Thursday, December 25, 2008

Phantoms, Part 5

Author's Note:
It's funny, I'd walked away from this piece for a while, picked today to look it over again, and realized just how appropriate it would be to put up the excerpt where I'd left off.

This is dedicated to my late-Grandmother Nunemaker, who sent me on the wild-goose gift chases described below every Christmas (the most memorable led to my first computer, appropriately enough), and to my late-Dad, the first person out of bed on Christmas morning his entire life, even after he had kids of his own.

In the bike shop where I work, I hear it almost every day: “Oh, I had one just like that.” The customer is usually male, mid-fifties, responding to the Schwinn Black Phantom reissue cruiser that hangs from our ceiling. I would guess that eighty percent of these glassy-eyed nostalgia sufferers never owned a Phantom. Most probably owned another model in the Schwinn line, or perhaps a bicycle built by Schwinn to be rebadged as a department-store model. After all, in 1950s America, the Schwinn Black Phantom was, without question, the best - and most expensive - bike a kid could have. Granted, from a strictly utilitarian perspective, the original Phantom was nothing new, borrowing from balloon-tire technologies Schwinn perfected two decades earlier. However, unlike its prewar ancestors - the Motorbike, the Autocycle, the DX, the Excelsior - Phantoms had all the toys. Deep black and red enamel, blinding chrome on just about everything, tubing junctures smooth as poured liquid, flowing curves, long antique white pinstripes, real leather saddle, drum brakes, fenders, built-in wheel lock, rear rack with working taillight, working headlight growing organically from the line of the front fender, and a small button on the side of the imitation gas tank controlling the battery-powered horn inside. Everything about the bike was big and overbuilt, from the wide balloon tires on rolled steel rims to the long cowhorn handlebars. In one bicycle, Schwinn blended all the fantasies of postwar Americans, adult and child alike. Style, polish, power, and features - if they sell cars, Schwinn reasoned, why not bikes? The Phantom brought ten-year-old boys to tears of desire, a machine-as-identity lust that would eventually be transferred to four-wheeled vehicles like Mustangs, Corvettes, and Camaros. In its time, it was simply the ultimate bicycle. Even fifty years later, the Phantom still stands as a defining moment in bicycle history, pursued by collectors like a two-wheeled Holy Grail. So I can’t blame these glassy-eyed men in my shop for the blur in their memories, the hardening of want into remembered ownership. My own father, now fifty-four, suffers the same illness.

On March 3, 1954, for his ninth birthday, my father received what he remembers as a Schwinn Black Phantom. That morning, my grandparents probably gave him something small, pretending that the gift-giving was over. Then, just as disappointment set in, they handed him a small note: “Look in the hall closet.” In the hall closet, another note: “Look under your pillow.” I see my grandparents exchanging smiles over coffee as their son scurries around the house. Under the pillow: “Look on Mom’s dresser.” On the dresser: “Look in the garage.” Since it was March in Illinois, I’m certain my grandmother stopped him on his way out the door, insisting on a coat and hat, adding one more delay just as the suspense reached its zenith.

Finally, a warm coat wrapped over his pajamas, he burst into the garage, and there it was: his Schwinn. Black, with cream trim. Black-painted fenders with matching cream pinstripes. A rear rack. Chrome springer fork. Big. Gleaming. Most birthday presents would require a bow, but the Schwinn had enough style simply propped on its kickstand. They rolled it outside into the bitter Illinois winter, stood boy and bike in front of the garage door, and snapped a picture in the snow.

In the next four years, my father would shear off the coaster brake fixing strap (as well as several of grandpa’s replacement straps) and shatter the front axle jumping the bike off what he calls “a small wall.” The social mores of preteens would shift, decreeing that bikes were no longer “cool,” and the bike would be abandoned in the garage, then sold. But forty-four years later, if I could just find that photograph, my father would still be a pudgy, grinning nine-year old in his winter coat and hat, the piles of snow would never melt, and his Schwinn would remain unridden, unbroken, and unquestionably cool. Would I have the heart to tell him his bike was the less-expensive, less-coveted Panther, not the Phantom it has become in his mind? Would it matter?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Cool New Bike Porn

The Competition Bicycle
A photographic history
By Jan Heine and Jean-Pierre Praderes

There is almost no bicycle book I don’t love, and this latest coffee-table book, weighing in at three and a half pounds, is a velo-bibliophile’s dream tome. It could be the coffee table itself, so long as you wrapped it in two layers of plexiglass to keep it pristine.

The well-reproduced color photographs by renowned French photographer (himself a devout randonneur) Jean-Pierre Praderes show every gritty inch, er..millimeter of the legendary frames that propelled the greats from Coppi to Merckx to Lemond (with a couple of feminine detours thank goddess) across destiny’s finish line.

