In svelte attire; a ride revived

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I am always happy to see a bike given a new life. New bikes are a great option for some, but so many sit in garages, unused for years after purchase. Any bike, no matter the cost, is “worth it” if ridden, and enjoyed. However, repurposed old bikes sometimes manage to get the job done for less money, and with more style.

Returning to Tacoma uncovers a new breed of urban bike; of large-volume smooth tires, upright riding positions, racks and fenders. With money to burn, this may be a low-trail custom 650b urban/rando build. With more time than money, it is more likely to be an old steel mountain bike, rebuilt to suit. I found myself in an impromptu bike posse of new friends and acquaintances; in total, we were a Novara Aspen with drop bars, a Scott Boulder with steel three-speed bars and multi-colored cable housing, a Schwinn High Sierra, and an early-nineties Specialized Stumpjumper with a Velo Orange Milano handlebar featuring a comfortable 35 deg sweep. Fenders all around, rain boots and a bucket pannier– these kids are alright.

The old standard, and the gold standard, of practical urban commuters is built around the classic 700c touring frame. I was met with this refined Univega tourer/commuter, curated by my friend Josh, a luthier of fine guitars, and a craftsman of both fine and funky bicycles (including a home-made longtail, and an ATB-to-drop bar tourer conversion). Josh is a bike-commuting instrument repairman by day, and a gypsy-jazz guitarist by night. With updated accesories from Velo Orange, including: a Pass Hunter rack and decaleur, Campagne handlebar bag, fluted aluminum fenders and leather mudflap, and a VO stem and quill adaptor, this bike looks and rides like some of the finer handbuilt bicycles available. Two thousand dollar frames are outside of the price range of many committed enthusiasts, especially with a band of daughters to feed, such as Josh has. Sharing features of both the 1982 and 1983 Univega Gran Turismo, he suggests that this frame is a mid-year model– a 1982 1/2. Generous, although not gaping clearances and cantilever brakes allow suitably large tires and full-length fenders; while multiplicitous braze-ons allow various luggage permutations. A handlebar bag remains on the bike for a speedy, seven mile commute to work. Featuring a hub dynamo and lighting, year-yound commuting is possible in the insistantly overcast, and rainy conditons common to Tacoman winters. An old bike is reborn in svelte attire.

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Volunteering at 2nd Cycle on Saturday, two visitors to town– travelling kids– stopped in looking for bikes to take them to the southwest. Hanging from the wall, fully tuned and ready to ride was a Novara ATB (c. 1986-7), complete with fenders, a full complement of rack mounts, wide-range gearing, and durable 1.75″ tires. The rider had previously owned a “road bike”, likely an average ten-speed. With some trepidation, she allowed herself to be “sold” on upright riding and fat tires, at just over a hundred bucks. The fat-tired bike militia is growing.

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And then, some old bikes like the Gran Turismo and my High Sierra, simply ride better.

Note: I’m buying a used Pugsley this week. It is a first generation purple frame with rim brake mounts, no longer offered. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find 1982-3 Univega catalogs featuring the Gran Tursimo. I did find the 1983 line of Univega ATB’s, hilariously demonstrating their features and their off-the-charts fun factor.

Tastes better than Phil Wood grease

20111125-111816.jpgI eat a lot of rice and beans; long ago it was cans of black or kidney beans, although lentils are now favored for packing efficiency and cost. The ensemble necessitated salt, and beckoned for some heat. Tapatio was the usual favorite; Cholula was a little pricey, Bufalo brand chipotle was my preference, but Valentina was the loss leader. The thick glass bottle was almost as massive as the contents, and I emptied the sauce into my third water bottle, under the downtube–an old Trek bottle that had come with my first adult bike many years before. My bike at the time, a 1995 Trek 520, was about the same vintage as the bottle.

The bottle was period-correct, and crusted with hot sauce at the spout.

In time, the bottle contained a concoction of all four sauces, a mild capsaicin slurry, and was never again suitable for drinking water. In memory, the “era” of the hot sauce water bottle signifies a very specific period in time for me, in life, and in my development as a touring cyclist. This was exactly when I began gaining an individual “touring style”. Storing hot sauce in a drink bottle is one of many things that may collectively define touring style. Others rotate socks and underwear on certain cycles (or never), chains and cassettes (or never); and poach condiments and napkins, habitually, from diners and gas stations. I regularly empty a half-filled bottle of honey into a half-empty jar of peanut butter to save weight and space.

In Calgary, pre-Divide, I installed two bottle cages to the fork legs of my bike, inspired by the Salsa Fargo, long distance bike trekkers, and modern bikepackers. At some point a lightweight packing system becomes overstressed, and moronic. I was within range.

