today, and I also found the data for a serious contender who today lost concentration for a second and went off the road. The full list is here.

O’Connor doesn’t share his heart rate data, but some of the others do. There was one guy who I can’t remember the name of whose heart rate almost never broke 150. Another guy climbed a near-vertical road for a minute, pushing his heart to a casual 149, before it dropped right back to 108 a minute later, while coasting downhill.

I’m only starting to appreciate the power numbers, as on my rides power output is a very rough estimate based on slope and speed (I could buy toys to give much more precise power readings, but I don’t think I would actually benefit from that information.) Here we see athletes who can sustain more than 400 watts of power for half an hour, and then do it again on the next hill, and then be able to get back on the bike and do it all over again tomorrow. The riders, even the ones with no hope of winning, are capable of producing crazy amounts of power pretty much forever.

But while all that’s impressive to me, it’s all quantifiable. That changes when it’s about going down the mountain. I will tell you right now, despite the hardship, I prefer going up to going down. I was watching a repeat of last year’s Giro a few months back and a Slovenian kid got his first stage win by smashing up the mountains and then barely not crashing on the way down the other sides. There were times my heart went up into my throat as his rear wheel skidded on the winding roads. He is a beast, but a crazy beast at that (I think I was watching Tadej Pogačar introduce himself to the world, and who has in the last three days turned the Tour de France into a race for second place, but there’s another Slovenian kid who is also a monster.)

It should come as no surprise that the riders who qualify for one of the world’s most prestigious athletic endurance events are superhuman. It’s extra-fun for me, though, because when I look at one of those riders, Strava helpfully puts my recent and career stats next to theirs. (But please note that my post-return-from-Prague career miles are roughly twice what is shown there, since I didn’t start using Strava right away. So it’s not really so different, right?)

By the way, here I’m being compared to Ben O’Connor, who won Stage 9 today. I suspect that his longest ride is much more than 160 miles, so maybe only half his work is showing up in Strava as well. Even from what we see here, he’s closing in on one million feet of climbing. If he did that all in one climb, he’d officially be an astronaut and then some, but he wouldn’t quite reach the ISS. It would be a hell of a ride back down.

I couldn’t find any names on Strava that I knew to be sprinters. They are bigger-legged riders who can put on amazing bursts of power (and therefore speed). I’m really curious what their numbers look like in the final meters of a closely-contested sprint. If I find anyone in that category, I’ll let you know.

Meanwhile, I’ll push the pedals, and while I will never produce huge power numbers, I am about 120% of a climber right now — I just need to shed 20% of me to be in good trim for a romp up a mountainside. I’ll leave the descent to someone else.

A Matter of Consistency

While I was attempting (and failing) to write an episode thirty days in a row here at Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas, a kid named James, known as the Iron Cowboy, today wrapped doing 100 full-length triathlons in 100 days.

Yep, 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, followed by a full-ass 26.2-mile marathon.

100 times. In 100 days.

He did it to raise funds and awareness to rescue children from sex trafficking and sexual exploitation, so maybe he’s crazy, but it’s the right kind of crazy. My pals at Fezzari Bikes are proud sponsors, and I love them for that as well.

I can only imagine how it will feel for the Iron Cowboy to take a day off tomorrow. Congratulations, James!

Measuring Myself Against the Mountain

Plan A today was to head south on the lovely Coyote Creek trail, and depending how I felt when I got there, try attacking a new hill. The trail was blocked by a fire truck, however, as the crew sprayed water over a still-smoldering brush fire. I turned around and decided instead to test my progress toward my long-term goal of summiting Mt. Hamilton. I wouldn’t try to break my record, I decided, but there’s a nice loop that goes up the main highway and then descends on a smaller road that sees almost no traffic.

About a mile after I turned around I thought, “I should have taken a picture — fire trucks are exciting!”

It was even more annoying than usual getting to the base of the mountain, catching almost every single red light as I rode through the city. Grrr. Then it was time to climb. I have gotten better at riding very, very slowly, and I’m strong enough that I can almost sustain that snail’s pace for a decent period of time. The grade of the road is very consistent, but occasionally there’s a short stretch that’s a wee bit steeper, a difference you wouldn’t even notice while driving, but for me it’s the difference between sustainable and deficit. A little less down force on the seat post would put me over the top, I think.

