Archive for the 'Ghost In The Machine' Category


Why It’s Really Not My Fault That It’s Taken Me Over Two Months To Fix My Friend Todd’s Really Cool Wheels And Other Excuses

This is a story that I started about 9 or 10 years ago and never quite finished. My buddy Todd has since moved away. While I sorta miss Todd, I miss the wheelset more.

I have the front wheel from my friend Todd’s Litespeed up on my truing stand right now. It’s as beautiful as a bike wheel can ever be: lightweight, aero and, as if I had to actually say it, really really cool looking. Badass even.  Its mate is over in the corner, waiting its turn.

Eat my dust, assholes...

My problem, if you can call it that, is that this particular set of wheels has been knocking around my shop for quite a while now, waiting for me to fix them.

For the first week or two it was a case of overscheduling on my part; I had other things that I was working on and, unwisely as it turned out, Todd told me that he didn’t need them back in a hurry.

But even after I cleared away the jobs that I had lined up ahead of it, I found that I was still putting off fixing Todd’s wheels because, well, I simply liked having them hanging around the shop. This particular wheel set has that certain something about it that just screams reckless speed, enough so that merely being in the same room with them tickles the little spot in the unconscious portion of the male brain that is the source for certain very basic, very fundamental urges.

Competitive urges.

Urges that make you treat a friendly training session with your friends like an unholy cross between Grand Theft Auto and a stage of the Tour de France. Urges that make you do things like show up to a casual ride with your friends with mayhem in your heart and an ass-whooping in your legs.  A call to evil fashioned from whisper-light aluminum and carbon fiber.

kind of a wheelset.

So there they sit, leaning against my work bench, leaving me to bask in the aura of their quiet menace while I work on other things.

Now when I’m working on something in my shop I usually tend to ignore the clutter and stay pretty much focused on what’s in front of me. However, having Todd’s wheels in the shop has changed all of that. I’ll be truing a wheel or adjusting a shifter when, for no reason at all, I will suddenly get the urge to glance over at Todd’s wheels sitting there in the corner. No they haven’t moved or fallen over, but something about them makes me want to stop what I am doing and walk over to admire them. Sometimes I will reach down and pick one up and twirl it on its axle, admiring the smoothness of its bearings and the impossible slenderness of its spokes as they whooshwhooshwhoosh past my gaze.

The impact of Todd’s wheels hasn’t been confined to my workshop.  Let’s just say that things have gotten a little weirder as more time goes by.

Right about the time that I picked up Todd’s wheels and deposited them in my workshop I began to notice that small things about my personality started to change. For example, I find that my approach to my daily commute to work on my old beater bike has started to shift from mellow to malevolent; I am starting to ride faster, feistier, and a whole lot more aggressive when I hit the road. Casual bike rides are no longer simply for pleasure; they have became search-and-destroy missions designed to catch and drop as many riders as possible. Things have changed off the bike, too. There is a new-found swagger in my step and glint in my eye. I’m ordering my steaks rare and my whiskey neat. I watch a lot of John Wayne movies.

And it feels good.

After a couple of weeks basking in the transformative thrall of Todd’s wheels, it has suddenly dawned on me that, my God, I really don’t want to fix Todd’s wheels. It is plain to see that every time I pick them up or fiddle with them I get a little meaner and a little faster. If I fixed them I’d eventually have to give them back, and giving them back simply isn’t an option at this point.

I need more time.

So I’ve started to make up excuses why I couldn’t or shouldn’t work on Todd’s wheels.

After casting around for a plausible bit of sophistry to justify keeping keep Todd’s wheels in my shop for the foreseeable future, I had a bit of good luck. Actually, it is pretty rotten luck for Todd, but really excellent luck for me.  The reason that the wheels are in the shop in the first place is because Todd has managed to have the mother of all wrecks on his bike during the Thursday night ride. Lately the guys have been riding way more aggressively – caused, no doubt, by being in the vicinity of Todd’s wheels – and the inevitable happened. It took three ambulances to clean up the mess. Anyway, Todd is now off of the bike, laid up with a broken shoulder, cracked ribs, and a wicked concussion.

