Archive for October, 2010


The Greatest Cycling Book Ever Written

 One of the greatest cycling books ever written is “Three Men On The Bummel” by Jerome K. Jerome.  Now well over 100 years old (it was first published in 1900), it is the story of three Englishmen who take a bicycle trip through the Kaiser’s Germany prior to World War I.  Well-written and slyly humorous, the book still has appeal for the modern reader, a fact that goes to show that the important aspects of the sport of cycling remain unchanged and eternal.  One of those eternal verities is the menace posed by the amateur bike mechanic.  As the local president and card-carrying member of the Amateur Bicycle Mechanics Union, I can see a whole lot of myself in the following passage from the book…  

He said: “Have you overhauled it?”

I said: “I have not, nor is anyone else going to overhaul it . The thing is now in working order, and it is going to remain in working order till we start.”

I have had experience of this “overhauling.” There was a man at Folkestone; I used to meet him on the Lees. He proposed one evening we should go for a long bicycle-ride together on the following day, and I agreed. I got up early, for me; I made an effort, and was pleased with myself. He came half an hour late: I was waiting for him in the garden. It was a lovely day. He said:—

“That’s a good-looking machine of yours. How does it run?”

“Oh, like most of them!” I answered; “easily enough in the morning; goes a little stiffly after lunch.”

He caught hold of it by the front wheel and the fork, and shook it violently.

I said: “Don’t do that; you’ll hurt it.”

I did not see why he should shake it; it had not done anything to him. Besides, if it wanted shaking, I was the proper person to shake it. I felt much as I should had he started whacking my dog.

He said: “This front wheel wobbles.”

I said: “It doesn’t if you don’t wobble it.” It didn’t wobble, as a matter of fact—nothing worth calling a wobble.

He said: “This is dangerous; have you got a screwhammer?”

I ought to have been firm, but I thought that perhaps he really did know something about the business. I went to the tool-shed to see what I could find. When I came back he was sitting on the ground with the front wheel between his legs. He was playing with it, twiddling it round between his fingers; the remnant of the machine was lying on the gravel path beside him.

He said: “Something has happened to this front wheel of yours.”

“It looks like it, doesn’t it?” I answered. But he was the sort of man that never understands satire.

He said: “It looks to me as if the bearings were all wrong.”

I said: “Don’t you trouble about it any more; you will make yourself tired. Let us put it back and get off.”

He said: “We may as well see what is the matter with it, now it is out.” He talked as though it had dropped out by accident.

Before I could stop him he had unscrewed something somewhere, and out rolled all over the path some dozen or so little balls.

“Catch ’em!” he shouted; “catch ’em! We mustn’t lose any of them.” He was quite excited about them.

We grovelled round for half an hour, and found sixteen. He said he hoped we had got them all, because, if not, it would make a serious difference to the machine. He said there was nothing you should be more careful about in taking a bicycle to pieces than seeing you did not lose any of the balls. He explained that you ought to count them as you took them out and see that exactly the same number went back in each place. I promised, if ever I took a bicycle to pieces I would remember his advice.

I put the balls for safety in my hat, and I put my hat upon the doorstep. It was not a sensible thing to do, I admit. As a matter of fact, it was a silly tiling to do. I am not as a rule addle-headed; his influence must have affected me.

He then said that while he was about it he would see to the chain for me, and at once began taking off the gear-case. I did try to persuade him from that . I told him what an experienced friend of mine once said to me solemnly:—

“If anything goes wrong with your gear-case, sell the machine and buy a new one; it comes cheaper.”

He said: “People talk like that who understand nothing about machines. Nothing is easier than taking off a gear-case.”

I had to confess he was right. In less than five minutes he had the gear-case in two pieces, lying on the path, and was grovelling for screws. He said it was always a mystery to him the way screws disappeared.

We were still looking for the screws when Ethelbertha came out. She seemed surprised to find us there; she said she thought we had started hours ago.