I got to the turn-off for the descent, and after a short breather I decided instead to try to push up the mountain a little farther before going back down. Which is when my legs delivered their big, fat NOPE! I’d hardly gone any distance at all before I turned back and rolled on down the mountain. I added a couple of easy miles at the end for nothing more than pride.

Twenty miles to get to and from the actual ride, and six miles for the climb and descent.

1

A Tale of Two Bicycles

According to the Velominati, the correct number of bicycles to own is n+1. However, I’m pretty content with two.

I bought the first bike in 2014. I went in to a Mom-and-Pop-and-Kids bike shop and told them I would be commuting on a bike but I didn’t need anything fancy. They pointed me to the Escape 0 by Giant, which I think was discounted because it was being discontinued. It is a “hybrid” bike aimed at commuters – mountain bike drive train with lots of gears (important for skinny-leg people carrying lots of stuff), an upright posture good for traffic awareness, but narrower tires intended for road use.

I kind of fell for the upsell when I chose that bike, but I have no regrets. And I had a list of other stuff to load up on before I even left the store: cushier seat, floor pump, helmet of course, and on and on. I left a fair chunk of scratch at the bike store, and I’ve paid quite a bit more since, yet conservatively all of that has been paid and then some with gasoline not burned driving to and from work.

To say nothing of the other benefits. Health, happiness, and Yet Another Bike Episode here at MR&HBI.

Over time I’ve added a beefier rack, gone through a few different panniers (the bags that attach to the rack), put fenders on for rainy days (I kind of like the rain), various lights (including Revolights, which were a great idea but never found their market), and on and on. My mantra was, “the weight I take off the bike should come from my gut.” I’ve put a lot of miles on that fine machine; many good hours being out in the world instead of boxed in metal and glass.

When I commuted by bike regularly, I started to recognize some of the others out there. A lot the other riders were decked out in tight-fitting bike gear, riding their fancy bikes. I would measure myself against those riders, pushing a little extra to maybe catch up with the Big Bald Guy at the next light. I could sometimes keep it close with one spandex-wearer, but if another came along, that was it. they would vanish over the horizon with a wink of light.

Most of that, of course, is because I’m a skinny-leg big-belly graybeard, but it turns out the hardware matters as well. Enter the Fezzari.

When the pandemic came down, I had not been riding regularly. Early on I took the disruption of my life as an opportunity to rebuild some good life habits, and the bike was at the center of that. Things were going great, until a mechanical issue during a major supply-chain disruption left me with no bike for a while. Late one night, I thought, “What if I buy another bike?” The only bikes available were the really high-end ones, but if I was gong to justify another purchase, it had to fill a different role than my commuter bike anyway.

You know how that turned out. And now here we are.

Wednesday I rode the Giant to work, lugging along a change of clothes, a laptop, shoes, about five pounds of food, and other odds and ends. Even if I could fit all that in a backpack (doubtful), then my back would be a swamp by the time I got to work. No problem on the Giant. It is a stable ride, comfortable, with an upright posture and wide handlebars for easy control. Thirty different gear ratios to choose from and that good ol’ cushy seat means that while I’m riding I’m just traveling, getting where I’m going with a minimum of fuss. It’s not a bike commute, it’s simply a commute.

It’s the bike I ride to the store (usually the bike store).

When I got on the Fezzari I discovered a new sort of bicycling. The bike is small, and twitchy, and fast. I’m still learning to ride it, still getting used to the more aggressive seating posture (I’m very happy I asked them to set it up with a “relaxed” posture, adding a bit of height on the handlebars so I’m less hunched over.) My hands tend to go numb on long rides; I’m still searching for the right posture and grip to deal with that extra weight on my arms.

But there are times, many times, when all that is forgotten and I’m cranking along to the sound of my tires whooshing over the pavement and it’s sublime. I love that bike.

I think, in fact, I love it more because I still put in the miles on the Giant. I am constantly reminded just what makes the fancy road bike special. Without that contrast would I start to take my new bike for granted? (Actually, probably not, but it’s still a good reminder.) And what about my faithful pack mule? I love it more, too, for having ridden the Fezzari; I appreciate the comfort and the capacity and the simpleness of riding it. It’s the perfect tool for the job.

Special bonus: twice the time tinkering in the shade of the tree in our backyard.