My argument that I have come up with for keeping his wheels is as impeccable and pure as my motive: handing Todd back his race wheels before he is medically cleared to ride would be akin to giving Britney Spears a gallon of whiskey, the keys to a hotel suite in Vegas, and a video camera. We know that the girl just can’t help herself, and I strongly suspect that neither could Todd. I mean, shoot, his wife has already caught him trying to sneak out of the house on his beater bike for “just a quick spin up to the coffee shop with the guys.” Can you imagine the kind of trouble that my fun-loving, chuckle-headed buddy Todd might get into if this bit of irresistible, hairy-chested speed weaponry was thoughtlessly returned to him?

Yup, so can I. He might end up beating me in a sprint.

Feeling that I would be justly held responsible for any future injury to Todd if I allowed him to be tempted into a too-early return to the bike, I’ve decided that the only thing that a true friend can do under the circumstances is to keep his extremely cool, very fast wheels locked up in the protective custody of my workshop, where I can personally keep a close eye on them.

I mean, it’s the least that I can do for Todd.

But just because I am helping my friend by providing a safe refuge for his wheels while he’s on the mend doesn’t mean that I have to wait any longer to fix them.  No, no, no. A few more minutes with a spoke wrench and these bad boys will once again be ready to rock. And since Todd is likely to be laid up for quite a while, I’m sure that he’ll understand if I show up to the next Sunday morning ride with his wheels fitted to my bike.

Quality control, you see. Simply a little test ride, nothing more.

And, yes, I’ll be certain to give them back when he’s ready.

Which should be soon. Really. Very soon. Like when I’m finally able to drop the group on that long climb up to Gunston Road. Or when I finally win a sprint in the Park. But certainly not before then. No, we don’t want to rush this. We can’t rush this. Protecting Todd’s health is far more important than sorting out who has some silly wheelset bolted to his bike.

I’m figuring that I can start thinking about giving Todd his wheels back sometime around Christmas…2019.


Your Bike Friends Are Nuts

“Your bike friends are nuts!”

How many times have you heard this from a spouse or a loved one?

Chances are that, if you have made the leap and started to ride a bicycle seriously enough so that you can spout off the salient differences between Campagnolo Record and Shimano Dura Ace or you occasionally find yourself waxing lyrical about the virtues of carbon fiber rims to complete strangers, you have probably have had someone tell you this.

And if the question on the table is the comparative sanity of someone who is deadly serious about cycling versus a person who one would consider to be normal then, yes, by almost any reasonable objective standard your bike friends are all probably a little nuts.

Of course, by implication, your spouse/loved one is probably suggesting that maybe, just maybe, you are a little nuts as well. Let’s call it guilt by association.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some perfectly normal people who ride bicycles. You can see pictures of them in the Land’s End Catalog; happy couples gently wheeling along in some New England idyll, a mating pair of sweater-clad preppies finding the sort of complete khaki-clad fulfillment that can be realized only in the pages of an upscale clothes catalog.

They aren’t Real Cyclists.

So, you may ask, just what is a Real Cyclist?

Perhaps the best way to describe a Real Cyclist is by analogy.  Meeting a Real Cyclist for the first time is a bit like meeting the current President of the David Cassidy Fan Club.

Stay with me here.

For those of you out there under the age of 50, Mr. Cassidy was a briefly omnipresent television star and teen heart throb from the 1970s.  In terms of his ability to leverage good looks and a modicum of musical talent into a squeals of delight from young teen girls, Mr. Cassidy had few equals.  At this point in the second decade of the 21st Century, approaching 40 years after the cancellation of the Partridge Family television show and his disappearance from the cover of Teen Beat magazine, anybody out there still carrying the flame for David Cassidy to the point of being the President of his fan club is going to be truly committed to the cause.

