Archive for the ‘Bicycles’ Category

Pack Mule

Monday, September 14th, 2009

town bikeNot only do different bicycles have different road feels, the intended mission affects the ride qualities as well. Although you are still on a machine with two wheels, your mindset imparts a particular flavor to the overall experience.

I first got into riding as an adult in my late twenties. I rode recreationally, then got into racing, which means lots of training rides.

On a training ride, it’s all about how your body is feeling. Are the legs flat or punchy? Do I have the deep base that lets me breath steadily even as I up the wattage? Should I attack this hill?

At the time, I lived in the city, and eventually I came into possession of a bike suitable for commuting. Riding to work was different than riding to train. And it isn’t just the bicycle or the clothing.

Riding to work is more about the morning air, about getting into the groove of the city’s traffic beats. It’s noting signposts along the daily route, the centered feeling of arriving under my own power, free from the constraints of crowded subways or slow buses.

I got a deep satisfaction riding to work every day, ticking off the various sections of the city from my starting point at Amsterdam and 106—the Central Park loop, the dip back into traffic and the rush downtown, cutting across Bleeker (On Bleeker after a snowstorm one day, I thought my big tires could take me through a high snow patch. I fell, landing in front of a slow-moving NYPD patrol car. A  kitchen helper who had been standing in the doorway of a restaurant came over and offered me a big cloth napkin as I got to my feet, inviting me inside to clean up. Already late for work, I politely declined his hospitality, brushed the snow from my clothes, and hopped back on the bike) and onto 7th, across Canal and arriving at my office on Varick Street.

These days my non-recreational riding mostly consists of shopping in town for groceries, but in the summer I get to ride a few miles out to Stonykill farm to pick up my CSA share every Friday. And now I also belong to a fruit share. The pickup is at the same location, every other Monday. These trips give me a feeling of purposefulness that changes the tenor of my ride. It’s similar to the commuting feeling, but  different enough to be a distinct experience—maybe the difference between a good root beer and a good cream soda. It might have something to do with arriving empty and returning full, that sometimes useful feeling of being a pack mule.

When I was operating the Iron Fish, I moved a decent number of vintage bicycles. One day I traded a customer a Schwinn Suburban for this Trek 730 and some cash. I found out later the 730 was a popular model with touring companies. A hybrid with 700c fat tire clearance, a triple compact crank, cantilever brakes, fender eyelets and front and rear rack braze-ons, it made for a great back country tourer. Mine is an early model, lugged steel with a unicrown fork.

I converted it into a city bike using an upright stem, Albatross bars, bar-end shifters, cork grips and a basket from Rivendell, fenders, a dynamo light system and shopping panniers from Velo-Orange, tires and brake levers from the new bike shop in town, and the Brooks B17 saddle from that old Manhattan commuter. I sprayed over the lime-green Trek decals and painted the fenders to look like a classic European town bike.

Today was the perfect September day in the Hudson Valley to head over to the farm and pick up this week’s offering, a bag of Cox’s Orange Pippins, for me and Steph and our friend Kate, who is splitting a share with us. On the way back, I stopped to visit another friend, Nancy. She was out, but I chatted for a bit with her daughter-in-law. When I got home, I put the apples in a compote, but not the one featured here a few weeks ago. Although you can never have too many bikes, if I write about another compote tomorrow, that will be a challenge.

Red Raleigh Red Raleigh

Friday, August 28th, 2009

red raleighCan a single 3-speed bicycle be the agent for taking a new turn in life? In July of 2001, about to accept a job I didn’t want and feeling the need for drastic measures, I  left Manhattan after 17 years and moved in with my mother down on the Jersey Shore.

Moving back in with the people responsible for your existence was part of the zeitgeist of the time. As a chronic potential entrepreneur, I bought the domain name was catchier than, but the site would welcome those who lived with both units or, in rare cases, just dad. While I pondered the income possibilities of a website for adults who move back in with their parents, I worked for a bike shop and cruised around on my Schwinn Suburban.