3

Gotta Ride, Part 6: The Crash

I have set a goal for myself: Get to the top of Mount Hamilton by bicycle before I turn 60. It is a well-known climb in these parts, and it has the advantage of being a serious ride that I don’t have to start with a ride in the car. It’s only a few miles from home to the foot of the climb. It’s about 1300 meters from where I live to the top. Routine for some, the achievement of a lifetime for others.

I have given myself three years to get fit enough to make that climb, and let me tell you, kids, I am extremely excited about this goal, and I’m sure I can do it.

If I survive those few urban miles between me and the mountain.

December 19 was, mostly, my best ride ever. I had planned to do a small loop up the first couple of miles of the climb. That would be a preview to a bigger loop I would build up to. Not even remotely close to the full climb, but more than I had done on the last trip.

Man, I had fun. I told myself there was no shame in stopping for a breather a couple or times, and I missed the turn for the smaller loop and kept on going up. I found the larger-loop road down and took it easy heading back; this wasn’t a time trial. It was a chance to enjoy the day, and when my tire hissed and spat angrily I pulled over only to find that the sealer goo I had reinforced just prior to the ride worked perfectly.

It was a tiny road down, twisting and turning, but there were almost no cars. There were many junior-high level kids slogging up the other way, pedaling at absurd gear ratios but moving forward and up. A club? A team? Just what kids do up there to get around?

I had a song in my heart when I returned to the foot of the mountain. An epic day, for small values of epic. I’ve mentioned before how much I love a good day on the bike; this was the best day ever.

Until the crash, at least. I was back on urban roads and looking over my shoulder to check traffic as I approached an intersection, when I hit a massive ridge of pavement in the bicycle lane. According to software, I was moving at somewhere between 17 and 18 MPH when it all went to hell.

The Death Berm. It’s taller than it looks in this photo.

My first thought, as my reflexes fought to control the bike, was utter surprise. That didn’t last long. Given the distribution of my injuries, it’s pretty much a miracle that I didn’t break a wrist or leg or you-name-it trying to break my fall. I wobbled, I tipped, and I smashed to the curb and slid across the sidewalk to wrap myself around a tree in its oh-so-soft mulch.

Somewhere in there I heard the sound of my helmet whacking against the pavement. It seemed, in that time-dilated moment, that I had been waiting for that sound.

Finally I was at rest, against the tree, and I hurt in a very non-specific way. I just hurt. My watch asked for my attention. “It seems you have fallen,” It said. “Do you need help?” I wasn’t sure at that point how to answer.

A bystander came close, but not too close. He asked if I was OK. I was still trying to figure that out, as I lay on my back and looked into the clear sky. My watch asked me about my status again, ready to call 911 on my behalf if I was unable to answer. I selected “I did fall, but I’m OK.” I still wasn’t sure that was true.

Once the bystander was sure I was not going to die, my Samaritan turned to humor. “You need last rites? Because my friend here is a priest.” I wasn’t ready to laugh, but I was glad he was. When I told him I was wearing a brand-new helmet, one with new technology for better brain protection, he was effusive. “Wow! that’s great! Thank God for that.” He couldn’t offer physical aid, but he was working as hard as he could to throw spiritual aid my way.

Eventually I convinced my electronics and my helpful bystanders that I would be all right. I just needed to lay on the grass for a bit. After a short while I got up, documented the death berm in the bike lane, and started my ride home.

That was a long six miles. There was enough blood coming off me that motorists at intersections waved me along and waited for me to cross. I couldn’t (and still can’t) signal my right turns; my shoulder won’t allow it. My front derailleur is either damaged or knocked out of whack; I tried a shift that left my chain flopping around my bottom bracket, and in my state that nearly dumped me over again. There is also quite a bit of cosmetic damage to my brand-new bike.

Perversely, I’m a little proud of those six miles. Not in the same way I’m proud of the climb that came before; but proud nonetheless. Two miles from home I called the Official Sweetie and said that when I got home I needed to go to urgent care.

As my Samaritan was quick to tell me, it could have been a lot worse. I had a good helmet and somehow managed to hit the concrete with my fleshy parts, and not break any bones. My brain survived unscathed, judging by subsequent code reviews. I have a massive hematoma on my thigh, a bulge larger in span than my fully-extended hand, that ripples when I tap it. The doctor says it will probably go away, and almost six weeks after the wipeout it seems a little smaller. I have a separated shoulder that is pissing me off and making it difficult to sleep. But I am alive.