I anticipated needing to carry more water, and wanted to carry the weight low on the frame without forcing more stuff into my saddlebag, which already bursts at the seams after a grocery run. I still wrestle with fitting bananas, and avocados. Tortillas are much easier than bread, which result in sort of a Wonder bread tortilla in my Carradice saddlebag.

In practice, I did not often need more water capacity, and chose to carry my water pump in one of the fork- mounted cages to free up some space. Even the water pump was an occasional luxury, and not an absolute necessity on the Divide as a folding 2L Platypus bladder was used, with great simplicity and success. The second fork-mounted bottle cage carried some water occasionally, but was most often filled with an empty 1L drink bottle. I found that the bottle, when full, was a bit unruly on rough roads without a strap to retain it; a smaller bottle didn’t warrant the weight and complexity of the whole system– the bottle cage and hose clamps– for a few sips of water.

As food phases come and go, I haven’t had milk for a few weeks, but I have carried peanut butter and honey since Alberta. Naturally, somewhere between Missoula and Jackson, the awkward cylinder of Peter Pan migrated to that lone bottle cage on the right fork blade. This, finally, was worth the weight of the hose clamps and aluminum. Peanut butter, as no surprise, is one of the best sources of bulk energy, bested in packing efficiency only by standard dry nuts, beans and grains. However, it can be eaten right out of the jar, requires no water or stove fuel, and when the honey supply gets low it can be drained into the PB jar for a space-saving delicacy. I have woken up-hungry on a few frosty nights, and taken a spoon to this concoction. I wasn’t cold thereafter.

Recently, Lael’s lower bottle cage broke, and I gifted one of my fork-mounted cages to her. As a result, I was left with a single jar of peanut butter on my right fork blade. It’s a fun conversation piece, and a good place for an awkward cylinder; and you could probably pack your bearings with it– the creamy stuff, that is.

Some ideas: Peanut butter in dinner grains make a creamy Eastern fusion meal, trailside; in tortillas, with honey, raisins, apples, cocoa powder, flaked coconut, Grape Nuts, instant coffee crystals… there is no need to buy energy bars, GU, salt tabs or caffeine supplements. Pack bearings, treat a leather saddle, anti-sieze lubricant when assembling the bike at an airport?…

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The Bridgestone MB-1 pictured above was available in 1987; only 300 were offered. The catalog stated:

If you spend more time riding trails than dreaming about it; if you’re tired of bikes that position you like a typist and steer like tractors; if you want a light, comfortable, nimble bike for precision travel over any surface – then the MB-1 is your bike. A maverick. Blind to the whims of the market and built to ride.

The Gila and the end

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There are two good ways to end a bike trip: run out of land, and ride back to your front door. I’ve run out of land in Key West and Baja, and I’ve started and left from my front door, but now there’s no place to call home. I’m flying to Alaska, in the winter, and buying a snow bike. At least it’s not without some fanfare, that this chapter fades.

The Great Divide has been my dirt highway all summer. Rather than checking places off a to-do list, I have grown the list several times. Need to return to: Montana, Crested Butte, Durango, Moab and Utah, Flagstaff and Arizona, Chama and New Mexico. And Pie Town. Such is the nature, and the value, of travelling slowly. The Gila is near the top of that list, for it’s hot springs and canyons, madly undulating topography, and forests of pinon and juniper. People used to live in cliffs here, as well.

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As goes the Divide route, travelling south, the Gila is the last forested, mountainous riding. I descended out of the pines and into Silver City for a few days of rest and rummaging about town, but opted not to follow the route to the border, much of which is on paved roads. Instead, I spent time at the phenomenally funded and organized Bikeworks, the community bike workshop; and at the Bike House, the unofficial headquarters of Silver City bike activity and activism. The Bike House’s patriarch, Jamie, thinks that bikes are the solution, and represents his neighbors as city councilman. As a result, this town is in good hands; they’re moving forward on a pump track in the parking lot of the school. Jamie says that it will allow kids to develop their bike handling skills, which are important when they are subjected to the demands of real world riding; it will help with the goathead problem, and it “kills a parking lot”. That’s Newspeak for, if you don’t build it they won’t come (similarly, erase it and erase the incentive to drive and park).

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If it rolls…

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20111118-104344.jpgIn New Mexico, a 30% chance of rain means there is a 30% chance that water will fall from the sky, in any quantity on that day. In Tacoma, it means that it will rain 30% of the the day, guaranteed. I’m learning the difference.