Jan Heine, the author and publisher ( is a rabid Paris-Brest-Paris competitor. When he called me a year ago about photographing my bicycle Otto, I was astonished to learn mine would be the only mountain bike in the book.
It’s an honor
Said Heine: What other mountain bike was twenty years ahead of its time?
Eat yr heart out, Tom (name withheld to protect ego). Sometimes steel IS real…real heavy!
Settle down, girl. This is a magazine. Not a gossip sheet. (Feel free to hurl, o editor mine)
The fast majority of the bicycles shown are indeed steel, custom machines that reveal over 150 years of improvement the leapfrogging improvements that allow us to enjoy multiple gear choices, modern materials and sometimes even evolutionary cul-de sacs (psst: “Dursley Pedersen”)

Many of the original machines (flown in for the photo shoot) reveal details of workmanship that cannot be found anywhere else, unless specified to a custom builder today.

Artsy touches appear in the mass-produced chainrings of British Short Arms bikes (BSA spelt out in the chainring) and ALCYON cast into the pedal cages).

The reader will at first page through this book slowly, savoring the pictures—most of which have never been seen before—bicycles seemingly track-standing mid-air…and action shots of the great racers. Later, the reader will return feverish for more intimate details of bicycles hard-ridden and put away, but not forgotten.
The book costs sixty (swiftly deflating) dollars, plus about thirty dollars post (THAT is not gonna go down, with fuel costs rising)… it’s the perfect stocking stuffer if you have a sock the size of Santa’s size fourteen platters tacked to the mantel with a grade twelve alloy steel 10-32 socket-head cap screw with cold-rolled threads. Ahem.
Santa? Got that?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Stubborn Season

Commuting on a bike.

In Iowa.

In December.

Sometimes it's a mirror I'd rather not see.

Think about it. There's the gear collecting and bundling: heavy tights, thick wool socks, wool sweater, windproof jacket, two pairs of gloves, hat, and facemask. Then there's the routine of firing up a cluster of front and rear LEDs that could distract low-flying air traffic. Then there's the ride: two miles at about 10 miles per hour, picking through slush stalagmites, plow droppings, and black ice.

Twenty-five minutes of preparation for fifteen minutes of misery.

Then I have to peel all those layers off again so I can change into work clothes and sit in a cube for eight hours.

Then, I do it all over again in reverse.

Without special studded tires -- at about $50 a pop for the heaviest, most sluggish-feeling rubber you'll ever turn over -- it probably wouldn't even be possible. And let's not even talk about gunked up bearings. Crusty chains. Frames eaten out from the inside by salt and rust. Frozen cables. Brakes that barely qualify as a cruel joke thanks to ice-glazed rims.

People ask me why I do it, and I honestly don't have an answer. I just shrug.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Is the bike industry sustainable? Can it be?

Every day at my job, I have to sort through new and used bike parts and decide what's worth keeping in stock and what's not. If it's a used part, it's easy; the stuff that's worth keeping we put back in the bin, perhaps updating the price if we think the last person to sort through the box underpriced an item, or cleaning a part more to justify the price they put on it. We don't always pay money for the used parts we sort and save. Sometimes they come in as trades, sometimes they're pulled from a bike with a dead frame.

If it's a new part, it's a bit harder. We always pay money for the new stuff, and sometimes we make mistakes. We order something thinking it will serve a specific purpose, or because it's what a customer insists they want; and the part comes and suddenly it's not what anyone expects or wants. Sometimes we can send it back, but not without more expense at our end (it costs money to ship things back and forth). Most of the time, we keep it, knowing that the cost of correcting our mistake is more than the cost of keeping the now-unwanted part. Thankfully, through a combination of care and luck we manage to avoid making too many such mistakes. For a small business like an independent bike shop, those mistakes can add up quickly.

But sometimes the shops don't make the mistakes, the manufacturers do. They bet on what they think will be a great idea, they manufacture it in the hundreds of thousands, and hope to God it sells. And most of the time, it sells well enough. But sometimes the idea isn't so great, or the public has a hard time understanding it, or the public just flat decides that they don't need it, even if it is so great. When that happens, you see the Next Big Thing end up on ebay and craigslist very quickly. (Remember Samson's clipless pedals? Mavic's foray into electronic shifting? The first year that Shimano's "Coaster" came out? Initial sales of these items were not promising, and many of these things wound up in the want ads months after being released on the market. Shimano is still struggling to gain market share with folks who aren't quite sure about Coaster, and not only on the public side of the retail counter.)

