Monday, March 24, 2008
bike love: feels like flying
This bike, a mid-70's Centurion, was my primary bicycle for several years. It was light and fast, and it's what I first learned the art of bicycle mechanistry on. My boss and teacher, Quinn (z'l)*, bought it with me at a yard sale somewhere along the Alsea River, took it back to his tiny bike shop in Waldport, Oregon, and together we tore it apart. He showed me how to clean and re-lube each component. We stored the freshly-cleaned parts on a shelf, and then he handed me the frame and fork and told me to strip the paint. By hand. "I know the guys down at the True Value," he growled, "and I've told them to tell me if you buy any chemicals from them. No chemicals!"
He handed me a bag of steel wool and an enveloped of emery paper and told me to have it stripped within the week. That meant every morning before my shift at the coffeehouse, and every evening after my shift at Quinn's shop, where I was working under the table and learning how to fix bikes. I stripped off the paint and watched in wonder and fascination as the brazing began to show underneath, all silvery-brass lines and gleaming as I sanded with finer and finer grades to get rid of the streaks. I brought the frame back with broken fingernails and scabbed knuckles and nervously presented it to Quinn, who turned it around and over several times and finally nodded his approval.
We put the stripped frame upside-down on a broom handle and stuck the handle into the repair stand. Quinn taped the threads and head badge with masking tape, carefully cutting away the excess around the headbadge with an exacto knife. He brought out a case of spray paint, handed me goggles and a can of primer and told me to start painting. While I carefully applied the first coat of primer, Quinn began pulling out box after box from his truck -- he'd gone all over town and borrowed some cheap suntan lamps, six of them. When each coat of paint was done, we'd set up the tanning lamps around the frame and turn them on on the lowest setting. By the next morning, the paint would be baked on. We did a coat of primer and three fine coats of dark royal blue this way. After the final coat, I asked Quinn to wait before applying the final coat of clear. I pulled out a white paint pen, and Quinn watched in surprise and then admiration as I carefully applied pinstriping to the lugs around the head tube, seat clamp and bottom bracket. After the final coat of clear gloss went on, Quinn and I assembled the bike using most of the old parts I'd cleaned and re-lubed, plus a few new replacement parts and a new set of upright handlebars. The maiden voyage out to Bayshore Spit and back, an eight-mile loop with celebratory picnic lunch, was a revelation. After four years on an old, heavy mountain bike, riding the Centurion felt like flying. I never forgot that feeling.
I rode that bike daily, and brought it back to Portland in 1995 when I came home to help care for my mother. Even after getting a job at Citybikes, when I could have had my pick of any cooler, fancier used bike in the place, I stood faithfully by my Centurion. In May of 1997, I was doored by a very large pickup truck. I got a concussion that left me sort of stupid for several days. My hand was seriously injured and my Centurion was damaged. After the surgery and the casting, while still on medical leave, my sister and I brought the bike to Citybikes, where I watched two of my co-workers attempt to straighten the frame. Cracks began to appear in the head tube lugs, and we all knew the bike was totaled. I went outside, sat down on the curb, and to my surprise I put my head in my arms and began to cry softly. Finally, one of my co-workers came over, and tried to comfort me: "look, it was the lady's fault, right? So you can get another frame with the settlement check, maybe something way nicer than this old Centurion."
I sighed. He couldn't get it and I couldn't explain it to him. We put the bike in my sister's truck and she drove me home. I carefully removed the head badge as a keepsake, hung the dead frame on a wall in the basement and thought about what to do next. A year of physical therapy and a second surgery followed, and I rode my roommate's bike perhaps five out of the next eleven months. I did a lot of walking and bus-hopping over that fall and winter.
In time I did heal, and in July of 1998 a settlement check arrived. It was fairly large, taking into account the severity of my injuries and nearly five months of time-loss. After considering my options, I decided to buy myself a custom bike frame. For someone on my budget it was a big step. I'd never ordered anything custom-to-fit-me in my life. Wanting to get it right, I even sent them my old frame, with the note: "I like the way this bike felt. Please imagine what it would've looked like un-bent and try to replicate the feel of this frame if you can. I will ride it with upright handlebars and a comfortable saddle." Several conversations back and forth helped to finalize my vision and the framebuilder's suggestions into a cohesive whole. After a year of waiting and riding a dirt-cheap, ill-fitting replacement bike in the meantime, I took delivery on The Rivvy in August of 1999.
I rode it as an upright citybike for several years. I tried it with drops for a couple of years but found I didn't like it. When another frame came my way that felt much better with drops, I immediately put uprights back on The Rivvy and now pick daily between the two bikes. Both bikes are pressed into regular service as commuters, load-carriers, trailer-towers. When I feel loose and stretched out and want to push myself to go longer or faster, I ride the drop-bar bike. When I just want to feel like I'm flying, I ride the upright bike.
In the right frame of mind, riding an upright bicycle IS like flying. Imagine a cockpit that looks like a sort of wingspan:
... and maybe you get the idea. Spindly and gangly, sort of like the paper-and-glue planes of the early years. Flying seems either foolhardy or glorious, depending on the results. And riding a road bike with upright bars can feel like that. It's not exactly the feeling I had with the Centurion, but it's close enough to make me happy.
It's sunny out this morning, and I feel like flying. I'm gonna ride The Rivvy to work.
*(z'l: abbreviation for the Hebrew term zichronah livrachah, translated as "of blessed memory"; to honor the name of a loved one who has passed on. Michael Patrick Quinlan was a gently misanthropic, dope-smoking hippie and bike shop wizard who taught me much and died much too young, and to whose memory I lovingly dedicate this post.)