He said: “We shan’t be long now. I’m just helping your husband to overhaul this machine of his. It’s a good machine; but they all want going over occasionally.”

Ethelbertha said: “If you want to wash yourselves when you have done you might go into the back kitchen, if you don’t mind; the girls have just finished the bedrooms.”

She told me that if she met Kate they would probably go for a sail; but that in any case she would be back to lunch. I would have given a sovereign to be going with her. I was getting heartily sick of standing about watching this fool breaking up my bicycle.

Commonsense continued to whisper to me: “Stop him, before he does any more mischief. You have a right to protect your own property from the ravages of a lunatic. Take him by the scruff of the neck, and kick him out of the gate!”

But I am weak when it comes to hurting other people’s feelings, and I let him muddle on.

He gave up looking for the rest of the screws. He said screws had a knack of turning up when you least expected them; and that now he would see to the chain. He tightened it till it would not move; next he loosened it until it was twice as loose as it was before. Then he said we had better think about getting the front wheel back into its place again.

I held the fork open, and he worried with the wheel. At the end of fen minutes I suggested he should hold the forks, and that I should handle the wheel; and we changed places. At the end of his first minute he dropped the machine, and took a short walk round the croquet lawn, with his hands pressed together between his thighs. He explained as he walked that the thing to be careful about was to avoid getting your fingers pinched between the forks and the spokes of the wheel. I replied I was convinced, from my own experience, that there was much truth in what he said. He wrapped himself up in a couple of dusters, and we commenced again. At length we did get the thing into position; and the moment it was in position he burst out laughing.

I said: “What’s the joke?”

He said: “Well, I am an ass!”

It was the first thing he had said that made me respect him. I asked him what had led him to the discovery.

He said: “We’ve forgotten the balls!”

I looked for my hat; it was lying topsy-turvy in the middle of the path, and Ethelbertha’s favourite hound was swallowing the balls as fast as he could pick them up.

“He will kill himself,” said Ebbson—I have never met him since that day, thank the Lord; but I think his name was Ebbson—”they are solid steel.”

I said: “I am not troubling about the dog. He has had a bootlace and a packet of needles already this week. Nature’s the best guide; puppies seem to require this kind of stimulant. What I am thinking about is my bicycle.”

He was of a cheerful disposition. He said: “Well, we must put back all we can find, and trust to Providence.”

We found eleven. We fixed six on one side and five on the other, and half an hour later the wheel was in its place again. It need hardly be added that it really did wobble now; a child might have noticed it. Ebbson said it would do for the present. He appeared to be getting a bit tired himself. If I had let him, he would, I believe, at this point have gone home. I was determined now, however, that he should stop and finish; I had abandoned all thoughts of a ride. My pride in the machine he had killed. My only interest lay now in seeing him scratch and bump and pinch himself. I revived his drooping spirits with a glass of beer and some judicious praise. I said:

“Watching you do this is of real use to me. It is not only your skill and dexterity that fascinates me, it is your cheery confidence in yourself, your inexplicable hopefulness, that does me good.”

Thus encouraged, he set to work to refix the gearcase. He stood the bicycle against the house, and worked from the off side. Then he stood it against a tree, and worked from the near side. Then I held it for him, while he lay on the ground with his head between the wheels, and worked at it from below, and dropped oil upon himself. Then he took it away from me, and doubled himself across it like a pack-saddle, till he lost his balance and slid over onto his head. Three times he said:

“Thank Heaven, that’s right at last!”

And twice he said:

“No, I’m damned if it is after all!”

What he said the third time I try to forget.

Then he lost his temper and tried bullying the thing. The bicycle, I was glad to see, showed spirit; and the subsequent proceedings degenerated into little else than a rough-and-tumble fight between him and the machine. One moment the bicycle would be on the gravel-path, and he on top of it; the next, the position would be reversed—he on the gravel-path, the bicycle on him. Now he would be standing flushed with victory, the bicycle firmly fixed between his legs. But his triumph would be short-lived. By a sudden, quick movement it would free itself, and, turning upon him, hit him sharply over the head with one of its handles.