I am alive, and I really, really want to get back to climbing that mountain.

7

Gotta Ride, Part 5: 300+ Fezzari Miles Later*

Coyote Creek Trail

There is a section of my favorite bike trail, a sinuous stretch that winds between ancient trees, that is far enough from picnic spots that there is little foot traffic or large family bicycle outings. Along that stretch, I am occasionally able to flout the local speed limit and really have fun. Or to be precise, a different kind of fun, because it fills my heart with gladness to see a whole family out there enjoying the air and the trees and some of the good things about life.

And now there are bike helmets for kids that are awesome. I saw a young girl with a unicorn lid today that was just plain cool. I could be tempted, is all I’m saying. I’m never going to grumble about having to slow down for groups like that; in ten years I’ll be the one getting in the way of the girl who has eschewed her unicorn for an aero helmet. Hakuna-matata, or something like that.

But I digress.

I am thankful for the quieter stretches, on this trail and elsewhere, over which I can put my head down a little bit, and see what I can do. The stretch on Coyote Creek Trail was always one of my favorites, but then I got the new bike. The Fezzari Empire changes things in ways I could never have imagined.

The Coyote Creek segment is flat by bicyclist standards, but it rolls a bit, with rises that seem gentler than they used to, and descents that seem more fun than ever. Ascending, rather than drop down a couple of gears and pedal enough to preserve some of my momentum, I’m more inclined now to stand up and mash, the challenge to never break my cadence as I attack the slope. Often now I’m going faster when I get to the top of these minor obstacles and my heart is pumping harder and I feel good.

Then through the twists and turns, and as confidence increases (see Rule 64) I find myself slicing through the corners, my bicycle eager to carve a path as my tires hiss over the pavement and my shirt ripples with the wind. It is a singularly awesome moment.

I mentioned somewhere in Part 4 that the new bike loves to turn. In fact, it is much like the little two-seat sports car that is buried under bike stuff in my garage. Quick, twitchy, and communicative, if a little more demanding and rougher than my good ol’ Giant commuter bike. The Fezzari is talking to me all the time, and listening as well. And if I don’t pay attention, things go astray much more quickly than when I am on my other bike. Kind of like my storytelling.

Perhaps now is the time to mention, for people who don’t know me, that when I speak of my recent triumphs on my new bicycle, that the successes are relative. I will not be competing in the Tour de France any time soon; I am a gradually-less-overweight guy with skinny little legs who has earned his long white beard. Most of the Spandex Crowd** still passes me. (Hehe… most.) I’m probably not saying anything here that experienced cyclists don’t already know. But maybe the experienced cyclists out there have forgotten just how awesome getting on a good bike and riding really is. And that joy is what I’m here to tell you about.

On the subject of communication with a bike: Never has a chain lube given such instantaneous gratification before. I had not considered that the repair stand I owned would not work on a bike with a through-axle, and I suddenly found myself scrounging. It was 250 miles before I did the first cleaning/lube (factory chain lube is supposed to last a while… right?) and I had identified a rumbling feeling coming through my cranks. I thought it might be an alignment problem with my fancy derailleur, but nope, after routine chain maintenance it was like I was pedaling a cloud. A badass cloud. The sound of the tires actually rises and falls with my pedaling cadence. Zhoosh-zhoosh-zhoosh.

Along the Guadalupe River Trail there is a brief, very steep slope up from the river to the top of the embankment. The other day I stood up and mashed, increasing torque on the pedals by pulling upward on the handlebars. The front wheel was lifting off the ground as I pushed up the slope, and I leaned forward to put more of my weight over that wheel.

Like a real goddam cyclist. For the rest of that outing, my longest single ride ever, I was taking it easy to conserve energy, especially while fighting a fierce headwind for the first half, but for the few uphill bits I turned into a maniac.

How does my Fezzari compare to a Trek or Specialized with similar components? Honestly I have no idea. Fezzari is a smaller outfit out of Utah, and they make a big deal of their production techniques. The marketing copy sounds convincing, anyway, and there are some good reviews. And for a bike with the same components I’d be out at least another $2000 to go with the big name. Probably more. That’s a lot of dollars. And the water I carry weighs more than the frame does.