Realizing this moving back home thing was probably a trend without legs (and a bit worried about the impact glorifying my situation would have on my self-esteem), I started a site called instead, and I began to think even more seriously about what to do next and where to do it.

In the fall a friend of my mom suggested the up-and-coming Hudson Valley river town of Beacon, New York. Around that time, my brother Joe decided to ride to work in the city and asked if I could keep an eye out for a decent bicycle. As fate would have it, a blue woman’s 3-speed was listed on ebay for $9.99. The seller welcomed local pickup—in Beacon. My brother said he didn’t mind riding a girl’s bike.

I borrowed mom’s car and made the two-hour drive to Beacon, where I met Nina and Walter, owners of Blackwell’s Gallery, dealers of used furniture, jewelry, serial killer art, weird antique medical instruments, shrunken heads, and bicycles, all out of a 300-square-foot shop facing Mt. Beacon on the eastern end of the city’s mile-long Main Street.

I picked up the bike and quizzed them about the town. They thought I should move to Beacon and open a used bike shop slash junk store. I was not into bad art by mass murders, but we decided to stay in touch via email. I became their bicycle consultant guy.

In February they called to say they were moving to a larger space, and did I want to take over the lease. I bought a Ford Econoline van for $200, filled it with some old furniture and a few bikes, said goodbye to mom and headed to Beacon to open the Iron Fish Trading Co, purveyors of vintage furniture, lighting, art and bicycles.

I’ve sold other 3-speeds, but Raleigh 3-speeds are the ultimate working man’s machine. While I had the Iron Fish I was temporary custodian of some fine examples, including a his and hers set in classic black in great shape, with the leather B-72  saddles. I always liked the greens, too. Not crazy about the blues. I got my partner Stephanie a mint one in brown just before I closed my doors in the spring.   I never did come across a red Raleigh.

Every couple of years, Joe would come up from the city and grab another bike, the previous one having been stolen or the steel rims having met with one too many New York City potholes. (His were 3-speed off brands, Columbia or Sears, not Raleighs. Hey, you get what you pay for.)  So when he called a few weeks ago looking for a new ride and this crimson beauty popped up on craigslist soon after, I jumped on it.

It’s a fine red Raleigh LTD. But I doubt any bike will lead me over new horizons like the $9.99 blue 3-speed I won on ebay eight years ago.

Belle de Paris

Friday, August 14th, 2009

Astra 3-speed city bicycleI find it hard to resist bicycles, and the Astra has more than its share of irresistible features, including the color, the gearing, the chain guard, and the frame style and material. To think I almost passed it up for the silly reason that I already own eight bikes and have no need for another! I uncovered the Astra at the secret giant charity tag sale.

Twice a year I make a pilgrimage to the secret giant charity tag sale. It’s secret because I never wanted my competition to find out about it, so I only spoke of it in the vaguest of terms, if at all. The giant sale is held once in the spring and once in the fall.

It’s down over there in New Jersey. It starts on a Friday, but if you know someone who works for the organization, you can get a special pass and show up on Thursday—along with a surprising number of other people who know someone and also have a special pass for Thursday. The only catch is, you pay 25% above the marked prices. The idea of course being that you—and the surprising number of other people—are getting a shot at skimming the cream off the top.

The sale is held on a huge open field. There is parking, and gathered toward one end there are enormous tents, each one crammed with stuff. There’s the Furniture tent, the Sporting Goods tent, the Lighting tent. There is a tent called the Bon Ton tent, full of all the stuff the organizers consider the creme de la creme. It’s a bit nerve-wracking, racing through the Furniture tent hoping nobody with good taste is over in the Lighting tent yet. Sometimes I have a friend with me who cases out the tent that I’m not at, putting everything she suspects I might want to buy into a protective pile until I arrive from the other tent to make the final calls.