At a quarter to one, dirty and dishevelled, cut and bleeding, he said: “I think that will do;” and rose and wiped his brow.

The bicycle looked as if it also had had enough of it. Which had received most punishment it would have been difficult to say. I took him into the back kitchen, where, so far as was possible without soda and proper tools, he cleaned himself, and sent him home.

The bicycle I put into a cab and took round to the nearest repairing-shop. The foreman of the works came up and looked at it.

“What do you want me to do with that?” said he,

“I want you,” I said, “so far as is possible, to restore it.”

“It’s a bit far gone,” said he; “but I’ll do my best.”

He did his best, which came to two pounds ten. But it was never the same machine again; and at the end of the season I left it in an agent’s hands to sell. I wished to deceive nobody; I instructed the man to advertise it as a last year’s machine. The agent advised me not to mention any date. He said:

“In this business it isn’t a question of what is true and what isn’t; it’s a question of what you can get people to believe. Now, between you and me, it don’t look like a last year’s machine; so far as looks are concerned, it might be a ten-year old. We’ll say nothing about date; we’ll just get what we can.”

I left the matter to him, and he got me five pounds, which he said was more than he had expected.

There are two ways you can get exercise out of a bicycle: you can “overhaul” it, or you can ride it. On the whole, I am not sure that a man who takes his pleasure overhauling does not have the best of the bargain. He is independent of the weather and the wind; the state of the roads troubles him not. Give him a screw-hammer, a bundle of rags, an oil-can, and something to sit down upon, and he is happy for the day. He has to put up with certain disadvantages, of course; there is no joy without alloy. He himself always looks like a tinker, and his machine always suggests the idea that, having stolen it, he has tried to disguise it; but as he rarely gets beyond the first milestone with it, this, perhaps, does not much matter. The mistake some people make is in thinking they can get both forms of sport out of the same machine. This is impossible; no machine will stand the double strain. You must make up your mind whether you are going to be an “overhauler” or a rider. Personally, I prefer to ride, therefore I take care to have near me nothing that can tempt me to overhaul. When anything happens to my machine, I wheel it to the nearest repairing-shop. If I am too far from the town or village to walk, I sit by the roadside and wait till a cart comes along. My chief danger, I always find, is from the wandering overhauler. The sight of a broken-down machine is to the overhauler as a wayside corpse to a crow; he swoops down upon it with a friendly yell of triumph. At first, I used to try politeness. I would say:

“It is nothing; don’t you trouble. You ride on, and enjoy yourself, I beg it of you as a favour; please go away.”

Experience has taught me, however, that courtesy is of no use in such an extremity. Now I say:

“You go away, and leave the thing alone, or I will knock your silly head off.”

And if you look determined, and have a good stout cudgel in your hand, you can generally drive him off.


In Memoriam

 PASSED ON TO HER REWARD: “Trixie,” a beloved/feared fixed-gear commuter bike, after a lingering illness.  A minor local celebrity, “Trixie the Fixie” was perhaps best known for her surly disposition and repeated attempts to kill her owner.  She was 32.

Imported from France circa 1974 as a ten-speed racing bike, Trixie distinguished herself as an untrustworthy and fickle companion on the road, qualities that would remain her most noted personality traits throughout a long and mayhem-filled life.  Extremely speedy, yet willful and capricious to a fault, Trixie’s fundamentally evil soul did not suffer fools gladly.  The fact that Trixie seemed to revel in the countless random maimings and improbable injuries that she inflicted upon her numerous, ill-fated owners only served to confirm that Trixie’s shapely cast lugs and stout steel tubing were most likely forged by Satan himself somewhere deep in the fires of Hell.

Trixie’s fortunes temporarily declined as her reputation as a man-killer spread and she eventually exhausted the supply of poor, witless souls willing to risk crippling injury by climbing aboard and riding her.  At her lowest ebb, Trixie spent her days leaned up against a wall in an alleyway behind a shopping mall, abandoned as trash.