Someday in the future I will haul my pedals down to visit my roadie friends in San Diego, and try not to destroy their gear as we ride about more slowly than they are accustomed to. Maybe then I can do a comparison. In the meantime, I can only gush about the game-changer I’m riding now.

The Fezzari folk are awfully friendly as well, although I think this road bike is new for them. In a couple of cases I feel a bit like a beta tester — a couple of conversations with their staff were a little confused, the assembly instructions didn’t apply to this bike at some points, and the brace for the seat post needs a little design work. The front derailleur was not adjusted properly when it arrived, but they may have been rushing because I was pestering them with “is it ready yet?” messages every seven minutes and they just wanted to give an excitable old man his bike.

Would I recommend the Fezzari Empire to other cyclists? Oh, heck yeah. Am I the guy other cyclists should be taking advice from? Only if you love to ride.

_____

* As well as a fair number of miles on my old Giant.
** The term is not to disparage; I will be a member of this crowd soon enough.

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Gotta Ride, Part 4: Riding!

It was before noon when the package arrived. My new bike. “I’m pretty excited,” I told the FedEx guy.

“New bike?” he asked as he lifted the large box.

“Yeah.”

He handed me the box with no thought about whether a dumpy gray-bearded guy could handle it. It was bulky, but not very heavy. I opened the box and set to work.

It took me a while to get everything put together. This was mostly because I wanted to be very careful, and partly because there were parts in the shipment that didn’t apply to me, that I had to come to terms with mentally. At the bottom of the box was a pistachio shell. The human touch.

But before long the bike was assembled, and almost ready to ride.

“Almost” because this bike does not use traditional cables to shift gears, instead it uses an electrically-actuated system that can make subtle adjustments based on the gears selected. Which means my bike uses batteries, and the batteries were shipped with no charge.

The good news is that the day cooled somewhat over the three hours it took to get the batteries charged (I will need to recharge them monthly or perhaps more often if I ride a lot, but I can plan ahead and not be held up again.)

Finally, the batteries were charged. Then came the firmware updates. I now have an app on my phone for my bike’s drivetrain.

You might be wondering whether this hassle is worth it, but I have been waiting for three months now for a tool to help me maintain the cables on my other bike. It will get here eventually. In the meantime, I have a bike with no cables.

Batteries charged, firmware installed, it was time to ride!

My first trip was a loop around the neighborhood to get a feel for the bike and think about seat height. It was unlike any other experience I had ever had on a bicycle. First impression: This bike wants to turn. I’m going to have to get used to such a twitchy ride. Second impression: This bike wants to move. With tires hissing as I pedaled I was going faster than I had before.

A lot of that has to do with weight, obviously; the new bike weighs half what my faithful Giant, loaded with commuter gear, weighs. But there was a time when I weighed less, and the combined weight of rider and bike then was not that different than me on the Fezzari now. But this is an entirely different feeling.

I got home from the loop, nudged the seat up a bit, loaded up with beverages, and headed out for adventure. As I did, I made two mistakes. Afraid of damaging the carbon-fiber frame, I did not crank down the seat post clamp hard enough. It could happen to anybody. The BIG mistake was that I didn’t bring the adjuster wrench with me. As a result, I was soon riding with a seat much too low, and my brand-new seat post got some pretty bad scratches in it as it moved with my pedaling.

On the maiden voyage on any bike, bring all the tools.

But oh, what a ride. You know what you don’t worry about when you’re commuting? The lines you take through corners. And while my default route is pretty flat, there is one small climb that I literally laughed out loud while climbing — I reached for the granny gear on the bike and it was way too low. I pulled up that brief slope with confidence.

Were it not for the seat problem, I would have added a more serious climb at the end of my ride.

Strava runs on my watch while I ride, and every once in a while I would look at my wrist and just shake my head. I had to remind myself to be a responsible rider when other people were on the trail ahead of me.

Toward the end of my ride, back on urban streets, I caught up to a man who had his headwear held on by a scarf that went under his chin, his sandaled feet pushing the pedals of his bike. We stopped a light together, and I said hello.

“How are you today?” he asked.

“I am very happy,” I said.

He was a little surprised at my response, I think, but after he adjusted. He smiled. “That is good,” he said, as the light changed.

1

Gotta Ride, Part 3

Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod, my new bike os ON THE WAY.