The first five or six times I attended the giant secret charity tag sale, I came away with my extended van full of cream—lots of cool and funky furniture, lighting, art, and various and sundry other goods. Even with the extra 25% tacked on it was always a good deal. But my most recent trip, this spring, was comparatively barren: a great pair of vintage bronze lamps with a Turkish flavor, a reel mower with turquoise handle and yellow hub caps, two aluminum lawn chairs circa 1955, and two bicycles, including the Astra. (I sold the other one, a Windsor, right away.)

I would like to say the color of the Astra is chartreuse, but apparently I would be wrong. According to Wikipedia, there is a whole chartreuse thing involving the web and color inventions, and the color of this bike is actually more of what they call yellow-green:

Displayed at right is the web color yellow-green, a dull medium shade of chartreuse.

Before the X11 web colors were invented in the mid-1990s, the color term yellow-green was used to refer to the color that is now designated as the web color chartreuse (chartreuse green) (i.e., the color halfway between yellow and green on the color wheel), shown above. Now, the term yellow-green is used to refer to this medium desaturated shade of chartreuse

Sometimes the Internet is helpful.

The gearing is rare. It’s three speeds, a common configuration. But 97.5% plus of all three speeds use internal hub gearing, and 99% of all internal hubs are Sturmey Archers. This bike has a three-speed freewheel and a Huret derailleur. (I made up those percentages, but for all intents and purposes, they are spot on.)

The truncated chain guard is cute. It says Belle de Paris. Which clashes  with the decal on the down tube, which says Tour de France. In this particular case, I think we have to believe the chain guard.

The frame style is called mixte. It’s a step-through design, with a very sloped top tube like a ladies’ or women’s bicycle, but, in a classic example of the sometimes arbitrary and arcane ways we humans categorize things, it is not a ladies’ or women’s bike.

Mixte is a French term, and it translates as unisex. To differentiate it from a regular old girl’s bike, a mixte has an extra set of seatstays—frame tubes that run from the seat tube to the rear wheel dropout. While most mixte stays are straight, the Astra’s extra stays have a stylish bend to them. Traditionally, American men do not  acknowledge mixtes’ unisex status, while European guys are allowed to ride them without it threatening their masculinity. Caveat: These are the same European guys who think nothing of prancing around the beach in Speedo bikini bottoms.

The mixte style is useful for riding around town. If  a basket or a child is on the back of the bike, it’s easier to step through the frame rather than swing a leg over from the back. And the kid doesn’t have to duck her parent’s leg all day long.  Mixtes are catching on the last few years here in the states, with both boys and girls. Part of that popularity is due to Grant Petersen, a guy legendary for starting anti-trend trends in the bicycle industry, championing everything from steel frames to wool jerseys to fenders to long reach brakes. His company and several others now offer custom-built mixtes, and the price for vintage frames is going up. (Hot tip: Petersen’s latest rummage through the old bicycle parts bin has brought the bullmoose handlebar to the surface. I spotted one on an old Peugeot mountain bike the other day and almost offered to buy the bike on the spot as an investment for future profit on eBay.)

Now if Bike Snob NYC would just develop a MixteDex, we could all speculate on used mixtes and still sleep at night after checking the market.  Bike Snob, bike culture’s H.L. Mencken,  rode to fame on his PistaDex, an index that tracks the popularity of fixed gear riding by calculating the average sale price of Bianchi Pistas on craigslist. The MixteDex will be a harder formula to develop though, because mixtes don’t have a ubiquitous, lowish end, currently manufactured bicycle model like the Pista to establish a base line with.

The frame of the Astra is made of aluminum. That’s also not so common in a 1970s city bike. You can see the dull gray alloy showing through where the dull medium shade of chartreuse, aka yellow-green, is wearing off. Not many bikes can pull off the shabby chic look like the Astra. Add it all up, and it equals irresistible—and nine bikes fighting for my attention.