The Swimming Song

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Riding remote dirt roads in contemplative oblivion, sunshine and swimming holes urge my thoughts back to several blissful Tacoma summers.  These are the days of three-hundred dollar rent in three-story houses; endless piles of jazz, funk, soul, R&B, Brazilian and good ole American on vinyl; bikes entangled in living spaces, and a sailboat.  These are the days of impromptu trips to Point Defiance for swimming and messing about with geoducks, barbecues at the beach, and longboarding the Five Mile Drive.  These are the days of Sammy Walker’s self-titled 1976 release, Jorge Ben, The Proclaimer’s “Throw the ‘R’ Away” and “Over and Done With”, Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up” and Loudon Wainwright’s “The Swimming Song”, all on repeat.  Those were the days.

This summer I went swimming,
This summer I might have drowned
But I held my breath and I kicked my feet
And I moved my arms around, I moved my arms around.

This summer I swam in the ocean,
And I swam in a swimming pool,
Salt my wounds, chlorine my eyes,
I’m a self-destructive fool, a self-destructive fool.

This summer I swam in a public place
And a reservoir, to boot,
At the latter I was informal,
At the former I wore my suit, I wore my swimming suit.

This summer I did the backstroke
And you know that’s not all
I did the breast stroke and the butterfly
And the old Australian crawl, the old Australian crawl.

This summer I did swan dives
And jackknifes for you all
And once when you weren’t looking
I did a cannonball, I did a cannonball.

Loudon Wainwright, “The Swimming Song”; Attempted Moustache, 1973

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I hope everyone is having a memorable summer– these are the days!

Photo credits: Lucy Kruesel, Alex Borgen and Colby Sander.

Working for sandwiches; 2nd Cycle

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Turning a glut, into a good thing: Trading the thin lines of the 80’s tourer for gluttonous tire clearances and virile, ironic names such as Prairie Breaker, Stumpjumper, Streetstomper, and Dune Commander, Tacomans are embracing the rigid ATB. Given the availability of old mountain bikes, a wave of interest in moderately-priced touring and urban bikes, and the influence of the bourgeois 650b movement– Tacoma’s bikes have changed, subtly, in my absence.

A rock and a hard place: 2nd Cycle is the secret center of the Tacoma bike universe. It’s only a secret because it faces an unnamed alleyway, sandwiched between vacant lots, three pho restaurants, a pawn shop, several dumpsters and a “curios” shop which is described as stocking “XL sized Limp Bizkit tees and XS Hillary Duff tank tops”. They say the neighborhood is becoming gentrified, but I’m not really seeing it.

Your hole in the wall: The heat is never on, there isn’t any; and the bathroom doesn’t work, there isn’t one of those either, but for three hundred dollars in rent every month, this is your hole in the wall. 2nd Cycle runs purely on volunteer power (and tofu sandwiches). Unlike other co-ops and community bike shops that also claim self-sufficiency, 2nd Cycle receives no grants or large-scale private donations, no help from the city, and 501(c)(3) status only came recently; a rotating cast of volunteers help keep your bike running for a handful of change and some pocket lint, if you can afford it. Rent is paid in what I imagine to be a greasy wad of one dollar bills, dimes, pennies, assorted Canadian currency, some pitted cones, an errant ball bearing and the aforementioned lint. In lean winter months when Noah upends the Folgers can looking for miracles from the piggy bank, he may dip into reserves funded by summertime stunts, literally. Aside from fundraising house shows and loft parties, 2nd Cycle sponsors a piece of local lore, simply named, Bike Jump. Three years running, Galen, a local neon artist has crafted a sculpture of colored, lighted tubes, to destroy it in a frenzied moment of Knievel-style glory on a kids bike lofted from a small ramp, and dressed like some kind of postmodern ghetto-superhero. It’s strange, but a small mob ensues for the event, and 2nd Cycle is several hunded dollars richer as a result– somehow.