Quick recap for those just joining in: I have a very nice bike, a sturdy number with a massive cargo rack and a cushy seat and good mechanicals and several thousand miles of bonding time. But I need a new wheel, and what I thought would take days has instead taken weeks.

While I waited for my faithful bike to be road-worthy, I started drooling over much fancier bicycles. Bicycles I could buy RIGHT NOW and be riding again. But then I started looking for American small businesses, accepting that maybe I would pay yet more but I would be supporting something I believe in. In my search I found a bike that had my ideal drivetrain and glowing reviews for about 60% the cost of the big guys.

I am not one to underthink anything. I searched and scrabbled, but these guys seemed real. Finally, I placed my order. That included providing many, many measurements, so they could get the bike set up as close to perfectly as possible without actually meeting me.

First note about Fezzari – if anyone there has any doubts about the bikes they are building, they do a damn fine job of hiding it. The pride in what they do oozes from every communication. Second note – they take customer service seriously. They are a friendly and enthusiastic bunch.

In my previous installment in this series I mentioned that I would have to wait a few months to get my bike. After I placed my order I got a phone call to go over what I had requested and whether I had any questions. I had a couple, and the guy had easy, technically-trustworthy answers. We parted happily. A few seconds later, I got another call from Fezzari. Same guy. It seems he had forgotten to ask me an important question: If I was willing to forgo the teal color highlights in favor of olive, I could have my bike in four weeks instead of four months.

Big “fuck yeah” to that. In anticipation of the arrival, I ordered from my local bike shop pedals to match my shoes and light mounts so I could move lights from one bike to the other.

Four weeks shrank to four days, and now FedEx is bringing me my bike. Delivery estimate: Sunday. Day after tomorrow.

I was ready to wait months for this thoroughbred, confident that my trusty pony would have its new wheel any day now. My Giant is a great bike, and will always be my commuter vehicle, when the day comes that I commute again.

But I am giddy with excitement. I have planned my first ride on the new bike, which is essentially my default ride with a hill-climb option at the end. I have started to worry about not having padding in my pants. I’m telling my knee that soon all will be well.

My Fezzari arrives Sunday, some small amount of assembly required. If it’s late in the day when my new ride arrives, I’ll have to take Monday off. Mental health day.

Gotta ride.

Gotta Ride, part 2

Since the previous episode, when I had my eyes on a fancy bike that was sold right out from under me, I did not stop lusting over fancy bikes. I pored over the bike shop’s listings so thoroughly that when I went in there a few days ago to check on my wheel progress (I am unbiked right now while I wait for a wheel) I recognized individual bikes in the inventory. “Oh, that’s that sweet demo model with the 58cm frame!” (Too big for me.)

Side note: while I was at the bike shop, a family was shopping for the kid’s first bike. A big moment! They were looking at a few models but none was perfect. “If we order the other color, how long?” Mom asked. “About a year,” the bike store guy replied. “September 2021. Bikes are hard to find these days.” Dang.

I saw a matte gray bike from their “high-performance pack mule” line. I had studied the range of gear ratios between the two drivetrains offered at the top of this line — the SRAM 1×12 and the Shimano 2×11 drivetrains. For the nerds: SRAM has a lower granny gear, Shimano has a taller top end and smaller steps between gears. But you know how to stop having problems with the front derailleur? Don’t have one. 1×12 is simpler and lighter. And more expensive.

In person, I was struck by just how dang graceful the offerings from Trek are these days. Those are some pretty bikes. And there they were, just one credit-card transaction away, as I learned that one of my wheels was still in transit, and the other wasn’t set up yet.

(Iso-speed, a voice whispered in my head. Trek technology that reduces vibration reaching the rider, thus improving endurance.)

I had walked to the store, I could have ridden home. I did not. I might have given in, but I had already found a new object of desire, one that demanded less in return. Today I did two things at the same time: I ordered a new bike and I became one of those people who rides way more bike than he has any business riding.

The bike comes from Fezzari, an outfit out of Utah, known mainly for mountain bikes. They pioneered a construction technique that, rather than make carbon-fiber elements and join them together, builds the frame all in one go. No joints. The version of the drivetrain I most wanted in the world comes at an enormous discount on this frame, compared to Trek, Specialized, Giant and the rest.