The big thing these days, if you've been paying attention, is carbon fiber. For the last several years, more and more bicycle parts are being made from the stuff. It's "space age" material, light as a feather compared to the same components made of any kind of metal, and it looks cool with all that fancy lattice-work weaving going on there (see derailleur, above). I went to my first trade show this year, Interbike, and nearly got lost in a sea of carbon fiber: forks, derailleurs, shift levers, stems, even rims are now made of the stuff. 

If you look more closely, you'll notice that most of those really cool-looking carbon-fiber bits are being installed on bikes meant for racing or for what's often called "sport" riding (where you look like a racer but don't pedal your bike quite as fast as the pros do). I think racing's cool, by the way; some of my best friends race, and do it quite well on the amateur level. But what bothers me is how temporary all of it is.

Think about it: bikes that are made mostly of carbon-fiber work well for a time, and then they begin to wear out. When they wear out, those parts cannot be serviced and made to work good as new again, or even close to new. Those parts are removed from the bike and replaced with brand-new parts. The bike runs like clockwork again and the rider is happy. But -- and this is the question I kept asking folks at the trade show -- what happens to the old parts?

The answers ranged from shrugging (lots of shrugging, actually) to shaking of the head to "I don't really know". Only one person out of the dozens I asked told me his company sends factory seconds (the stuff not quite ready for prime-time, so it doesn't leave the factory) to another site to be dismantled so the metal hinges and pivot pieces can be retrieved for recycling. But the carbon-fiber itself is apparently quite difficult and costly to recycle, so no one's doing it on an industrial level, at least not among the folks I spoke to at Interbike. No one was willing to come out and say that the stuff was going to a dump, but no one would flat-out deny it, either.

Add this little tidbit of reality to the scenes from big races like Le Tour, with its caravan of dozens and dozens of "official" motor vehicles following the racers all over France, and the thousands of cables, housing pieces, nuts and bolts and handlebar tape and tires that get removed from these bikes every night and replaced before the next day's stage, and you've got a sport that is among the most wasteful I've ever seen. 

If that was where it stopped perhaps I wouldn't worry so much. But the problem with this reality is that racing drives innovation among bicycle and component makers. Without innovation, sales slump and profits go down. So to promote innovation, you have to promote racing. The issue with that is that the big sell in typical bike shops now is that you need a new bike every couple of years or so (because, well, the pros get a new bike every time they sneeze or the sponsors change, right?). If you ride in lycra -- and for heaven's sake you ought to, you know -- it has to be the lightest, most space-age stuff money can buy (which means it falls apart after a season and has to be replaced). And if you want to ride the lightest bike possible -- because, well, that's what you ought to want, seriously -- then , well, that bike is simply going to have to be replaced every few years because -- and here's the ugly little secret, as far as I'm concerned -- 

it's not supposed to last that long.

That's right. It only makes sense. For a bike and all its parts and accessories to be very, very light in weight (meaning that you're supposed to be able to go faster, because, well, the pros can, after all), that stuff has to be built with thinner walls, tight tolerances, ceramic bearings (they weigh less than steel ones) and tires made with silk or some space-age (there we go again) micro-fiber in the belt. For all of this lightness, something has to give and that something is durability. What's criminal to my thinking is that bike riders spend so much money on stuff that wears out so fast, and stuff that can't be refurbished or fixed up to run again at that. The more stuff wears out, the more stuff shops can sell, the more stuff companies can make, and all the right people are rolling in dough. That's the way it works. Now, racing is not about planned obsolescence, it's about winning -- but the obsolescence is a side effect of all that time spent on getting lighter and faster. So it happens anyway. And lots of people who love bicycles are starting to grow tired of it.

Thankfully, we are seeing a move back towards things that are built to last. Steel bikes are coming back. All-metal components aren't, not yet, not any that are of decent quality anyway; but you can find old ones in decent condition on ebay and in slightly lesser condition in the bargain bins at a shop that carries used parts. People are beginning to ride for transportation again, just like they did the last time gas was expensive in the 1970's. Racks and baskets and bags are making a comeback as more folks discover (again) that bikes are useful vehicles and not just sporting equipment. I only hope that the bike industry wakes up and pays attention, and starts not only making but really promoting the kinds of things that will really last again. Let's make durability and thrift cool again. Let's teach people how to do the simple stuff at home so we who work in shops have more time for the big jobs, and to refurbish more old bikes and get them out on the road again. I want the bike magazines to focus on real-world bikes, new and used, and just forget about the trickle-down from racing for awhile. Let's leave off the bikes that are here today, broke tomorrow and off to a landfill next week. I'm tired of that stuff, and grateful my shop doesn't sell a lot of it. I want the bike manufacturing industry to really wake up and start making affordable, durable, decent-quality bikes for the rest of us, for the majority of us, for the folks who don't race or even fantasize about it, who just want to ride our bike to get from one place to another and enjoy the ride -- today, tomorrow and for years to come.