It rolls, the clouds. I run; riding, into, not like, the wind. Five, sometimes six and a half mph up the canyon to crest the Divide. I roll, into and away from the grey and then into the black, the nexus of the energy, and back into the white– calm. Changing directions; downwind, downhill, down canyon rolling toward a small blue sky space at the center of the black and white universe. Raindrops fall, finally, only minutes before camp. Sixty miles in the saddle since breakfast, running from clouds. Weeks of strategizing ultralight systems are erased as I sigh, exhaling with the full security of a well-staked double-wall tent, dry clothing, and a warm bag. A thick cup of coffee for dessert, satisfies, and does nothing to keep me from an exact twelve hours of sleep. One benefit of winter touring is good long sleep, necessarily.

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Stop in Pie Town; Pie Town don’t stop!

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Six cups of coffee, a slice of blueberry, and a handwritten map to the Toaster House– Pie Town’s other half. Nita raised five kids in this house, on wood stoves and a lot of love, and she’d take in CDT hikers as they ambled by. The kids are grown and gone, but the hikers still pass, as do the cyclists, and they are all welcome. Nita now lives on some acres out of town, but the house in town is an organism of travellers, sharing their energy and stories. “It’s the one with the toasters hanging above the gate…”. There are no more than 15 houses in town.

The Great Divide and the CDT both arrive via a nondescript washboarded road from the north. Motorists arrive via Hwy or “Pie-way” 60, from the east or west, cresting the Continental Divide– the big hill– at 8000 ft. A tri-color sign draws attention away from the vista, plainly exclaiming “Stop”. This is the Pie-o-neer Cafe, serving warm pie and directions to a warm bed for the night. This, is Pie Town.

I was lucky to meet three CDT hikers on the last leg(s) of their trek; the CDT is a feat compared to the leisure of Great Divide riding. They eat, insatiably, everything in sight, which isn’t a problem six days out of the week they spend in the woods. And on the seventh day…

We were invited to attend a gathering of friends, after-hours at the Pie-o-neer: feasting on live music and hors d’ouevres, casserole (like pie, really), drinks, and fresh pies for dessert. Back at the Toaster House, Nita stocks the ice box with frozen pizza (pies) and small frozen fruit pies. The hikers were in food heaven. This is Pie Town.

The smoke and mirrors: Michael, the understated dishwasher by day, is an accomplished visual artist whose paintings are on display in the attached gallery, and in notable galleries worldwide. By night, he fingers the guitar, blending styles and making friends as wine bottles lay empty, and the musical ensemble gains members. The guy playing the upright bass made your sandwich. And the woman singing out front, Kathy, the pies.

Pie Town is unreal.

Note: In 2007, Nita was recognized by the ACA for her unending hospitality with the June Curry Trail Angel award. June Curry has been dishing out homemade cookies to cyclists along the TransAm Route since 1976.
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Traces of, chasing fall

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Great Divide maps in New Mexico give no shortage of reminders that wet adobe roads may become impassible, and impossible. A few clouds in the forecast, and on the horizon, give me something to ride from, and thus, an uncommon sense of purpose. As the jagged peaks of Colorado subside into less gargantuan New Mexican topography, the Great Divide Route nears and follows the actual continental watershed divide, and the CDT hiking trail more closely than before. Where cresting the divide in Colorado is strenuous and momentous, in NM it is not uncommon to dance across that line several times in an hour.

Sunny skies out of Albuquerque, all the way through Grants; on a clear day in New Mexico, I grow wings. On a windswept, cloudy day, with tempests (and Pie Town) on the horizon, I burn lentils like jet fuel.

I have shed my posse: Lael to Alaska, Cass and Nancy to Baja, and Greg, who is likely on a beach somewhere in the Virgin Islands. With that and a few days left of the season, I give my legs one more go before I relent for the winter. Just a few days to Pie Town, then on to Silver City before the GD route ends, and the great paved lanscape unfurls toward the Pacific coast.

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Clear skies, cold nights, and muddy roads

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20111110-095540.jpgPredictable, and seasonably cold weather has not been a problem. Despite consistent hoar frosts come morning, an Alaskan and a New Yorker –by upbringing– aren’t deterred by temperatures less than half their age. A spoonful of rain, however, doesn’t go down so easy, not in New Mexico.

With a close eye on the weather, we’ve danced around bouts of precipitation, visiting Santa Fe and Albuquerque in the interim. Leaving Taos/Santa Fe after a few days, we enjoyed clear skies, cold nights, and dirt roads through Abiqui, and on to Cuba. A few challenges arose in snow-covered roads facing north, and their muddy south facing counterparts. Which to dislike more? The mud.