Trixie’s career of evil was unwittingly revived by members of the local fire department.  Called out to extinguish a dumpster fire (a blaze that was, no doubt, set by Trixie), she was retrieved by one of the firemen and brought back to the station.  Given this new lease on life, Trixie quickly picked up where she left off, injuring several off-duty firemen who attempted to use her to run errands.

Too dangerous for the local fire department, Trixie was hastily passed along to a local cycling enthusiast.  Her vintage lugged steel frame and horizontal rear dropouts made Trixie a prime candidate for conversion to a fixed-gear courier bike.  Re-sprayed a bilious shade of green and fitted with inexpensive track components, Trixie entered the most notorious phase of her career.

It was as a fixie that Trixie’s truly malevolent qualities fully blossomed.  Pressed into service as a daily commuter, Trixie made the most of her many opportunities to inflict grievous injury on the unsuspecting.  Trixie quickly lived up to her lethal reputation, frequently using her ever-whirling pedals to impart impromptu physics lessons on her owner, banging his shins or hurling him improbable distances at the slightest provocation.

At the time of her passing, Trixie was caught plotting yet another vile attempt on her owner’s life.  An inspection of Trixie’s frameset during routine maintenance revealed a hidden crack in one of her dropouts.  The consequences of such a failure at speed do not bear thinking about.  Given Trixie’s advanced age and dubious provenance, she was officially scrapped on March 12, 2006.

Despite (or, perhaps, because of) all of her failings, Trixie was deeply loved by her last owner.  Trixie demanded respect and attention, and in return she gave much joy and, on occasion, serious bodily injury.

She will be missed.

In lieu of flowers, a contribution in memory of “Trixie the Fixie” may be made to the Mt. Vernon Hospital Emergency Room Coffee Fund.



6:00 am: The alarm goes off. It’s Saturday, race day. Gotta get up. I have signed up to do a criterium in Sterling, Virginia, about an hour drive from the house. Have to meet my riding buddy Jose in about two hours. We are both working stiffs and family men. I am 42 years old. He is 37. It is my first race this season, his second. It is my third road race ever. We are both signed up to ride in the Cat. 5 race — the beginner class.

Curled up under the sheets, I yawn, scratch my butt, and start going through my mental checklist for the day.

  • Bike: tuned and ready to go.
  • Water Bottles: mixed and in the fridge.
  • Maps and directions on how to get to the racecourse: laid out next to the car keys.

I am ready to race. Time to get breakfast.
Then I hear it. Rain. Rain on the roof of my house. A very steady rain. I roll quietly out of bed, pad over to the window, push aside the slats in the Venetian blinds and look outside. The streets are wet.


I go back to bed.

6:45 am: It is getting late and I really have to get going. I bolt out of bed, get dressed, eat breakfast, and take another look outside. If anything, it is raining even harder. I start doing the mental calculations to determine how late I can put off leaving for the race and still get there in time to start.

That, of course, assumes that the weather is going to clear up sometime soon.

Fire up the computer and surf over to the local weather radar. Not promising. Rain virtually covers the entire radar screen. No gaps, no let-up. Looks like an all-day deal. Crap.

It is here that the first serious cracks appear in my will to get out there and race.

Blame it on an over-active imagination, but I have visions of me on my bike in the middle of a thundering pack of Cat. 5 racers heading toward a tight corner in a driving rain.

I have visions of there being a slick manhole cover in the middle of that tight corner.

I have visions of me hitting the deck and pirouetting on my ass across the asphalt.

Most importantly, I have visions of me being a big ol’ chicken and just staying home.

7:15 am: The wife is now up, fixing breakfast for our son. She looks outside and sees that it is now absolutely bucketing down. She smiles benignly as she hands me another cup of coffee. She’s comfortable in the unstated assumption that the man that she has married is a rational human being and would not, even for a moment, consider racing his bicycle in weather as evil as this. Surely, her husband is not THAT stupid. She’s probably thinking that, okay, he may leave the toilet seat up and he’s a total loss with the laundry, but when it comes to something as basic as having that bit of primordial intelligence that knows when to come in from the rain, well, even he can be relied upon to do the right thing.