And probably a just little bit unstable.

davidcassidySo I am not that far off base when I say that Real Cyclists are probably a whole lot like the President of the David Cassidy fan club: by any objective measure Real Cyclists are utterly committed to their sport.  And probably a little bit unstable.  That’s because – and anyone who has ever met a Real Cyclist knows this to be true – to a Real Cyclist the bike is everything.  It is a lifestyle in the fullest sense of that overused term.  An all-encompassing obsession with two skinny 700c wheels rolling over warm tarmac.  Nothing else really matters.  It’s Bikes! Bikes! Bikes! 24/7.  Any conversation will eventually be steered to topics involving detailed descriptions of the  bikes that they personally own, the number of miles that they have ridden this week, or trivia about the Tour de France.  It can be so bad that the experience of meeting a Real Cyclist often leaves one with the disconcerting impression that you are in the company of someone who is inhabiting an alternate universe – a bike-centric planet peopled by Lycra-clad iconoclasts and odd ducks.

It’s all just a little bit disconcerting and off kilter.  Just like, I expect, the impression that you would be left with after a five minute conversation with the President of the David Cassidy Fan Club.

What I am trying to get across here is that being totally obsessed with what is, for most normal people, a fringe activity can lead to some really weird behavior.  It almost goes without saying that Real Cyclists are generally a clannish lot and can be rather dismissive of outsiders.  It is like being  a member of a special club, just like being diagnosed as obsessive compulsive is your ticket to membership in another  equally “special” club.  Only a fellow Real Cyclist can ever fully understand another Real Cyclist.

This can lead to problems.

For a Real Cyclist, proving your bona fides as a full-fledged member of the club to another Real Cyclist is all about the choices that you make about the details: the equipment, the clothes, and the traditions that define the sport.  Details matter, and getting it right is very, very important to a Real Cyclist.  Complicating this dynamic (a polite euphemism for “dousing it in gasoline and throwing a lit match”) is the fact that each Real Cyclist has an individualized set of immutable Strongly Held Opinions about seemingly trivial things like chain lube, bar tape, and leg shaving.  The more arcane the item or practice the more strongly held the opinion.  And there is nothing – and I truly mean nothing – about cycling that escapes the gaze (or judgment) of the Real Cyclist.  So, for example, a Real Cyclist can be expected to have not just a favorite brand of bicycle, but also a favorite brand of inner tube, spoke wrench, saddle bag, bike shorts, and personal lubricant to swathe upon one’s nether regions to avoid chafing.

As happens with most matters of honor between highly-opinionated iconoclasts and odd ducks, a Real Cyclist is willing to defend each of these Strongly Held Opinions to the death. This means that Real Cyclists often don’t play well with others, especially other Real Cyclists. A Real Cyclist would prefer to ride hundreds if not thousands of miles by themselves rather than suffer the company of a cyclist who they view as a dolt or a fool, i.e. someone who dares to challenge their Strongly Held Opinion about the benefits of riding a particular brand of tire, for example. Or, worse, suffer the company of someone who they view as a sketchy rider, the greatest insult that a Real Cyclist can bestow upon another human being.

The one category of person who is seemingly exempt from all of this drama is the bike mechanic. Real Cyclists love their bike mechanic. Often to irrational levels. A good bike mechanic is part technician, part psychoanalyst, part confessor. He or she is the person who feeds a Real Cyclist’s jones for riding; their connection, their dealer, their enabler, their source for what gets them high.

In short, a bike mechanic can take an unnaturally important place in the life of a Real Cyclist. And that’s where things can get really weird.

* * *

A short word about me.

The above observations regarding odd or off-putting behavior certainly do not apply to me.  Despite the fact that by any measure I should be counted among the ranks of Real Cyclists, I am not weird.  Having me as one of your bike friends is nothing less than total unalloyed wonderfulness. I am neither an iconoclast nor an odd duck.