In Baja, the highlands were sometimes horrendously rocky, but the lowlands were depositories for infinite sands, loose or washboarded. We came to prefer the bone-shaking rippled washboard to loose sands; and the irregular rocky terrain of the mountains, to the washboarded sand. Baja was a treat, but be sure to check bolts and fillings for loosening, regularly.

Abiqui was once the secret rural hiding place for Georgia O’Keefe. Now it’s the once-unknown rural hiding place of a deceased O’Keefe– and lots of talk and visitors make it a little less charming. The landscape is still astounding.

More storms chased us out of Cuba, and into Albuquerque for a few days, reluctantly. Albuquerque has been the biggest surprise of the my travels– it’s a great bike city and a funky, youthful place. Guidebooks praise Santa Fe and Taos for being artists communities, enclaves even, but I suspect those days are over, despite a glut of galleries. Those towns are insulated; Albuquerque is alive and thriving. If you like sun, biking 365 days a year, green chili burgers, and taking short showers, Albuquerque is the place. It’s cheap, too.

The road ahead: I’m trading cut-off tees for skis and snow tires this winter, in Anchorage, AK. A few more weeks on the road– what’s left of the Divide, then headed for the coast. I may ride as far north as the Bay as the weather allows, but eventually the Coast Starlight will take me north to Tacoma/Seattle, where I’ll visit friends, and catch a flight to Alaska. Anyone on the west coast up for a bike ride? As weather allows, some overnight trips out of the Bay, or the Puget Sound, may be happening.

Note: a snow filled cassette, mud on Lael’s bike before it dried and froze, an Earthship in progress, a frozen and broken Kleen Kanteen, and fingerling hoar frost emanating from the Jandd logo of Lael’s pannier. Lael melts ice from my frozen Kleen Kanteen, while harvesting ice from my Carradice saddlebag, simultaneously. This was our only water for the day.

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Lael, Paul, and Mary

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Five years ago, I dusted a red bicycle found in an attic of a house I was renting in Tacoma, and gave it to Lael. Her needs were simple– something to take her to school, and a few other places. Previously, she walked everywhere, or ran. If there were a nice way to relate her to Forrest Gump, I would, but there isn’t, so I won’t. She walked everywhere, for hours at a time.

The bike, despite red paint, was a real gem, sarcastically. A kind and generous description: both the crankarm and pedal axle were bent, the cantilever brakes were spongey, and the tires held some air. It was too big for her, but she rode it daily, with a hot ceramic cup of coffee every morning. As a budding bicycle mechanic, I think I knew better, but it felt something of a success. Lael was thrilled, and I thought she was the perfect customer.

She has since ridden a mid-eighties Motobecane with a broken derailleur converted to singlespeed; a modern Raleigh Rush Hour, fixed, with flat bars; an early eighties Bianchi with arabesque-styled Shimano 600; and a Surly Long Haul Trucker in various forms. In addition, she has borrowed a half-dozen of my bikes including vintage touring frames, a Surly 1×1, a ’68 Schwinn Tandem, and my Bianchi San Jose. After all of her product testing, she likes: the look of vintage Shimano 600, the uncluttered and unencumbered feeling of riding a single-speed bike, and the utility of the LHT. She knows what she likes when she rides it, but always enjoys the bike she rides, despite its inadequacies– she is the perfect customer.

Since departing over three years ago on our drop bar touring bikes– hers, the Bianchi and mine, the 1995 Trek 520– we’ve remained on drop bars. They’ve always given us a place to put our hands, and to mount our brake levers and shifters, and we haven’t asked much else of them. This is becoming a boring story about handlebars. Rather, it’s a boring story about riding a bike and enjoying it, all over again.

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Long days and cobbled roads fatigue the bike and rider, but sore neck and back are signs of poor fit or bike posture and make for an ornery dinner date. All I’ve got to offer are lentils for dinner, but I knew how to fix the bike problem.

The Broken Spoke in Santa Fe offered some prime used goods in the way of an On-One Mary bar, Paul Thumbies, and some Dia-Compe brake levers, all for less than the price of the Thumbies. Within the hour, Lael was perched, like a European cycle-tourist, admiring her surroundings. Her bike is now called Mary (and/or Paul), and it’s comical how much she enjoys riding it. She rides with greater comfort, control and a little less speed into the wind on a paved road. She doesn’t give a shit, and she’ll tell you (or me) that Freddie Hoffman rides upright, to the moon and back. The new position allows her to produce more power for more of the day, and heightens her confidence while descending. She’s maniacal on unpaved descents; my suggestions of prudence illicit more speed and shit-eating grins and in truth, neither of us could be happier with her Marys.

A sprung Brooks saddle and Ergon grips complete this ultimately comfortable tourer.

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