This shows how dangerous assumptions can be, especially between spouses. Because despite the rain, despite the weather radar, despite the sheer stupidity of it, I’m still thinking about hopping in the car and driving out to the racecourse in the forlorn hope that it might clear up in time to race.

7:30 am: The moment of truth. Do I go? One last look outside confirms that it is raining. Hard. I go to the door, pick up my helmet and gear, and…put it back on the hook, defeated by common sense.

I slouch back to the breakfast table and knock back the rest of my coffee, a little pissed at myself for being so damn sensible. Sure, I knew that staying home was probably doing the “right” thing, but why does doing the “right” thing have to feel so lame? Guys that bail on a rainy ride just because it’s the sensible thing to do are the ones that also worry about stuff like health insurance and dietary fiber. Stuff that old married guys worry about, not hard core bike racers. Not ride because of a little water falling from the sky? Please. Just turn in your testicles now, it is obvious that you have been issued a set by mistake.

Staring at the grounds swirling around at the bottom of my coffee cup, I had to wonder: How did it come to this? How could I be defeated by a little rain? What happened to that happy-go-lucky adventurer who a few years ago was up for just about anything? Have I gotten to the point in life where I am no longer considered a threat to do something even slightly risky? Are sketchy pastimes like nude skydiving, dating women with interesting tattoos and, yes, racing a bicycle in a driving rainstorm completely off of the table when you hit 40? Am I really too old and too sensible to try stuff that could get me killed, divorced, or at least very chapped in sensitive places?

Am I no longer considered… dangerous?

Don’t answer that. Let me enjoy my illusion of youth, speed, and immortality for a little while longer. Let me believe that I really don’t look ridiculous racing my bike in the beginners class against kids young enough to be, well, my kids. Let me think that I still have what it takes to go out there and smack the devil on the ass just to see if he’s paying attention.

Just don’t ask me to do it in the rain.


From “A Cyclist’s Modern Liturgy”

 A reading from the Book of Merckx (53:11):

 “Whenever two or more Cyclists are gathered to Ride Together in My name, they shall argue; for, verily, just as Night follows Day, and One Beer follows Another, there shall be no Agreement among the Two Wheeled Faithful as to the route or the pace of any Group Ride.

Bickering and strife shall be thy lot, brother will smite brother, sister shall smite sister, and there shall be no peace.

For it is written that some shall desire to go short, fearful that they hath not the swiftness nor the strength to persevere, while others will desire to go long, thirsting for the Understanding that comes with Righteous Miles and Holy Velocity.

And they shall not agree, and the they shall remaineth forever in the Parking Lot of Despair, quarreling until the end of their days. 

But I sayeth unto you: Fear not.

For a strong wind shall rise from the East, and on that wind shall come a Savior, A Good Shepherd who shall gather unto Himself the fractious and disturbing ones.

And they shall fall silent, the Fast and the Slow, and be sore afraid.

For His legs are like Mighty Oaks, His Speed passeth all Understanding, His miles are as uncounted as the grains of sand in the desert.

They shall name Him “Pain Giver” or “The Really Fast Guy,” and all shall doff their helmets at the mention of His name.

For none shall be worthy to clean the greasy motes from His chain.

He shall rise up to guide his Flock because He Knoweth The Route.

The Faithful shall trust in His wisdom to deliver them from the Desert of their Indecision, And He shall lead them into an abundant land flowing with pastries and espresso.

For it is written in the Holy Cue Sheets:

There shall be peace in that abundant valley, and their Disagreement shall be no more.

The Fast and the Slow shall ride together in harmony all of their remaining days, and it shall come to pass that the Two Wheeled Faithful shall honor His Commandment:

 Just Shut Up and Ride.”


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