And I can overlook a poor choice of handlebar tape on a friend’s bike. Honest.

I will also note here that I am a fair bike mechanic and, lately, a frame builder.  I build lugged steel road bikes in my garage for my own amusement.  While I don’t wrench (or build bikes) professionally, over the years I have been known to do work for my more impecunious or time-crunched friends.

So, no, it isn’t a mixed blessing at all to have me as one of your bike friends.  I am not nuts.

And then, of course, there is Karl.

Karl is a Real Cyclist. And, unlike me, he is nuts.

* * *

On that particular sunny Saturday morning I had eaten breakfast and then headed down to the local hardware store to pick up a few things. Being the social sort, I stopped to talk to the other kindred souls who also like to hang around the hardware store on a Saturday morning.   Your typical Saturday morning hardware store conversation ranges from grass seed to sports, with a little weather thrown in to spice things up.  Not being in a terrible hurry to get back, I next strolled over to the coffee shop, ordered a cup, and then sat down to look at the paper. All in all, as perfect a Saturday morning as one could hope for.

Returning home, I pulled the car into the driveway and shut it off. Arrayed before me were all of the classic warning signs that we had just had an unannounced visit from Karl. Exhibit 1 was leaning against the garage door; a comprehensively broken bicycle. This is not the first time that a broken bike belonging to Karl has showed up at my house unexpectedly; I’m sort of his “mechanic of last resort” when something breaks and the local bike shop is too busy to fit him in. Exhibit 2 was my lovely wife, still in her bathrobe, highly agitated.

“Your bike friends are nuts.”

“Let me guess; Karl stopped by while I was out?”

“Yes, Karl stopped by while you were out.”


“I wasn’t dressed.”


“So anyway, he had some sort of accident and hit his head. From what I could piece together, Karl was on a group ride and he wrecked.”

“And so he came here? Who was he with? Why didn’t they stop and call his wife or an ambulance or something?”

“Oh, that’s the best part. Karl apparently didn’t want to see a doctor. He wanted to see you. He was pretty insistent about that. So he waved everybody off and showed up here. I don’t know how he got here or who he was with, but he kept ringing the doorbell.”

“So what did you do?”

“What do you think that I did?  I hid, that’s what I did.  Hoping that he would go away. When he didn’t, I stuck my head out the door and basically tried to shoo him away. I offered to call his wife to come and take him to the doctor but he was absolutely set on seeing you first.”

“That’s nuts. So where is he?”

“I called his wife anyway. He was scaring the neighbors and bleeding all over our front steps.”

“This does not compute. Karl wanted to see me first? Before going to the hospital?”

“He said that he needed to talk to you first so that he could tell the doctors what happened.”

“Are you sure that’s what he said? Because, even for Karl, that seems a little strange.”

“Hey, what can I say? He hits his head and becomes fixated on the guy who works on his bike. Weirder things have happened. I mean, listening to you guys talk, all that you ever really worry about are your bicycles. Heaven help us all if something was to happen to your bike. With a set of priorities like that, putting in a visit to your bike mechanic ahead of, say, going to the emergency room to make sure that the blood streaming from your head isn’t some sort of imminently fatal injury really isn’t such a stretch.”

“How long did he wait?”

“He showed up right after you left. His wife picked him up about five minutes ago. Your timing is impeccable.”


In the end everything turned out fine; Karl was concussed, which partially explains why he was wandering around my front yard like a baby duckling on acid.  And we actually did figure out why he crashed – Karl broke a pedal off the crank and that caused him to go down.

But as for why Karl felt compelled to seek out his mechanic before heading off to the emergency room to get his cerebellum looked at, I can chalk that up to only one thing: it is exactly what a Real Cyclist would do.  And Karl certainly earned his Real Cyclist badge that day.

Too bad my wife still won’t let him in the yard.  He’s nuts.

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