Pho King and food for kings: For two dollars, the curiously named Pho King next door sells fresh and filling tofu sandwiches– with pickled cabbage, shredded carrot, cilantro, jalapeno, and a spicy plum sauce on a crusty french roll– and when greasy hands and sweaty brow enter from the back alley, the staff diligently ask “How many?”, in lieu of “hello”. Coming in and out the back door, the dearth of conversation, and “sandwiches” both the code word and the cover-up– it always seems a little like a drug deal– but it’s not, just a really good sandwich with a backalley entrance. Volunteers are now offered a sandwich per shift, compliments of the 2nd Cycle till, that half-empty Folgers can of coins and cones and pocket lint. It’s a small reward for frozen toes and hammering on broken BMX bikes for five hours, but nobody’s complaining; mostly, because there’s no one to complain to. That’s the beauty of the cooperative model.

Tacoma bikes: Donning colorful plastic-bodied platform pedals; drop bars, swept back and riser bars; plastic fenders, bags, baskets, bucket panniers and racks– these old ATB’s are reawakening as no-fuss city bikes and tourers. We will someday be able, and proud, to reflect that our bikes were defined by comfort, function, and value. And an odd sense of style.

Above, Alex’s 1989 Trek 520 with bullmoose bars and controls poached from a Nishiki Colorado; below, Sean’s Novara Aspen dressed in drops and purple pedals, with a camo bar-bag courtesy of his previous employer, the U.S. Army; Noah’s Scott Boulder, so ugly it’s cool; Josh’s custom longbike– a Trek 8000 up front and the rear triangle of a step-through GT frame bolted to the rear, with aluminum conduit tubing comprising the Xtracycle frame–only the bags were purchased; Ellie’s 700c Cannondale frame, converted to 26″ wheels with long-reach brakes– one centerpull and one single-pivot BMX sidepull– to increase standover clearance and tire volume, and to lower trail and center of mass for urban riding with front loads; finally, my High Sierra, in Ben’s hands, whose aspirations of hiking the PCT next summer may take him to the real High Sierra.

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Currently at 2nd Cycle are two Schwinn Sierras, a Diamond Back Fleet Streak and an Outlook, and an old Raleigh cycle-truck designed for a sidecar with rod brakes and small front wheel. One of the Sierras requires the removal of a sheared bolt from the rear cantilever stud.

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Island-hopping and bridge-crossing on a Pugsley

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SInce purchasing a pearlescent purple used Surly Pugsley several days ago, I’ve been doing exactly what the bike isn’t designed to do: I’ve been knocking down road miles visiting friends, camping, and making my way back to my temporary nest in Tacoma. If only the four inch tires fit on the bus’ bike racks, I’d have been “home” two days ago. But, they don’t. So I rode.

WIth basic camping kit, I ferried to Vashon Island to visit my friend Alex, who rode the length of the island with me; another ferry dropped the two of us at Point Defiance in Tacoma. That afternoon, we were made a travelling trio when Josh and his svelte Univega joined us for an overnight camp at Kopachuk State Park, across the Tacoma Narrows bridge, on the misty shores of the Puget Sound. Alex’s 1989 Trek 520 with bullmoose bars, Josh’s svelte Univega Gran Turismo and my big, nacreous purple Pugsley make an odd couple, or an odd crowd.

My first impression of the bike seems perfectly irrelevant to would-be Pugsley owners– it’s really fast on hardpack surfaces and pavement. It’s easily as fast as my 35+ lb. touring bike. The wheels on my High Sierra are as heavy as those on the Pugsley, including dynamo and tires (and Slime tubes…thanks New Mexico), which has everything to do with it. I haven’t ridden the bike on snow or sand, and rode only a few feet on a rocky beach; with 20psi, it was capable, but rode poorly. The beauty of four inch tires is the ability to run eight, or six pounds of pressure. Tuesday will be my first opportunity to ride the bike in it’s intended setting, as I plan to assemble the bike at the airport in Anchorage for the ride home in wintry darkness. This time of year, most bike rides in Anchorage are night rides; I regret not being able to readily mount my dynamo to the Pugsley, but with disc brakes and 135mm fork spacing, it’s a little complicated. The solution requires a replacement fork with a 100mm spacing and possibly a disc dynamo hub for optimal braking.

A hundred miles of pavement on the Pugsley in three days is considerably easier than I expected. It rides a little like a bus, and a lot like an aging Cadillac, but mostly like a bike. 20111203-191007.jpg20111203-191347.jpg20111203-191522.jpg20111203-191715.jpg20111203-191729.jpg

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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.