This frame-is-a-single-piece thing allegedly also reduces vibration and rider fatigue, along with blah blah blah bike stuff. And this frame has apparently passed some series of mountain bike strength tests. Most road bikes could not pass those tests, my new best friends at Fezzari assure me. While true roadies might not find this important, I sometimes fall over. A tough frame can be nothing but good. Especially if the frame weighs less than two pounds.

Aesthetically, where Trek is a dolphin, Fezarri is a stealth fighter, angular and aggressive. In the almost-inconceivable world where my bike frame aerodynamics make a difference, I might have to upgrade again. In that world, I’m a professional bicyclist and someone else is picking up the cost.

This bike will be a pretty good climbing bike. Were it not for the big belly I carry around, I would have a climbing physique. I’m kind of… itching to climb. (Not so keen on descents.) I’m already scouting hills in my neighborhood. While long climbs around here involve interaction with cars, there are some great sprint-climbs nearby with no traffic. When I get my wheel I’ll start measuring myself on them with my current bike. When the new bike arrives a few months from now, I’ll be ready for the polka-dot jersey.

Yeah, a few months. The wait time is 16-18 weeks. Not a lot of uncertainty, but a lot of waiting. It is NOT the instant gratification I set out looking for; it is not the get-me-riding-right-now fix that started me on this quest. But the new bike will provide a riding experience that I think will keep me over the wheels for years to come. Although I will have to adapt to riding a bike that has no kickstand. Weird.

But when it’s raining, or when I need to carry stuff, or when I need my head up in traffic, my faithful old Giant will be there. It’s a great bike, and shall always be loved. While the Fezzari will become my bicycle, the Giant will remain my car.

3

Gotta Ride

Supply chain issues have sidelined my bicycling. I’ve been exercising every day, but in all my biking years I have never pined for the trails the way I am pining right now. It’s different this year.

I love my bike. It’s tough, all-weather, and it’s rigged to carry a lot of stuff. The only gripe I have about it is that currently it has only one wheel. My Local Bike Shop is working on that problem, but I’m getting impatient. So when that same shop sent out their weekly email with the section “bikes in stock” in my head I jumped straight to “bikes I could ride today.” I had to take a look.

Because of those same supply-chain issues, the only bikes in stock are the high-end ones. And honestly, were I to buy a second bicycle, it would have to be an upgrade, and fill a fundamentally different role than my mighty commuter rig. It would have to be my joy-riding bike.

I looked though the offerings, filtering by “In stock”. One bike came up that checked all my wish-list boxes, with style.

A recent episode here mentioned the Velominati Web site. Rule 12: the correct number of bikes to own is n+1.

I went out to the garage. One of the two bikes would have to be, at any given time, hoisted up and out of the way (as long as there are two cars, as least). Would that stop me from riding one of them? When commuting resumed, would I be able to hang up my sports car and get back in the practical plodder?

I’m pretty sure the answer to the latter question is yes. The right tool for the job. Plodder for commute, plodder for the rain. And I will always appreciate my Giant. It is a great bike.

But (I tell myself), the fact I’m pining so badly to get back on the trail, to be pedaling again, shows that maybe it’s time to level up. Maybe it’s time for a non-commuter bike, especially since it will still be months before I’m commuting.

But on the other hand, I’m riding for my health, and a lighter bike means less exercise. Unless I go farther, faster. Which would be SO MUCH FUN! But then other riders would see a big beer belly plodding along on a high-end-bike and roll their eyes about someone with more money than sense, and they’d be right. Until I rode that belly off. And my long gray beard flying in the wind earns me some pretty good slack.

But… it’s a lot of money. And my current bike will be ready to ride eventually.

But… it’s an awesome bike. An expensive awesome bike. It’s in stock in my size. I could walk to the bike shop with my pedals in hand and be off on a new adventure shortly afterward.

The Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas naturally has some say in this decision. Mostly, I leave the budget stuff to her. I haven’t talked numbers with her, except for a cringy “yeah, north of that” to her pretty-high guess, but she is not against investing in health. And in this case, this year, mental health is just as important as physical health. Just being about to ride has lifted my mood lately.

I have a friend with a super-fancy bike from a previous era. He doesn’t ride it. I’m pretty sure now he would not be able to ride it even if he wanted to. So a fancy bike is a challenge and a commitment. Gotta ride it. Gotta ride it enough so that I will always be fit enough to ride it.

… ah, dang.

I just reloaded the bike shop’s page. Someone bought the bike I was agonizing over. Jerk.

2